A way with words
Updated: 2012-03-30 07:39
By Anthony Tao (China Daily)
Eric Abrahamsen's journey as a translator began with a trip to China's hinterlands in 1999. [Anthony Tao / For China Daily]
Translator shows his work forms a major part of cross-cultural understanding
Before he became a steady contributor to The New York Times' Latitude blog, a recipient of prestigious translating grants and a much-quoted China expert, Eric Abrahamsen was like many longtime foreigners in Beijing.
The "professional expat" was floating on the surface of Chinese culture and society, getting by on 4,000 yuan ($635, 478 euros) a month and whiling away nights at hipster hangouts like Sandglass, one of the original bars on the popular expat hangout street Nanluogu Xiang.
"I don't know where those years went," Abrahamsen, 34, says about the time between late 2002 to 2007.
He mentions this over whiskey at Amilal - the preferred watering hole for Beijing's translating community - so it is likely he is being tongue-in-cheek.
But today he is no longer drifting along but focused on what he loves: reading and translating Chinese literature and writing about Chinese society.
Abrahamsen did not really waste those years - he was studying Chinese. He built a network of writers and journalists at banquet-style dinners, and in 2007 married Joy, his Chinese girlfriend of six years.
It was also during that summer that he made a career-defining move. With Cindy Carter and Brendon O'Kane, he co-founded Paper Republic, which began as an online discussion platform about literary translations.
"We had a very, very loose idea of what it would be," recalls O'Kane, now a freelance translator and teacher at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "Cindy, Eric and I came up with the idea over beers. Quite a lot of beers, actually."
After a year, publishers and agents began getting in touch, and in 2009, thanks to a grant from the Arts Council of England, Abrahamsen traveled to the London Book Fair with writer Han Dong. The year after, he officially registered Paper Republic as a company in Hong Kong.
Paper Republic is building in a couple of directions at the moment. The company's next step may be to get its imprint on some books.
"We have a contract with People's Literary Publishing House for representation for a few of their titles," says Abrahamsen's associate, Canaan Morse.
Abrahamsen's fascination with China developed during a six-week trip through the country's hinterlands in 1999. Equipped with only survival Chinese, he backpacked into Yunnan province from Laos, suffering the mental distress of dislocation and the physical discomfort of indigestion.
Along backwater roads and on crowded buses, the 6-foot-7-inch (2 meters) American struggled to blend in. "I was dirty and stunk like coal smoke and the people looked at me like I was an alien," Abrahamsen says.
Eventually he wound up in Golmud, Qinghai province, where he spent two weeks waiting for a bus company to meet its quota of foreigners so they could proceed into Tibet.
"It was really a horrible experience, largely because I couldn't speak the language," Abrahamsen says. But he was fascinated by everything he saw.
"I thought: I need to learn the language and come back here and do this properly."
Two years later he was back in China, at Beijing's Minzu University as a University of Washington student.
"I've been here for 10 years and I feel like I'm just barely scratching the surface of Chinese society and culture, so absolutely there's a depth here that you can spend your whole life trying to plumb."
But he has done far more than scratch the surface: he secured a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo's My Spiritual Homeland and an NEA grant for Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun.
At his hutong home office in Dongcheng area, he is the picture of that valuable China hand who both understands the culture in which he is immersed and can explain it to outsiders.
Consider his Feb 12 entry on Latitude, a close reading of the Chinese character guan: "A common misconception about power in China is that it is totalitarian in nature brutal, faceless and systematic.
"While that reality certainly exists, the majority of interactions with authority in China are of the kind embodied by the character guan: paternalistic, moralistic and personal.
"Authority can sometimes be bargained with and nudged."
It was not long ago that editors at big papers would ignore his pitches, but now they are seeking his contributions for Wall Street Journal Asia and Foreign Policy, among others.
In addition, he recently wrapped up a nearly 100,000-word translation of Wang Xiaofang's novel The Civil Servant's Notebook for Penguin Group's China office.
As an editorial director of the literary magazine Pathlight, he has also just helped editor-in-chief Alice Xin Liu finish the publication's second issue.
"He has an earnest enthusiasm," O'Kane says. "I tend to be a bit skeptical of contemporary Chinese literature and of its value.
"Eric's not. He knows there's a lot of crap out there, but he knows there's good stuff out there too."
Carter, the third co-founder of Paper Republic, says Abrahamsen is "a talented writer, translator and editor, gifted with immense intelligence, energy and passion for the written word".
When the trio founded the website in 2007, she says, "we knew we were doing something no one else had done, something that needed to be done, but the success of the website and of the Paper Republic brand has exceeded all of our expectations."
Abrahamsen is able to be critical - in particular, he laments the pernicious effects of "soft censorship", which mainly takes the form of self-censorship. But he is also quick to unconditionally praise the likes of heavyweight Chinese novelist Yan Lianke for being "absolutely aware of how he's been twisted by Chinese society, yet somehow managing to maintain a pretty clear-eyed view of where he is and what he is writing about".
"If you put me in charge of a large Western publishing house, I would probably make them no money whatsoever, but I would put out a damn good line of books," Abrahamsen says. "I would do a great series of Chinese fiction."