Path to success

By Wang Qi Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/20 19:08:40

Paper Republic founder Eric Abrahamsen talks about his site’s push to promote contemporary Chinese literature

Eric Abrahamsen  Photo: Courtesy of Paper Republic

Members of Paper Republic make dumplings during their 2018 Beijing Publishing Fellowship. Photo: Courtesy of Paper Republic

A hefty man with an honest face, this was my first impression of Eric Abrahamsen, founder of the contemporary Chinese literature translation website called Paper Republic.

Simple and easygoing, the design of Paper Republic's website is just like Abrahamsen himself. The platform is now considered to be one of the best sites for English-speaking netizens to better understand contemporary Chinese literature. 

The Seattle native lived in China for 15 years. He began learning Chinese during an exchange program while a student at the University of Washington. Afterwards, he moved to Beijing in 2001 to seek employment. Although he returned to Seattle in 2016, he is still working hard to promote Chinese culture and literature due to his deep affection for it. 

You my say he's a dreamer, but he is not the only one.  

Unexpected discovery

Paper Republic is mainly operated by six core members, including Abrahamsen himself, two of whom are Chinese. There are also another 10 people who, while not regular participants, also contribute a lot. The platform also provides internships to university students.

Despite his great passion for literature, Abrahamsen didn't intend to be a translator at first.

"I was a journalist at a local Beijing magazine called That's Beijing. I worked for them for two years and then became a freelance journalist," Abrahamsen told the Global Times over the phone. 

"And that didn't go very well," Abrahamsen said, laughing. "You know, I really don't like doing phone interviews with other people in a foreign language. It's the hardest thing." 

Realizing that journalism wasn't for him, he began focusing more of his time on Chinese literature. During this time, he gained a love for the writings of late Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo. 

"I like him a lot," said Abrahamsen. "When I started to read him, I had only started to learn Chinese for five years. I didn't know the language and culture very well, but Wang Xiaobo is different, he's actually very Western influenced, and that is why it was easy for me to understand." 

While he didn't know it at the time, his passion for the author's works would lead him down the path to becoming a translator. 

"I thought, probably I can write it into English, so I just did it for fun and just as an experiment. That was my first translating experience," Abrahamsen said.

Small operation 

When Abrahamsen established Paper Republic in 2007, it was just a simple website that looked more like a blog than anything else. 

"There were only a few people posting. We all knew each other well, and we were all based in Beijing. It was more like a Beijing group of translators," Abrahamsen said.

Over the years, things changed in various ways. New members from different countries got involved, they moved their headquarters from Beijing to London and now they are working to establish themselves as a non-profit organization. 

"We got some funding from the Chinese and UK government and from some private bodies. Our money comes from many different sources. It doesn't take too much to run us," Abrahamsen said. 

Because of its small scale, Paper Republic is easy to run. Most contributors have day jobs and so engage in translation more out of their own personal interest instead of for the money. 

"Sometimes we get money to pay our translators; sometimes we get money to do a certain kind of project, but most of the time, everybody works for free," Abrahamsen noted.

However, everyone involved is quite serious and careful when dealing with the copyrights of the content that they translate and publish. 

"We talk to the Chinese writers and we talk to the English translators… If we cannot find the person or cannot get their permission, then we don't translate," he said.

Because of their attitude and idealism, in 2011, Paper Republic received an invitation from Chinese magazine People's Literature. Together the two organizations co-produced an English-language quarterly magazine called Pathlight to introduce Chinese stories, essays and poetry through English translations. 

While the magazine remains small and readership mainly consists of academics, Paper Republic's 2015 project, "Read Paper Republic," has had a larger impact due to the power of the internet. Readers are able to go online to read newly translated short stories every week for free. Since then, more and more Western netizens have come to learn more about Chinese literature through Paper Republic. 

Not about money  

Opportunity always comes hand in hand with challenges. Considering that there is not much marketing for Chinese literature, Abrahamsen's team came up with a strategy to help the site get better momentum: push all publishing channels at the same time. 

"We talk to publishers to get them excited about Chinese books; we talk to magazine editors or literary websites to try to get them post information about Chinese writers; we do events in bookstores and libraries where we invite readers to come and talk, and we put information about writers online. So we try to get multiple channels all at the same time," he explained.

"If we had the money, we would buy advertisements on New York Times's book review section," he joked. 

"But we don't have money for that, so we do it cheap."

While he understands money is important, when it comes to contemporary Chinese literature he feels some Chinese writers are too impatient and "too market-oriented."

"They are following too closely and reacting too quickly, and they are worrying too much about their reputation. They haven't taken the time to digest what's happening, to digest the ideas," he said. 

"To write really good literature, writers need to keep a distance between themselves and social surroundings… and it also takes time."


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