Chinese literature still facing challenges reaching broader audience overseas

By Li Jingjing and Zhang Ni Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/2 17:48:39

Mai Jia (second from left) attends a promotional event for the Arabic version of Decoded in Abu Dhabi in May. Photo: Courtesy of China Continental Press 

The Arabic version of Decoded Photo: Courtesy of China Continental Press

In May, the Arabic version of Decoded, the 2005 crime novel from best-selling Chinese author Mai Jia, made its Middle East debut at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Mai is one of a few authors from China who have made a name for himself overseas. Three years ago, the English version of Decoded, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne, was published by FSG in the US and Penguin Books in the UK.

While China boasts a good amount of best-selling authors, only a few of them have managed to make any headway in English-speaking countries. Besides Mai, Galaxy Award and Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin and Nobel Literature Prize winner Mo Yan, there are not many Chinese authors that English-speaking readers can remember by name.

"Actually, we have a lot of good works that would be worth Western readers' time to read, but they are not willing to read them," Mai told the Global Times in a recent interview.

The author said that he believes the US is full of "pride and prejudice" which leads to only a small fraction of foreign literature being published each year.

"However, I think that as long as China keeps developing like it is now, Western readers will definitely develop an interest in Chinese literature, because literature is a great way to understand a country," he says.

Jiang Shan, director of the International Cooperation Department at China Intercontinental Press, said that years of promoting Chinese literature in different countries has led her to develop a similar opinion.

"In the English-speaking countries, their own culture dominates," she told the Global Times, explaining that this has created some roadblocks for her work.

Getting to know you

While Chinese literature has experienced an uphill battle getting published in the English-speaking world, the situation in Spanish- and Arabic-speaking countries has been completely different.

Jiang pointed out that sales in Spanish-speaking countries like Argentina and Chile are much higher than in English-speaking countries. By cooperating with influential publishers like Lom in Chile, Jiang has managed to increase the scale of her promotion efforts.

She noted that non-fiction books related to history or China's economic development have also proved very popular among readers and publishers in Abu Dhabi in addition to literature.

"It's not that difficult to promote Chinese literature in Spanish- and Arabic-speaking countries, since they are interested in learning more about China," she said, noting that China's Belt and Road initiative has helped further improve communication between China and these countries.


In Jiang's experience, part of finding success overseas is making sure a book is the right fit for the target market.

Jiang explained that her publishing company mainly focuses on contemporary literature works from authors such as Mai and Liu Zhenyun and classic literature including Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) poetry.

According to Jiang, contemporary literature tends to perform better than classic, while genre fiction such as Mai's crime novels and Liu Cixin's sci-fi works have performed far better than literary fiction such as the works of Mo Yan.

Mai said that he thinks that one reason Chinese literature authors have had a hard time finding success overseas is because "they have strong regional characteristics" that people from other countries have a hard time relating to.

Concerning this issue, Jonathan Stalling, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the founding editor of Chinese Literature Today magazine, holds a different opinion.

He noted that while novels by Mo Yan may not sell exceptionally well, they are usually highly praised by critics.

"I do think that these works are more challenging to read, but that challenge is vitally important and will over time find a place in American literary establishment and canons. More support to genre fiction will help boost sales, but not necessarily lead to a globally diverse canon where Mo Yan and others take their place among the great authors of world literature," Stalling told the Global Times via e-mail.

Quality translation

But even getting the support of critics can prove difficult.

"The challenge is getting Chinese literature into classrooms and enticing literary critics beyond Chinese Studies to engage the work," wrote Stalling.

He noted that one factor that has stopped Chinese literature from reaching a global broader audience is that most scholars only tend to avoid writing about translated works since they have no way of knowing how accurate the translation is. This trend has limited Chinese literature criticism to those scholars pursuing Chinese studies.

It's certainly true that the quality of a translation has a great bearing on a work's success overseas.

Both Mo Yan and Liu Cixin have credited their success to their translators.

Jiang also stressed the importance of translators, especially when it comes to classic literature. She pointed out that sometimes a notable translator will greatly help boost a work's success in another market.

To help scholars who cannot read Chinese feel more confident in researching translated Chinese literature, Stalling has established the Chinese Literature Translation Archive at the University of Oklahoma. The archive collects all the materials related to a translated work such as drafts and correspondence between the author and translators, so that scholars can trace the whole translation journey from Chinese to English. According to Stalling, knowing why a translator chose a particular word instead of another, for instance, could greatly assist scholars who cannot read Chinese to get the essence of a Chinese novel.



Newspaper headline: Literary hurdles

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