China writes its way onto the world stage

Updated: 2013-01-31 10:22

By Mei Jia (China Daily)

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China writes its way onto the world stage

Visitors line up for calligraphic work by the Chinese artist Fan Dachuan at the 2012 London Book Fair. China was honored as the Market Focus country for the first time, with books about Chinese language and learning calligraphy being popular at the fair. Bai Xu / Xinhua

Translators essential

Chairwoman Tie tells an anecdote about a time Mo was in Spain and unwell. He went to a hospital and saw the doctor there, who happened to be a faithful reader of his works.

But not all writers are so well-known. According to statistics from the writers' association, an average of 2,000 novels are published in China every year. "Far more than in decades ago," said critic Zhang Yiwu from Peking University.

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Among them, only 1,000 books from 150 writers are translated into other languages, according to the association, which amounts for 1.6 percent of the association's 9,125 members.

"More effective than the film adaptations (such as The Red Sorghum) in Mo's case, translators are a Chinese writer's shortcut to a prestigious global award like the Nobel," cultural critic Shi Hang said.

Mo, probably the contemporary writer who has the biggest number of foreign versions of his works, invited several of his translators to witness him accept his award in Stockholm in December.

"They're the ones to be honored," Mo said.

But the world market, especially Western readers' reluctance to read translations, and accept "new" writers, has set barriers for Chinese writers to reach a wider audience.

Critic Romano believes that as a general rule, American publishers do a poor job of translating foreign works.

"They simply don't publish enough. This has been a longstanding complaint of publishing professionals in, for instance, France, Italy and Germany. China is joining an already crowded club," he said.

This concern is shared by many translators and Sinologists, including Mo's Swedish translator Anna Gustafsson Chen.

In August, Gustafsson Chen spoke at a meeting of 10 Chinese writers and 27 translators organized by the writers' association. She said she saw a rare opportunity to publish Chinese books, and a rare chance to train young and willing translators. "Translators barely feed themselves only through doing translation," she said.

Gustafsson Chen said that of the more than 10,000 titles published in her country in 2011, 2,900 were translations, and only two were translated from Chinese.

"The two were printed in small numbers in my country that is famous for educated and zealous readers," she said.

She believes strongly the Nobel win offers a springboard for Chinese writing's global acceptance.

"The Nobel will help the situation improve," she wrote on her blog after learning of Mo's win.

"The change may be slow, but it's definitely to come," she said, adding it is possible Mo's works will be published in volumes of tens of thousands in her country.

That might be encouraging for increasing numbers of interested and qualified translators.

"Interest in studying Chinese continues to grow rapidly in the US. For the moment, students with a special interest in business, economics and politics lead the charge," Romano said.

And Romano believes it's inevitable that the growth of Chinese will eventually produce successors to Howard Goldblatt - expert translators capable of rendering Chinese literature into excellent English.

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Working in a multinational environment, Kent Xu, managing director of China Risk Lead at Accenture, noticed a lack of people reading Chinese books around him.

"I believe serious literature readers have varied tastes, and the books of Nobel winning writers are a good reason for them to spend time reading," Xu said.

Besides winning international prizes, other serious efforts are being made to boost Chinese literature's global appeal.

The General Administration of Press and Publication launched series of projects and is planning to offer more support to publish literature abroad.

"Contemporary literature is a key element of Chinese publications going global," said Zhang Fuhai, director general of the international exchange and cooperation department of the administration.

"It's approachable and efficient in introducing China," Zhang said, adding that in 2013 literature will be a focus of the working projects.

GAPP has been using international book fairs and its own channels to help overseas publications. It has awarded foreign translators with the China Special Book Award for six years to encourage translation.

Thanks to efforts by GAPP and publishers, more than 160,000 Chinese titles appear on online marketplace Amazon's China Bookstore. French company the Lagardere Group, who has 3,100 bookstores around the world, sold 210,000 copies of China-themed books in 2012, according to GAPP.

Jia Huili from Zhang's department told China Daily the administration is preparing and investigating a new China Writers International project.

Centering on 20 established Chinese writers, GAPP is to support 20 publishers to take care of plans for writers to go global with policies, funds, guidance and platforms. Mo, of course, is a key member of the project, Jia said.

Jia said GAPP is to also gradually build up a database for both writers and translators, to offer more support.

"I have absolute faith in Chinese culture's global acceptance via writing," Gustafsson Chen said.

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