What’s Going Wrong with Chinese Literature in Translation?

Toward the end of every year, when China’s magazines, newspapers, and online portals publish their lists of the best books of the year, we are reminded of the vast gulf between the books that are being read in China and the books being translated from Chinese for readers around the world.

A look at 2019’s list of the best Chinese fiction on Douban (a Chinese social media site with a large number of young users) shows that — with the exception of Mai Jia, the author of widely publicized Chinese spy novel Decoded — it comprises writers almost completely unknown to non-Chinese readers, such as internet novel writers Chang Er and Wu Zhe and teenage fiction writer Yuan Zhesheng. 

The roll-call of Chinese-to-English translations for the same year by Paper Republic (a UK-based organization focused on bringing Chinese writing to the world) looks vastly different. While nobody would expect the same books to be on both lists, it suggests that international readers are looking for a different kind of book.

The Douban list focuses on mostly young, mostly urban authors, while English language readers are getting the work of aging titans such as Feng Jicai, Jia Pingwa, and the late Shi Tiesheng. It’s a strange list of authors, that ranges from exiled dissidents to the dustiest eulogizers of state capitalism.

What makes it into English translation is often shaped by the idea that Chinese fiction’s main function is to explain China, and by two sides wrangling over what story Chinese literature should tell. 

Read more: RADII

Chinese minority languages among those at risk of dying out, with no one left to speak them, study finds

Dozens of languages and dialects in China are in danger of disappearing, a new study has found.

According to the study by website WordFinder, based on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 25 of China’s spoken languages are “critically endangered”.

This puts it seventh in the world behind the United States, with 82 languages critically endangered), Brazil, with 45, Australia, with 42, India (41), Indonesia (32) and Canada (30).

“Languages are about more than vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar,” says WordFinder editor Michael Kwan. “Languages provide insight into how a cultural group views and interacts with the world around them, as well as the history of the people in a particular area.”

The latest census (2009-2013), released last month, revealed that 28 per cent of critically endangered languages are spoken in just three countries – the US (which accounts for 13.5 per cent), Brazil (7.4 per cent) and Australia (6.9 per cent) – and that they and seven other countries account for more than half of the critically endangered languages in the world.

The study found that more than 291 million people aged five and over speak only English at home in the US, with only 45 using the critically endangered Chinook Jargon, an indigenous language originating as a pidgin (or simplified) trade language used in the Pacific northwest.

In Australia, more than 17 million people speak only English (around 73 per cent of the population) at home compared to just 156 people who speak the Aboriginal Miriwoong language (0.00066 per cent). Fewer than 20 of those speak it fluently.

Language experts say the decline in minority languages is an unwelcome trend being felt across the globe.

Read more: South China Morning Post

Cantonese isn’t dead yet, so stop writing its eulogy

When I decided to start studying Mandarin as a teenager, friends and family approved. China was enjoying explosive economic growth, so speaking the country’s lingua franca was sure to open doors. But when I moved to China after college, I ended up in one place where Mandarin doesn’t get you very far: Hong Kong.

The majority of the city’s 7.3 million people speak Cantonese, a Chinese dialect mutually unintelligible from Mandarin. And while I’ve thrown myself into learning Cantonese with just as much passion, I do not get the same reaction that I did with Mandarin. Instead, I’m told Cantonese is on its way out the door.

Hong Kong’s English and Chinese media pin the blame on Mandarin. Local officials began stressing Mandarin-based education following the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and now 70% of Hong Kong primary schools use Mandarin to teach Chinese classes. There are also plenty of Mandarin speakers coming from across the border; since 1997, 150 mainlanders have been able to obtain residency each day.

But the data tell a different story. Cantonese has actually experienced a slight growth in the proportion of speakers since the handover. According to the 2016 Hong Kong by-census, 88.9% of the population claim to speak Cantonese as their usual language, compared with 88.7% in 1996. Over the same 20-year span, the percentage of residents who primarily speak Mandarin rose from 1.1% to 1.9%.

So how can a language appear robust on paper, yet inspire death knells from the general public? It’s the sort of linguistic paradox that could only happen in Hong Kong.

Read more: Quartz

Manchu, Once China’s Official Language, Could Lose Its Voice

Tao Qinglan can still speak her mother tongue, Manchu, but everything else has changed since she was born 72 years ago in Sanjiazi Village.

She now lives with her Manchu daughter and Han son-in-law in a modern brick house, and they speak Mandarin at home. None of the houses in the village have preserved the traditional Manchu feature of a kang stove-bed surrounding three sides of the room, and almost all their traditional clothes and books were wiped out during the Cultural Revolution.

“The clothes we wear, the house we live in, and the language we speak are now no different from those of the Han people,” Tao sighs.

At the Two Sessions political meetings earlier this year, policy advisors proposed multimedia and educational strategies to protect ethnic minority languages, which they say are disappearing at an alarming rate. Manchu is one of 15 languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers.

Read more: Sixth Tone

Science fiction’s new golden age in China: what it means to the authors, many female, leading the way

The science-fiction genre in China was little known before Liu Cixin was honoured with the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 for The Three-Body Problem. The first book in Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, it tells of an alien invasion during the Cultural Revolution and has sold more than a million copies in China alone. The English translation was recommended by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to members of his book club, and praised by former US president Barack Obama as “wildly imaginative, really interesting”.

Last year, Liu’s compatriot Hao Jingfang earned a Hugo Award for Folding Beijing, in which the city is divided into zones, each with a different number of hours in the day.

Liu has been nominated for another Hugo Award this year, for the final episode in his trilogy, Death’s End.

The two winning books are now being adapted for the big screen in China, marking a turning point for Chinese sci-fi and potentially expanding the genre’s exposure globally.

Read more: South China Morning Post

The Disappearing Dialect at the Heart of China’s Capital

BEIJING — To the untutored ear, the Beijing dialect can sound like someone talking with a mouthful of marbles, inspiring numerous parodies and viral videos. Its colorful vocabulary and distinctive pronunciation have inspired traditional performance arts such as cross-talk, a form of comic dialogue, and “kuaibanr,’’ storytelling accompanied by bamboo clappers.

But the Beijing dialect is disappearing, a victim of language standardization in schools and offices, urban redevelopment, and migration. In 2013, officials and academics in the Chinese capital began a project to record the dialect’s remaining speakers before it fades away completely.

The material is to be released to the public as an online museum and interactive database by year’s end.

Read more: NY Times

For the first time, Chinese poetry is being translated into Kiswahili

Jidi Majia, a writer from southwest China, once described himself as a Chinese poet with an “African complex.” He emulated writers like Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor, Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, or Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, cheered for the end of apartheid in South Africa, and cried when Nelson Mandela died.

“I embarked upon my literary career with what I would call African complex, in my unconscious, that is, an instinctive aping of African writing techniques and styles, fed [by] a deep love of African cultures and peoples,” he said in a 2014 acceptance speech given in absentia for a humanitarian award from the South African foundation Mkiva.

Now, the poetry of a man who has never set foot on the African continent can be read in Kiswahili, in a new collection called Maneno Ya Moto Kutoka China or Words of Fire from China. The publisher, Twaweza Communications, says it is the first time a creative work of Chinese literature has been translated into the lingua franca of Kenya, Tanzania, and much of southeast Africa.

Read more: Quartz

Last words: language of China’s Manchu emperors in peril

It was the language of China’s last imperial dynasty that ruled a vast kingdom for nearly three centuries. But 71-year-old Ji Jinlu is among only a handful of native Manchu speakers left.

Traders and farmers from what are now the borders of China and Korea, the Manchus took advantage of a crumbling Ming state and swept south in the 1600s to establish their own Qing Dynasty.

Manchu became the court language, its angular, alphabetic script used in millions of documents produced by one of the world’s pre-eminent powers.

Now after centuries of decline followed by decades of repression, septuagenarian Ji is the youngest of some nine mother-tongue speakers left in Sanjiazi village, one of only two places in China where they can be found.

“We mostly speak Chinese these days — otherwise young people don’t understand,” he said, in his sparsely furnished hut beside cornfields, before launching into a self-composed Manchu lullaby.

Manchu is classed as “critically endangered” by the United Nations’ cultural organization UNESCO, which says that half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken worldwide are threatened with extinction, a major loss of knowledge and diversity for humanity.

But plans to save Manchu are spreading as ethnic consciousness grows among the 10-million-strong minority.

Read more: The Japan Times

Tagore Translation Deemed Racy Is Pulled From Stores in China

BEIJING — More than 80 years after his death, Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, still has a huge following in Asia. Outside India and Bangladesh, perhaps nowhere is his legacy more alive than in China, where his works have been part of the middle-school curriculum for decades.

This month, to commemorate the 155th anniversary of his birth, the People’s Publishing House will release “The Complete Works of Tagore,” the first direct translation of his entire output from Bengali into Chinese. The project took a team of translators nearly six years.

But Tagore has also been at the center of a controversy here, after another, more racy new translation of some of his poems by the writer Feng Teng, called “Stray Birds,” set off a storm of criticism. The furor was so intense that the Zhejiang Wenyi Publishing House pulled the volume from stores.

Read more: NY Times

Tibetan Language Made Equal With Chinese in County in China’s Qinghai

The Tibetan and Chinese languages will now be given equal status in Rebgong (in Chinese, Tongren) county in Qinghai’s Malho (Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture after a storm of protest erupted online following a local hotel’s attempt to prevent Tibetan workers from speaking their native tongue.

In a Jan. 11 notice written in Chinese, county authorities have directed government offices, schools, and state-owned businesses to use both Tibetan and Chinese on official seals, signboards, letterhead, and other forms of communication.

According to the notice, a copy of which was obtained by RFA, the Tibetan language will also be given prominence in some cases, for example when used on a signboard or official letter. The notice also instructs people to print Tibetan and Chinese characters in the same size.

It was not immediately clear whether the new directive is intended also to apply to private businesses or shops.

The government action comes after the Shang Yon hotel in Rebgong on Jan. 7 forbade Tibetan workers from speaking their own language on the job, threatening them with a 500 yuan (U.S. $76 approx.) fine for noncompliance, according to social media accounts.

Read more: Radio Free Asia

Manchu, Former Empire’s Language, Hangs On at China’s Edge

QAPQAL XIBE AUTONOMOUS COUNTY, China — Loyal to the core and prized for their horsemanship, several thousand Manchu soldiers heeded the emperor’s call and, with families and livestock in tow, embarked in 1764 on a trek that took them from northeastern China to the most distant fringes of the Qing dynasty empire, the Central Asian lands now known as Xinjiang.

It was an arduous, 18-month journey, but there was one consolation: After completing their mission of pacifying the western frontier, the troops would be allowed to take their families home.

“They were terribly homesick here and dreamed of one day going back east,” said Tong Hao, 56, a descendant of the settlers, from the Xibe branch of the Manchus, who arrived here emaciated and exhausted. “But sadly, it was not to be.”

Two and a half centuries later, the roughly 30,000 people in this rural county who consider themselves Xibe have proved to be an ethnographic curiosity and a linguistic bonanza. As the last handful of Manchu speakers in northeast China have died, the Xibe have become the sole inheritors of what was once the official tongue of one of the world’s most powerful empires, a domain that stretched from India to Russia and formed the geographic foundation for modern China.

Read more: NY Times

China Tests First Tibetan Language Search Engine

BEIJING: China has begun the trial of its first Tibetan language search engine, putting it on course for release in the second half of 2016, the developer said today.

“Cloud Tibet” has news, pictures, video and audio search options, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Development head Tselo said the database and the semantic unit function were both up and running.

It also has news, pictures, video and audio search options, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The project was launched in April 2013.

A team of more than 150 people from a Tibetan language research centere in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, northwest China, led the project.

“The recognition rate of the system is over 95 per cent,” Tselo said, adding that around 1.2 million people would use the search engine.

Source: NDTV