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

World’s oldest and largest Spanish-Chinese dictionary found in UST

Spanish and Taiwanese scholars have discovered the world’s oldest extant and largest Spanish-Chinese dictionary at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Archives.

The 400-year-old “Dictionario Hispanico Sinicum” (DHS) provides not only the Chinese characters and Mandarin terms to Spanish words, but also their equivalent in Hokkien, the language spoken in Taiwan and Fujian province in southeastern China where many of today’s overseas Chinese came from.

In the Philippines, many Chinese speak “Fookien” or “Philippine Hokkien.”

Ironically, the dictionary, cataloged in the UST Archives as “Vocabulario Espanol-Chino con caracteres chinos (Tomo 215),” was found with the label, “vale muy poco,” that is, “of little value” for contemporary use.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Henning Klotter of Humboldt University in Berlin. He explained the dictionary is “the most comprehensive collection of Hokkien lexical items” of its time. “[H]istorians will [also] find a wealth of information on the early history of the Spanish-Chinese encounter in the Philippines.”

Read more: Lifestyle. INQ

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

Burton Watson, noted translator, remembered

Burton Watson, the foremost translator of Chinese classics and poetry into English and my co-translator of the anthology of Japanese poetry “From the Country of Eight Islands” (1981), died on April 1 in a hospital in Chiba. He was 91 years old.

I knew Watson since the early 1970s, so allow me to call him Burt.

I came to know Burt because the publisher of my “Spring & Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa” turned to him for an introduction. Andrea Miller, of the Asia Society of New York, had sent a batch of my translations of modern Japanese poetry to Chicago Review, and its student editor and poetry editor, Alexander Besher and Curt Matthews, decided to devote one issue to my translations. Then they started a publishing house, calling it Chicago Review Press, with the idea of doing a series of Japanese poets in my translation. “Spring & Asura” was the first.

The evening Burt invited me to his apartment to go over my translations remains vivid. Before we started work on the list he’d made on a yellow pad, he offered beer. Thereafter, every time we finished our cans, he’d ask, with a twinkle in his eyes, “Another?” And each time I nodded, he would unfold his long legs to get up from the low table and fetch two cans of beer from a refrigerator at the other end of a spacious, bare room. In the few years after arriving in New York City, I had come to fancy myself to be a good imbiber not to get drunk on mere beer, but I found I was wrong that evening.

Read more: The Japan Times

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

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

The long, incredibly tortuous, and fascinating process of creating a Chinese font

The story of Chinese characters begins with, of all things, turtle bellies.

The kings of the Shang Dynasty—which ruled from the 16th to the 11th centuries BC—had questions. Questions about what the king should do, like whether to “perform a ritual for Father Ding and offer to him thirty captives from the Qiang nomad tribe as well as five penned sheep,” according to one translation (pdf, p. 5). As with many ancient human-rights abusers, the king turned to his royal soothsayers to decide the lives of these captives.

The soothsayers etched these pressing questions directly onto the shoulder blades of oxen and the under-shells of turtles, which are also known as plastrons. They then poked the inscribed animal parts with hot metal rods until cracks formed. The shapes of the cracks served as omens, telling the king whether offering captives was a good idea or a very bad one. Often, the answers were etched directly onto the bones and shells, right next to the prophetic cracks.

Read more: Quartz

Translating peace: Interpreting Mandarin at the UN

Mandarin is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and translating documents into all those languages is crucial to the smooth function of its machinery.

What makes translating at the UN particularly challenging, though, is that what it produces goes beyond the conference room. Translations of major documents are often cited by the media, quoted in statements and incorporated into legislation for years to come.

Ma Xuesong is one of the people who ensure accurate translations. He joined the UN in 2000 after 12 years of diplomatic service with China’s Foreign Ministry and has led the Chinese Translation Service since 2011.

The service, part of the Documentation Division, is responsible for translating official documents, meeting minutes and correspondence into Chinese at the UN’s New York headquarters.

Read more: The Telegraph