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

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