Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Breaking into the Chinese market

Penguin has just announced that they are translating ten classic books into Chinese which will be hitting the mainland in November. Here's the list:

Cervantes Don Quixote
Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights
Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre
Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
Dante Divine Comedy
Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment
Goethe Faust
Leo Tolstoy Resurrection
Herman Melville Moby Dick

I wonder how they'll be received? I'm not sure how many have been translated before, if any. A lot of modern Chinese authors (and by modern, I mean 1919 May Fourth writers) did read Tolstoy and Dickens and others, but I'm fairly sure that they mostly read them in Japanese because Chinese translations simply weren't available. Also, their concern at that time was specifically to create a new literature to aid China's social revolution, and translated literature played a big part in making that happen. The times have changed, and as the author of this article notes, "the most popular publications are usually management guides, self-help books and biographies of the rich and famous". This is because these books are what meet the need of China's urban populace at this time - I'm not sure if a leisure reading market even exists. There is no such thing as nationwide best selling lists that are available in book shops; each book shop has its own list of bestsellers, which vary depending on what that particular shop stocks, and books on English language learning are invariably up there somewhere.

I would have thought Penguin would be better translating some of China's classics for the Western markets. There is such a vast, rich literary tradition in China, and with the surge of interest in everything to do with China, surely the country's significant literature will soon catch the public interest here in the West. Everyone knows Tang dynasty poets are to be admired, but what about the four great story cycle novels - who even knows what they are? What about all the revolutionary authors from the 20th century - Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, Lao She, Mao Dun, Ding Ling? None of these are widely available, if available at all. Penguin currently carries two Chinese classics - The Story of the Stone (extremely long, undoubtedly a classic, hugely popular in China, but perhaps not the best to start with if you are new to Chinese fiction) and Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu, which I haven't read. Of course, since winning the N0bel Prize for literature, the works of Gao Xingjian have been translated and are available almost everywhere, and there are a few contemporary authors who are regularly published but by and large, Chinese fiction is not translated.

Maybe this will change soon. I find it ironic that to find English translations of many of the authors I mentioned above, one has to go to China. While I'm waiting for more English translations of Chinese authors, I hope China enjoys Dante!


Dorothy W. said...

I agree -- more translations of Chinese writing would be great.

mai wen said...

I loved this post, having a Chinese mother who only likes to read novels in Chinese, I'm excited to let her know of these translations. She's crazy for the Russian authors, so Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky will really get her excited. I'm reading "Crime and Punishment" right now in English, I'd also be interested in reading the Chinese translation to see how it'd differ, I'm always interested in language translations and how that affects the meaning of the novel.

I'm really impressed you know so much about the Chinese reading culture right now! That's really cool, I don't know much about it but I'm very interested.

I've read most of "The Story of the Stone" and parts of "Fortress Besieged" in a Chinese Literature class for my Chinese minor I had for a while (I ended up dropping it because I didn't have time to finish it). I definitely liked "Fortress Besieged" better because "The Story of the Stone" was very cumbersome and confusing to get into it, however once I got into it I did end up enjoying it.

Thanks for the great post! My mom will be stoked!

Danielle said...

Now that I think of it I am not sure I have read any fiction by Chinese authors. I have read lots by Chinese Americans or books written by non-Chinese that are set in China, which I always find fascinating. You do know a lot about this--I guess I always assume that the classics are available everywhere (or nearly), but that is not the case, is it!

The Traveller said...

Well...knowing about Chinese literature comes from having done Chinese for my undergrad degree! I chose literature as my main focus within my degree - I suppose what Americans call my major - so I read a lot, classical and modern, and studied the main literary movements and authors over the last 150 years or so.

I haven't read anything in the way of translations of Western works in Chinese though - a few of Shakespeare's sonnets and an awful lot of Sherlock Holmes, because I did my dissertation on the Holmes stories when they were first introduced to a Chinese readership. I'd be pretty interested in reading some of those Penguin translations too, out of curiosity!

litlove said...

I wonder how on earth those English books will go down in China. Whatever would they make of Wuthering Heights, for instance? The Russian literature would surely come with less culture shock embedded. I've never read a Chinese author in my life for fear, I think, of cultural alienation, and because no one has ever recommended one to me! I can see next summer's reading challenge will have to be more global.

booklogged said...

I think that's exciting for the Chinese to have access to these classic. Totally agree that it would be nice for the rest of the world to access to Chinese fiction.

Traveller, I just read 2 reviews that may interest you at Words Without Borders. Both books have recently been translated into Enlish, one from Russian and the other from Israeli. Here's the address:

booklogged said...

Just been browsing a little more on Words Without Boundaries. Along the top of each page they have a list of countries and areas. When you click on one of these you get to a page with lists of books and authors from all around the world. I'm excited about this, because you have inspired me to read from different countries and I thought this was a great source.

Also interesting, in light of your most recent post - the book for WWB's Sep. bookclub is a fiction book written by a Chinese author. It's The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian.

The Traveller said...

Booklogged - I was excited to see they were reading The Noodle Maker! I'm thinking I should go and buy it, because I haven't read it yet - although maybe it is online at words without borders. Thanks for the link!

Litlove - I'm also wondering how China will respond to almost all the classics, although you're right about the Russian authors; they will undoubtedly have been translated and published by different companies before, whereas the others may not have. If anyne is interested in reading some contemporary Chinese fiction, look out for Mo Yan, Ma Jian, Wei Hui and Wang Shuo. There are others, but I think these are probably the most well-thought of (outside of China, anyway; most of them are baned on the mainland) besides Gao Xingjian.

I'll keep a look out for articles in the Chinese press on how the Penguin classics are being received, and I'll report back!