English-language publishers have been trying to crack the big Chinese book since Jung Chang’s
Wild Swans made it big in the early 1990s, hoping to kick-start a fad in contemporary Chinese literature. It hasn’t been easy, though, and twenty years later Chinese writing is still a grey area in the Western literary consciousness.
There are various explanations suggested for this, related mostly to the difficulty of translating Chinese literature into English and the lack of working relationships between the Chinese and international publishing industries. There’s a gap here that needs to be filled, but even in this era of intense globalisation few have the language skills, commitment to literature and publishing industry connections required.
Enter Paper Republic, a group of China-based translators working with both international editors and academic networks to promote contemporary Chinese literature abroad. Translators par excellence, they are interpreting industry conventions as much as languages, introducing the Chinese literary scene to Western publishers in a way they can understand. Paper Republic was co-founded by Eric Abrahamsen, my conversation partner for this week’s post.
Christen Cornell: So what is Paper Republic and how did it begin?
Eric Abrahamsen: Well it’s sort of a moving target now. We started out in 2007 as a group blog for translators of Chinese literature within China – a place where we could talk about things we were translating, books we were reading and authors we were excited about.
The next year or so we realised that people outside of the country were also referring to it as a source of information about Chinese writers and Chinese readers, and in some cases editors or agents were reading it. We started getting agents contacting us directly saying: could you recommend so and so, or could you do us up a translation. The numbers of translators increased, and then extended to translators of Chinese literature outside of China.
So it sort of grew in a very organic, haphazard way until 2008 when we got a British Arts Council grant, and that was the first time we thought about making ourselves more properly a platform for information about Chinese literature for the international publishing world. We used some of that money to do translations and to attend the London Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair – the Frankfurt Book Fair being in 2009 when China was the guest of honour.
CC: What was your place at the book fairs? Were you representing the authors, like agents do?
EA: No, not as agents. You know there’s a reason why all the very good agents are fifty-five years old and have thirty years of experience: it depends on contacts and it depends on personal information, personal trust, personal relationships. So while we have a lot of the necessary information about the Chinese literary world we don’t really have enough of the contacts in the international publishing world. At least, not to feel like we could do right by the authors I think. We’re much more interested in providing a broad picture of everything that’s out there, rather than just picking a few people and making them our project.
CC: So what is your purpose? Is to advocate for Chinese literature, is it to sell your services as translators?
EA: The general project is to promote Chinese literature abroad, and also to act as a bridge between the Chinese publishing industry and the foreign publishing industry. Because both sides are interested in the other and both sides have no idea how the other works. And you know, even if they did know who to talk to a lot of the time there’s a language barrier, different expectations about how business works. Hopefully part of this will be consulting work crossing that barrier. Being a bridge.
What we’d like to do if that becomes viable is to use that and other sources of funding to do a quarterly literary journal out of China that’s specifically aimed at introducing new, young writers who we think have publishing potential in the West, or within any foreign language.
CC: A bit like a longer, journal-style version of your Frankfurt catalogue, which I saw last year.
EA: Yes, but as it turned out that catalogue wasn’t enough. At the time we did it we didn’t understand enough how publishers were thinking, and what they needed to make a decision. We were still way too much on the literary end of things, saying: here’s a great book, here’s a great book, here’s a great book. They’re all really well written and interesting books and you should read them. And they say: interesting, but that’s not enough for us to make a decision.
CC: So what are they looking for?
EA: Well they’re looking for us to do most of their work for them [laughs] – in terms of outlining potential readerships, preparing sales materials. We need to do their market positioning for them and say, if you were to sell this book you would sell it as: this, to this group of readers. You would market it in this way, and this writer is a Chinese equivalent of so-and-so.
CC: Mo Yan is a Chinese Gabriel García Márquez.
EA: Yes, and he’s China’s great hope for the Nobel Prize. All that sort of stuff. We didn’t realise we had to do all that back end work.
CC: I think for a long time Western publishers just thought they could pitch things as a Chinese book, and a Chinese book and a Chinese book … and now they’ve kind of run out of Chinese books. They might have had three or four genres, like they had the Beijing Doll / Shanghai Baby book …
EA: Yeah, and that’s over with now.
CC: And then they had the My Terrible Life autobiography …
EA: Cultural Revolution …
CC: Often written in England, France, America or Canada or something, and so now …
EA: And so now they don’t really know what to look out for, but they know that interesting things are happening.
CC: Many established Chinese language translators say that there’s nothing of worth written in China these days, and that’s why we don’t see much contemporary Chinese literature in English. What do you say to that?
EA: Those translators are coming from a point of view of translating Chinese poetry that’s been filtered down through centuries. Five hundred years of Chinese history produced three books of poetry so obviously it’s pretty good poetry! [laughs]
There is a lot of bad writing coming out of China right now but there’s a lot of bad writing coming out of anywhere. If you look at any culture’s literary scene, in any given year 60% of the books that come out are just not worth buying. You’re lucky if you get one or two good books a year. And that’s just normal I think.
Another problem is that a lot of what’s popular within China is considered very bad outside of China. There are totally different literary tastes. So I think that people are starting by saying: well, let’s look at what’s on the best-seller charts, this is what all the young people are reading – and it’s trash. Of course it’s trash. That’s what people want to read. But meanwhile, quietly, there are these other better books being published that just don’t get the fanfare, and if you know where to look and you know where to find them there’s certainly enough to warrant three or four books being published out of China into English every year.
CC: Where would you start?
EA: Hm, well I’ve got some sort of clean up work that needs to be done – authors who fell by the wayside. There’s a guy called Jia Pingwa who within China has every bit of the stature of a Mo Yan, Yu Hua or Su Tong, but through chance, I guess, has not been translated [apart from Turbulence]. He’s got one or two really big books that you would start with – Abandoned Capital [废都, Feidu] for one. That’s his biggest book and there’s no excuse for that not being in English.
Then there’s sort of a lost generation who are younger than the Su Tong, Mo Yan, Yu Hua group, but who are older than the young literary people who are writing for high school or college students right now. They’re this whole generation that didn’t get a label applied to them, and people don’t really know what to do with them. They’re writers who are still really engaged with their surroundings but are writing with a much younger voice. They’re mostly urban writers, but they’re not writing the exciting escapist fantasies of the really young writers.
Their ideal readership would be intelligent, urban, educated people who want to think about their environment, engage with modern China, engage with their society – but there’s not many of those people. Nobody really wants to spend a whole lot of time thinking about the intricacies of modern Chinese society right now. So this group are sort of recognised as writers but they’re not very popular. They don’t have huge reputations.
There’s this guy I like a lot, he’s 32 years old, called Xu Zechen. He’s an editor of Peoples Literature Magazine and writes about the underclass in Beijing society – kids running around selling DVDs, fake IDs, getting into jail, fighting against the cops, stuff like that. It’s so well-written. It’s not this pretentious, overblown stuff with a lot of metaphors in it, like you get from Mo Yan. And it’s not the silly fluffy stuff of the younger writers. It’s just really tight, well-crafted, well-paced storytelling.
CC: Can you describe that overblown style of the older writers a bit more? Is it heavily lyrical, overdramatic …
EA: Really thick melodrama. They think that they have an obligation to write something very meaningful so there’s lots of really pretentious: this made me think about life, and life was hard.
Xu doesn’t do any of that. There’s none of that writerly intervention in the story, and no project for the book other than an accurate and exciting portrayal of this guy’s life. And he’s not going to tell you anything about morality. He’s not going to prescribe anything for fixing Chinese society, or what these people should be doing, or: look how sad, or: I’m going to make you cry now, or anything like that.
CC: I wonder if it’s a problem of translation, but Chinese literature often comes across in English as sentimental, overly dramatic. There’s lots of parody, and it can read as kind of overblown and bloated.
EA: It’s all in the original. It’s unfortunate that that sentimentality is an aesthetic difference between China and the West. Western readers are really sensitive to mawkishness or emotion – people really don’t like that anymore. And in China people just eat it up.
A lot of writers feel that you have to cry by the end of the book or they’ve failed as a writer. And the readers are like: if I didn’t cry then why the hell did I buy that book?
EA: So within China, they want it, so they give it to them – OK. But it means that a lot of those books that might have otherwise been interesting abroad just can’t be done. Nobody wants to read them.
CC: Are there any other examples?
There are also some really good ethnic minority writers who have their own take on life in the countryside.
A lot of the older writers were born as peasants in the countryside, and then moved to the city – so there’s a lot of nostalgia for the countryside, and there’s a lot of critique of the cities. Then this newer generation, a lot of them were born in the cities so they have a purely urban point of view on things.
But then these ethnic minority writers, a lot of them are still out in the countryside, so they have a very different take on it. And it’s not the real heavy, realist, depressing stuff that you may have read before, where you feel like: I’m reading a really important book about life in the countryside. It’s much more nimble, much more evocative. Not this grinding down kind of pain. So that’s a completely different branch.
CC: It sounds like these are moving out of literary stereotypes.
EA: Chinese culture is so exaggerately over-defined by history. You know you have the Cultural Revolution, and then you have the ‘80s, and then you have 1989 and then … everything is like: gung, gung, gung. And finally now things are starting to disperse a little bit.
CC: You get individual narratives?
EA: Yes. And that’s such a relief.
I think this new generation of young writers – most of them are reading and writing trash. But it’s a huge number of people writing, a huge number of people reading, and out of maybe a hundred writers that are writing trash, ten years from now, three of them will be thinking, you know? I’m tired of writing this way. There must be something more to say here. And then they’ll go off and do some more reading, and do some more thinking and then they’re going to put out some really interesting stuff.
And then out of all the readers who are reading trash I think ten years from now – a lot of them are going to be ready for that. You’ve got now this huge habit of reading, a reading habit, and that can’t be bad.