The award-winning translator discusses the face of Chinese translation today and recommends key names to look out for.
01 First, can you just sketch out how and why you got into Chinese translation, and tell us some of your translation highlights?
I did my degree in Chinese at Leeds University, but afterwards I let it lapse, for various reasons. Then, 25 years ago, I brushed it off and tried my hand at a short story. It never did get published but I knew instantly that literary translation was what I wanted to do. I was lucky to get a good mentor, Henry Zhao Yiheng, for the first novel I translated, K: The Art of Love, written by his then-wife Hong Ying. That set me off on my translation career.
02 How important are translators in getting Chinese writers noticed by Anglophone publishers?
Very important, I think. After all, we’re reading good authors in the original Chinese all the time. Paper Republic, the registered charity run by translators that I work with, came runner-up in the London Book Fair Literary Excellence Awards two years running and the judges’ opinion was: "Paper Republic fills an important gap, creating a one-stop shop for people who want to know about contemporary Chinese." For instance, in addition to the authors’ and translators’ database, Paper Republic has also run several series of short fiction and non-fiction [titles], called Read Paper Republic, which gives general readers as well as publishers a chance to sample new writing and get an idea of what is out there.
Individually, after the book is published, many translators like myself spend a lot of time promoting the books we’ve translated—writing blogs and giving talks, in tandem with, or sometimes without, our authors.
03 What is the state of the Chinese/English literary translation at the moment?
When I started out in literary translation, no more than three or four translations from Chinese came out in the US and the UK in a year. That number has multiplied by a factor of 10: [fellow translator] Helen Wang and I publish an annual rollcall on Paper Republic of translated fiction, and in 2018, the total came to 39, not counting poetry and children’s books.
There are a good number of good translators. I taught recently on the Warwick Translates Summer School, and I was hugely encouraged that nine of my students for that week were native English speakers who were just starting out in translation from Chinese. That’s nine new translators ready to take on a new novel, essay, poem or short story. Publishers should not worry that they won’t be able to find a good translator. Paper Republic has a good directory to help in the search—that’s where I keep my own homepage.
But there are nowhere near enough translation grant schemes that publishers can access. PEN Translates, the excellent grant-giving scheme run by English PEN, is oversubscribed, and Chinese sources are difficult to find out about, and opaque and tardy in their application procedures. I wish more than anything that that wasn’t the case, and that eventually it will be possible for Western publishers to access translation funds in China easily. This does, after all, fit with China’s stated aim of promoting Chinese literature in translation all over the world. Fingers crossed.
04 Can you tell us about China Fiction Book Club?
I originally set it up as a book club for anyone in London who could read Chinese—I was also keen to offload some of my zillions of Chinese novels and send them to good homes! We ran an excellent discussion group for three or four years, and when it came to its natural end, Helen Wang and I decided to turn it into a Twitter account intended for everyone interested in Chinese fiction in English. Serendipitously, we launched it the very day, in 2012, that Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature; now @cfbcuk has over 3,000 followers and has generated a lot of interest.
05 Could you flag up a few contemporary Chinese authors unknown or little known in the West whom you think British people should be reading?
This question feels really hard to answer. Not because I’m short of names to suggest but because to most people reading this article, that’s all they will be, just names. Let me make some suggestions about areas to look at: fiction by Chinese women writers (they are woefully under-represented in translation compared to male writers), for example, Lu Min and her funny, touching novel, Dinner for Six.
For genre fiction, Chinese sci-fi is really making a name for itself both in China and in translation. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu, is just the tip of the iceberg. Another personal favourite of mine is a beautifully written, thoughtful novel about growing up and growing old and retaining one’s integrity against the odds, Compassion, by Lu Nei.
That said, ask any Chinese-to-English translator and you’ll get a different answer from every one! Looking at the wider literary translation into English scene, we’ve been told that translation in general is finally getting more popular in the UK and that translators are being recognised and compensated more appropriately.
06 Is this a better time to be a translator in general?
Yes, definitely. I have been involved in the Translators Association, part of the UK Society of Authors, for years, and I think translated fiction and the people who make it happen are getting much better coverage in the media. Big figures in translation such as Daniel Hahn do dozens of events every year and show how translation can be a really entertaining and illuminating topic for readers and listeners. Having done events at a number of literary festivals myself, from Cheltenham to Chengdu, I can vouch for the truth of that. But have Chinese writers and their translators broken into the mainstream yet, are they part of the general reader’s consciousness? I don’t think so. In my ideal world, every reader would have read a few Chinese authors in translation, and would have a favourite one. That’s not the case yet, but we’re working on it.