Are There Too Few Chinese Translations Published?

The Los Angeles Review of Books has an interesting interview with Chinese translator and all-around Chinese literature specialist Brendan O’Kane. They get into a lot of stimulating territory (is Mo Yan a government stooge? did Gao Xingjian really deserve a Nobel? do Chinese authors get edited enough?), but one thing that caught my eye was O’Kane’s insistence that not nearly enough Chinese books are being translated:

Brendan O’Kane: I’d love to say that there had been a major shift, but I’m not really sure that there has — at least, not on the publishing side of things. There are more works in translation coming out now than there were before, but that’s a pretty low bar: Only 11* translations from Chinese were published in book form in the U.S. last year. That was actually down from the heady days of 2011, when a whopping 12 books came out. Literature in translation is always a hard sell for publishers in the English-speaking world, and Chinese literature in English translation hasn’t yet found its Haruki Murakami,or Italo Calvino in terms of influence and cachet, let alone its Stieg Larsson in terms of sales.

Per Chad Post’s translation database, the number for 2012 is actually 16, not 11, but that still sounds like a small amount for a nation of over a billion people. Is it? I’m not entirely sure. 16 translations ranks China as the tenth-most-translated nation for 2012, which isn’t too bad—it sits comfortably between Switzerland (#11) and Argentina (#9), although it’s a ways behind the #1 and #2 nations, France and Germany, with 44 and 40 translations, respectively. Of course, in order to evaluate that information, one would have to consider that there are probably a heck of a lot more German and French translators out there than there are Chinese, not to mention the healthy subsidies offered by those nations, as well as their effective lobbying efforts. (Having tried to wrest some useful information out of China’s booth at BEA, I can say that they still have quite a ways to go in that department.) So, in terms of global competitiveness and bang for the buck, China might be doing well. After all, compared to France and Germany, it is a relative newcomer.

Whether or not there are too few Chinese translations being published, the fact remains that in 2014 Two Lines Press will be adding to the pile: we’re publishing our first ever novel translated from the Chinese. It’s by Xu Zechen, who has racked up a slew of honors, it’s called Running Through Beijing, and it was a bestseller in China. Running is translated by the accomplished translator and writer Eric Abrahamsen of the excellent Paper Republic website (Abrahamsen also received an NEA grant to support the translation of this book).

We’ll have a lot more to say about this book in the future, but for now, here’s a look at the book’s cover:

Comments are closed.