From the word go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am

It is testament to the reach of Chinese fiction that the translated works of its living writers can be found on the shelves of bookshops within and well beyond mainland shores.

In the New Edition Bookshop, a popular bibliophile haunt in the port city of Fremantle in Western Australia, a translated copy of mainland-born Xiaolu Guo's voyage into the past, Village of Stone, sits near Xinran's migrant worker tale, Miss Chopsticks.

Closer to home, at the Beijing Bookworm cafe, a magnet for the capital's Anglophone readers, Mo Yan's Big Breasts and Wide Hips vies for attention alongside Jiang Rong's Man Asian Literary Prize-winning Wolf Totem.

By all appearances, the mainland's English-language book sector is already a modest success, but industry insiders say it's still a work in progress, awaiting a defining moment.

That's partly because, according to Penguin Group (China) general manager Jo Lusby, translated Chinese fiction has not yet had a 'category-breaking book', a breakthrough work that helps define a genre and pave the way for other books - in the way Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes paved the way for misery memoir, for example.

'You need a book that creates a new interest and new category of writing,' Lusby says. 'Chinese literature has not yet found its place; it doesn't yet occupy a place in the literary psyche. But it will do mainly because Chinese is an incredibly literary culture.'

Others agree there is a lack of clarity among overseas readers about what mainland fiction is and what to seek out at bookshops, even though awareness of the mainland and curiosity about its literature has grown abroad.

'There's no real general concept of what Chinese literature is,' says Eric Abrahamsen, a Beijing-based translator and co-founder of the translation website, Paper Republic. 'Readers feel out to sea, despite publishers' efforts to create categories such as 'sexy' books or 'banned' books from China. None of the buzzwords is sticking.

'Readers are still happiest with non-fiction about China, because they are curious on a practical level, and ... they are happiest with non-fiction written about China by someone from their own culture.'

Chinese literature 'does passably well' in English editions, performing on par with other translated works from non-European languages, says Howard Goldblatt, the pre-eminent translator of Chinese fiction in the West.

'Sometimes a work makes a significant blip on the marketing radar, but most do well with respectable sales and some well placed reviews,' says Goldblatt. 'I'd say that what makes Chinese society different holds greater appeal to Western readers than what makes it 'universal'. Works that shed light on Chinese history and society - often the more 'exotic' the better - are among the most popular.'

Lusby also says there is greater acceptance overseas of books that weren't banned such as Wolf Totem, a best-seller on the mainland.

But the story is what really helps make the leap between languages. 'There are a couple of wonderful books [that I have been offered] but I don't know anybody who could do them justice in English,' she says, adding that Chinese fiction has a tolerance for descriptive passages that do not advance plot.

Major challenges to doing justice to a work include finding equivalents for the broad range of Chinese dialects and putting the book in cultural and historical context, although Abrahamsen says the latter is becoming less of an issue.

'The most difficult thing to translate is the broad range of Chinese dialects,' he says. 'The language varies immensely from region to region, far more than any other single language, and I think it's incredibly difficult to represent those variations in English.'

In the end, not every book will work. Goldblatt says he sometimes opts not to translate works in which language 'whether highly allusive or idiosyncratic, trumps story and character'.

'The easy response is if it's readable in Chinese, it's translatable,' he says. 'The reality, of course, is more complicated. Ulysses has been translated at least twice into Chinese, one heavily annotated, the other not; one opted for comprehensibility, the other strived to match the creative, opaque nature of the original. Each, I assume, has its advocates among readers. The question this begs, of course, is what is a translation?

'Speaking from experience, I sometimes choose not to translate a work I enjoyed as a reader where I don't feel I would be able to capture whatever it is that made it such a good read.'