Make-Do Publishing translates independent Chinese writers for West
A potent mix of state censorship, conservative publishing choices and scant translation means international readers are given a narrow view of contemporary China, industry critics say.
There are the books by Chinese authors that hit the international best-seller lists, such as the blockbuster Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which has sold millions worldwide, and Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves.
But those authors are based in the West - highlighting the paucity of material from China that reaches international markets.
Hong-Kong based Harvey Thomlinson founded Make-Do Publishing in 2009 to produce high-quality Chinese and Asian literature in English translation, capitalising on the city's unique position as a multicultural Chinese territory where freedom of speech remains intact.
"You can't underestimate censorship and the impact it has had on the quality of China's literary output," he said. "The effect is like a dust sheet being thrown over a piano - not only state censorship but also the self-censorship that goes with it."
Chinese fiction also tends to follow a template, according to the British publisher, ignoring the realities of industrialised, modern China, which is growing and changing at a bewildering pace. Western imprints pick out only a few genres for translation, such as the Cultural Revolution memoir, along with novels by Westernised Chinese authors - who often write originally in English.
And economic factors also play a major part in the drive to boost sales.
"Most books have to turn a profit for publishers and this can make editors and their boards quite conservative about their choices," said London-based author and translator Julia Lovell. "It means they need to look for commercial themes, or books that seem to recapitulate styles and ideas that have worked in the past. Anything new or very literary will, of course, seem a risk."
In the big state-run publishing houses "editing is not a profession any more", said Martin Merz, a Hong Kong-based translator. "Now it's more about avoiding political errors."
Make-Do focuses instead on independents such as Murong Xuecun and Chen Xiwo, who tend to offer something different from the government-backed writers who receive Beijing's stipends and other incentives to encourage them to stay on message.
Murong's debut book, Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, was first published online in 2002, where it attracted several million readers before being released in print. It is a darkly comic story of three young men's attempts to make their way in newly capitalist China.
Chen, who was active in the student democracy movements of the 1980s, was first recognised as an online writer. His controversial novella I Love My Mum, which has incest as a theme and is banned on the mainland, will be published in the US this month.