• The Borrowed’s Mature Character
    Dec 13, 2015 / Reviewed by Wolf Hsu. English translation by Gigi Chang.

    Originally published 15 October 2014, http://blog.roodo.com/wolfhsu/archives/32401822.html

    Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed is full of surprises.

    The Borrowed is a crime novel by Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-kei. It contains six novellas that can be read individually, but reading them together gives the flavor of a full-length work. The six stories share the same protagonist, and the book starts in 2013 before gradually rewinding back to 1967. The reverse chronology not only reveals how certain characteristics of the protagonist Kwan Chun-Dok came about, it also gives us a glimpse into some of the changes that occurred in Hong Kong under the British government rule and communist China.

    When I read the first chapter, ‘The Truth Between Black and White’, I had yet to realize all that.

    Chan mentioned in his Postscript that this story was written for Mystery Writers of Taiwan’s short story competition. The competition’s theme was ‘armchair detective’. This is a classic set-up for detective fiction, where the detective does not take part in the physical investigation, but steps in when associated characters have gathered all the information but are unable to work out the truth. The detective then uses their watertight logic to connect different threads and unveil the mystery.

    A lot of writers don’t like writing to a pre-specified theme, it feels constricting. Yet, sometimes it is a great way to fire up the imagination, and this is where Chan dazzles. The story starts with Kwan Chun-Dok, a long-retired police detective, bedbound by illness. His ‘disciple’ Inspector Sonny Lok comes with information about a murder case and the people related to the case. But Kwan is grievously ill and has lost his ability to speak, he can only indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a computer display as Lok explains the situation and questions the people he has brought along.

    This set-up seems to have pushed ‘armchair detective’ to its extreme; the detective can’t move or ask any questions, he can only propel deductive reasoning forward by responding in the most basic dichotomy. But in the latter part of the story, readers find out that the whole premise has been a trap. They realize what it has all been about. If you knew about the competition parameter, you might think that the move goes against the principle of an ‘armchair detective’ story, but Chan changes course once more just before the finale. Not only does he reveal the shocking truth behind the trap, he also makes sure everything falls back into place, slap bang on theme.

    Chan shows his familiarity with classic forms in detective fiction in the skillful way he incorporates and spins them in the stories that follow. In the second story, ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, the retired Kwan is acting as a special consultant to the force when Sonny Lok, newly promoted to Inspector, receives a video of a murder. As the police look into the video and the crime, the story draws out the rivalry among triad members and comments on the complex relationship between Hong Kong’s entertainment industry and the criminal underworld. The third story ‘The Longest Day,’ is set on Kwan’s last day before his retirement, when his team are faced with two cases: a sulfuric acid attack in a busy street and the escape of a resourceful criminal seeking treatment at a hospital. Kwan is not supposed to do any work that day, but he decides to drag Lok along, who has just been promoted to Sergeant, to ‘look into’ the chemical attack, and resolves both cases speedily before he finishes his last full working day.

    In the fourth story ‘The Scales of Themis,’ a gun battle breaks out as undercover police are about to arrest suspects. Looking into the shoot out, the story reveals unspoken tensions between police officers and within the power structure, as well as Hong Kong’s unique urban landscape. The fifth story, ‘Borrowed Place,’ may be about a kidnapping on the surface, but the detective work exposes disciplinary issues in the force and shows the daily life of the British in Hong Kong and how local Hongkongers view these ‘outsiders’. The sixth and final story, ‘Borrowed Time,’ is very intriguing: the narrative turns from the omnipresent third person to the subjective first person. It’s about an ‘I’ who does odd jobs for a living, stumbles across a bomb plot and helps a young beat cop numbered ‘4447’ to solve the case. It’s not just a nerve-wrecking search for a ticking clock, it also shows a side of Hong Kong we may have never heard about.

    Most of these stories have the underlying mystery-solving structure of classic detective fiction, but they are not confined by the format of ‘Incident occurs  investigation ensues  detective joins in  case is resolved.’ The main event that requires the protagonists’ deductive reasoning sometimes only occurs halfway through the plot. The time and place of each story also bear some significance to Hong Kong’s history. The first two are set after Hong Kong’s handover, sketching the changes in the triads, showbiz and the police force brought about by the new political reality. The third story occurs in 1997 before Hong Kong was handed back to China; Kwan’s retirement mirrors the era’s impending transformation and it paints public duty officers’ reactions to the sovereignty change. The fourth story has all the features of a police procedural: though the police are united by their uniform, they are individuals trying to get what they want and coping with their own emotions. The fifth story reflects the cultural and class conflicts between the British and Hongkongers. And the last story is against the backdrop of the 1967 Leftist Riots, when communist sympathizers rebelled against the British government, a period of uncertainty that embroiled many and left a legacy.

    In other words, though the main body of Chan’s story has a tight hold of the thinking behind the classic whodunnit, its plots and settings ambitiously reveal the scope of the American hardboiled or Japanese ‘social school.’ The focus isn’t only on the cases; they reflect the zeitgeist as well as the complexity of human nature, while sketching out the sights of the city. This is a Hong Kong story written by a Hong Kong writer – the stories are rooted in the city’s environment, but the content entices readers who don’t live in Hong Kong to keep turning the pages.

    At the same time, reading the six novellas together amounts to another point of interest.

    Readers don’t find out the real identity of ‘I’ until the very end. This set-up not only links the six stories into a coherent novel, it also makes the protagonist Kwan Chun-Dok much more rounded. In classic detective fiction, the detective usually experiences relatively little personality change, he or she thinks calmly and finds a way through the maze of events and relationships. But Chan lets his reader into the key turning point that shapes Kwan’s personality, making this detective more than just a logical, unerring ‘thinking machine.’ He is a person that changes and grows with the events that go on around him. He is someone who carries through his resolutions.

    When I read this book, Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ was taking off. The fictional Kwan’s meditation on police identity versus reality triggered much personal reflection.

    Looking at it purely as a reader, The Borrowed is a brilliant detective novel. But commenting on it more selfishly, this is a book that I think all writers in Chinese, myself included, should pay attention to and think carefully about. How to get close to readers, how to portray the characteristics of the societies that we know so well, how to use genre structure to tell a story but not become restricted by it, these are important issues we should think about.

  • Genre Fiction in Translation? A Dialogue
    Dec 13, 2015 / by Anna Holmwood, translator and editor-in-chief of Books From Taiwan Issue 1-3

    ‘Translated literature? All that weird French existentialism and German meditations on man and nature. Nah, bit too ‘literary’ for me, that stuff. A bit poncey.’

            Please be introduced to our supposed friend, English Reader. Take a bow, English Reader.

            ‘Hello, yep, that’s me. English Reader. No taste. Not for that foreign stuff anyhow.’

            You mention the word ‘literary,’ dear English Reader. What do you mean?

            ‘Well, you know, it’s just another word for ‘difficult,’ isn’t it?’

            You don’t think it’s a bit like calling an apple appley? Or rain wet?


            What I mean is, what’s literary literature? Sounds like an oxymoron.

            ‘Okay, fancy pants. I just mean, I don’t know, it’s a bit different. This translated literature. Like, I don’t know if it’s going to be good, because I can’t read the original. How do I know the translator hasn’t taken everything that’s good about the original and gone and made it, well you know, rubbish. I can’t judge it. It makes reading it so exhausting.’

            So if you don’t like to read ‘literary’ literature, this difficult stuff, what is it you like? ‘Genre’ literature?

            ‘’Genre’ literature? You mean, popular stuff? Yeah, I like to read things with a good story, what’s your point?’

            If you’re going to decide some things are ‘literary,’ you’re comparing it to something, something not ‘literary.’ I’m just wondering what that is for you.

            ‘I like to read crime fiction, yeah, I guess you’re telling me that’s ‘genre’ fiction. But I also like things that have won awards too. Amazon doesn’t ask me to choose from a selection called ‘genre’ fiction. Sounds like you’re being a bit snobby to me.’

            I’m just trying to understand the words we use for different types of books. It seems to be something that can irritate people.

            ‘If you disparage people for their reading tastes, then yes, it can be irritating.’

            But you just told me you don’t like translated fiction? Aren’t you the one being the snob? Presumably you don’t include Stieg Larsson in your ‘translated fiction is all difficult to understand’ grand sweeping statement?

            ‘No, but that’s probably because you’re the one putting words in my mouth. And anyway, talk about going for the obvious; Scandi crime. I’m not that into it, actually. It might have escaped your notice, but you just created me as your archetypal English Reader a few moments ago, the bogey man to your Literary Translator persona.’

            I hadn’t actually introduced myself.

            ‘Then I think it’s time you did. Everyone, meet Literary Translator.’

            Thank you. Yes, I happen to translate literature from Chinese and Swedish into English. That’s my job, and I’m trying to get to grips with what everyone says the English Reader wants. It’s part of my job. That’s why I’m talking to you.

            ‘Except, you’re not really. You’re making me say what you want to hear. That I don’t like translated fiction.’

            Because you said so, just up there.

            ‘No, you made me say that. I believe you got to me to call it ‘foreign stuff.’ But I wonder if you’re really open to talking to me about translated literature, or you just want to make assumptions about what I really think.’

            Okay, shall we start again? This conversation has turned a little hostile.  

            ‘Damn right it has. Because apparently I have to stand in for all readers in English, like some Everyman that has to defend the fact that apparently we translate so little. Why is this my responsibility all of a sudden? At least I actually buy books, why am I the bad guy now?’

            I guess that is a bit unfair, you’re right. Let me take a quick peek at your shelves. You seem to consume books in a fairly representative way though, you know, of the ‘mainstream.’ A good spattering of the best seller lists. I am Malala, the new Harper Lee (did you like it?), oh, even some adult colouring books!

            ‘Yes, but you’re also ignoring my sci-fi and fantasy collection, which includes… Let me see… Stanislaw Lem, Gert Jonke and wait, you’ll like this one, a bit out of the box, Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes. Cli-fi, they call it.’

            You’ve read Wu Ming-Yi’s book! Wow. Did you like it?

            ‘Yes, it was really lyrical, and quite beautifully detailed. I didn’t really know what to expect, so it was a bit more challenging than a lot of the other stuff I read. I mean, I don’t really know much about Taiwan. But I saw Margaret Atwood tweet about it, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did.’

            That’s brilliant! So, it wasn’t too ‘literary’?

            ‘Like I said, I had to put a bit of effort into it. Usually I like to read on my way to work, I have a forty-five-minute ride on the tube and so it helps me pass the time. But I found it a bit hard to concentrate on this one in the morning rush hour, with everyone’s sweaty armpits in my face. So I ended up finishing it on holiday, when I had a bit more time. This is the thing, you can’t go on at people about how good it is to read more fiction in translation and then get upset with them when they quite legitimately tell you that reading it takes more effort. I haven’t been to every country in the world, so sometimes the local elements in the story are a bit more difficult to grasp. The motivations behind the ways the characters behave, I guess.’

            Yes, I suppose you’re right. Sometimes the way the story is told also takes a bit of getting used to. Not every culture takes the same approach to storytelling. It would be boring if they did.

            ‘Exactly! Sometimes translated books can feel a bit odd and you can’t put your finger on why. I don’t know if it’s because there are different cultural conventions, or, if the translator hasn’t done a good job. If I could read the original and know that, I wouldn’t need it translated!’

            But you have quite a collection of foreign sci-fi by the sounds of it?

            ‘I think it’s interesting to see how different writers from different countries imagine the future, or alternate realities. It says a lot about their view of the world. But at times, I’m not sure I’m totally getting what it is they’re trying to say. It could just be lost in translation.’

            Ah! I hate that phrase. Can you not say that to a literary translator?

            ‘But you can’t stop me from wondering if that’s what’s going on! How do I know if every translator is really skilled enough to bring someone else’s words into English? Not being able to judge because I can’t read the original, well, it leaves me a bit nervous. And yet that seems to offend you translators.’

            It does take a lot of trust…

            ‘Yes, I’ve got to trust you haven’t messed up a really good book. When I’m reading something written in English, I can just say, ‘That was brilliant!’ or ‘That was rubbish!’ all based on my own taste. But I don’t know if something is really rubbish if it’s been translated. Maybe you were the one that was rubbish.’

            The conversation has turned a bit hostile again. I’d just like to point out, translators worry about this more than any reader does, trust me. It’s a heavy weight. And sometimes we can sense that a certain stylistic element will be totally unfamiliar, if not downright weird, to an English reader. I mean you, English Reader. I can tell that you might think it ‘doesn’t work in English,’ but what I am I supposed to do? Should I only suggest translating things that tally completely with your expectations, should we all decide that if it’s challenging, it's not worth it?

            ‘Of course not. Didn’t we start this whole conversation with you making out that I only wanted an easy read, that I was just into ‘genre’ fiction? I think you should admit, that I’m a bit more open minded than you first allowed me to be.’

            That’s true. We are clearly both suspicious of this word ‘genre’ fiction anyway. But what I think it comes down to is, people never pick up a book without having certain expectations about it before they start. If I tell you, ‘This is a sci-fi novel,’ but don’t tell you it’s from Taiwan, you’re going to read it expecting it to have certain features of a sci-fi novel that may or may not be present. This will shape your response.

            ‘It will, but you can tell me it’s both. A sci-fi novel and originally written in Chinese. Maybe that way, I’ll know to be a bit more flexible, or be willing to put in a bit more effort.’

            But will you pick it up if you know it’s translated?

            ‘I already did, didn’t I? My point is, I can’t be expected to read every book published in English, let alone published in every language on the planet and then translated into English. When I go into a bookshop, or download something onto my Kindle, I have to make choices. Sometimes I want something easy, something where I know what I’m getting. And sometimes I want something new. But how I make those choices is a bit random, depends on how I’m feeling. You don’t get angry with me for not picking up the debut of some unknown British author writing in English, do you? So, you have to allow me to make certain personal preferences when it comes to authors I’ve never heard of from the other side of the world too.’

            Hence why you’re into foreign sci-fi, but don’t have a lot of Mexican contemporary fiction on your shelves?

            ‘Precisely. I like science fiction, I read a lot in that genre, so it’s easier for me to branch out a bit into foreign sci-fi too. But just because I didn’t buy the latest Knausgård doesn’t mean I’m not going to buy a book from Taiwan. Despite your disparaging remarks about ‘genre’ fiction, knowing something written in Chinese is considered to belong to a certain genre, say sci-fi, helps me understand it. I’m more likely to pick it up than if you just tell me, ‘Hey, English Reader, this book was written by a Taiwanese author, you should check it out!’ You’ve got to help me out a bit. Throw me a bone.’

            So what you’re saying is, you’re not necessarily going to be interested because it’s been translated…

            ‘No, not me personally, although maybe that appeals to other readers. And that’s probably what makes it difficult if you just tell me it’s translated and its ‘literary fiction,’ that could mean anything.’

            I think that was my point to begin with, it’s an oxymoron. Appley apples, remember?

            ‘Yeah, oxymoronic. So recommend me some more Taiwanese sci-fi already. Or a good Taiwanese spy thriller. Or a Taiwanese colouring book, I need to relax.’

            Okay, I’m working on it.


  • Five Years and a Day: The Translation of Private Eyes
    Dec 13, 2015 / by Gray Tan. English translation by Canaan Morse.

    The 3rd Annual Taipei Rights Workshop has just come and gone in the blink of an eye. After seeing off the last of our guest lecturers, I went back to my now-unfamiliar office to begin dealing with the mountain of work that had begun piling up. While there, I was contacted by Francesca Varotto of the Italian publisher Marsilio, with an offer to buy Chi Wei-Jan’s novel Private Eyes. I discussed it with my co-agent and we closed the deal that same evening. Francesca is Marsilio’s editor-in-chief and the guiding hand behind the press’s rise to its current position as the premier publisher of Scandinavian crime fiction (Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson are both their authors).

    Francesca signed Mai Jia’s Decoded from us last year, but it wasn’t until this year’s London Book Fair that we finally had a chance to meet. Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture invited her to participate in this year’s Rights Workshop, along with the Spanish-language scout Carmen Pinilla and Frank Wegner from Suhrkamp in Germany. Francesca had never been to Asia before, and was amazed by Taipei. After returning home, she looked at Private Eyes once more with new eyes and decided to make an offer.

    This was exactly the catalyst we were waiting for. Marsilio is known as a trend-setter in Europe, and their decision might provide impetus for other publishers on the continent to make offers.

    This one critical moment had been preceded by five long years of waiting. I first read the book first in 2011, signing Chi Wei-Jan shortly afterwards. I commissioned a sample translation in English, which I recommended to the Chinese readers’ group at And Other Stories Press, and which was later published in the Asia Literary Review. The following year saw the beginning of the Taipei Book Fair Foundation’s fellowship program; we arranged for Chi Wei-Jan to introduce Private Eyes to guests at the Fair, and the book was awarded English translation funding by the Book Fair Foundation. In 2013, Chi Wei-Jan participated in the Frankfurt Book Fair as a Featured Author in the Taiwan pavilion, and had the chance to meet with his American agent, Markus Hoffmann. The next year, in 2014, Markus came to lecture at the Taipei Rights Workshop, and the two met once more.

    Yet we still couldn’t quite get a foot in the door. An American editor read the English sample and said it was pretty good, but was there any more? Most of the other international editors who got the sample put it aside, as there was no hook motivating them to sign it. Last year, the book won more translation funding from the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, so we doubled down on our investment and invited Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang to translate the whole work. Finally, we had the perfect counter to any editorial excuse: a completed English translation.

    During this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, I met with Carmen and Francesca at the Hessischer Hof in Frankfurt. Francesca, upon hearing me describe the plot of Private Eyes, said she’d like to read it, and I sent her the English translation that evening. By the time she arrived in Taiwan, she had read most of the book. While this year’s activities did not include a visit to Liuzhangli, the most important locale in the novel, we did visit some important locations near Dadaocheng, like the Ri Xing Type Foundry, 324 Print Studio, and Murder Ink. It rained that day, and as our group snaked its way through narrow alleys, past old houses and rust-speckled iron gates, it did seem like every passageway concealed mysteries, and every door concealed another world. I said to Francesca that the setting felt close to what was described in the book. When she wrote to me later, she said, “While we were at Ri Xing and Murder Ink, I kept thinking of Wu Cheng, the protagonist in Private Eyes.”

    Looking back, it is clear that government support has allowed us to build mechanisms to introduce Taiwanese literature to the mainstream book market, including bringing authors to book fairs abroad, preparing translation samples, inviting foreign publishers to Taiwan to meet authors, offering translation subsidies, and founding the Books From Taiwan journal. We always hope that foreign publishers visiting Taiwan will find books they like and acquire them, yet the fact is such opportunities don’t appear frequently, and creating them requires endless preparation. It takes good books, good English translations and introductory materials, rights sellers who know how to pitch books, and – of course – a fair amount of luck.
    Five years is not an overly long time, nor is it instant. Yet the final result makes the wait worthwhile, and I’m quite sure that our next foreign-language sale will not take anywhere near that long to accomplish.

  • Wanderlust and Worldliness: Sanmao’s Spiritual Journey
    Dec 04, 2015 / by Mike Fu. Translator of Sanmao.

    In 1967, a young woman from Taiwan flew across the world to study abroad in Europe. She was not the first to do so by any stretch of the imagination. But this initial voyage across thousands of miles set in motion a chain of events that would profoundly alter the course of her life and make literary history. Far away from home, she was known only by the Western name she had chosen for herself, Echo. Her restlessness would continue to chase her around the globe over the years. She would meet new friends and lovers in Madrid, West Berlin, and Chicago. She perfected her English and Spanish and dabbled in German. She had affairs both torrid and mundane. Upon returning to Taiwan, she met an older German man with whom she was prepared to settle at last. But then the unthinkable happened; he passed away suddenly. Despondent, she attempted suicide. When she was revived, she decided to leave to collect herself and mend her heart. Once more she gravitated toward Spain, a place of happy memories. But for years, she’d harbored a fantasy and felt an intense homesickness for another place, a land she had never seen or known. Now, nearing the age of thirty, she made up her mind to go. After a short stay in Madrid, she gathered her few belongings and boarded a jet plane again. Her destination was the Sahara desert.

    © Huang Chen Tien Hsin, Chen Sheng and Chen Chieh through Crown Publishing Company Ltd.

    Echo was not alone in the Sahara. A familiar face had resurfaced in Madrid and become part of her life again. His name was José Maria Quero. He had met Echo when he was just a teenager, falling deeply, hopelessly in love with her. Now that she was back, he sought to transform his unrequited passion into a relationship of substance. When she announced her plans to travel across the desert, he quietly found government work in what was then the Spanish Sahara, a colonial hinterland where Iberian administrators lived in uneasy coexistence with the nomadic Sahrawi Arabs. José waited patiently for Echo to arrive in Africa, confident that she would acquiesce to his love. Sure enough, they finally married after spending months trying to accumulate the relevant paperwork. Even in the desert, it seemed, there was bureaucracy.

    © Huang Chen Tien Hsin, Chen Sheng and Chen Chieh through Crown Publishing Company Ltd.

    Echo began writing about her experiences in this remote land. Since childhood, she had been a voracious reader of both Western and Chinese literature. Some of her fiction had previously appeared in Taiwanese literary magazines. These stories were drippingly sentimental, verging on the mawkish. It was in the Sahara that she uncovered a new rhythm in her sense of narrative, articulating a mature yet whimsical worldview. She took on another pseudonym and published these vignettes of life in the desert. Chinese language readers began to take notice, intrigued by her colloquial tone and playful perspective on an unimaginably exotic locale. Despite the foreign environment, she painted a picture of domestic life that was recognizable and endearing. She wrote about cooking and home decorating as much as the cultural and spiritual life she sought to create for herself in the desert. As an outsider, she still managed to navigate fluidly this Spanish-speaking domain with an abundance of charm. Her readers would come to know her as Sanmao. Her life and work are now the stuff of legend.

    Influential publisher Crown first released Stories of the Sahara in 1976, a collection of Sanmao’s writings that originally appeared in Taiwan’s United Daily News. This provocative work is a landmark in Taiwanese literature, conveying the purportedly autobiographical experiences of a pioneering writer and traveller. Sanmao was both pen name and persona for Echo, also known as Chen Ping. The first-person tales in Sahara present an idealized authorial vision of self: an itinerant young woman living on the edges of the world, embracing a life saturated with great romance and compassion. As the sole Chinese woman in this realm, Sanmao becomes caricature and cultural ambassador to those around her. She deftly negotiates her Otherness and liminal identity throughout the book. At times she allies herself with the civilizing mores of the Spaniards; on other occasions, she finds solidarity with the Sahrawi, who are both primitive and pure in her eyes. Readers were immediately mesmerized by her voice and subject matter. The Sahara memoirs propelled Sanmao into the literary limelight in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and eventually mainland China. She remained a public figure for the rest of her life, forever under the guise of ‘Sanmao,’ rather than Echo or Chen Ping.

    Nowadays Sanmao’s work is considered popular literature, dismissed by some as little more than fluff. But it’s hard to overstate the enormity of her impact on her first fans, many of whom did not even possess the means to travel abroad. An entire generation of young people looked up to her, awed by her indomitable spirit and joie de vivre. For those who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she embodied the archetype of a well-heeled and well-travelled modern girl. Effortlessly polyglot, she transcended national boundaries and embraced worldliness in her lifestyle and sensibilities: Chinese by birth, Taiwanese by rearing, a dual Spanish citizen by marriage. Her writings evoked great empathy for people of the world, as well as an insatiable wanderlust. Her legions of loyal readers sought to emulate her cosmopolitan chic and claim her free spirit as their own. For them, Sanmao was a conduit for accessing the vast and unknown world – European and African cultures, foreign languages and religions, faraway lands. Through her mastery of narrative and skilful character studies, her audience back home could glimpse a wondrous reality seen through her eyes.

    As Sanmao, Chen Ping lived a storied life of her own. She and José left Western Africa as the political situation deteriorated in the mid ‘70s, resettling in the Canary Islands. It was there that José died in a tragic diving accident in 1979. Bereft and forlorn, Sanmao spent the next decade struggling to regain her mental and physical health. Her popularity as a writer, however, continued its upward trajectory. She remained a vibrant figure in the Taiwanese literary scene. She taught university courses, helmed advice columns, published more travelogues, essays, and translations, and even ventured to pen song lyrics and screenplays. Although she continued to roam the world, including a long commissioned voyage through Latin America, she was never fully able to extricate herself from the anguish of her past. In 1991, mere days into the new year, she hung herself by a pair of silk stockings in a Taipei hospital. Chen Ping’s death did not decelerate the momentum of Sanmao’s literary stardom. In the decades since, Sanmao’s collected works have been reprinted time and again across the entire Chinese speaking world. The millions of copies sold are a testament to the enduring mystique of this seemingly ordinary woman whose bravura and blitheness captured a quintessential yearning of her times.

    Sanmao has not been without her fair share of detractors, many of whom view her with a degree of skepticism. The veracity of her Sahara tales, for instance, has been called into question. Although she maintained that all her stories came from real experiences, some are dubious of her central role in the colonial community or the moral high ground she occupies in many of her narratives. Her most vocal critics have claimed that various details of her personal life were deliberately obfuscated. Some say her marriage to José was fictionalized; yet others assert that José never even existed. “Wherever . . . [she] chooses to go, she beautifies, educates and enlightens,” notes East Asian scholar Miriam Lang of the literary identity Sanmao assumed in her writing. “She demonstrates the possible scope of a ‘beautiful life’ based upon an ideology of feeling, an ‘aesthetic cosmopolitanism,’ a modern ability to consume culture, and a set of bourgeois values.” It is no surprise that such a dynamic personality living in the public eye could be undercut by scandal or suspicion. Regardless, no one can deny that Chen Ping invented herself anew in the masterwork known to the world as Sanmao and, in doing so, unlocked a global consciousness for millions of Chinese readers. Sanmao allowed the youth of yesteryear to live vicariously through her adventures across multiple continents. Her voice was at once spunky and sincere, situating the reader as confidante. She lavished sympathy and kindness onto her fellow man. Though her own narrative was marked by tragedy, she is remembered for her brilliance of spirit. Nowadays, the success of East Asian economies has made it easier than ever for young people to jet from place to place, to assume a global identity, to roam to the ends of the earth in search of spiritual solace. For many such wanderers, Sanmao was both prototype and precursor.

    Mike Fu is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator. Follow him on Twitter: @tragicsalad

  • ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité!’ A call for revolution
    Jun 29, 2015 / by Anna Holmwood, translator and editor-in-chief of Books from Taiwan Issue 1-3

    Perhaps the last thing we need is a motto for translation, let alone a rally cry to revolution. Why? Because translation is happening all the time, and has happened all through human history. It is a perfectly ordinary, mundane reality for most humans, who contrary to the view from inside the English-speaking world, are multilingual in some form. But translation is necessarily embraced by ideological warriors and locked into power imbalances between peoples, so that it cannot claim an independent existence outside the political realities of every age. In times past translation sullied the word of God, or Muhammad, or the Buddha, or perhaps disseminated a European ‘enlightenment’ to all corners of its occupied territories around the world. Now we may celebrate our globalised identities, but still we lament ‘minority languages,’ even those, let’s just say for the sake of argument, spoken by over a billion people.


    Like Mandarin Chinese, surely the world’s most widely spoken ‘minority language.’

    ‘It’s the market!’

    ‘There’s no money in it!’

    But a translator’s gotta eat.


    Translation, like every other creative practice, is engaged in that very modern love affair with the market. The market. A Siren, a goddess sent from the depths to tempt us with prospective riches, the ironic Saviour to save us from its very grip.

    ‘If only this translation, for which I may receive a 1% royalty, will go a 50 Shades of Crazy and never again will I have to make a choice, never will I have to sell my soul.’

    I have my fingers crossed. I kneel, I pray. I burn a joss stick, hoping for my moment. Please let the market deliver me from the prison. Give me freedom to translate without recourse to the ‘realities’ as defined by my chosen god.


    But what if I am not one of the ‘blessed’, the ‘chosen ones,’ to work from a language with ‘market appeal’? Because not all languages are born equal. Not all peoples and their stories are ‘universal.’ The exotic is only a dance suitable for the few, the lithe and sexy of the world’s cultures.

    Scandinavian murders, Latin American love affairs, Russian depressive musings of the soul. A somewhat indistinct ‘Eastern European’ surrealist happening. Perhaps, a Chinese story of famine and foot binding. Yes please. These can be packaged with glossy covers.

    ‘A Spanish disaster novel? Hmm. I’m not sure about that.’



    Translators huddle. We form a gaggle. We are a flock, seeking solace against our Saviour, the market and its vengeful ways.

    With such goodness of intention, such pureness of soul, why does our Saviour let us be treated so harshly?

    The professionalisation of literary translation in recent years is much talked-of, and indeed it has brought many benefits to individuals engaged in what is otherwise a somewhat lonely practice. As competition law prevents our ‘unionisation’ (the market rules demand it), conversations are sometimes hushed, but in reality, translators depend upon this brotherhood, this entry into the world of ‘professionalised work’ to survive. Without it, we are loners, jokers, chancers. We need the stamp of ‘work’ to give credit to our efforts and monetary value to what we do.

    But is there a space for translation to happen outside the market? Considering it is the overriding context in which literary translation happens, surely it would be pointless to lead a cry against it?

    And yet, if left to the market alone, translation is pushed and squeezed and forced into marketable boxes, and translators will forever struggle to survive. Just like all other artists, we need a pantheon of gods from which to draw our sustenance, to hedge our bets with temples full of alternatives. We need the range of possibilities, the richness of ideas diverse and multilingual. Some translation needs to happen precisely because the market cannot sustain it. Some texts need to exist so that they might take us outside the marketable, the branded, the chain store big business or outlet logic of our current globalized world. Take me to the local tea shop, I don’t want a Frappuccino.

    Translation needs to be supported through other means, just as art hasn’t always been a commodity to be bought and sold in auction houses, but also a craft sustained through patronage. We can look to our past, we can look horizontally at concurrent alternatives. But what we cannot do is let this most essential of human activities be given over to one deity to define and control.

    Because there’s nothing more depressing than hearing ‘There’s no money in it!’ when a translator’s gotta eat.

  • All in a Name
    Jun 29, 2015 / by Eleanor Goodman. Translator.

    Translations seems to occupy uneasy territory, with some believing that it is a mechanical action that can be accomplished with software, and others believing that it is a creative act equal to any other original composition. Of course, translation is neither wholly creative nor wholly derivative, in the sense that a new creative work does not spring from a vacuum but is necessarily made from elements of its antecedents.

    First we should define exactly what we mean by ‘translation.’ Are we talking about translating a car repair manual or banking information? That is to say, a work that did not engage the many rich tools of expression in the original language, and whose object is intended to directly convey straightforward information. Or are we talking about a piece of literature, a work that necessarily engages in a creative conversation with its native language, pushing against linguistic and other boundaries to build a world in and of itself? In the former case, software or a website like Google Translate may someday prove to be sufficient (although they have not yet). But in the latter, more interesting, case, mechanical translation is hopeless against the tools authors employ: rhyme, rhythm, puns, metaphor, irony, implication, humor, tone. These are things that are created by language, not conveyed by it. Not only computers but also unskilled human translators will find themselves unable to mimic these elements in the target language.

    Perhaps it is old hat to say that literary translation involves two primary skills. Given what sometimes passes for translation, however, it bears repeating. One must have not only an accurate understanding of, but also a sensitive feel, for the original language; and one must have a flexible, keen ability in the target language. Only the rare individual can bring both of these skills to the table. In the case of Chinese to English translation, because the languages are so far from each other structurally and expressively, the bold translator is presented with agonies and opportunities in the fertile ground between these two linguistic arenas.

    As T.S. Eliot has it: ‘Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.’ Mature translators adopt what is on offer in the original and adapt it to produce something as forceful, as alive, in the target language. Sometimes this involves abandoning the structure of the original, daunting though that may be. This is a fundamental difference between the two categories I set out above. When a car repair manual presents instructions as to how to change the oil, it would be a mistake to change the specifics or modify the context. Doing so will subvert the intention of the original in a way that makes the translation problematic. But a literary work has more inherent flexibility—it is built out of a material that flexes in many directions. If the text is any good, it is multidimensional. That is not to say that one can take infinite liberties with a literary text. Obviously not. Such ‘translations’, including famous ones like Pound’s Cathay, slip into the territory of imitation, borrowing, or the vague category of works ‘inspired by’ other works. But a translator who is armed with all that the target language has to offer can and must take leaps of faith. In the end, the translator must accept that there are successes and losses in any given moment in a translation. It is very rarely a question of simple equivalents.

    Take a straightforward, but tricky, example. In the Taiwanese novelist Chu Shao-Lin’s book Swallow Dance, one of the main characters is nicknamed Young Dragon. He is a dancer, and the name fits his profession, with its implications of powerful, graceful movements filling the air. The name is also a pun. The dancer is deaf, and the way the name is pronounced—longzi—is a homophone for ‘deaf man.’ It is the kind of correspondence that exists in the scope of one given language and most often cannot be replicated exactly in the target language, especially when those languages are as diverse as Chinese and English. So the translator goes through a painful process of decision-making. The simplest solution is just to use the pinyin, that is to say, to name the character Longzi. But then of course both the pun and the associations are lost. Another solution is to call the character Dragon or Little Dragon. But the name isn’t a name in English: it’s clunky and will stick in the reader’s craw each time she comes across it. Then there is the literal route of naming him Deaf—a move that is sure to turn readers off.

    As with most problems, there is no perfect solution. Whatever the translator chooses—short of naming the character Jim and forgetting about it—will sound a bit strange in the target language. But strangeness, for a serious translator, is not necessarily undesirable. The point, as I take it, is not to produce a translation in which everything has been domesticated to the point that it reads a smoothly and blandly as advertising copy. Literature is challenging and literature from other cultures and languages even more so. Weirdness can only be taken so far—it’s a balancing act—but insecure translators (or inept ones) will aim for a kind of linguistic innocuousness that files down the teeth of the original. This is an injustice to the work in question, as well as to readers.

    In this case, the solution I came to was to call the character Def. That hopefully keeps some of the implication of the original, as according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, def is slang for ‘excellent.’ For some readers, there will also the musical resonance with Def Leopard, appropriate because the character proves to be a bit of a rebel. Regardless of whether the reader picks up on the association (consciously or unconsciously), at least the name maintains the homonym (def/deaf). It is a stab in the right direction that maintains the integrity of the original, which is ultimately the aim of the translator.


  • Tools for Editing Translations
    Jun 29, 2015 / by Canaan Morse. Translator.

    One of the several reasons many American publishers don’t like working with translations is because their editors don’t know how to edit them. With multilingual editors still a significant minority in the industry, it still appears to be common practice for the editor of a translation to position herself either too far from the text or too close—to leave too much of the editing to the translator, possibly out of respect for the foreign source text, or to edit the translation as if it were written in English, without regard for its non-English origin.

    I’d like to offer here three analytical tools in the form of questions for the editor of a translated text. These questions are, of course, founded on certain assumptions about the nature of literary meaning-making. The first is that all appraisals of quality are contextual: the editor decides what ‘works’ by comparing the text to itself and to other texts from his experience. The fact that the translation is related to another text that exists in a foreign linguistic environment makes the editor’s job harder, but not impossible. This leads into the second assumption, which is that the old saw about translation being impossible is at the most untrue, or at the least unimportant. After Derrida argued with great force that all utterances are self-contradictory, literary artists continued to practice their craft. Moreover, as our understanding of translation broadens, we begin to find elements of it embedded in seemingly more ‘original’ practices of creative writing and reading. As outdated understandings of the process are overturned, so too is the conception of the product as an inferior version of an ‘original’ text; we begin to see it as something more than a monolingual work of literature.

    Question 1: Is it justifiable?

    Good translators often represent phenomena from the source text that are considered inseparable from the source language (puns, cadences, assonances and rhyme schemes) by borrowing or creating analogous structures within the target language. Burton Watson imitated the perfect symmetry of five- and seven-character Tang poems (律詩) by regulating numbers of syllables per line. William Lyell translated peasant dialogue in his rendition of The Real Story of Ah Q (Lyell 1990) * into a blue-collar American dialect with a slightly Southern twang. In both cases, the translators’ inventions built new interpretive contexts in order to reproduce similar linguistic effects. Here is a more extreme example, excerpted from Brian Holton’s translation of Bai Hua’s poem ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’**:

    紅,是寂寞紅 red is Lady in Red
    春,是玉堂春 spring is Might as Well Be Spring
    秋,是漢宮秋 autumn is When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall
    魚,是黃花魚 fish is Like a Sturgeon Touched For The Very First Time

    味,是上海味 taste is the taste of Shanghai
    玲,是張愛玲 clang is Eileen Chang

    No literal translation of the classical drama types 《玉堂春》or 《漢宮秋》will replicate—or do anything but destroy—the ironic cadence of the original, which satirizes these hallowed names by associating them with single characters and seemingly trivial things like fish. Similarly, there is no translation of 玲 as a single character that will echo in Zhang Ailing’s (Eileen Chang’s) English name. The translator responds to extreme difficulty with extreme invention, employing playful satire in the construction of the first stanza, and a complex homophony (ling 玲 (delicate, ornate) – ling 鈴 (bell) –clang) in the last line. As Holton’s editor, I allowed these decisions because they were justifiable both within the English text (they established a recognizable interpretive context) and in comparison to the Chinese (they imitated crucial effects created by the source text).

    2. Does it ‘wobble’?

    I borrow this word from Ezra Pound, who suggested that good poetry would not ‘wobble’ when translated, but I use it quite differently. While divergence from a source text is not necessarily a problem (for reasons just discussed), bad translation often creates a kind of ambiguity that can be spotted immediately by an experienced editor. One such editor, reading my translation of He Qifang’s 何其芳 essay Autumn Begonia, left this comment by one sentence: ‘Interesting how I can tell where the translation veers off even before I look at the original.’ He was responding to a stylistic decision I had made in an action-heavy sentence which not only made that sentence stand out, but also created ambiguity where none existed. The text ‘wobbled’ in front of the reader. Good translation editors learn to spot wobbling text on their first read-through, and most of it can be fixed by working with the translator to find more fitting alternatives.

    3. Does it work?

    How much do you love the work you’re reading? Is the text awkward and unnatural—what we call ‘translationese’—or does it stay with you for days? There have been many cases in which bad translation has limited the artistic power of a work; there have also been cases in which a brilliant, inspired translator has created a text that is significantly different or better than the source. Ezra Pound’s translations of Li Bai 李白 in Cathay come immediately to mind, as do Robert Lowell’s translations of Sappho in Imitations. These are fairly far-out examples of translatorial license, but in any such instance, the editor will need to make an ethical decision about whether the translator’s additions have done more good than harm, as well as how she should understand the ownership of the text. If she believes that good art carries its own independent weight, and recognizes the translator as one creator of a hybrid text, then she should afford some leeway to the translator when it is justified (see Steven Bradbury’s translated version of Hsia Yü’s poetry collection Salsa for examples of co-creative translation).

    That being said, the question ‘does it work?’ does not have the kind of authority over the previous two questions when its subject is a translated text as it might when the text is monolingual. Since translations exist in a balance with their respective source texts, the editor must balance his appeals to his own aesthetic sense with consideration for what he doesn’t know, which can be done by comparing his answer to the third question with his answers to the first two—and, of course, by working with a translator who can be trusted with veto power over any change made.

    Translations are not summaries, copies, or references. They are independent works of literature that exist in a special relationship with other works, which makes them unique and different in a positive way from monolingual texts. The three questions I’ve presented above were formulated as tools for practical editing, to help translation editors make decisions that are both objectively defensible and artistically sensitive.

    *Lu Xun 魯迅, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Trans. William Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990.
    **Bai Hua 柏華, ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’ 假兒歌. Trans. Brian Holton. Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, Issue 6, 2013.

  • Same, but Different: A Lesson from Across the Straits
    Mar 26, 2015 / by Jo Lusby, Managing Director of Penguin China

    There is a sense around the publishing world that a major bestseller is hiding somewhere in China, the one book that can race to the top of English language charts. So far, however, it has proved elusive. Chinese literature in English generally falls into the ‘important’ rather than ‘popular’ category, alongside eating kale and drinking green juice, reading Chinese literature in English can often feel like something that is done because it is good for you, rather than for the simple pleasure.

    Penguin Random House sells imported US and UK books into China, and partners with local publishers to co-create Chinese language books. More than anything else, however, it is our work to publish Chinese books in English that I am called upon to discuss.

    Penguin opened its first China office in Beijing in 2005; today, we employ twenty-two people in three Chinese cities. Back in 2005, before we had established a legal entity or found an office space, my boss asked me to get started by looking for a Chinese novel that could be translated into English. The idea was to emulate the origins of Penguin in India more than twenty-five years ago, who made their mark signing up a slew of major Indian writers who went on to become household names in the West. It felt like the right way to get started in China, in part because there was an interest in finding stories from China, and also because it felt important that our business was not a one-way traffic of books from the West to China, but a genuine two-way.

    A novel called Wolf Totem 狼圖騰 by Jiang Rong 姜戎 was a surprise bestseller in late 2004, and by April 2005 it was firmly established at number one in the bestseller charts. It was no hidden secret, it was piled high in every Xinhua Bookstore. Its fans were college students, business executives, young girls—the novel was read and interpreted differently by a wide range of readers.

    I had been working for Penguin for one month when I bought myself a copy. I read it, talked to friends who I knew had read it, and I thought it was something really interesting and quite different. I also liked the idea of publishing something that was not ‘banned in China,’ but rather ‘big in China.’ I managed to get hold of the author (Jiang Rong is a pen name and at that point his true identity had not yet been revealed online) and when I said I was calling from Penguin he was very enthusiastic. He was keen to sell his book to us, but as this was my first book deal I wasn't sure how to negotiate the next step of actually buying it. That was how it ended up with our CEO making the deal, face to face, on a visit to Beijing, in the executive lounge of a hotel. Jiang Rong spent an hour telling amazing stories about baby wolves, ancient cultures, incredible encounters, and sold my colleagues on the ideas that were captured in the book. It was an unusual way to buy a book, none of our international colleagues who would be responsible for publishing the book had been involved in the acquisition, but it was just a wonderful story that felt like the right thing at the right time.

    From the moment we signed Wolf Totem it created a lot of buzz internationally. Partly, it was because it was such a Chinese story—life on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the 1960s and 1970s—and it was revealing of a very romantic time and place that Westerners really didn't know anything about. Equally importantly, it was a story with many universal themes—humanity versus nature, tradition versus modernity, threats to the environment, not to mention one man's relationship with an animal—that made the story feel much more accessible than a lot of Chinese literature.

    In many ways, Wolf Totem benefitted from timing: Penguin was the first English language trade publisher to set up an operation in China and, as such, it became a talking point for people interested in understanding the local literary and business scene. It raised our profile locally, as Chinese readers were proud that such a popular work was being embraced overseas. But it also raised expectations from Chinese authors, who hoped we would keep repeating this trick and that everything we bought would generate the same degree of buzz, which of course, was just not possible.

    Since that acquisition in 2005, the process has evolved over time. Nowadays, we acquire the rights to Chinese writers that range from literary celebrities to genre writers and classic authors. We don’t look for authors who ‘represent China,’ but works that we believe tell a great story that has appeal beyond the Chinese context and setting, writers such as Sheng Keyi 盛可以 and He Jiahong 何家弘. Sheng Keyi writes wonderful novels about loss of innocence, whereas He Jiahong writes rich and detailed crime stories with forensic and authoritative insider detail.

    We enjoy publishing books that will challenge readers' expectations about the subjects that Chinese writers are prepared to address. When we published the officialdom novel The Civil Servant's Notebook by Wang Xiaofang 王曉方, we heard from various quarters that it was an unusual choice. From my point of view, I think it was a wonderful project to work on. This novel—fiction that deals with the inner workings of the Chinese political system and examines how corruption can move through the ranks—could only be written convincingly by a Chinese insider and this is precisely the kind of story that should be translated for readers in other cultures. Our goal was to publish it along similar lines to the books of Andrey Kurkov such as Death and the Penguin; absurdist, satirical, strange, and distant, yet with connections to the known world.

    While Wolf Totem was the most famous book of its time, we are as willing to buy small, unknown books as we are to acquiring major bestsellers. A book's popularity in one country does not guarantee it success in another, and books unknown at home can strike a chord elsewhere.

    Selling the first works by Chinese authors in foreign translations is highly challenging, even if that writer is a major name at home. Literary festivals are critical in establishing new authors in Europe and Australia, but with non-English speaking writers their participation is limited and complex. Journalists and broadcasters rely on people being available—a writer who can take a taxi across central London to join a BBC discussion about recent events will be chosen above someone who must be hosted by satellite link from halfway around the world. Bookstore signings—small, intimate events—are scheduled at the last minute and at very low cost.

    For the Penguin China list, we have looked at what readers have responded positively to and adjusted our publishing mix accordingly. So for example, with crime novelist He Jiahong, we realized that the greatest selling point was his expertise on anti-corruption and miscarriages of justice, so we published a non-fiction Penguin Special on his work with the Chinese ‘innocence project’ as a way to cross-promote and introduce him to a wider readership.

    We also had to accept that while being the first people to publish translations of Chinese literary fiction was a real pleasure, we needed some heavy hitters on the list as well. And so we recently published Nobel Laureate Mo Yan's newest novel, Frog in English.

    It's been almost ten years since we acquired the foreign rights to Wolf Totem and over that time, I have come to the conclusion that readers really don't care if a work is translated or not. They just want a great story. If it doesn’t appeal to them, they won’t read it. I have adapted the way I evaluate and talk about our books as a result, choosing to focus less on translation and more on the stories.

    Publishing has few certainties. Buying books from authors involves taking a calculated risk and even a book you are passionate about may fail to find a readership. I find myself thinking a lot about the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and thinking about how he found such great success internationally. Of course, he's a wonderful writer, but I would guess that the majority of readers forget his are works of translation when they read his novels. While his stories could only take place in Japan—the country is very much a character in each story—you don’t read his books to understand Japan. And so, when I read a book from China and think about publishing it in English, I have to think: Do I care? Does it matter to me if they live or die, if the guy gets the girl, if it all ends well? Too often I don't care, I'm not invested in the story, and no matter how accurately it portrays life in China, it will not make up for the sense that the story doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I look for books that take the reader on a journey and, more than anything else, I look for the books that I myself want to read.

  • Translating Children’s Books
    Mar 26, 2015 / by Helen Wang, Translator

    As children, we like books for their stories and pictures, and for the special times and feelings we associate with reading or being read to. When we grow up and look back on our childhood favourites, it can be quite shocking to open a book you once adored and discover that you now consider it dated, sexist, racist, or boring. The story and the pictures are the same as they always were, but you, the reader, have changed, and the world you live in has evolved. In a similar way, translating children’s books can be shocking too.

    My first translations of children’s books were the picture books I read with my own children when they were little. They would choose a book and I would read. If they chose a book in a foreign language, then I would read the words in that language and tell them the story in English. It was fun! It also taught me three important things when translating children’s books. First, that the storytelling is crucial. Children quickly lose interest if the storytelling isn’t right. Second, that it’s essential to edit appropriately for the audience. Does the praying mantis have to be so gleeful about eating her husband after they’ve mated? Third, that if you can do the first two, then you can probably translate just about any children’s book.

    However, not everything that can be translated can be published. For a while, my son was crazy about the television series Black Cat Police Chief 黑貓警長 and we read-translated-edited the books that accompanied the series at home. A few years ago, I showed some images of the front covers of those books during a lecture at the Annual Chinese Teaching Conference in London. There was a lively reaction from the young teachers in the audience. But when I said I didn’t think the books would ever be allowed in UK schools or libraries, there was a confused silence. They remembered enjoying the books themselves, and it was only when I pointed out the motorbike-revving, the gun-brandishing, the ever-angry expressions, the violence and police brutality that they began to see them from a different perspective.

    We want children to enjoy books. Some books entertain, some books educate, and many books do both. But when we are translating children’s books across languages and cultures, we have to be aware of different tolerances. Sometimes a draft translation can feel wrong and it can be helpful to look objectively at a direct, or literal, translation and consider if it conveys the author’s original intention. Perhaps the impact is stronger or weaker than the author intended, or the tension in the storytelling feels awkward, or the joke just isn’t funny in English. Children’s books can be packed with cultural complexities—try translating a nursery rhyme and see if you can retain the fun, the rhythm and the compact cultural references all at the same time. It’s not easy!

    Why did my children choose particular books? Well, they were little, and at that age, it was the visual appeal of the books, the quality of the printing and production, the illustrations and the story. It wasn’t about translation or where the stories came from. It was about the books.

    But when children in the UK go to a library or a bookshop, they generally don’t have much choice when it comes to foreign or translated titles. Helpful staff may offer to order them in for you, but they seldom have the books there on the shelves. And because the staff rarely see translated children’s books, they probably don’t know them and aren’t in a position to make recommenations. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation and means you really have to want to find these books and often have to order and pay for them without seeing them first. Personally, I think it’s a bit dishonest to blame the lack of translated children’s books on a lack of demand.

    In fact, many of the favourite stories for children in English are adaptations of stories from other countries that are so domesticated now that it’s often assumed they were English to start with. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast were translated from French by Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century. Snow White, Rapunzel, The Frog Prince, and Hansel and Gretel were translated from German by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century. The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina were translated from Danish by Hans Christian Anderson, also in the nineteenth century. Many of these stories came from even older folk tales, and who knows where they might have come from originally. They survived because they were good stories and were told over and over again.

    Looking at lists of books with multiple translations, it’s striking how many of them are children’s books. Although these lists are probably not wholly reliable, the figures are still remarkable. To give a few examples: The Little Prince (253 translations), Pinocchio (240), Alice in Wonderland (159), Anderson’s Fairy Tales (159), The Adventures of Asterix (114), The Adventures of Tintin (112), Pippi Longstocking (70), Harry Potter (67), Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl (67), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (65), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (60), Heidi (50), Winnie the Pooh (50), The Moomins (44), Miffy (40), Paddington Bear (40), The Tale of Peter Rabbit (36), Anne of Green Gables (36), Charlotte’s Web (35), Totto-chan, Little Girl at the Window (35).

    I’ll end with a more recent ‘international children’s classic’: The Gruffalo, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Since it was first published in 1999, it has been translated into over fifty languages, including Chinese, as 咕噜牛. And it was inspired, says the author, by a Chinese story, probably 狐假虎威, which I assume she must have read or heard in English. In other words, The Gruffalo was inspired by an adaptation of an account in the Strategies of the Warring States (战国策) compiled well over two thousand years ago!