Writing Chinese

Special Issue of Stand Magazine on ‘Chinese Journeys’ Coming Soon!

We’re delighted to announce that our guest edited edition of Stand magazine, on the theme of ‘Chinese Journeys’ will be appearing soon, in print and online.

Stand has been a fixture on the British and world literary scene since 1952, when the first issue appeared in London. It moved to Leeds in 1960, then to Newcastle, and it is now edited from the School of English at the University of Leeds in collaboration with Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA.

We’ll be publishing fiction, poetry and non-fiction by some of the writers, translators, publishers and academics who we’ve worked with already on the Writing Chinese project, as well as other writers from the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. We’re also delighted to be publishing the winners of our latest translation competitions. Our judges were very impressed with the quality of work submitted, so we’re looking forward to sharing it very soon!

Here’s the blurb for the issue:

A special issue from the Writing Chinese project on new Chinese writing and its English translation. Poems, short stories, reportage and critical commentary all exploring ‘journeys’ from the Chinese-speaking world to the West, and back again – with contributions from writers based in the UK with China connections (including TS Eliot prize winner Sarah Howe), writers hailing from the People’s Republic of China (including the controversial novelist and critic Murong Xuecun and the novelist and short story writer Yan Ge), from Singapore (the  writer, director and translator Jeremy Tiang), Hong Kong (the surrealist writer and editor Dorothy Tse and poet and translator Tammy Ho) and Taiwan (the up-and-coming essayist and writer Wu I-Wei). Other highlights include the winning entries from the Writing Chinese translation competitions, on poetry and reportage, and a response by Helen Mort to the poems of celebrated PRC poet Wang Xiaoni. Interspersed with the creative pieces are extensive interviews with translators, critics, publishers and other key players in the varied and often circuitous journeys of new writing between Greater China and the English-speaking world.

We’ll be keeping you up to date with the publication, and a special launch event to be held in Leeds.

This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation.

Talking Translation: Natascha Bruce

Natascha-Bruce-photo-125x125For the third in our series of interviews with translators, we’re delighted to welcome Natascha Bruce, a UK translator currently working in Hong Kong, and joint-winner of our inaugural Bai Meigui translation competition in 2015!

Natascha started translating in 2011, working on scripts and subtitles for Taiwanese films, and she has recently moved to Hong Kong. Since winning the Writing Chinese Bai Meigui competition in 2015 for a short story by Dorothy Tse (alongside joint-winner Michael Day), she has worked on short stories by authors including Ye Zhou, Dorothy Tse, Gu Xiang and Xu Xiaobin, for places such as Pathlight, The Bellingham Review, a PEN America chapbook, and Paper Republic.

You can read her winning translation of Dorothy Tse’s story in Structo 14, here.

And as part of our April Bookclub we’re featuring author Xu Xiaobin 徐小斌 and her story ‘Snow’, translated by Natascha and Nicky Harman, and published first on Read Paper Republic in March 2016.


What got you started in translation, and what have been some of the biggest rewards and challenges so far?

I studied Chinese for my Bachelor’s degree, and focused on contemporary Chinese literature in my final year. A part of that involved translating extracts from texts, and I suppose you could say that this is how I started, in the sense that I discovered I really enjoyed it. Despite my enthusiasm, however, it actually never occurred to me to make the link between literature existing in translation, and there being real people out there creating those translations. I don’t know what I would have said I thought happened, if pushed? That once you have studied Chinese for one hundred years and can prove, for certain, that you know everything – will catch every single hidden reference to a Tang poem without missing a beat – there’s a special ceremony and you are given a laptop made of jade and a library of books, and told to go forth and be the person to make them accessible to the English-reading world, something mystical like that.

So I did not think to pursue literary translation. Once I graduated I moved to Taiwan and started translating subtitles and screenplays, instead. This was a lot of fun. I had no idea what I was doing, however, when it came to organising a freelance life. This is a very commonly flagged up challenge, I think, from talking to other translators: it felt entirely miraculous that someone would be offering to pay me to work on their projects, so I didn’t feel like I had any grounds to negotiate things like demands for a twenty-four hour turnaround period or, you know, actually paying me. It was also very hard to be freelance in a country where I needed a work visa to set up a bank account – an entirely understandable rule – and I didn’t like the criminal feeling that came with getting funds filtered through the bank accounts of more legal friends. So I decided to focus on finding ways to feel less like a criminal for a while, but that meant I had a lot less time to focus on translation. Which was another challenge, because I missed it.

As for rewards, is it too sickly to say that I think the work is kind of its own reward? The process of the work, I mean. The years I spent after Taiwan trying to figure out a way to pin down a steadier, more above-board source of income have convinced me that it’s quite rare to have a job you can describe as “a lot of fun.” I do think, especially now I’ve started working on more literature projects – something I credit almost entirely to the competition, by the way! – that it’s very rewarding to be able to crawl inside a story and live there, for weeks at a time, and for that to be your job (or one of your jobs, at least). Very daunting, because I do still feel that I need another ninety-three years of studying Chinese before I can really be trusted – but rewarding, all the same.


For our first Bai Meigui translation competition, in 2015, you translated Hong Kong author Dorothy Tse’s story, ‘鸡’, a dark and surreal tale. Can you tell us a bit about translating this story? 


When a friend emailed me a link to the competition, I was living in Jerusalem and struggling, not particularly valiantly, to get even the tiniest fingerhold on Arabic. I was initially attracted, I think, by the ego-soothing prospect of working with a language I had mastered a bit beyond everyday greetings. But I found Dorothy’s writing immediately engaging; it was unlike anything I had read in Chinese before. The story is very surreal, like you say. Very little is explained, although a lot is described, in visceral, unsettling detail: middle-aged women are crammed, screeching, into chicken cages and stacked along the streets of a nameless town, some precocious kid with a pack of cigarettes declares that they’ve been delivered to replace the mothers that have left, men throng the streets, the town freezes over, the teenage narrator feels a surge of aggression at the sight of his younger sister, naked in a bath tub. I think this is part of why the story is so compelling – you read on because you want to understand how things have come to this, how each detail has led to the next, and then you start again from the top, for exactly the same reason: to try to force an underlying logic into it. This also made it quite intimidating to translate, especially after a bit of a break from translation; I never felt entirely sure I was understanding the language correctly, because the whole point is that reality is skewed, meaning that ‘context’ wasn’t much of a reference point.

We went through the story at the summer school later on, comparing my version and Mike Day’s version. This was very interesting and, of course, made me think of the parts I’d change, were I to rework it. I had a long internal debate over the title, for instance, which Mike has as “Chickens” and I had as “Chicken.” At the time of translating, I decided that the singular version conveyed both the idea of a chicken as a bird and a chicken as meat, and that this tied in with the objectification of the mothers in the story. I think, though, that this is an example of how, when you’re very inside a story, connections can strike you which aren’t all that necessary to point out, once you’re outside again; I’m not sure the link between the women and the birds needs any more emphasis.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were parts I didn’t think too hard about, which struck other people as considered decisions. The precocious kid with the cigarettes is described, if you write it out more or less literally, as “a boy with a scarf wrapped around his head” (一個纏著頭巾,坐在欄杆上的男孩子). Mike had this as “bandanna,” a word which never occurred to me, and I had it as “headscarf.” The class agreed that “headscarf” made them imagine some kind of Islamic or at least Middle-Eastern connotation, whereas Mike’s phrasing conjures more of an edgy, streetwise image. And I realised, once they brought it up, that it was true: the boy I had in mind, when thinking about the sentence, was one of the kids who used to hang around outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, with keffiyehs tied over their heads to keep out the sun. So that, I suppose, was a good lesson in being careful how one’s own setting spills over into the setting of the story at hand.


Part of the prize for the translation competition was a bursary to the ‘Translate in the City‘ summer school at City University, London. What was the summer school was like, and how has it helped your career as a translator? 

The summer school was great. The literary translation classes I’d taken before, in that last year of being an undergraduate, were quite exam-focused. There was an emphasis on being able to spell out every word and construction in a sentence, which might be valuable as a tool for language consolidation, but does shift attention away from how to make readable prose. The classes at the summer school were the opposite of this, and I found it genuinely revelatory. For the most part, we were working on a chapter from ‘Crystal Wedding,’ the Xu Xiaobin novel that Nicky Harman – our teacher – was translating at the time. We talked about shifting or adding entire sentences, in order to preserve the narrative logic for English-language readers, and about how it isn’t always necessary to translate the time markers that crop up a lot in Chinese, to make up for the lack of verb tenses (this chapter had a lot of paragraphs beginning “thinking back on it now,” for example) – and these are both things that, even in the short period since, have come to seem quite obvious, but I was mostly unaware that even this quite mild flexibility was allowed.

The summer school also introduced me to the joys of collective translation. I worried about this part beforehand, because I think slowly and wasn’t sure how well I’d respond to translating on the spot. Or, perhaps more to the point, how well I’d respond to incorporating other people’s ideas, once I’d settled on a particular phrasing in my own head. As it turned out: just fine, on both counts. We were a little group, only seven people, although with quite a remarkable range of expertise – a native speaker archaeologist who flew all the way from Atlanta to attend; a Chinese literature DPhil candidate who once had a job cold calling Chinese customers and selling them Japanese knives – and I think the dynamic worked very well. Everyone was very happy to spend half an hour debating one sentence. Several things were opened up for discussion that I thought were entirely unremarkable when reading through the text on my own. And, as I should have expected, at those times when we were grasping for an expression or a synonym that seemed just out of reach, having so many minds to throwing words around was much more productive than any of the times I’ve sat at my desk, scrolling through online thesaurus resources, hoping for the best.

Career-wise, I suppose all this learning was the most important thing. I have also worked since on pieces with Nicky, as well as with Dave Haysom, who made a guest appearance at one of the evening events; I suspect meeting them in person was very helpful, in this respect. There have also been a couple of times when I’ve been stuck with a few different options for a particular phrase, or a name, and I’ve emailed classmates to ask their opinion. It’s nice to feel we can carry on throwing words around, remotely.


crystal weddingYou and Nicky Harman have translated our April Bookclub story, ‘Snow‘, by Xu Xiaobin.  What drew you both to this story, and were there any particular challenges in translating it, and especially working together with another translator?

I enjoyed working on the ‘Crystal Wedding’ extract during the summer school, so that was the entry point, for me. I particularly like translating dialogue, perhaps as a legacy of subtitle translation, and I think the dialogue in ‘Snow’ is very well-paced: there is such tension behind it! I also think Xu Xiaobin has quite a distinctive tone to her writing in general, which makes the translation quite intuitive. This was helpful for our co-translation, because the way we did it was to split the piece roughly in half, each work on one half, and then switch to edit; I imagine we would have struggled more with consistency between the two parts, if the writing style hadn’t been quite as defined. So, in terms of working together, I found it to be productive, rather than challenging. There are so many junctures, working alone, when there seem to be about six reasonable alternatives for one half of a sentence – and it’s possible to whittle them down to two, perhaps, or canvass nearby English speakers for their opinion on which one sounds best, but it was a great luxury to be able to throw in a comment box and say, to someone equally invested in the piece, who had also read through the Chinese, “I can’t hear anymore. What do you think?” It was also an advantage, of course, that Nicky had just finished working on ‘Crystal Wedding.’ She was very familiar with the writing, and there were even a few points where characters from ‘Crystal Wedding’ reappeared in ‘Snow’ – in a couple of instances, characters who had had to be given pseudonyms – and so we could maintain this crossover. In terms of challenges not related to co-translating, however: there are a lot of leaps between time periods in ‘Snow.’ We were not cutting time markers, here; we were adding them.


Did you work with the author during the translation? Or have you had this experience on other translations?

Nicky had been emailing back and forth with Xu Xiaobin about ‘Crystal Wedding,’ so the lines of communication were there for questions about ‘Snow,’ too. We sent her a list of quite specific questions, checking things such as whether this was the Japanese philosopher she meant, or whether we had a particular time shift right. We also co-translated Xu Xiaobin’s preface to ‘Crystal Wedding’ around the same time, and emailed her about that. There is a part in the preface where she talks about working on a farm during the Cultural Revolution, about how at times the only things they had to eat were roots they dug up from under the snow, and then she adds: 喝尿盆里的剩水.So, literally “we drank leftover water from our chamber pots.” And I could not figure out whether the implication was that they were collecting, say, leftover rainwater in their chamber pots – but, then again, if it was cold enough to snow, maybe there wouldn’t be rain, and maybe any water would simply freeze over? – or whether it was a sort of euphemism, and they were drinking urine. I asked a couple of native speaker friends, who assured me that the Cultural Revolution was awful and, although they couldn’t say for sure, it was probably urine. It seemed like quite an important point to clarify, though, either way. We asked Xu Xiaobin and she wrote back to say she was referring to drinking melted snow, which was definitely a relief – both because I’m very glad she never had to drink urine, on top of everything else, and because I’m pleased not to have included such a dramatic statement, only for it to turn out not to be true.


Are there any authors or projects that you’re particularly keen to work on? (Or simply authors that you’d love to see in translation?!)

I’ve just moved to Hong Kong, so at the moment I’m looking forward to reading – and, hopefully, translating – more pieces by Hong Kong writers. To learn more about how Chinese is moulded when it’s written down by authors who hear the characters in Cantonese. Over the last few months, I’ve also been slow-burn translating a short story by a Malaysian writer, He Shufang (賀淑芳), which is a very, very beautiful, intricately-written piece about an alliance between two university professors, and the censorship they encounter in their teaching. Except that summary doesn’t do it justice, and neither does the fact I’m working through it at the speed of about an inch of text a month; I would love for this to be an official project, so I could stop feeling compelled to sideline it in favour of other ‘official’ work.


Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell us about?

I’ve just started to work on another story by Dorothy Tse. I can’t tell you the title because my translation isn’t that advanced just yet, and it’s a tricky title, but it’s for an anthology of writing from all over Asia, put together by a Singaporean publisher, Math Paper Press. It’s longer than ‘Chickens,’ and less immediately grotesque or surreal. In fact, it lulls you along at the start, with visions of autumn leaves and domesticity, and the arrival of a new family pet. Needless to say, however, those are not the visions it leaves you with. This will be an especially interesting project, I think – to return to the topic of working with authors – because Dorothy is based in Hong Kong and speaks fantastic English, so she’ll be able to give me her feedback on my drafts in a way that isn’t usually possible.

Thank you so much, Natascha!


This entry was posted in Talking Translation.

Diao Dou and Comma Press in Leeds

Points of origin_COVER_final_PRINT.inddLast Thursday we were lucky enough to welcome author Diao Dou 刁斗 to Leeds, along with Sam Clark and Ra Page from Comma Press. Comma are a Manchester-based publisher, and loyal champions both of the short story form and of literature in translation. They have just published the first English translation (by Brendan O’Kane) of Diao Dou’s short fiction – the fantastic Points of Origin. In this collection, a town is overrun with cockroaches, which prove more than a match for the local officials; a widower and his cat move into the city, but the cat is not all that she seems; and in the story we’ve chosen for our October book club, a law is passed that only lets people walk the streets at night if they maintain a squatting position at all times…

diao dou

Diao Dou read an excerpt of one of the stories ,’Vivisection’. This story presented something which is often dealt with in contemporary Chinese fiction – the Cultural Revolution – in a slightly off-kilter way, providing a good example of how his stories mix the realistic and the surreal.

We were then given a fascinating insight into the translation process through a video with translator Brendan O’Kane, who talked about some of the challenges of translating these stories, and of how to convey some of the trickier points of Chinese idiom and shared knowledge (preferably without using footnotes – an issue which has come up in several of our discussions throughout this project!).

You can watch the full video here;

Following on from Brendan’s video was a Q&A between Diao Dou and Comma Press’s Sam Clark, covering issues such as genre, symbolism, and surrealism. (The stories in Points of Origin span realism, surrealism, historical fiction, and fantasy.)

We’d like to thank Comma for their support, and thank you as well to our interpreter John Long.

This entry was posted in authors.

The Bai Meigui Translation Competition

structo14This month, we’re delighted that the two winning entries in our Bai Meigui translation competition have been published in issue 14 of Structo magazine. As editor Euan Monaghan told us in an interview earlier in the year, the magazine has become increasingly interested, since its founding in 2008, in publishing translations, and often publishes poems in both the original language and in English translation. This is the first time, however, that they’ve published two different translations of the same story…!

Out of the 88 entries we received for the competition, our judges Nicky Harman, Jeremy Tiang and Helen Wang, chose Natascha Bruce and Michael Day as the joint winners, deciding that their different approaches and choices both deserved the accolade. The text – Dorothy Tse’s (谢晓虹) ‘Chickens’ (鸡) – is part of a longer series of linked stories, some of which have been translated by Nicky as  ‘Monthly Matters’ in Dorothy’s collection Snow and Shadow. The story, with its surreal imagery and ambiguous language, poses a fascinating translation challenge, and the judges were hugely impressed with the overall quality of the entries.

They also chose four runners-up – Karen Curtis, Seth Griffin, Kristen Robinson and Andrew Wormald – whose translations you can read on our competition page. And you can read Dorothy’s story in its original Chinese on our book club page, where she was our featured author for February.

Here’s what the judges had to say about the winning entries:


“It was great to see so many different, strong approaches amongst the entries and we much enjoyed discussing their merits and choosing the ones we thought worked best.  We particularly liked it when it felt as though the translator had got inside the story and was telling it him or herself, when the English language was sharp and alive, and when there was a consistent style throughout the piece. We agreed that the ultimate criteria had to be both accuracy and skill at rendering the author’s style in English, in such a way that would honour the author’s intentions and serve the general reader best.

Both winning entries successfully captured the unease shimmering just beneath the surface, and reflected the sensuousness of the story. Their translations had zest and carried conviction – we felt that the translators approached their task with relish.

As regards the other entries, they had much to recommend them and we were very impressed by the overall quality. The surrealism posed particular challenges, and we sensed that when translators had trouble with some of the more obscure bits, they resolved it by sticking close to the original. In some of the translations, we felt the register was a little too high: after all, the narrator was a young boy, and ‘yet’ and ‘merely’ seemed inappropriate. On the other hand, in most entries, the snippets of dialogue were rendered with real flair, in natural-sounding, colloquial English.

Our congratulations to the two winners, who fulfilled all our criteria and yet produced two very different versions, and to the four runners-up. We are delighted that both winners will be offered a place at the Translate in the City summer school and that their translations will both be published in Structo magazine.”

– Nicky, Jeremy and Helen


We’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who entered the competition. We were really pleased with the number of entries, and hope that everyone enjoyed the experience! Thank you also to our wonderful judges, Nicky, Jeremy and Helen, and to the Translate in the City summer school at City University in London for the bursaries for our two winners. And finally, thank you to Structo magazine, and we hope everyone will go and check out the fantastic issue 14!

This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation.

The ‘Writing Chinese’ Symposium

01_seal_yang_png 1Grave-robbing, censorship, surrealism, running a small press, the problems of editing, why translators really don’t agree about footnotes… These were just some of the topics touched upon (and at times, debated vociferously) at our symposium on 2-4 July in Leeds.

The symposium was the culmination of the first year of the Writing Chinese project, and an opportunity to gather together writers, translators, publishers, academics and others working in other aspects of contemporary Chinese fiction, to discuss some of the key issues and recent changes in the field. Rather than a typical academic-style conference, with panels of 20-minute papers, we wanted something more informal and conducive to dialogue, so we decided on a series of roundtables, loosely based on the journey of a story, from creation, through translation or adaptation, publication, and beyond. Each roundtable was set off by brief presentations by those working in that particular aspect of the field, and then opened up for discussion. (You can find the full schedule and list of participants here).

The two days of discussions provided a fascinating insight into the writing and publishing world. This was in fact one of the key aims of the project – an attempt to get away from a purely academic focus on literature in the university, and instead broaden our view by finding out more from those actually working in the field. So it was great to hear from our authors – Dorothy Tse, Murong Xuecun, James Shea and Jeremy Tiang – about the process of writing, and to hear about their different experiences, in Hong Kong, on the mainland, and elsewhere. And in the following panels we learnt more about different aspects of translation, as well as issues surrounding internet fiction (zombies and grave-robbing were introduced with great enthusiasm by Heather Inwood), children’s fiction (Helen Wang‘s championing of Chinese children’s fiction in translation sent many of us to Blackwells’ bookstall to pick up her recommended titles), and censorship (Michel Hockx was on hand to share his extensive knowledge).


Bertrand Mialaret, of mychinesebooks.com, editor of Pathlight Magazine Dave Haysom, and translator Nicky Harman, who’s one of the driving forces behind Paper Republic, discussed the role of literary magazines, websites, and some of the wonderful projects which are bringing Chinese fiction to a wider audience. And Katherine Carruthers, director of the IOE Confucius Institute for Schools, shared her thoughts on Chinese fiction and the curriculum.

On the business side of things, Marysia Juszczakiewicz, the founder and owner of Hong Kong-based Peony Literary Agency, discussed the role of a literary agent, and shared her own experiences. We were also lucky enough to have the managing director of Penguin China, Jo Lusby, here to talk about the difficulties and rewards of her job, as well as MakeDo Publishing‘s Harvey Thomlinson to discuss the experience of a small press publisher.

It wasn’t all about fiction, however. We also got to hear from Jeremy Tiang about his work as a playwright – both writing his own work and adapting Chinese fiction for the stage – as well as from Li Ruru, Valerie Pellatt and Steve Ansell about some of the fantastic work they’ve done with the translation and performance of Chinese drama – most recently Wan Fang’s play Murder. (If you’re interested in finding out more about Chinese drama, you might want to take a look at their project Staging China).


The symposium finished up with a wine reception and conference dinner, kicked off by a reading by the wonderful poet Helen Mort, who is currently a cultural fellow at the university, and will be helping us with some of our more poetic plans next year… (More on this to come!)

But although the roundtables were finished, we still had one last chance to hear from our writers and translators (and eat some more delicious food…). On Saturday July 4th we moved to the delightful surroundings of Northern Ballet, where we held our public reading with Murong, Jeremy Tiang and James Shea, as well as the UK launch of the Read Paper Republic project, with Dave Haysom, Nicky Harman, and Dorothy Tse, who discussed ‘The Story of a Story’, looking closely at Nicky’s translation of one of Dorothy’s short stories. This part of the event was in held in association with Paper Republic and the Free Word Centre in London. You can read the short story,‘January: Bridges’, on Read Paper Republic, and watch the video of the discussion here. Nicky also has a great blog post on the Free Word Centre website, where she talks us through her translation.

So we’d just like to say a huge thank you to all of our symposium participants, many of whom have also made huge contributions to the smooth running of the project so far. We’re looking forward to what’s coming next!

We’d also like to thank Halima Chen, for all her work as the WREAC administrative officer; Michelle Deeter and Zhang Dan for their excellent interpretation; Blackwells Books, for all their support; Northern Ballet, for providing a great venue for our public event; Leeds Media Services, for filming the event, and Crown Buffet, for their delicious dim sum!

This entry was posted in Writing Chinese.

Muse Publishing and Dorothy Tse; Frank Proctor Interview

Snow_And_ShadowOne of Hong Kong’s most exciting young writers – Dorothy Tse – will be joining us in Leeds this week for our Writing Chinese symposium. In advance of Dorothy’s visit, we’re very happy that her publisher Frank Proctor, of the innovative Muse Publishing, has agreed to answer our questions about Muse and share his thoughts about Snow and Shadow, Dorothy’s first collection of short stories in English, translated by Nicky Harman.

If you’d like the opportunity to hear Dorothy read and discuss her work in Leeds on Saturday July 4th, please see our events page for how to register.


Can you tell us a bit about Muse; how did you get started? 

I founded Muse in 2005. Before that, I had been a senior executive for Newsweek magazine, based in Hong Kong. My vision was to capitalize on Hong Kong’s unique position at the crossroads of Chinese and Western traditions to creatively blend the two, starting with the launch of Muse magazine, which I envisioned as “Hong Kong’s New Yorker” — bilingual, with a blend of cultural reviews, narrative journalism, and literature. We published the monthly magazine until December 2010.

What was behind the decision to move from publishing a magazine to publishing books? 

Our original business plan was highly print-focused, and the digital transformation of media made it increasingly difficult to sustain a business model that would support a monthly magazine. At the same time, I felt that the digital era was opening up incredible new possibilities for book publishing, both digital and print. The internet has removed distribution bottlenecks, has made it possible for writers to tell stories in new ways, and has made global literature accessible to new audiences.

What are some of the challenges, and the rewards?

The reasons publishing attracted me in the first place are just as valid as ever: I am fascinated with the way writers articulate their ideas, and their ability to transform the way we see the world. Coming from magazine publishing, I needed to adapt to the long time horizon required to take a book project from the idea stage, through publication, and out to a wide readership. Yet I have found that the greatest reward is being able to immerse myself totally in working with one author for an extended period of time. I have the chance to get to know them and their ideas very deeply, and to understand their approach to writing. Then, I have the privilege of presenting their works to new audiences around the world.

How did you come across Dorothy’s work, and what made you decide to publish Snow and Shadow?

I first became aware of Dorothy and her writing through her role as a founding editor of Hong Kong Kong’s premier literary magazine, Fleurs des Lettres《字花》. Her writing appeared in its early issues, and she won some of the most prestigious literary awards in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

I was instantly jolted by the emotional intensity of Dorothy’s writing, a feeling that stayed with me as I read and re-read her stories. Her style is intensely direct, kind of an “in your face” surrealism.

Her stories revolve around urgent topics like personal identity, family relationships, and sexual exploitation. She has a keen eye for the ridiculous and bizarre, and she is willing to plunge unflinchingly into the grotesque. But as a reader, I couldn’t look away. The fantasies, dark humor, and shifting narratives that characterize Dorothy’s writing make her stories truly absorbing.

Moreover, Dorothy is part of a compelling “new generation” of Hong Kong writers, who are seeking to define the meaning of individual identity in a society that has slipped its cultural moorings. Hong Kong writing provides a singular window onto Chinese literature, yet surprisingly little of it has found its way to Western readers and reviewers.

We were also very fortunate to be able to pair Dorothy with Nicky Harman, a talented, experienced translator who intuitively understood Dorothy’s writing.

I loved the app for ‘The Apartment Block’; is this something you’re going to be doing more of? How do you think it changes our experience of reading and understanding stories?

I’m glad you like it!

I believe that digital media and the internet will play the central role in the way stories are told, and are already changing the way writers and readers interact. A publisher needs to be a digital pioneer to thrive. So I want to do at least one digital “experiment” with every book project. It is all about using different formats, both print and digital, to get the author’s ideas across and reach new audiences.

Dorothy’s story ‘The Apartment Block‘ really lends itself to this kind of app. The story is a series of short scenes from a single mysterious apartment building, woven together over an uncertain time period. There are multiple possible explanations for how the events and people in the building might fit together; so the app lets users click on the doors of the apartment building in any order, to “create their own narrative.” People really enjoy the app, and it reinforces the strange juxtaposition of time, place, and characters in the story.

What’s next? Do you have any plans for the publication of more Hong Kong fiction in translation?

Our next book is The Kite Family, a collection of short stories by Hon Lai-chu, another award-winning Hong Kong author. It is scheduled for publication this year.

Thank you so much to Frank for answering our questions, and we’re very much looking forward to reading more from Muse!

This entry was posted in authors, The Publisher's View.

Interview: Eric Abrahamsen and Paper Republic

PaperRepublicToday is a particularly good day for Chinese literature in translation, with the launch of Read Paper Republic, a new initiative from the wonderful Paper Republic, a website and publishing consultancy based around a collective of China-based translators. Well-known in Chinese literary circles, Paper Republic aims to connect Chinese and foreign publishers, and throw a spotlight on events in the Chinese literary scene.

Between Thursday 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, on the Paper Republic site there will be a complete, free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer every week for the whole year. We can’t wait! In fact, we’re supporting the Read Paper Republic UK launch with a special event on July 4th, as part of our Writing Chinese symposium, and in association with the Free Word Centre and the Leeds Writers Circle. See our events page for more on this.

In the meantime, we’re delighted to be joined by Eric Abrahamsen, literary translator and founder of Paper Republic, to tell us a bit more about his work. Eric has lived in Beijing since late 2001, and worked as a teacher, editor, and freelance journalist. He would like nothing more than to spend his days with a dictionary and a laptop, and his nights out drinking with authors.


Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind Paper Republic? What were your aims when you set up the site?

We started off very simply: the site was meant to be a sort of group blog for a community of Chinese-to-English literary translators, mostly living in Beijing at the time. We envisioned it as a place where people could have discussions and arguments about Chinese literature and the work of translation, as well as flagging up authors and fiction we were interested in. In a sense, that’s still the core of the site, though things have expanded from there.

Over time, it became clear that publishers and agents outside of the country were looking at the site to get information about Chinese literature. At the same time, many of us were discovering that, in order to get our translations published, we had to participate in the publishing process to a large degree: convincing publishers to publish books, contacting rights holders, all that. So slowly the site transitioned to be more explicitly aimed at publishing professionals outside of China. I formed a company, and now spend most of my time doing publishing consulting of one sort or another.

What have some of the biggest challenges been?

I guess the usual challenge: making a living! Personally, I’ve transitioned from literary translation to publishing consulting over the past decade, and I haven’t always had a clear sense of how keep Paper Republic vital, both as a company, and in its original identity as a community site. A big problem is that, outside of China, publishers are wary of the commercial potential of Chinese literature, and aren’t very gung-ho about publishing it. Inside of China, meanwhile, publishers are caught between commercial and political imperatives, and often aren’t very professional.

What kind of literary critique or discussion are you seeing in media circles in China at the moment?

Nothing very exciting, I’m afraid. Domestic literary discussion usually centers around which authors are making the most money. There aren’t many substantive discussions going on.

What up-and-coming authors (or under-appreciated authors) are you most excited about at the moment?

I’m most bullish about the generation of writers now in their mid to late thirties. They’re more cosmopolitan-minded and usually more technically adept than the older generations, and vary more in voice and style. They’ve also been somewhat overlooked by domestic media, which means they don’t have much to do but write. That’s a good thing. These are writers including Cao Kou, Yan Ge, Di An, Xu Zechen, A Yi

Finally, if you had unlimited resources (and time, energy, etc), what would be your dream Chinese fiction-related project?

I’m quite convinced that the main obstacle to further international acceptance of Chinese literature is simply an unfamiliarity with what’s out there – editors, agents, and readers alike don’t know where to start. I’m further convinced that the best remedy for this sort of situation is high-volume translation of many short pieces by many writers: that way readers can skim a wide variety of styles and voices in a fairly short period of time, and get a sense of what’s out there.

Paper Republic produces a literary magazine, called Pathlight, in conjunction with People’s Literature Magazine, and theoretically this magazine would do exactly what I’ve described. But we’re hampered a bit by our partners, who aren’t always proposing the most interesting content to be translated, and in large part by the difficulty of promoting and distributing (and getting people to buy) a literary magazine.

I think if I had unlimited resources, I would commission translations of short pieces by all the authors in the Paper Republic database, and make the translations available through the site for free. I would keep that up until each author had the equivalent of a full short story collection online, accessible to all. Then I’d let the rest of the world make of that what they liked.

Well, Read Paper Republic is a big step towards this! The first story, ‘Who’s Speaking Please?‘ is up on the site now, and is by our May author of the month, A Yi, and translated by Michelle Deeter

Thank you to Eric, and to all at Paper Republic for their hard work!

This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation.

‘A Perfect Crime’: Author A Yi in Leeds

A Yi

For our final author event of this year, A Yi 阿乙 joined us at the university, to discuss his work and his novella A Perfect Crime, translated into English by Anna Holmwood. We’re very grateful to his publishers, Oneworld, for arranging the visit, and to English PEN, who awarded the book a translation grant.

In A Perfect Crime, a young man commits a horrific crime and goes on the run. Narrated by the murderer himself, the book pulls the reader inexorably along through the meticulous planning of the crime, to its bloody climax, and the cat-and-mouse pursuit by the police.

Having served as a police office for five years, A Yi has first hand experience of the processes and problems of the legal system in China. He has also, as he discussed with us, had experience of the kind of loneliness and boredom that plague his protagonist. Whilst avowedly apolitical in his writing, A Yi is nonetheless very much interested in the social and psychological issues facing China today. In his aimless protagonist he paints a portrait of a dislocated, hopeless youth, moving through an empty and uncaring society.


Our audience was interested to hear his opinions on writing and on crime, and how his own experiences have fuelled his fiction. He spoke of how hard he found writing the scene of the crime itself, and the feeling of oppression it brought. Spending so much time inside the head of such a troubled character was exhausting and difficult, and the book is undoubtedly disturbing for the reader. Yet it is also brilliantly written and translated; a taut page-turner that defies you to look away, and lingers long after the final page.

We’d like to thank our interpreter Michelle Deeter, and Blackwells’ Books, for their contributions to the event.

This entry was posted in authors.

Han Dong and Nicky Harman in Leeds


We were very lucky to have poet, short story writer and novelist Han Dong come and visit us in April, alongside his translator Nicky Harman. The event was organised in conjunction with International Writers at Leeds, a project run through the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds, inviting internationally-renowned writers to speak about their work.

Han Dong is perhaps most famous as one of China’s foremost avant-garde poets, so we began the event with a reading and discussion of some of his poems, translated by Nicky and collected in the bilingual volume, A Phonecall from Dalian, published by Zephyr Press. .

This was followed by a reading from a recent novella, 花花传奇, translated by Nicky as A Tabby Cat’s Tale, and published by Frisch and Co. The incontinent, flea-ridden feline of the title lives on the narrator’s roof, and whilst he causes chaos for the family and their neighbours, the more his anti-social behaviour worsens, the greater the family’s affection for him grows. (There’s a lovely review of the novella here).

Han Dong cove

Much of the discussion following the readings focused on Han Dong’s dual writing careers in poetry and prose. When asked how he juggled the two, he explained that he tends to concentrate on either one or the other for an extended period of time – whilst working on a novel or a book of poetry – and then move to the other once he has finished that piece of work.

There were also several questions for both writer and translator on the process of translation, and how well they worked together (very well, according to both!). Nicky discussed some of the decisions she had made when translating the poems, and retaining their down-to-earth feel, as well as the novella, with its comedic, earthy tone. One of the things she mentioned was the name of the eponymous cat – ‘Hua Hua’ (花花), in Chinese, which might perhaps translate along the lines of ‘Spotty’, but which she simply couldn’t resist translating as ‘Tabby’, especially given the alliteration which it would allow in the title.

To find out more about Han Dong, and read some of his poems, you can go to our book club page.







This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation.

New Models of Publishing in East Asia, by Peter Gordon

peter gordonWhen we were starting up the Man Asian Literary Prize, it was decided—after much deliberation—to specify that it would be for “works as yet unpublished in English.” This was not so much with the goal of bringing relatively unknown writers to light, although it did do that; rather it was because not a great deal of Asian fiction was being published at the time. If the Prize had required “publication” as a condition of entry, therefore, it might have ended up rewarding commercial serendipity instead of intrinsic literary merit.

Things have improved in decade or so since. Much more East Asian literature is appearing in translation and the English-language Indian market has exploded. Print-on-demand and electronic publishing have greatly lowered barriers to entry. If one were to start the Prize again now, one might not reprise the “as yet unpublished” criterion.

Chinese fiction, both in translation and some written directly in English, has increased manyfold in this period, albeit from a very low base. But this overall progress has been driven more by publishers in the main anglophone markets than by East Asian publishing itself. English-language publishing in the region remains intrinsically difficult.

It is the rare book that sells extensively outside of the publisher’s home market and Asian markets for English-language books are particularly small and fragmented. While Hong Kong, for example, is a city of seven million, the English-language market is much smaller: perhaps between 250,000 and 500,000, i.e. the size of a single not-very-large city in the UK.

The wider Asian markets do not in fact offer much additional opportunity. A novel set in Hong Kong might resonate for Hong Kong readers, but isn’t inherently any more appealing to the average Singaporean or Filipino reader than one set in London or Sydney. The logistics are also daunting: distribution within Asia is more pro forma than commercial. Freight within Asia is hardly less costly between America or Britain and Asia (in part because the planes leave Asia full of Asian-made products and generally return much emptier), and volumes are in any event small. It is one thing to consign books to a shop across town but quite another to consign them across the sea. Asian publishers cannot usually afford the sorts of terms their larger Western publishers offer. The result is that it is relatively rare to find Hong Kong books in Singapore, the Philippines or Thailand and vice versa.

Print-on-demand technology in the West may allow Asian publishers to avoid the need for trans-continental shipping and the cost and inventory risk of overseas warehousing, but availability alone does not lead to sales. Asian publishers remain a long way from the main anglophone markets.

Penguin China, in an-exception-that-proves-the-rule sort of way, is pretty much the only multinational publisher regularly publishing in English out of East Asia. The majority have been non-fiction titles by non-Chinese authors, often with an already-defined readership. Even with Penguin’s heft and global distribution, these hasn’t yet amounted to a breakthrough for regional English-language publishing.

The growth of English-language publishing in India is another exception that proves the rule: this is driven by the astounding growth in domestic demand, not by publishing “for export”. East Asia’s English-language publishers lack a market the size and depth of the developing Indian one.

This is not to say that no regionally published English-language book is ever a commercial success. Everyone can probably point to a few, and we at Chameleon Books have had several ourselves. But there aren’t really enough of them to go around.

* * *

Electronic publishing does not change this picture substantially; indeed, it might make things worse. E-publishing certainly makes it easier to publish or to get published—there are no financial or other barriers at all now. But if “getting published” consists of little more than uploading a file, it ceases to be a meaningful objective in itself. Nor has e-publishing magically eliminated the need for editing, fact-checking and other sorts of quality-control that have until now normally been a concern of, and major cost-centre for, publishers.

Like print-on-demand, e-publishing gives Asian publishers immediate access to a global market; but, also like print-on-demand, access does itself generate sales. The problem of generating focused attention remains, and has if anything gotten harder as the market gets noisier.

* * *

East Asian publishers, alas, are unlikely to have much effect on the aggregate availability of Chinese fiction in English. Attempting to make an impact, even electronically, thousands of kilometres from one’s home base is difficult, perhaps prohibitively so. It is proximity to the market, not the authors, that matters.

However, much of this discussion is of course predicated on the future publishing ecosystem—the process of getting words to readers—looking like some variant of what we have today. But it may not.

E-publishing has removed the physical and logistical constraints to the unit of text we have called “the book”: there is no inherent reason—other that commercial exigencies due to printing—why text should be consumed in units of about 100,000 words or a few hundred pages. Physical books, furthermore, may be bought and kept, or borrowed and returned, sometimes signed, sometimes collected. E-books, however, may end up being read more like magazines and newspapers: consumed and then set aside. This model for publishing fiction exists, of course, in magazines and journals. And for some genres such as science fiction, it has long been a prime mechanism for publication.

Should a considerable amount of writing move from individually purchased books to something that looks more like a subscription, the economics will be very different, as will the relation of writer to publisher and publisher to reader—and writer to reader. The current model of writer>publisher>distributor>bookseller>reader may be superseded by one that looks more like writer>publisher>reader, or writer>e-seller>reader or maybe publisher>reader (with writers being on contract), but in any case, one with fewer levels and transformed relationships.

When Chinese enters the picture, the model is complicated by translation. Sometimes, it will remain linear, i.e.  writer>publisher>(publisher/translator)>… Or the translated track may be parallel to original language publication, e.g. writer>rights agent>translator>publisher… or writer/translator>publisher… Translations are usually of books that have already proven themselves domestically, but in a subscription model where writers write to spec, one may end up with writer/translator pairs, perhaps writer/translator>e-packager>reader.

These developments are unlikely to help East Asian publishing per se, because the costs and main marketing issues—being far from the largest markets—will remain. But traditional publishing is a bundle of many potentially disparate functions—recognizing good writers and material, supporting these, editing, translation, marketing, distribution, sales, finance. E-publishing may result in this being unbundled into constituent parts with different combinations of cost and revenue centres. Exactly what it means to be a “publisher” under these circumstances may be a matter of debate, but there may be configurations in which East Asian industry professionals’ proximity to the sources of the content—the ability to work closely with authors and translators—is more a catalyst of direct commercial opportunities than it is at present.

Current industry structure makes it difficult for East Asia’s English-language publishers to make more than a tangential contribution to the availability of Chinese writing in English. But should the entire deck of cards be thrown up into the air, who knows where they will come back down?


Peter Gordon is publisher at Chameleon Press and editor of the Asian Review of Books.


This entry was posted in The Publisher's View.

Writing Chinese March Update

dorothyWell, our translation competition is now closed, but we just wanted to say that we’ve been absolutely delighted by the response it’s had! We’ve had entries from all over the world, and don’t envy our panel of judges, who now face the difficult task of choosing a winner… Nicky Harman, Jeremy Tiang, and Helen Wang will announce their choice in April. The winning translation will then be published in the autumn issue of Structo magazine. They’ll also have the chance to attend the Translate in the City summer school, where Nicky Harman will be teaching a course on Chinese-English translation. And of course, Dorothy Tse herself will be visiting Leeds for our symposium this July. Dorothy was our featured author for February, so even if you didn’t enter the competition, you might want to check out her story here. (Though you’ll have to wait for issue 14 of Structo before reading the translation!)

publishing poster-page-001In other news, this March we’re looking more closely at the business of publishing. This Thursday, March 5th, we’re joined in Leeds by publisher and translator Harvey Thomlinson, of Make-Do Publishing, to talk about the UK market for translated Chinese fiction. The event will be held at the University of Leeds, room B10 in the Parkinson Court, from 5.00-6.30 pm. The event is free, and all are welcome! Blackwells’ Books will also be there, so you can further indulge yourselves with some reading matter. Harvey visited Leeds last October, alongside Chen Xiwo and translator Nicky Harman, in order to talk about Chen’s fantastic The Book of Sins, so we’re delighted that he’s joining us again.

Alongside this event, we’ll be featuring a series of articles on our blog, focusing on publishing and translation. Our first guest-post will be by Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books. Peter founded Paddyfield, an on-line bookshop, and runs Chameleon Press, an independent publisher specialising in Asian fiction and topical non-fiction. He was also involved in setting up the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. We’re very grateful that he’s taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to share his thoughts with us.

Lao MaFinally, our March bookclub stories are going to be short and sweet… Although ‘sweet’ might not be the right word for Lao Ma’s flash fiction; stories which, whilst brief, are often also biting and blackly funny. We’ll be putting up the stories very soon. In the meantime, you can find out more about Lao Ma in an excellent Time Out Shanghai article here.

This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation.

Structo Magazine and Literature in Translation

Our translation competition deadline is fast approaching!

We’re very proud to be working with Structo magazine to publish our competition winner, so in the run-up to the deadline, editor and designer Euan Monaghan joins us to tell us a bit more about Structo and their interest in translated literature.


Can you tell us a bit about Structo and its ethos?

Structo is a print and digital literary magazine, founded back in the mists of 2008, which publishes short stories, poetry, interviews and essays from all over the world. An issue is published every six months, and each one goes online for free three months after it’s released in print. I’m very proud of what Structo has become; the quality of the writing we publish is really excellent, and our authors are a diverse bunch. We have an open submissions policy, and we read everything blind. Although the team enjoys—and we publish—a wide range of writing, we have a particular fondness for stories which falls between genre, especially slipstream fiction.

When did you start publishing translations? Has this always been something you’ve been interested in?

It’s something we’ve become increasingly interested in. We published a few translations before issue eight, when our poetry editor Matthew Landrum came on-board, but given his background and interest in translation, it seemed like an obvious avenue to explore more frequently. It was one of the reasons he was such a strong choice for the role.

You tend to include poems in both the original and translation. Why do you think it’s important for readers to be able to see the poem (or prose, for that matter) in its original language? 

It think it’s very important for poetry in particular. From the new issue, we’re also including phonetic transcription of non-roman alphabets—Thai script in issue 13. I enjoy getting a sense of the changes that are made as a poem moves from one language to another, even though I don’t necessarily understand the original. Sounds might become softer or harder, more or less musical; tonal emphasis might shift. It’s like hearing a piece of music transcribed for a different group of instruments.

We’re really grateful for your support of our translation competition. Can you tell us a bit more about your interest in contemporary Chinese writing (either from the mainland or Hong Kong)?

My interest was sparked around the same time that I began the magazine. The Southbank Centre in London hosted the China Now festival in 2008, and I think for many people in the UK this was key to discovering contemporary Chinese literature, and arts more generally. I particularly remember a couple of great stories by Zhu Wen and Yan Lianke in The Guardian, and my interest has remained with Chinese short fiction since. Late last year, Clarkesworld magazine ran a very popular crowdfunding campaign to translate and publish Chinese science-fiction. That should be fascinating.

Thank you to Euan and the Structo team, and we’re looking forward to reading the winning translation in issue 14, to be published in Autumn 2015!

You can find out more about Structo on facebook and twitter.



This entry was posted in Talking Translation, The Publisher's View.

Why you should enter our translation competition…

The inaugural Bai Meigui Translation Competition is open…. and here’s why you should enter:


– You’ll get to read a brilliant story by one of Hong Kong’s most exciting new writers….

…who writes about disappearing apartments and women turning into fish…

…and who will be speaking at our symposium in Leeds in July.

– Your translation will read by our judging panel of some of the most prominent translators in the field.

– Entry is free, and open to anyone, in any country. All you need is an interest in translation.

– And did we mention our prizes….?

– The winner will get to see their story published in the brilliant literary magazine Structo.


– They will also will also be eligible for a full bursary to attend the July 2015 summer school in translation in London, Translate in the City

…where they’ll be tutored by Nicky Harman and have the opportunity to meet other experts in the literary translation field.

What are you waiting for?? Find our competition text here, in both traditional and simplified characters, where you’ll also find out more about Dorothy Tse and her writing, as well as details about entry and conditions.


We’d like to thank Nicky Harman and Helen Wang for kindly agreeing to judge the competition, and to Structo for their enthusiastic participation. We’re also extremely grateful to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the White Rose East Asia Centre (WREAC) for their generous grant, which has allowed us to offer the summer school bursary.




This entry was posted in Writing Chinese.

On the road, ‘Imagining Asia’

Imagining Asia - group photo

Having met some fantastic writers, translators, and academics at the ‘Imagining Asia‘ symposium at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and eaten far too much excellent food, Writing Chinese is now back in Leeds, a little jet-lagged, but full of ideas for the new year!

A group of us from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, the School of English, and the School of History at Leeds made the trip to Singapore (though unfortunately not all of our luggage did the same), and we started the week off with visits to a number of schools, where we received unfailingly warm welcomes, and were delighted by the enthusiasm of all the students and staff. It was really interesting to hear from the students about their experience of literature and translation, and to have the opportunity to introduce the project to a new audience, hopefully building our network even further.

After finishing our school visits, it was time to head to NTU for the Imagining Asia conference. The conference was held as part of a collaboration between the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at NTU and the University of Leeds, and aimed to explore the intercultural links and connections surrounding the idea of ‘Asia’.

One of the delights of an interdisciplinary conference like this is hearing papers and talks on unfamiliar subjects, so it was great to get a glimpse of chinoiserie in eighteenth century America, an unexpected blast of Korean pop music, archive photographs of early European travellers on the silk road, a showcase of street photography of the Occupy Central movement, and many other things, all in the space of a few days.

And as we concentrate so closely on writing in Chinese for this project, it was also interesting to hear about other aspects of East Asian and South East Asian writing. So I particularly enjoyed the panel on Asian diasporic identities, with papers by NTU students Kuah Ting Ting, Yao Xiaoling, Eric Tinsay Valles and Leah Jolene Tan, who discussed the writers Amitav Ghosh, Yan Geling, Jose Garcia Villa, and Tan Twang Eng.

For my own paper, I talked about some of the writers we’ve featured or are planning to feature in this project, and the ways in which their work deals with the uncanny and strange. I discussed the influence both of traditional Chinese tales of the strange, and of broader intercultural traditions of the fantastic and weird.

Author Can Xue and NTU conference organiser Professor Shirley Chew,

Author Can Xue and NTU conference organiser Professor Shirley Chew,

In fact, one of the Chinese writers whose influence can be seen on contemporary authors just happened to be one of the keynote speakers at the conference. Can Xue‘s (残雪) strange and grotesque tales are fascinating, disturbing, and very possibly unlike anything you’ve read before… She read from one of the stories in her collection Vertical Motion, which involved ‘little critters who live in the black earth beneath the desert’ and possibly an existential crisis… You can read the full story here in The White Review.

It wasn’t only the work of established authors we heard, however. The NTU creative writing students, taught by Professor Neil Murphy, held a poetry reading for the launch of their anthology Kepulauan (meaning ‘archipelago’ in Malay). Several of the readers read poems mixing together English and Malay or Chinese, showcasing Singapore’s rich linguistic hybridity, as well as suggesting that we may well be hearing more from some of them in the future, as they join Singapore’s flourishing poetry scene.

NTU students at the launch of their book 'Kepulauan'.

NTU students at the launch of their book ‘Kepulauan’.

Two poets I was particularly happy to meet were Chee Lay Tan, and his translator Teng Qian Xi, who’s also an award-winning poet herself. Both have previously been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and we’re happy to report that they’ll be visiting us on the Writing Chinese blog later this year, to talk about their work together. For now, you can read Qian Xi’s great essay on translating Chee Lay’s poetry here.

We ended the conference in impressive style with ‘Dinner in Paradise’, right by Singapore’s beautiful Botanic Gardens. And three days of lively discussion is certainly enough to work up an appetite for some delicious food, not to mention yet more lively discussion, whilst soaking up a warm January evening…

So thank you to Professor Shirley Chew, Seeto Wei Peng, and the staff and students at COHASS for an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding few days. And we’re looking forward to seeing you in Leeds!

Thanks as well to the brilliant Jeremy Tiang for introducing me to what’s going on in the Singapore literary scene.

And last but not least, thanks are also due to Hwa Chong Institution, United World College of South East Asia, the Anglo-Chinese Junior College, and Tanglin Trust School, for their warm welcomes.


This entry was posted in Writing Chinese.

Writing Chinese January Update

It’s a new year, the new semester is just beginning, so we thought it was time for an update on what we’ve been up to, and what’s coming up!


First of all, our featured author this month is up-and-coming Shandong author Sun Yisheng 孙一圣 who, along with his translator Nicky Harman, has very kindly given us permission to reprint his surreal short story ‘The Stone Ox the Grazed’ 牛得草. Sun and Nicky have also provided audio recordings of the story in Chinese and English. We’ll be discussing the story all month on our forum, so please drop by and leave us your thoughts! (Email us if you have problems logging in). We’d love to hear what you think. (And of course the great thing about surrealist work is that we’ll allowed to keep guessing…!)

On a related note, ‘The Stone Ox that Grazed’ was first published by the wonderful Asymptote journal, which is a great champion of literary translation and world literature. Sadly, one of their major sponsors has pulled out, and they currently have a fund-raising appeal which will close at midnight on 29 January, the results of which will determine their future. If you’d like to read more about it or contribute, you can find their campaign page here. They have been an enthusiastic supporter of our project and others like it, so we’re crossing our fingers for them!

Snow_And_ShadowOn the theme of translation, our Bai Meigui translation competition is open and the deadline is 28 February and submissions are starting to come in. It’s a short piece by Dorothy Tse, and the competition is open to anyone so why not take up the challenge? We have an exciting prize which we’ll be announcing soon!

And if that’s given you a taste for translation, a translation summer school at City University in London, which will be featuring a class taught by the fantastic Nicky Harman, is now open for registration.


Nicky’s translation of our October author Chen Xiwo’s The Book of Sins (which created quite a stir in our network) has just been nominated for the Typographicalera translation award. You can see the full list of nominees and cast your vote hereVoting closes on 31 January 2015.

And Writing Chinese has been on the road! Along with a group from the University of Leeds, I’ve been at the Imagining Asia conference, held at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, as well as taking part in school visits. A full blog post on the conference will follow soon!

Finally, we have a busy programme of exciting events lined up in the next few months. Specific dates will be announced soon, but just to give you a taste of what’s to come…

February:  We’ll be holding a talk and discussion with invited guests on ‘Contemporary Chinese Fiction in a UK market: the publisher’s view’.

March: In collaboration with our sister project at Leeds, Staging China,there’ll be an opportunity to watch a new Chinese drama in English – Murder on the Lalian River, by Wan Fang, and attend a Q&A.

April:  We’ll be joined in Leeds by author and poet Han Dong 韩东 and his translator Nicky Harman, for a reading and Q&A.

May: Author A Yi 阿乙 will be visiting us for a reading and Q&A.

July: We’ll be finishing off the academic year with the Writing Chinese symposium – more news on this to follow soon!

This entry was posted in Writing Chinese.

Talking Translation: Ken Liu

Ken Liu
For the second in our series of interviews with translators, we’re delighted to be joined by the writer and translator Ken Liu. Ken’s fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Clarkesworld, among others. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, and his debut novel will be published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, in 2015. Ken has translated work by authors such as Chen Qiufan 陈楸帆, Hao Jingfang 郝竟芳, Xia Jia 夏笳 and Liu Cixin 刘慈欣. His translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem 三体, the first Chinese science fiction novel to be translated into English, has just been released by Tor Books, and at China’s Xingyun (Nebula) Awards on November 2nd he was awarded the Special Contribution prize for his translation work.

Exploring first contact, alien intelligence, as well as complex moral and philosophical issues, the Three Body trilogy has proved hugely popular in China, helping to spark a new wave of science fiction, and bringing Liu Cixin numerous awards, as well as a loyal following of readers.

We hope you enjoy the interview, here’s what Ken had to tell us;

Three Body is a huge undertaking… What drew you to this translation?

China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd (“CEPIEC”), the holder of the English rights for the Three Body series, approached me about doing a translation in 2012. By that point, I had translated and published a number of Chinese short stories, both literary and genre, including works by Liu Cixin. I think they were looking for someone who could not only do the translation but was also part of the Anglo-America genre community so that the translator could help promote the book.

I was a bit hesitant about taking on the project at first. I liked the Three Body books, but doing the translation would have meant putting my own novel on hold. However, I felt that I could offer the translation my unique skills as a genre author in addition to my cultural and linguistic knowledge, and I wanted to do what I could to give the book the best chance of succeeding in Anglophone markets. And so I agreed to translate the first volume, with other translators taking on the remaining two volumes. (- Joel Martinsen is the translator of the forthcoming second novel.)

As things played out, I became the translator for both the first and final volumes of the series, and it was a lot more work than I had anticipated. The final volume is especially complex, and I basically put my writing career on pause for the duration. I do think the effort was worth it, as I learned a great deal about the art of translation as well as writing fiction in general. But I think I’ll need a break now to recover and to get back to my own fiction.


This is the first time that a Chinese hard SF novel has been translated into English; was it a difficult process to find a publisher?

I wasn’t directly involved in CEPIEC’s process of finding a North American publishing partner, though my agent at the time and I did offer them advice and made some connections for them. I was really glad when Tor Books ended up as the publisher of the English edition, especially as that meant I got to work with Liz Gorinsky, one of the best long-form editors in the business. It was a pleasure to receive editorial suggestions from her, and I think she helped the book in a thousand ways big and small.

I also ended up doing a fair bit of publicity work for the book, translating a short story that Liu Cixin adapted from one of the episodes in the book as well as helping to pitch, translate, and place essays by Liu Cixin in various venues frequented by genre readers. I introduced the book to some prominent Anglophone writers in the field, and the responses have been very gratifying. David Brin, for example, has been instrumental in helping me to promote the book.

Can you talk a bit about the particular issues that arise when translating SF work that uses invented or very complex technological terms?

That actually turned out to be one of the least difficult aspects of translating a work like this. Since science jargon in Chinese is largely derived from English, the process was fairly painless. I also asked several physicists to vet my translation to be sure I got the science as well as the terminology right, and that worked out well. It’s good when you have smart friends who can save you from embarrassing yourself! (John Chu, in particular, was incredibly generous with his time and did a lot to help me get the technical bits right.)

Bridging differences in literary style turned out to be harder. There are things that Chinese readers are used to in genre literature (extensive use of fictional excerpts, long technical lists, switching POV mid-scene, etc.) that are not seen as often in Anglophone science fiction. I had to strike a balance between “rewriting” some of these to accommodate the preferences of the target readers and preserving a sense of the original’s unique style. Liz and I discussed some of these choices extensively, and I hope the result satisfies.

How closely did you work with Liu Cixin during the translation?

Liu Cixin

Quite a lot! I’d say that the process of translation made us into friends. That was great because I was a fan already. As a writer and a translator, I understand the importance of respecting the author’s words and vision, and I consulted him over any non-trivial change to the text. Liu Cixin was really wonderful to work with: patient, generous, knowledgeable, and insightful. We came up with many solutions together.

How has reading and translating Chinese SF affected your own writing? And conversely, how does your own writing affect your experience of translation?

That’s hard to say. I think I’ve learned a great deal about language and storytelling from all the authors I’ve translated, and I’m sure echoes of their influence show up in my own work—hopefully in positive ways. In some ways, translating is about analysing the voice of another author to find out how it works and then recreating it in another language and another culture. The experience is difficult but very rewarding.

Thank you so much for your time!

Thanks for having me! I hope you and your readers enjoy The Three-Body Problem and its sequels.


You can find out more about Ken and read some of his stories and translations online here.

Liu Cixin is interviewed by writer John Scalzi here, and tor.com has a fascinating article by Liu himself on The Three-Body Problem and Chinese science fiction.


This entry was posted in Talking Translation.

On Translation and Chilli Bean Paste

photo (1)

On Saturday November 1st, 35 keen translators – ranging from undergrads to postgrads, and from those simply with an interest in translation to professional translators – gathered together at the University of Leeds under the watchful eyes of translator Nicky Harman and author Yan Ge. Our task – to put together a translation of an excerpt from Yan Ge’s novel 我们家.

We’d been given the text in advance, to give us chance to prepare. So after fortifying ourselves with lunch and lots of coffee (clearly a key part of the translation process), we were split into groups and got down to work. Each group was a mix of nationalities and levels, which meant that no-one felt out of their depth or worried to ask questions. Nicky and Yan Ge were both on hand to provide guidance, and with each group taking a paragraph to work on, we came up with a full translation.

One of the most interesting things was the different ways in which people got around certain tricky problems. What do you call the place in a town where an outdoor cinema screen was set up? What’s a ‘wedding toast’? Is he fondling or groping? What exactly is going on in this brothel? And just how do you make chilli bean paste? (As to the chilli bean paste, we’re still none the wiser – Yan Ge happily informed us that she’s no idea, either – she just made it up, something her translator was somewhat horrified to learn.)

Having both author and translator there to give feedback was fantastic, and highlighted something that Nicky had brought up during the public talk in the morning – even if there are certain words and phrases which you can’t quite get over in the same way (Yan Ge, for example, uses a lot of Sichuan colloquialisms), you can always translate mood, narrative, and affect.

The day finished with an exercise on translated style and ‘translationese’ (and credit goes to translator Katy Derbyshire here, who came up with the exercise, which was then adapted by Nicky). We were given a worksheet with a number of short extracts, and had to work out which ones had been written in English, and which were translated. It was fascinating trying to work this out, and realizing how difficult it is! It certainly gave us all food for thought…

The day finished with our big announcement – the opening of the Bai Meigui Translation Competition. We’ll be writing more about this on the blog shortly, but you can find the details here, and make a start on your translation!

So thank you once more to Yan Ge and Nicky, and to all of our attendees.  And special thanks to Scott and Hannah for giving up their time to help out.

This entry was posted in Writing Chinese.

‘Taking on someone else’s voice’: Yan Ge and Nicky Harman in Leeds

Yan_Ge1Last week we were lucky enough to welcome author Yan Ge and her translator Nicky Harman to Leeds for the second in our series of public events. It was a great opportunity to hear about the ways in which an author and translator work together – there have been no fights yet, they assured us! (Though Yan Ge did point out that they were still in the honeymoon period…)

Yan Ge’s work is funny, incisive, and refreshingly down-to-earth, even when she sneaks in otherworldly elements like the eponymous ‘white horse’ of her recent novella (released as an e-book by Hope Road Publishing). In her novel 我们家, currently being translated by Nicky under the title The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, she shows an incredible ability to get under the skin of her characters – the hapless, unfaithful, but likeable Dad in particular. It’s this psychological depth that really attracted Nicky to her work, we learnt. Yet it has also got her into trouble. When she first published the short story that would become the first chapter of the novel (and which we’re discussing as our book club story this month), Yan Ge’s own dad was less than pleased… (Read the story here to find out more!) It took some time before he could be persuaded of its fictional credentials…

Both Yan Ge and Nicky were very open about the difficulties, as well as the joys, of their work. When you’re actually writing, said Yan Ge, you think, ‘I’m a genius! If I die now, Chinese literature will be safe!’ But then you look at your work the next day and go, ‘What was I thinking???’ Luckily, she has managed to overcome her own doubts, as well as the difficulties posed by a male-dominated literary world, in which comments such as, ‘She’s doing well, for a female writer’, are all too common. ‘I just want to be treated as a writer,’ said Yan Ge.


For Nicky, it is the window that she can provide onto Chinese writing that is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. ‘I have to be a chameleon,’ she said, ‘taking on somebody else’s voice.’ And it was eye-opening to learn just how much the translator does – beyond the challenges of the translation itself, the translator has to be ‘part of the spider’s web’, as Nicky put it – pitching to publishers, getting the author’s name out, and of course, giving up her Saturday to come and talk to us!

We also learnt about how fluency in another language and familiarity with another culture can affect a writer – Yan Ge told us that she uses English to think critically, but Chinese to think creatively. And she is, she said, a fan-girl of French philosophers. Yes, we were dubious, too, but she pointed out that she loves them for the stories they tell; as a writer, she is a ‘multiple agent’ – writing in Chinese, speaking English, reading French philosophers – all of this gives her different perceptions, ‘different getaways’.

So it was a great morning, and we’d like to thank Nicky and Yan Ge, as well as everyone who came to the event! The enjoyment continued in the afternoon, when our guests continued their hard work by leading a translation masterclass. That, however, deserves a blog post all to itself. For now, have a read of ‘Dad’s Not Dead’ (you can find it in both Chinese and English on our book club page), and head over to our forum to leave your comments! And if you weren’t able to make it to Leeds for the talk, you can watch our recording of the event, with Dr Frances Weightman chairing the conversation.

This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation.

Telling Stories: Yan Ge and HopeRoad Publishing


It’s nearly November, so it’s time for our next Author of the Month, and we’re very excited to be welcoming Yan Ge to the project, and to Leeds! Recently chosen by People’s Literature Magazine as one of ‘China’s Twenty Future Literary Masters’, Yan Ge’s writing is funny, warm, and insightful, turning a sharp eye on families, relationships, and small town life. She’ll be joining us on Saturday November 1st for a public talk, alongside her translator Nicky Harman. This promises to be a fascinating insight into the process of writing and translating. It’s free, and everyone is welcome! In the afternoon, we’ve got our translation masterclass, led by Nicky and Yan Ge, and we’re really looking forward to seeing some of our Writing Chinese network there! At the end of the workshop, we’ll be revealing officially opening our inaugural translation competition, so if you can’t be there on the day, keep your eye on this space for more details…

Yan Ge’s novella White Horse, translated by Nicky Harman, was released last week by HopeRoad Publishing, and we’re delighted that Rosemarie Hudson, from Hope Road, has taken the time to answer a few questions. HopeRoad is an independent publisher, supporting voices that are often neglected by the mainstream publishing world. Here’s what Rosemarie had to say:


Can you tell us a bit about what sets HopeRoad apart from other publishers?

There are so many writers, particular in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who are writing amazing stories but find it extremely difficult to reach their audience. This is due mainly to the big publishing houses not affording them time and money.  HopeRoad was set up for the purpose of telling the stories of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

Why e-books? What are the challenges and advantages of publishing this way? And do you see this as a future trend, particularly for world literature?

The advent of the technology drove me to decide on e-books over print although recently we have dipped our toes into paperbacks. There are more advantages than challenges when publishing e-books. The main advantages of digital publishing are the speed in which the book reaches the market, and the fact that your stock is not tied up in a warehouse. Also, of course, the book has a global reach and the cost is more affordable to those who can’t afford print.  And of course the reader has so many choices of readers on which to download their chosen book.

How do you choose which titles to publish?

When choosing a title there are so many questions one has to ask.  Did I enjoy the read, will the buyer like it, will it sell? First and foremost, I must like the book.

We’re really excited to have Yan Ge and her translator Nicky Harman visiting us in Leeds. Can you tell us a bit about how you first came across ‘White Horse’, and the decision to publish it?

We’ve worked with Nicky Harman before and she kindly introduced us to Yan Ge and her fabulous novel White Horse,  I am so delighted she did.

Thank you to Rosemarie for taking the time to answer our questions! Specially printed postcards with the e-book code for White Horse will be available to buy at our event on November 1st.



This entry was posted in authors, The Publisher's View.

‘Where there’s darkness there’s literature’: Chen Xiwo Q&A and Book Club

Well, we’ve officially launched our project, and we’ve been absolutely delighted by the response, both to our call to join the Writing Chinese network, and to our first event!

chen xiwo talk

Chen Xiwo’s visit to Leeds, along with his translator Nicky Harman and publisher Harvey Thomlinson, provided a fantastic start to Writing Chinese. We were especially pleased that Nicky, who has done a huge amount to help us with getting the project set up, could be here to talk about her work!

The narratives in The Book of Sins involve voyeurism, pain, violence and incest, yet they are also, as Nicky points out, very moral stories, and there is tenderness there, as well as violence. The transgressions they depict are never gratuitous, but charged instead with political and social meaning. They are also shot through with a strain of pitch black humour, something which spilled over into Chen’s entertaining Q&A!

From the very first question, ‘Where does this darkness come from?’, we plunged in to a discussion of censorship, sexuality, politics, writing and knives. When asked about his experiences of living in China, and the censorship his work has undergone, Chen remarked that, ‘Where there’s darkness, there’s literature’. Despite the difficulties, despite the fact that writers have more freedom to write elsewhere, Chen insisted that living in China is vital to his work, and our audience was fascinated to hear about his experiences.

So thank you to everyone who came to the event, and for all your questions! We’d also like to say thank you to our wonderful interpreter Feng Lin, who did an absolutely great job. And if you weren’t able to come in person, you can take a look at a video excerpt from the reading and some of the questions.

We also held our first book club meeting yesterday, in Costa Coffee in Blackwell’s Bookshop, to discuss ‘The Man With the Knife’. Tea was enjoyed, arguments were had (politely, of course), and we very much enjoyed delving in to the disturbing but often very funny depths of the story. And don’t worry if you missed out, because the discussion will in fact be continuing all month on our forum! So please do let us know your thoughts and questions.

But don’t say you weren’t warned…




This entry was posted in authors, Talking Translation, The Publisher's View.

Chen Xiwo: Rebel, by Harvey Thomlinson

46-Logo makedoTo continue our countdown to Chen Xiwo’s visit to Leeds on October 9th, Make-Do Publishing‘s Harvey Thomlinson tells us about Chen, his work, and his refusal to compromise. 

In June 2007, the Fuzhou office of China Customs intercepted a package addressed to a teacher of comparative literature at a local university. The customs officers ascertained that the package contained twelve copies of a book that had been mailed by a Taiwanese publisher to the academic, who was in fact its author. The book, a collection of short novels called The Book of Sins (冒犯书) was quickly deemed ‘prohibited’ because it contained the ‘pornographic’ and ‘anti-human’ novella I Love My Mum.

What happened next was possibly unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The author, Chen Xiwo, launched a legal case against China Customs for confiscating his book. For centuries, Chinese writers had more or less accepted the right of the authorities to act as censors of their work. If a work was banned then writers would typically agree to make a self-criticism. But Chen Xiwo went to court, and an uproar exploded in the Chinese media at the absurdity of a writer having his own book confiscated.

The scandal surrounding Chen Xiwo’s novel I Love My Mum in many ways epitomizes a writing career characterized by a refusal to compromise. Chen Xiwo is a child of the Cultural Revolution, and his work preserves the flavour of that Zeitgeist: the demand for an impossible ‘purity’, coupled with first-hand knowledge of the amoral darkness at the heart of human nature. Above all, an appetite for unrelenting struggle. For many years Chen went unpublished. Even when, in the early 2000s, he began to win recognition and prizes, his work continued to divide opinion due to its pessimistic view of human nature and its preoccupation with dark sexuality.

In 2007, The Book of Sins was published by China’s prestigious People’s Literature Publishing House (Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe). For some, this collection represents the pinnacle of Chen’s writing career to date. Like the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue film series, each story was supposedly inspired by one of the Ten Commandments. However, one story was missing from the collection as published in China – deemed beyond the pale even for a collection of such literary merit: I Love My Mum.

Even those who are not generally inclined to side with China’s censors may feel some empathy in this case. I Love My Mum concerns one of the deepest human taboos, incest – and it doesn’t pull its punches. Because of its status as a cause célèbre and the extreme reactions it provokes, I Love My Mum has in many ways become the work by which Chen’s writing is judged.

Chen Xiwo is from Fujian province, which he credits with having helped to shape his values. Fujian, in southeast China, adjacent to Taiwan, has historically been on the margins of the Chinese empire, usually receiving attention from emperors only in times of crisis. Fujian was also one of the first parts of China to feel the influence of western cultures, both in the late Qing dynasty, when the area enjoyed a commercial flourishing, and in the 1980s after Deng launched his opening-up policy and it became the host of one of China’s special economic zones. Yet in the first half of the twentieth century, on the ‘frontline’ of many of the conflicts that consumed China in those decades, Fujian became poor. These currents combined to give the province the flavour of a region apart, and may have helped contribute to what Chen describes as his ‘distance’ from the Chinese mainstream.

In the 1980s, Chen Xiwo got the chance to go to college where he studied with ‘Misty Poetry’ school poet Sun Shao Zhen (孙绍振.) Unsurprisingly, Chen was a radical student, to the forefront of the debate and ferment that developed in a more liberal intellectual climate in the middle of the decade. His parents grew concerned that he would get into trouble and decided to send him to study abroad. With prescient timing, he left for Australia in 1989, just a few months before the Tiananmen uprising. The events of 4 June confirmed Chen’s belief that it was better for the moment for him to develop his career outside of China. He soon moved to Tokyo where he embarked on a PhD in comparative literature, and altogether Chen was to remain away from China for seven years.

It wasn’t only developments in China that kept him away for so long, however; he had embarked on a love affair with Japan and Japanese literature. It was during this period in Japan that many of Chen’s important preoccupations as a writer took shape. Out of sympathy with prevailing realist currents in Chinese literature, he admired Japanese writers’ characteristic concern with individual psychology rather than social responsibility, with weirdness rather than conformity. His affinity for the dark concision of writers like Yukio Mishima and Junichiro Tanizaki is evident in his own work.

Chen’s stay in Japan also allowed him to further develop his interest in the theme of ‘perverse’ sexuality — although he disavows the term, as he regards all sexuality as ‘perverse’. To fund his studies Chen worked for a time as a Tokyo ‘mama-san,’ which may have influenced the topic of his ultimately unfinished comparative literature doctoral thesis: S&M. Chen’s view that ‘sex is always the first prohibition of power’ owes a lot to his reading of both the Marquis de Sade and French philosopher Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

In Chen’s view, Japanese literature was far superior to Chinese in its treatment of sex. Chinese writers wrote about sex in a superficial way, or else treated it purely as fun. Rarely did even the Chinese classics, like Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅), focus on the dark side of human sexuality. Chen’s works explore the link between dysfunctional society and dysfunctional sexuality, arguing that ‘extreme’ sexual behaviour is often the sign of a soul and a culture in a poor state of health. This terrain is one Chen returns to again and again.

Chen eventually returned to his native Fujian province and took up a comparative literature teaching position at a university there. In the early years of the twenty-first century his work finally reached a wider audience through the internet. Chen’s talent was gradually recognized; and in 2001 he won his first major award, the Chinese Literature Media Prize (华语文学传媒大奖), with My Dissipation (我们的苟且). This brought him to the attention of the literati, and his works won further awards.

Nevertheless, Chen’s relationship with the literary authorities remained difficult. It was impossible for his work to be published without being cut or banned, which engendered considerable misunderstanding of his writing in China, where he was sometimes viewed mainly as a pornographer even by (especially by) his fans.


I Love My Mum is often held up as proof of Chen’s anti-humanism. In fact, despite his interest in Foucault’s ideas, Chen draws back from Foucault’s contention that ‘human nature’ is a bourgeois construct. On the contrary, as the structure of Book of Sins with its framework based loosely on the Ten Commandments, suggests, Chen has traditional moral concerns. The novella does not merely advance a generalized bleak view of human nature, but a view of China specifically as a society ruined by its lack of freedoms and failure to place ‘people’ at its centre.

Chen deliberately sets I Love My Mum in a city that has been corrupted by the lust for wealth. The opening paragraph establishes the context after the police captain has been too zealous in his ‘cleaning-up’ operation. His superior reprimands him, saying: ‘The sex industry is a pillar of our city’s economy. Do you want us to get rich? Well, a city has to rely on whatever resources it has. What we have here is prostitutes.’

The murderer’s ‘amoral’ reasoning, far from being aberrant, echoes:that of the captain.

 ‘Morality?’ He laughed coldly. ‘Morality is for those who have enough …’

Chen’s China is a society where rank crimes such as the Tiananmen killings and the Cultural Revolution have gone unacknowledged, leaving a corrupting stench. When the neighbours in the story visit the house and the mother blocks the doorway, they comment that a sour smell seeped out from behind her body.

In Chen’s analysis, it is natural that political crimes should find their parallel in the sexual realm. For Chen, China is held back by a pathological inability to acknowledge wrongdoing. As the police captain reflects: … how often do we think about our souls? We continue on our individual paths to destruction. At the very start of the story, Chen makes it clear that the captain’s job is as much to cover up crimes as to uncover them: we first encounter him not arresting suspects but letting them go. Later, the murderer senses that the authorities do not really want to confront his crime of killing his mother. They are ready to downplay what he has done, to find excuses rather than confront the horrors of our human nature.

In Chinese society, Chen argues, there is no interest in truth; only in ‘business as usual’. Indeed, Chen shows that language itself is primed to deflect and conceal reality: the phrase ‘talking nonsense’ is used by all three main characters to deflect unpleasant realities. In Chen’s view, one symptom of this lack of moral awareness is failure to confront one’s true sexual desires, as when the police captain refuses to admit that he masturbates:

I had done often, of course …  But to his face I lied. I am a cop, I couldn’t admit to that.

Despite appearances then, I Love My Mum is very much a political novel. For Chen, in a China groaning with hidden corruption, the ‘morality’ of the narrator lies precisely in his eventual willingness to admit to his foul deeds, to shout them out. In Chen’s view, this kind of honesty is the best that can be hoped for in China at this time, and marks the beginning of a ‘human awareness’. Chen thus draws back from Foucault’s contention that ‘human nature’ is a bourgeois construct, and remains invested in a concept of the human which, however problematic epistemologically, remains the foundation of resistance to power.

Chen’s refusal to compromise has bound him in a lifelong love–hate relationship with the Chinese authorities. One suspects that Chen obtains a measure of satisfaction from it, as he once wrote the following: ‘In this sort of country where there is no hope, to continue to seek the courage to keep living is precisely to embrace an S&M relationship where one finds pleasure in being abused’. Yet this tension continues to fuel the creativity of an important voice of conscience in contemporary China. Chen Xiwo’s powerful works are an urgent cry for China to confront its social and political ills, and for his readers to acknowledge their most subversive desires.

This entry was posted in The Publisher's View.

Join the ‘Writing Chinese’ Book Club!


Our first event is just over a week away, and our book club is up and running! Every month, we’ll be choosing a featured author, and we’ll put one of their stories – in Chinese and in English translation – up on our site, as well as audio recordings where possible. We’re going to be having a book club meeting in Leeds every month – held in Costa in Blackwell’s Bookshop, just across the road from the university. Our first meeting will be on Wednesday October 15th, from 3pm to 4.30.

But we also have a ‘virtual’ book club, if you can’t get to Leeds. All you need to do is join our mailing list, and you’ll be signed up to the Writing Chinese network. Our discussions of each month’s story will be held on our forum. See here for more details on how to join.

So head over to our Book Club page to find October’s writer, Chen Xiwo, and his story ‘The Man with the Knife.’

But be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart…

This entry was posted in Writing Chinese.

Censorship: The First Prohibition, by Chen Xiwo

chen xiwo2

In advance of his visit to Leeds on October 9th, here are Chen Xiwo’s own words on his experiences of writing and censorship.

(This article was originally published as the preface to Make-Do Publishing‘s Modern Chinese Masters volume of his work, and is reprinted with their kind permission).


At about the same time that I learned an English edition was planned, a decision was reached in my case relating to The Book of Sins. From the start I had never believed that this work could pass the China censors, and sure enough the whole case that I had brought against China’s literary authorities was dropped. The reason given was that this was the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of New China.

My pessimism was a result of what had gone before. In 2007 an unabridged version of The Book of Sins was published in Taiwan, but copies sent to me in mainland China were seized, the most important reason for this being that the book contained the banned novella I Love My Mum.

In 2004 on its first publication in a southern literary magazine, this novella had been severely criticized. Beijing got involved and the Propaganda Ministry ordered its local office to take action. The executive editor of the magazine narrowly escaped the sack and had to submit to three weeks of criticism.

To be prohibited is normal for me. Basically, everything I have published has either been banned or else extensively revised. China still has legions of censors willing to act as loyal guard dogs. Their paid work offers them two types of satisfaction: one is money, and the other is the notion that they have convictions. They get paid and they can have convictions: what could be better than that!

Of course, most of these censors are hacks who don’t really believe in what they are safeguarding. Just like everyone else, they love to read banned books, and secretly they curse the government even more than other people. As soon as they put on their censor’s cap though, they are again the embodiment of the government, operating with the authority of the state.

Nowhere is it explicitly stated what is forbidden; the whole system depends on ‘self-censorship’. The editor of one literary journal once told me that he himself didn’t know what he could or couldn’t publish. As a result, most people operate within ever tighter restraints. They say it is “the people” restraining you, but “the people” never asked the government to stop them reading what they wanted.

In 2005, my novel Irritation was banned as soon as it appeared. Simultaneously, the same publishing house’s Serve the People by Yan Lianke was also banned. Irritation was banned because of sexual content, and Serve the People because of politics. The publishing house and its editors came under great pressure. At the time there were those who said that because Serve the People’s problem was politics, there was still hope in that case, because political lines are always subject to reversal, but Irritation’s problem was sex and so it could never be redeemed.

All through the ages, sex has been the first prohibition. But why does sex need this rigorous supervision? In any society, ordinary people, if they are intent on sex, won’t pay any attention to government, while rulers are even more likely to do as they please. But sex is political. Any regime will always put the Marquis de Sade in jail.

Of course, I am writing about public sex. Sex, if you can only keep it in the shadows, can still flourish. In today’s China, many places rely on sex to drive their economic growth. These are known as ‘prostitute economies’. Those raised in a culture of shame don’t believe in the omnipresence of God, only in the scrutiny of others. Twenty years ago, if people wanted to join the Communist Party, others would shun them; today things have changed.

In this world I don’t look for moral virtue, because there is none and there never has been. What moral codes mainly prove is that past generations have never lived up to them.

Of course the existence of these codes represents a challenge to evil. Even if people behave in a despicable way, there can be moments of illumination; even if they don’t change their behaviour, they may realize what they are doing. If this is all, it is already no small thing; the beginnings of human awareness. In I Love My Mum the central character has just this kind of awakening. In this respect he is not only no degenerate, he is even a model for morality in our generation. When he realizes that the object of his desire is his own mother, he shouts it out, wakes his mother up, lifts the covers, acknowledges his crime.

This is my style of writing, although lots of people don’t understand why I want to write this way. It embarrasses them. It makes people unhappy, makes them anxious. People look at me like I am an evil spirit. Well I prefer to be this kind of evil spirit, rather than an angel who sings all day long in praise of some “golden age of China.”

A country which has reached middle-income country level apparently still needs to sacrifice people to economics. Well a country without people at its core is worthless; a writer with no dignity, writing what he is told, accepting of being banned and censored, is a coward, and this writer will only write rubbish.

I am not willing to write rubbish, and I am not willing to be a coward.



This entry was posted in authors.

Talking Translation: Nicky Harman


For the first of our blog series on translation and translators, we’re delighted to be joined by Nicky Harman, who has kindly agreed to tell us a bit about her work. Nicky is one of the UK’s foremost Chinese-English translators, working on poems and novels by writers such as Chen Xiwo, Han Dong, Dorothy Tse, and Yan Ge. Her translation of Chan Koonchung’s The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is just out from Doubleday. And we’re very happy that she’s going to be joining us on October 9th for our launch event with author Chen Xiwo.

Here’s what Nicky had to tell us:


From choosing a project to pitching it to a publisher, how does the initial process work?

Publishers often ask me to pitch interesting work to them. After all, they don’t read Chinese so they rely on people who do – translators and literary agents – to make the introductions, as it were. There are very specific things you have to provide before a publisher is going to evince any serious interest: a sample translation, a synopsis, a profile of the author…Paper Republic has a whole page on how to prepare a pitch to the publisher. It is pretty time-consuming, and requires a good knowledge of the publishing world in general, and of the publisher you are pitching to, in particular. To be honest, I have only rarely managed to make a successful match between author and publisher. In practice, I mostly get asked by publishers to translate work they have already bought the rights to. That’s fine by me. The fact that they have already chosen the work reassures me that they know how it fits within their lists, and will do a good job marketing it.

How closely do you work with authors during your translation?

I have worked with some very good authors over the last few years, ranging from those who speak no English at all, to those whose English is very good. I’m always aware that I’m being paid to do a professional job, so if I come across a term or concept I’m unfamiliar with, I do a lot of research before I bat the problem back to the author. Then I write and ask a limited number of questions – and am almost always humbled by the trouble they take to answer me. Working with authors in this way is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

How much do you get involved after the translation is completed?

That’s a very interesting question. There are two main stages at which I will, or might, be involved. One is part of the translation contract, the other goes beyond it. First, there’s the editing process. Some editors have a very light hand, and the editing is scarcely more than copy-editing. Others want to make positive changes, usually involving tightening up the language and perhaps toning down florid metaphors – and that leads to a process of negotiation between editor, translator and the author too.
When the book is published, there is the marketing. Increasingly, authors are expected to take an active part in promoting their books, in person or using social media. A spin-off effect is that translators are getting involved in promoting their books too. It’s not something you get paid for, but both publishers and authors really appreciate it if you can persuade bloggers and reviewers to review and publicise your book. Of course, large publishers have dedicated departments for this. Even so, an individual translator can make a difference: I managed to get four of my favourite translations from Chinese discussed on a books-and-readers radio programme recently just by contacting them and offering to participate.

Finally, what’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Definitely the translating. It’s incredibly hard work, but I’ve always felt immensely privileged to be able to make good Chinese writing available to western readers. It’s a window on a different world. And, with my language and translation skills, I can open that window for other readers too.

Thank you so much to Nicky for taking the time to answer our questions!

This entry was posted in Talking Translation.

Countdown to our official launch!

It’s getting close… There’s just over a month to go before our official launch event on October 9th, so to accompany the countdown we’re going to be posting interviews and articles to the blog, introducing some of the translators, writers and publishers that we’re going to be working with over the coming months. We’ll also be putting up more details of our coming events, including our translation masterclass and competition, which promises to be extremely exciting!

We certainly can’t wait. Now, let the countdown begin…

This entry was posted in Writing Chinese.

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