Writing Chinese

Category: Talking Translation

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

‘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.

‘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.

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.

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