The 2nd Reading Chinese Book Review Network Residential Weekend

Written by Halima Chen

“The Chinese Book Review Network plays an important role in supporting translation and promoting cultural exchange, and the Reviewers’ Weekend is an essential component in its success — there is nothing like having lovers of Chinese literature meeting face to face, across languages and cultures and nationalities. The opportunity to discuss books from across the Sinosphere and hear from their writers and translators is invaluable. While the network’s online work is important, the weekend provides a space for deeper exchanges that take place in person. These encounters build bridges that will ultimately enrich our culture by diversifying it.”
Book Review Network member

Undeterred by severe weather warnings and the very real arrival of what weather-forecasters dubbed ‘the pest from the West’ (aka several hours of heavy snow), we recently held our second Book Review Network reviewer weekend in Leeds. In spite of the predicted travel chaos, we convened a lively group of 11 reviewers and seven speakers and guests at Weetwood Hall Hotel and Conference Centre over the weekend of 17 and 18 March 2018. The discussion focussed on four books by contemporary Chinese writers that participants had read in advance. Two of the authors were present to introduce their work, while translators and other speakers led sessions on Chinese-language writing in Singapore, promoting new Chinese writing to global markets, and the eternal conundrum of translating the taboo – in other words, how translators go about making earthy Chinese-language profanities work in their translated version. As in the case of our previous hugely successful book review weekend in November, this event was again made possible by the generous support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

As well as providing an opportunity for our book reviewers to meet each other and marvel at just how much snow can fall in only a few hours, the primary aims of the weekend were to discuss four books: Young Babylon by Lu Nei, translated by Poppy Toland (AmazonCrossing, 2015); Unrest by Yeng Pway Ngon, translated by Jeremy Tiang (Balestier Press, 2018); The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman (Balestier Press, 2018); and the short-story collection Cantonese Love Stories by Dung Kai-cheung, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Anders Hansson (Penguin, 2017).

Author Lu Nei and interpreter Doris Zhang, with review network members

Over the course of the two days, participants were divided into small groups to exchange opinions about the four books and to come up a range of discussion questions in both English and Chinese for each of the books. The idea being that these can be used to prompt discussion by anyone who might want to use one of the featured books in their own book club. These will be shared with publishers and posted on the Writing Chinese website. In addition, all the book review network reviewers who attended the event have provided a full-length review of each of the four books. These are being shared with authors, translators and publishers, and also posted on the book review section of our site.

Author Yan Ge with review network members

In between discussing the featured works, reviewers also had the chance to talk directly to two of the books’ authors: Young Babylon author Lu Nei and The Chilli Bean Paste Clan author Yan Ge about their work and to learn first-hand how they approached the writing process. The story of how these and other works of contemporary Chinese-language writing make their way into the hands of non-Chinese readers around the world was fleshed out further by two of the featured books’ translators Jeremy Tiang and Nicky Harman, and guest speaker Rachel Henson, who heads a creative translation studio focusing on literature, film, theatre and visual art by Chinese speaking artists and writers. All three shared their experience of rendering Chinese-language literature into English, offering insights into the translation process – the interaction (or not) between writer and translator, and the role of the publisher and intended market as possible arbiters of style and taste. Finally, the other guest speakers at the event, the head of the International Cooperation Department at the People’s Literature Publishing House, Liu Qiao, talked about the challenges of getting Chinese literature to Western audiences from the publisher’s perspective.

“The best part of the weekend was certainly getting to meet the authors and hearing their stories. Seeing the authors in person was inspirational.”
– Book Review Network member

Author Lu Nei, translator Rachel Henson, and interpreter Doris Zhang

The weekend began with a short talk by the Chinese worker-turned-writer who bills himself as “one of the least-educated young writers in China”, and who was also the featured author on our website bookclub in March. Lu Nei said that Young Babylon, his first novel and also the first to be translated into English, was his attempt at retrospection. He said that, because the novel was published 10 years ago in China, he didn’t get many opportunities to talk about the work much there any more, but was pleased to have the chance to discuss it here in the United Kingdom because it gave him an excuse to think back on the past. In fact, he said that the journey north from London to Leeds by train the day before had triggered not-altogether-pleasant memories of how public transport in China used to be, specifically, the train between Beijing and Shanghai in 2008, when his novel was published in China. Although he admitted to having been a rebellious youth while growing up in east China’s Jiangsu Province, much like Young Babylon’s protagonist Lu Xiaolu, who also comes of age in 1990s China, a time of huge economic upheaval as China transitioned from state-owned to private enterprise, Lu Nei said that he could not say whether or not the novel is autobiographical; he had “no answer” to that question. The book was written 10-20 years ago, he said, so many of the memories were now blurred and he was no longer sure what was real and what was imagined. To answer the question of whether or not he was Lu Xiaolu, he said that he had once asked his wife if this was case. Her response was an emphatic “no!” However, he added that they had both agreed that Xiaolu was definitely likeable and they could see him as a best friend.

The discussion then moved onto the work of the translator. Poppy Toland was commended for her excellent translation of the novel. Lu Nei said that although Poppy understood that the novel was tackling serious content – the plight of blue-collar chemical factory workers working in appalling conditions and facing unprecedented job insecurity on account of economic change, she conveyed the human, while managing to keep the story light and humorous.

Rachel Henson then spoke about how she had approached her translation of Lu Nei’s short story Keep Running, Little Brother (translated for Read Paper Republic and reprinted on our website in English and Chinese), and in particular, the question that Poppy Toland must also have faced: how to translate the continual stream of obscenities that flow from the mouths of each story’s respective protagonists. The translation of swear words from one language to another is fraught with difficulty, she said, as different cultures accept different levels of profanity. As well as being highly culturally-sensitive, swearing is also extremely personal, relating to age, gender and social class, she said. Certain slang terms and obscenities date very quickly, she noted. Essentially, translators need to be aware that ultimately the target audience and publisher will dictate what level of profanity is acceptable in a translated work. Generally speaking, American publishers tend to be more squeamish about swearing than UK publishers, she said.

Fellow Chinese writer, Yan Ge, continued the discussion of Lu Nei’s Young Babylon, which she said her publisher had passed on to her shortly after its publication in August 2008, just four months after the Sichuan Wenchuan Earthquake, saying, “You have to see this!” Yan Ge said that the book resonated deeply with her, as she read it in the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of her native Sichuan, where she was partying and drinking with a group of other writers, poets and critics in a celebration of a nothingness that was “desperate, but great,” as they camped out on the streets, afraid to return to their quake-damaged homes. She said she found Young Babylon “quite inspirational.” The young protagonist’s struggle in some way mirrored the impermanence or fragility of life that she and her fellow Sichuan residents were experiencing, she said; “the feeling that the city is glass, but somehow still rising…”

“As a student, this weekend proved especially important to me in terms of considering my future career. Having the opportunity to meet people who work with mandarin and translating languages was incredibly inspiring. Throughout my studies I have always enjoyed reading Chinese translated fiction and this weekend gave me the opportunity to discover more about the work that goes into the books behind the scenes. Especially pertaining to the complexities which need to be worked through and the elbow grease required to translate a work of fiction.”
Book Review Network member

Author and translator Jeremy Tiang discusses his work

After lunch, writer and translator Jeremy Tiang talked about his work translating the Chinese-language novel Unrest by Singaporean writer Yeng Pway Ngon. Probably one of Singapore’s best known writers and the recipient of numerous awards for his writing, including the three-time winner of the Singapore Literature Prize (2004, 2008, and 2012), Yeng’s work is more widely read in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where his work commands bigger print runs. According to Jeremy, Chinese-language literature is undervalued in Singapore. This is largely because the complex ethnic mix and multiple Asian and British influences on Singapore over the course of its history have led to significant divisions in language and ethnicity, he said, with the various different Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Hainanese and Hokkien) being unified in mandarin Chinese, which in turn is subordinate to the official language of British English. He lamented the fact that there are now fewer and fewer Chinese writers in Singapore and harkened Yeng’s work to “a lost past”. When translating Yeng’s uniquely Singaporean Chinese, Jeremy said that he felt compelled to use Singaporean English idioms, which he felt gave a more authentic voice to Singapore literature. He said that his own fluid identity, as a Singaporean national born of Sri Lankan-Chinese parents and now living in the United States after having spent several years studying in Britain, has helped his work as a translator because he can easily move between and “inhabit different spaces.” You can read more about Yeng, who was our featured author in February on our bookclub. We featured Jeremy himself in December 2017, to mark the publication of his novel State of Emergency.

Later in the day, the head of the International Cooperation Department at the People’s Literature Publishing House in China gave a talk about ‘New Chinese writing going global: A publisher’s view’, in which she stated that her publishing house is looking for greater cooperation and interaction with overseas publishers and translators. Liu Qiao said that there were three “obstacles” to getting Chinese literature to Western audiences: the translator’s fees, time, and preference. While the first two were negotiable, only the third – the translator’s preference or choice – was problematic. This was largely because Chinese literature is less popular in the West, a situation born of ignorance and Western readers’ uncertainty about what to read and whether or not they might like it, she said. The solution, she declared, was long-term investment. With this in mind, she said the People’s Literature Publishing House produces its own mini guides to Chinese authors and their works, including translations into English. Furthermore, they are considering launching prizes for translation and looking to collaborate with established Chinese literary translators in the UK and beyond.

In the evening, participants watched a short documentary film, Ruined City, directed by Ye Lang, which focused on the impact of award-winning contemporary Chinese writer Jia Pingwa and his 1993 novel Fei Du (Ruined City). Although the novel was banned by China’s State Publishing Administration immediately after publication, because of its explicit sexual content, it has since become a classic. The lively portrayal of contemporary China’s social and economic transformation is now seen as one of the twentieth century’s most important novels, according to critics and scholars of Chinese literature.

Author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman

On day two, Yan Ge and her translator Nicky Harman gave a wonderful talk about the genesis of Yan’s first full-length novel for adults, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, published in Chinese as 我们家 in 2013, and their collaboration on the English version, which finally came out in May 2018. Yan Ge said that a draft of the story, which she jokingly said she had wanted to call “her” family because she wanted to be a part of such a dysfunctional family, caused quite a ruckus within her own family of poets, teachers and academics from Sichuan Province in the west of China because of all the swearing and sex scenes. Yan said that her decision to go ahead and publish the novel was her first act of rebellion against the traditional role of “good” daughter that she felt she had had to live up to. She said that the family rift only healed once her father read the novel in full.

Author Yan Ge and cake (celebrating the launch of her novel The Chilli Bean Paste Clan)

When talking about the writing process, she said, perhaps shockingly, that she had been compelled to “fake smoke” (lighting, but not inhaling) cigarette after cigarette to get into character and write the lead male character – dad, the antihero. She said that as a writer you have no social or domestic identity. “Gender and ID become irrelevant,” she said. “You work for your book.” When they realised the book was written by a woman, Chinese readers were surprised, she said, because the writer was not what they had expected given the novel’s focus on the male protagonist and his penchant for wine, women and obscenities. On re-reading the novel, she said that she realised she was angry and disappointed as a woman, and that her sarcasm jumps out at her now. She was offended by the way men treat female escorts in China, she said. Nicky echoed this by saying that the book is written by a woman who is hurt – the writer / narrator is chillingly distant as she makes her cold revelations about her family.

In the afternoon, Rachel Henson gave a short introduction to her first draft of the English translation of the cult Hong Kong children’s series featuring the cartoon pigs McMug and McDull. Drawn by cartoonist Alice Mak (麥家碧), McMug first appeared in Hong Kong, in 1988, as a comic strip in a weekly news magazine, with stories written by Brian Tse (謝立文). The cartoons became wildly popular in Hong Kong and featured in books, films, television programmes, stationery, and even on duvet covers and bedding! Despite their commercial success in Asia, Rachel wondered why the cartoons hadn’t been marketed overseas and questioned whether or not there might be a market for an English version of the books. Although there is a distinctly local feel to some of the stories, particularly those that deal with Hong Kong festivals and customs, it was generally felt that the characters were likeable and some of the stories might have universal appeal.

Finally, following on from group discussions of the weekend’s fourth book, Cantonese Love Stories – a collection of short stories by Cantonese writer Dung Kai-cheung, the day ended with a round-table conversation about the projects that people are currently working on and also what a heads-up on what was next for the Writing Chinese / Reading Chinese project, including a residential weekend for UK mandarin teachers focussing on using Chinese literature in the classroom (28-29 April 2018) and an exciting symposium on non-Han fiction coming up in September.

The residential weekend and the Reading Chinese Book Review Network have been made possible through the generous support of our funder, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and our publishing partners, Penguin Random House North Asia and Balestier Press, as well as Muse and AmazonCrossing, who have kindly provided the books for review. If you’d like to join our network, you can find out more here, and also read some of our participants’ reviews!

“The residential weekend is an unprecedented opportunity for scholars and literary enthusiasts alike to come together and discuss recent developments in Chinese literature in translation. This program gives much needed recognition to translators (a role that is all too often overlooked), and gives participants the opportunity to interact with some of the upcoming stars of China’s literary scene. Sessions were accessible for the scholar and layman alike. As a PhD in contemporary Chinese literature, it is rare to have the chance for sustained discussion with Chinese authors and their translators. The weekend’s activities renewed my passion for teaching literature in translation, and provided a lively forum for the discussion of new novels. The residential weekend is a one-of-a-kind program, placing Leeds on the cutting edge of Chinese literary studies.”
– Book Review Network member