Despatch from China

Posted By: Kate Griffin, 11 January 2012

On the way back from Australia in December 2011, I spent a week in Shanghai and Beijing talking to Chinese writers, translators and editors about the editing culture in China (or lack thereof) and its impact on translation, and about support for writers. After a few days of intense conversation I gained a fascinating glimpse into the writing life in China today.

All those I spoke with agreed that there is both a serious need for more professional editing as well as a shortage of experienced editors within the Chinese publishing industry. Twenty years ago editors worked closely with writers on rewrites; nowadays, however, it is rare for an editor to follow a writer’s career, and writers don’t respect editors in any case.

Xu Zechen, a writer and an editor for People’s Literature Magazine, is one of the few editors who work closely with writers, editing structurally. However, he has had no real training: most people learn editing on the job. Xu noted that the number of publishing houses and magazines is high, so entry level qualification is low, and it’s hard to find people who take the job of editing seriously.

Editing in China mostly consists of copy editing, checking characters and keeping pieces within the assigned word length. Journals and literary reviews pay by the word, so people tend to be verbose; there’s a lot of repetition and plenty of scope to distil stories. Some Chinese writers don’t like to be edited, though, and among editors there is a strong sense of hierarchy and reverence for famous and older writers.

However, younger Chinese authors told me they would be happy to have their work edited more closely and recognise the importance of structural editing. There’s also a certain amount of self-editing. One writer said that after being rejected by several Chinese publishers because of sensitive content in his work, he simply took out the offending passages; his novel will be published later this year.

The translation into languages such as English is often the first time a book is edited, so translators would do well to avoid too much fidelity. Chinese is an informal language without many rules, but takes on a more formal tone when translated into English. Other issues include cultural references, word play and tenses. Some Chinese writers also mix regional dialects (Beijing, Szechuan, etc.) into standard Mandarin. Moreover, an excessively long style is now a style in itself. All these variables pose significant challenges for the translator.

‘There are also notable differences between Chinese and Western styles of writing,’ Xu Zechen mused. He felt that Chinese fiction ‘focuses on grasping the moment, finding the mystery and pulling it out, while Western writing is more scientific. Western writers offer lifelike portraits, while Chinese writers use one or two brushstrokes to evoke details, as in landscape art.’ 

Traditional Chinese literary style adopts rural, oral storytelling forms that are unfamiliar to non-Chinese readers, translator Eric Abrahamsen explained. Also, Chinese writers often try to get specific messages across, and use their characters for this purpose – the opposite of show-don’t-tell narratives in which story and characters speak for themselves. Such conventions can make characters in Chinese novels ‘seem like puppets’. 

Xu added that there are few good female characters in Chinese fiction, even by women writers. However, the reason Chinese writers characterise the way they do is that they are often writing for a purpose – to make a point rather than to offer a broader understanding of human nature. 

Many Chinese writers do welcome editing and feedback from their translators and editors. Sheng Keyi, author of the novel Northern Girls (to be published by Penguin in 2012), discussed issues with her translator such as the book’s title (whether to use a direct translation or change it altogether), how to render descriptions of faces (what is a ‘goose egg-shaped face’, for example?) and countryside customs. Penguin editor Mike Tsang praised translator Shelly Bryant’s economy of language and light touch, faithful but still attractive to Western readers.

Writer Zhu Wen maintains a lot of contact with his translator Julia Lovell, as she passes on suggestions from his English-language editor. When Zhu started writing, he wasn’t open to being edited, but after working collaboratively in film he recognises the value of other people’s opinions. Now he prefers to receive feedback on his writing as well.

The younger generation in China reads more foreign literature than original Chinese writing, according to writer and translator Kong Yalei. Unlike their UK counterparts, Chinese publishers produce a lot of books in Chinese translation in the belief that they will sell more copies of works by famous foreign writers than by Chinese authors, and always indicate the nationality of the author on the cover as a selling point.

The problem, I was told, is that Chinese publishers don’t edit translations well either. Some international writers have several Chinese publishers, using different translators each time, so there’s no consistency in tone and style. Few editors are specialised in editing translations, so many rely solely on the translator. Well-established translators are brands in themselves, but translators working into Chinese are not well paid: they receive only 60–100 RMB (£6–10) per 1,000 words, leading to rapid translations and low quality. As a result, people increasingly prefer to read the original English.

There is currently little opportunity for professional skills development for Chinese writers. The Chinese Writers’ Association offers some educational programmes, but at the moment these are more useful for networking. Creative Writing MFAs are a new phenomenon in China, so it is too early to evaluate their impact or effectiveness.

Others had quite a different view of the problems facing Chinese writers, however. It is easier for writers to find their place in China now, said one critic, as there are plenty of magazines, publishers and readers. With such a focus on enabling writers to make a living, it’s all quite comfortable. But this is not good for literature, the critic continued, as it lowers the aspirations of writers. Great writing, he felt, comes from struggle and desperation, not from writing within your comfort zone. 

Discuss …

Kate Griffin
January 2012

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