Found In Translation

How well are translated Chinese novels doing?

China’s literary scene is lively and prolific, yet it’s largely unfamiliar to English readers. Bookshops in London, where I live, are still shelving Mo Yan’s novels under “Y,” and respected literary critics reviewing Jia Pingwa are on first-name terms, calling him “Pingwa” in their copy.

I have been a literary translator from Chinese for 25 years, but I still puzzle over why so little of China’s contemporary literature gets translated, compared to other languages, and to the amount translated from English to Chinese; and why some Chinese authors go down well with readers, and why some Chinese novels (having been translated) sink without a trace.

Translated fiction from any language has a hard time in English. The depressing figure that used to do the rounds in literary circles was that only 3 percent of literature published in English annually was translated from other languages, colloquially known as the “3 percent problem.” Things are getting better: Neilsen BookData reported that sales of fiction translated from a variety of languages grew by 5.5 percent in the UK in 2018, though few works make it onto bestseller lists.

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author Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman lives in the UK. She translates literary fiction from Chinese, as well as blogging, teaching translation, and volunteering for

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