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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Found In Translation is a story from our issue, “Public Affairs.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.