Modern Chinese Texts in Czech: the Challenges of a Small Market

Interview with Zuzana Li who translates from Chinese to Czech and recently turned publisher as well. She lives in Prague.
Interview conducted by Filip Noubel.

You have launched a new publishing house and collection called Xin – which means ‘new’ in Chinese – dedicated to modern and contemporary Chinese fiction and non-fiction. Why such an unusual and quite daring attempt for such a relatively small country as the Czech republic in a language not understood outside the Czech republic and Slovakia? In other words – who is your ideal reader?

We have a strong belief based on our own experience that modern Chinese literature has in fact a lot to offer to the average reader who seeks different perspectives about China. The idea is that all intelligent people need diversified sources of information to picture the subject of their interest in a more complex way than hasty and often biased media can provide. Stories told by the Chinese about themselves are the best way to do that, to broaden and deepen the understanding of Czech people about different periods of modern Chinese history, about the people, their views and experiences. And I would argue that this is true not just about China actually: like all good literature, the best stories tell us a lot not only about “them”, but also about us. By reading about other people’s experiences, we can learn a lot about ourselves, too. Our ideal reader is thus an intelligent human being, who is keen to experience worlds that differ from the one experienced at home. Our ideal reader is an open-minded reader who likes reading quality literary works and exploring, thus an adventurer in human nature.

Chinese literature is a vast concept: which part of Chinese fiction and non-fiction remains unavailable in translation and why is that so?

Our collection specializes in modern and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. A large number of the important works of classical Chinese literature has already been translated into Czech by our predecessors, namely by Professor Oldřich Král, who has done a great deal of work, and still keeps on doing so. Due to our modern history and all its ups and downs, there are a few modern works available in older translations, mostly the works of Lu Xun and a few novels by Mao Dun, Ba Jin, Ding Ling, Zhao Shuli, Zhou Lipo, whose works have been translated by Jaroslav Průšek and his pupils in the fifties and sixties. Besides that, there is only one collection of short stories available from the eighties. After the political changes in Czechoslovakia in 1989, translation as an industry took a different turn, and Czech publishing houses started publishing fewer books, mostly by overseas Chinese writers. Very rapidly, modern Chinese literature ceased to be translated and published in Czech for ideological and political reasons, despite efforts by good translators to champion good authors and their books. Up to 2010, when the Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong was published as a bestselling novel, there was no interest whatsoever in modern and contemporary Chinese literature. Apart from indifference and ignorance, there seems to be a prejudice towards the works published in mainland China because of the assumption that no real great work of literature may come from a Socialist country. Which, in fact, is quite strange, when we think of the Czech great writers like Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma, Ludvík Vaculík, Bohumil Hrabal and others, who lived and created their best works in Socialist Czechoslovakia. We believe that opening up and presenting the literary works of China in good and readable translations to Czech readers is the only way to break through the walls of prejudices, so that the reader can make up his own mind.

A number of European publishers of Chinese literature often say Chinese literature is a difficult sell because most readers lack the cultural context and find reading Chinese literature challenging? Do you agree? Chinese literature in translation often tastes of ‘Orientalism’ or as you have said in one interview of ‘sinologism’ – how do you propose to overcome this challenge?

I am glad you ask. I find this to be one of the most interesting aspects of how Chinese literature is perceived. Orientalism made China popular in a broad sense; it was fashionable – and in a way still is – by making the Other very foreign. When we think of Laozi and his Daodejing, one of the most translated and popular books in the West and definitely in the Czech Republic, we must conclude that cultural context is not the real barrier; actually we may even conclude that on the contrary it is the only known way to the hearts of the readers. Who understands the cultural and historical context of Laozi today? Perhaps only a few scholars who have devoted their life to studying it. Yet Laozi attracts so many readers, but also poets, painters, new translators. The distance, but also the nature of the text (in translation!) leaves enough space for our imagination and our own interpretation.
With modern literature, the problem I see lays elsewhere: in “sinological” translations that remain too close to the original texts and thus make it more difficult for the readers to access it in their language and literary references. Who translates Chinese literature today? Sinologists, mostly academics, not poets, not literati, not writers. If we allow ourselves a more creative approach to the original text, if we translate it as a piece of literature, not as a document or an academic paper where historical accuracy is a must, “China” will still remain present and the reader will find it beautifully written and perhaps easier to read. At least, this is the goal we set for Xin; let’s see if it works.

Who are the authors you have and will publish and how do you select them?

We base our choice on literary personalities and their individual styles. With our limited human and financial resources, our publishing house cannot do wonders. In one way, we want to present the widest possible scope of different periods, styles, topics. We started with two icons: Zhang Ailing and Shen Congwen, who represent our debt to literary history and also two completely different writers. Now, we are coming up with Yan Lianke, Can Xue and Su Tong, and preparing Zhou Zuoren, Wang Zengqi, Wei Se, Wang Anyi, Yu Hua, Bi Feiyu and other famous and interesting Chinese authors. In a way, we are catching up with literary history, but we are also following contemporary literary production and if something stirs up our minds, we will try to purchase the rights and translate it. So the choice is also quite personal, but to be frank, if a work does not engage and inspire the translator, if it does not catch the heart and mind, can he or she do full justice to it in the translation?

Dreaming a bit: what would be the best mechanism to help support initiatives like yours: grants for literary translators? Chinese literature events and festivals in the Czech republic or Central Europe? Other initiatives?

Grants for literary translators are definitely very useful if they follow the translator’s choice that is based on is or her own judgement and the situation in the receptive culture. Czech literary translators are heavily underpaid. And a good translation needs time and effort, which is the most difficult thing to do, if you work under economic pressure all the time. So now, only devoted souls can do that. We were happy to learn about the new translation grants from the Chinese Writers Association, and we hope to find some support there. Organizing meetings of translators in a workshop is also a very good support for their work: they can exchange their experience and share the problems they encounter during their work. Communication between translators can in the longer run serve the quality of translations.
But back to publishing: our publishing activities could not survive without financial support from publication grants. We have received small grants from the Czech Ministry of Culture, and now also from the Ministry of Culture of China. This is not enough for our basic functioning, so we must either look for money elsewhere or sell well. The book has to go a long way before it reaches its reader. We have spoken of the many obstacles on the part of the end receiver. Inviting authors to come to Prague and arranging various meetings with readers, interviews, is also necessary to attract potential readers. Communication between publishing houses in Europe could bring better cooperation in organizing tours, so that a writer does not have to fly from China every time his or her book is published in one of the European countries, but can make a tour. This is but sheer dreaming, though, as the situation with the book market in France and Germany is so different compared to our little market. I was also dreaming about translation grants from the European Union, but up to now, I have only found out support for translations within Europe, but not from non-European countries like China. Small countries with their national languages and small markets thus have quite a disadvantage in bringing something big but important to their citizens. I think the European Union should invest into translations from non-European regions, too, since ignorance is the worst enemy.
We in Prague have only one advantage, and that is the reputation of Czech literature abroad: as long as Chinese authors want their works to be published in Czech, we will not perish. Regarding financial profit, we have lost, but that is the best thing about literature today: although many try to trick us in believing that books are simply products, we know they are not, they are much more than that!

About Zuzana Li