Penguin has just announced that they are translating ten classic books into Chinese which will be hitting the mainland in November. Here’s the list:
Cervantes Don Quixote
Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights
Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre
Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
Dante Divine Comedy
Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment
Leo Tolstoy Resurrection
Herman Melville Moby Dick
I wonder how they’ll be received? I’m not sure how many have been translated before, if any. A lot of modern Chinese authors (and by modern, I mean 1919 May Fourth writers) did read Tolstoy and Dickens and others, but I’m fairly sure that they mostly read them in Japanese because Chinese translations simply weren’t available. Also, their concern at that time was specifically to create a new literature to aid China’s social revolution, and translated literature played a big part in making that happen. The times have changed, and as the author of this article notes, “the most popular publications are usually management guides, self-help books and biographies of the rich and famous”. This is because these books are what meet the need of China’s urban populace at this time – I’m not sure if a leisure reading market even exists. There is no such thing as nationwide best selling lists that are available in book shops; each book shop has its own list of bestsellers, which vary depending on what that particular shop stocks, and books on English language learning are invariably up there somewhere.
I would have thought Penguin would be better translating some of China’s classics for the Western markets. There is such a vast, rich literary tradition in China, and with the surge of interest in everything to do with China, surely the country’s significant literature will soon catch the public interest here in the West. Everyone knows Tang dynasty poets are to be admired, but what about the four great story cycle novels – who even knows what they are? What about all the revolutionary authors from the 20th century – Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, Lao She, Mao Dun, Ding Ling? None of these are widely available, if available at all. Penguin currently carries two Chinese classics – The Story of the Stone (extremely long, undoubtedly a classic, hugely popular in China, but perhaps not the best to start with if you are new to Chinese fiction) and Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu, which I haven’t read. Of course, since winning the N0bel Prize for literature, the works of Gao Xingjian have been translated and are available almost everywhere, and there are a few contemporary authors who are regularly published but by and large, Chinese fiction is not translated.
Maybe this will change soon. I find it ironic that to find English translations of many of the authors I mentioned above, one has to go to China. While I’m waiting for more English translations of Chinese authors, I hope China enjoys Dante!