East Finally Meets West in the Book World

American and British publishers try to sell Chinese fiction | “The pitch for a book doesn’t have to rely on painting China as exotic”

Christina Larson

Although China is now the world’s second-largest economy, few Chinese writers are read outside the country or inform the global conversation. In 2012, American publishers purchased translation rights for just 453 foreign titles, about 3 percent of the total books published in the U.S. Of those, just 16 were books first published in Chinese, according to records kept by Chad Post, publisher of New York-based Open Letter Books press. (The percentages for translated books in the U.K. are similar, according to Open Letter.) “China has the largest reading public in the world, but until recently we’ve had relatively little access to its literary scene,” says Post. Yet he is optimistic about the future of translated Chinese works in America. “People are more familiar with China. The pitch for a book doesn’t have to rely on painting China as exotic and crazy anymore.”

Last fall China’s Mo Yan, a novelist known for his magical realism, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, turning global attention to mainland writers. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California at Irvine and the author of China in the 21st Century, says he increasingly assigns Chinese contemporary fiction to his classes. Recently Amazon.com launched AmazonCrossing, which sells e-books in translation; in March it published its first book translated from Chinese, Xu Lei’s thriller Search for the Buried Bomber.

The most active scout for new Chinese voices is Penguin Books, which just merged with Random House. Some Penguin titles, such as Northern Girls, a fictionalized account of migrant factory workers’ lives by Sheng Keyi, made their debut in the anglophone world in Australia. “Australia’s increasing Asian identity means there’s greater interest in Chinese authors,” says Jo Lusby, managing director at Penguin China.

Books translated from English continue to flood into China. According to the China Book Business Report, a trade paper owned by the China Publishing Group, Chinese publishers bought 14,708 foreign book copyrights in 2011. Recent bestsellers include Who Moved My Cheese?, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Steve Jobs, The Da Vinci Code, the Harry Potter series, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. (In 2012, J.K. Rowling earned $2.41 million in royalty payments from China, and Walter Isaacson took in $804,000, according to an annual list published in the Huaxi Metropolitan Daily in Chengdu.)

Translator Eric Abrahamsen helps edit Pathlight, a new quarterly magazine of translated Chinese literature, from his home within a traditional Beijing courtyard complex. The next issue of Pathlight, the sixth, will take “speed” as its theme. It will feature a story by the acclaimed novelist Ren Xiaowen about families in Shanghai coping with eviction and the demolition of their old homes. “I only write about people I am familiar with,” says Ren, “people facing great insecurity.”

The bottom line Chinese publishers bought the China rights to more than 1,400 foreign titles in 2011. The reverse flow is much smaller.


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