Sustaining Translation

3 Aug

We need a more sustainable form of publishing to forward the cause of literature in translation, though as margins in book publishing continue to be cinched more tightly, such “sustainability” is a difficult venture for independent presses.

As most readers are well aware, a majority of literature in translation first hits shelves through independent presses or smaller arms of the large houses. In the case of independent presses, this only can happen because of funding from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, various state cultural organizations (which are funded by the NEA), and private foundations such as Witter Bynner and Lannan.

Over the last few years there also has been an infusion of support (in terms of finances and publicity) from fantastically important organizations such as the Polish Cultural Institute, Romanian Cultural Institute, Korean Literature Translation Institute, and the Chiang Ching Kuo Foundation. What this has meant practically in the U.S. is that prose and poetry in translation from these various literatures are popping up in the list of a number of independent and university presses. In theory this should be a good thing, though I’m not yet convinced that the support is always used properly by the beneficiaries, because, in reality, what it has meant is that one Taiwanese poet appears in a catalogue next to ten regional Midwestern neo-confessional poets. And more times than not, there is no continuity between the translated poet’s work and the remainder of the Press’ list. A few hundred copies are sold, and then the Taiwanese work disappears deep in some back list as the subvention received from the cultural organization was just enough to cover the cost of the printing and (possibly) a small translator advance. The Press can’t or won’t afford any additional time or resources, and the title dies. Related to this, there are any number of presses that have initiated a contemporary series of literature in translation, but generally there is only external funding for 3-4 titles, and as soon as the subsidy dries up, no more energy is put into the series. The model should be sustainable funding and not required subvention.


In terms of my current location within the world (Hong Kong), I am particularly interested in the “fate” of Chinese literature in translation (specifically from the Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan). There’s, of course, the global question of why certain works are chosen over others for translation – is it primarily an issue of choosing titles that “work” with a particular English-speaking audience? A literary ouija board?

The best editors act as curators, considering both the gallery space of their pre-existing lines and the shifting interests of readers/viewers. However, I also know that a certain percentage of editors are directed by finances rather than aesthetics, and that in the case of Chinese literature, since at least the late 1980s, the error has been in focusing on “dissidence” rather than “dissonance”. Instead of judging a work based on literary merit and doing something new, editorial focus groups are run to ascertain which work will sell best, based on the current political climate. This is not something specific to Chinese literature, though with China often at the forefront of world news, it will more than likely continue to be a reality for years to come. Similar trending followed the rise and fall of Russian literature in translation throughout the Cold War and into the birth pangs of Glasnost, and there was a lot of very bad Russian literature translated because of certain authors’ socio-political importance.

As a practical example of what’s now, in looking at a selection of titles being published in an upcoming season by 100 independent presses based in the US and UK, with 25 of these being presses that regularly (or at least occasionally) include translation in their lines, fewer than 15 out of more than 500 books are works in translation. In terms of Chinese literature — only one of these books is by a contemporary author and the other three Chinese titles are retranslations of Tang classics and Confucian standards. If an independent literary press can sell through 1,000 copies of an unknown contemporary author in translation over a couple-year period of time, the press has done relatively/very well with that title. In most cases, the combination of university libraries and top independent accounts will account for 300-400 copies. In a best-case scenario, the press then hopes to double that amount when adding in individual bookstore and online buyers and events.


So, end on an up note and bring it all together. Let’s have three who are doing good for Hong Kong?

MCCM Creations
Since entering the world of book publishing in 2001, MCCM’s aspirations have remained consistent – to bring readers original and inspiring books from authors and designers who share a passion for books as objects, as well as a strong desire for exploring hybrid concepts. Cross-disciplinary realities are at the core of MCCM – fusing illustration, the visual arts, design, architecture, photography, sociocultural criticism and literature.

Dung Kai-Cheung
A longtime literary light of Hong Kong, Dung Kai-Cheung’s novel The Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City will be hitting the world in English translation through Columbia University Press in 2012. Translated by Bonnie McDougall, Anders Hansson, and the author, reserve your copy[ies] now.

“Dung Kai-cheung (1967- ) was born and raised in Hong Kong. He first achieved literary fame in 1994 by winning first prize in Taiwan’s Unitas Eighth New Writer’s Award with his novella Androgyny: Evolution of a Non-Existent Species (Anzhuozhenni: yige bu cunzai de wuzhong de jinhuashi). Since then, almost all of Dung’s works were published in Taiwan. Dung Kai-cheung is a theory-minded writer. The Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City is a perfect example of how Dung utilizes his academic training in creative writing. The novel combines various Western sources: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Umberto Eco’s On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1, and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. The word “archaeology” in the subtitle naturally brings to mind Michele Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge. In terms of defying conventional genres and confusing the boundary between the factual and the fictional, Dung also has Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths in mind. The Atlas is a hybridized text not only because of its diverse sources but also because it ruptures generic boundaries.” [Revised slightly from Chen, Lingchei Letty, Writing Chinese: Reshaping Chinese Cultural Identity. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).]

Muse Magazine
At first, one of the finest print mags in Hong Kong on the art, culture and literary scenes, and now migrating primarily online, with the possibility of books and other non-digital objects in the future. Check back often to see where things are headed.

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