Podcast | Nicky Harman: Translating China & Top 10 Reads

Celebrating this year’s Chinese New Year of the Pig, I discuss translating China with Nicky Harman on the launch of Paper Republic’s roundup of the most recent publications in English translation. Their 2018 roll call features thirty-three novels, six poetry collections and three YA and children’s books.

Paper Republic is a unique resource you won’t find anywhere else on the web. Its co-founder, Nicky Harman, is a leading light of the translation community in the UK and a passionate promoter of Chinese literature and culture. She is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors). Nicky is often away, but I managed to catch up with her for brunch on Valentine’s day to discuss the literature of a non-English speaking continent that is 4,834 miles away from this small offshore island.

Here is the Podcast of our conversation

We covered a range of topics, including which strengths are drawn by Chinese writers from the richness of their cultural background and national identity . . . the dark side of socialism and government censorship . . . Chinese women writers . . . sex and violence in contemporary Chinese fiction . . . issues faced by translators . . . the growing popularity of science fiction and martial arts fiction . . . and much more. Nicky frequently referred to the Paper Republic roll call of 2018 titles during our conversation.

Liu Cixin The Three-Body Problem bookblast diaryChina’s biggest bookish export after martial arts fiction is science fiction. The trend was kicked off when multiple-award-winning Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem won a Hugo award, the Oscars of the science fiction world. It is published in the UK by Head of Zeus.

Nicky asked household names (in China), Xia Jia and Stanley Chan a.k.a. Chen Qiufan, why Chinese sci-fi has become so very popular in the West. Here is what they had to say, in brief:

Xia Jia, (published by Clarkesworld, Year’s Best SF, SF Magazine; her short stories have won five Galaxy Awards for Chinese Science Fiction and six Nebula Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy in Chinese): “I believe the main reason is that China itself has been becoming more visible in recent years, with people of various countries curious about China’s present situation as well as its influence on humanity’s future. China has experienced a unique process of modernisation in the twentieth century. Such uniqueness can be found in Chinese science fiction as well as in literature and academic works. The question is: how to become modern on one hand and to overcome western modernity on the other. So Chinese sci-fi tackles the main concerns of the human community from a special approach, one which can provide readers with the insights and inspiration to imagine an alternative future.”

Stanley Chan (Chen Qiufan), (whose debut novel, The Waste Tide, was published last year by Head of Zeus): “Science fiction of every culture is bound to have its own traits, reflective of its language and culture. The biggest characteristic of China is the drastic transformation and fracture between different social forms. In a hundred years, China experienced the progress that the West took many centuries to complete. From the late Qing dynasty to the Republic of China, to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, to learning from the Soviet Union, to the reform-and-opening-up of the eighties, every stage lasted only about a few decades. There is something very science fictional and fantastic about this very drastic social transformation. At the foundation, the soil of rural China is still there, not thoroughly washed away. This has led to the co-existence of many different layers of society, which science fiction is best suited to present.

Here are our Top Ten Reads from China to whet your appetite and get you going!

Jia Pingwa, Broken Wings — trs. Nicky Harman (ACA Publishing, May 2019) Order Now

broken wings bookblast diary reading china From one of China’s foremost authors, Broken Wings is based on a true story. The novel follows the fate of Butterfly who is kidnapped and taken to a remote mountain village where there are no young women. Bright Black, the wifeless farmer who has bought her, imprisons her in his gloomy home, and rapes her. She gives birth to a baby son. The rape, the birth and Butterfly’s fading hopes and subsequent breakdown are described in her own voice,to harrowing effect.

Nicky’s interview with David Lammie, the editor of the book, in the Asian Book Blog is HERE

Jia Pingwa, Happy Dreams — trs. Nicky Harman (Amazon Crossing) Order Now

happy dreams jia pingwaAccording to Lively, a beggar could use culture, or force. A cultured beggar played and sang; the rough ones tricked people or took what they wanted by force. The Nice beggars included the Friendlies, who kowtowed and held out their hands in supplication; the Weasels, who knocked and weaseled their way into houses; the Bodhisattvas, who took their missus and their kids with them, to look more pitiful; and the Pretenders, who spun hard-luck stories or pretended to be cripples. The Nice ones didn’t like the Nasties, who created a ruckus so they could pick people’s pockets on the sly And some of the Nasties were bag snatchers, and broke into people’s houses.” (page 403)

Happy Dreams portrays life in fast-industrialising contemporary China which reveals the day-to-day lives of millions of people in both the small villages of the continent and the growing urban sprawl.

After a relationship ends badly, Hawa “Happy” Liu embarks on a quest to find the recipient of his donated kidney and a life that lives up to his self-given nickname. He travels from his rural home in Freshwind to the city of Xi’an with his devoted best friend Wufu, a pair of high-heeled women’s shoes, and an eternally positive attitude,

Happy and Wufu end up working as trash pickers sorting through the city’s filth, but Happy refuses to be deterred by such a grim start to their new life in the gritty, harsh city streets of Xi’an. In his eyes, dusty birds become phoenixes and the streets become rivers. When he meets gorgeous Yichun, he imagines she is the one to fill the shoes and his Cinderella-esque dream. But when the harsh city conditions and the crush of societal inequalities take the life of his friend Happy needs more than just his unrelenting optimism to hold on to the belief that something better is possible.

Jia Pingwa, Ruined City — trs. Howard Goldblatt (University of Oklahoma Press) Order Now

ruined city bookblast diary translating chinaA masterpiece of social satire, Ruined City was banned for seventeen years, allegedly because of its graphic sexual content. Now unbanned, it is considered by many critics and educators of Chinese literature to be one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.

The narrative focuses around the fate of antihero Zhuang Zhidie, a renowned contemporary writer, and his sexual liaisons and legal shenanigans. Set in a modern metropolis rife with power politics, corruption, and capitalist schemes, the novel is a vivid portrayal of contemporary China’s social and economic transformation novel and paradoxically evokes a nostalgic and romantic longing for China’s pre-modernised, rural past. Beneath the comedy and chaos, intellectual self-righteousness, seriousness, censorship, and artistic integrity are explored in a rapidly changing Chinese society.

Read an extract courtesy of Asymptote Journal, HERE

Jiang Zilong, Empires of Dust — trs. Christopher Payne & Olivia Milburn (ACA Publishing, May 2019) Order Now

empires of dust bookblast diary chinese featureGuojiadian is a tiny hamlet situated on dusty, salty ground in the rural northeast where nothing grows. Caught up in the maelstrom of Communist China’s rocky beginnings, the villagers must forge a path through the turbulence. Coffin-maker, Guo Cunxian, is a man of rare ability. trapped in a life filled with frustration and beset by false starts. His quest for a better future for him and his family pits him against the jealousy of his peers, the indifference of his superiors and even the cruel earth upon which he resides. Will his ambitions be fulfilled?

Empires of Dust is a dense book, nearly 700 pages long, but it is a compelling and well-paced read. The novel has an epic feel to it along the lines of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The people of Guojiadian display hardiness and resilience combating seemingly insurmountable conditions. There are moments of dark humour, for example, the Kafkaesque yet absurd horror of the authorities’ decision-making when they launch delusional policy initiatives in the face of food shortages during the Great Famine.

Jin Yong, A Bond Undone: Legends of the Condor Heroes Vol. 2 trs. Gigi Chang (MacLehose Press, January 2019) Order Now

The author Louis Cha who died last year aged ninety-four, wrote under the pen name Jin Yong. His books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide and been adapted into countless films, TV series, graphic novels and video games. Set in thirteenth-century China, A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes Vol. 1 (trs. Anna Holmwood), the first of his 12-volume epic Legends of the Condor Heroes, was published last October, and featured in a BookBlast® Diary top ten reads round up. 

bookblast diary A Bond Undone Legends of the CondorIn the Jin capital of Zhongdu, Guo Jing learns the truth of his father’s death and finds he is now betrothed, against his will, to two women. Neither of them is his sweetheart Lotus Huang.
Torn between following his heart and fulfilling his filial duty, he journeys through the country of his parents with Lotus, encountering mysterious martial heroes and becoming drawn into the struggle for the supreme martial text, the Nine Yin Manual. But his past is catching up with him. The widow of an evil man he accidentally killed as a child has tracked him down, intent on revenge.
Meanwhile, his true parentage at last revealed, Yang Kang, the young prince Guo Jing must face in the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals, is forced to choose his destiny. Will he continue to enjoy the life of wealth and privilege afforded to him.” — Books Kinokuniya

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem — trs. Ken Liu (Head of Zeus) Order Now

The award-winning phenomenon by China’s leading science fiction author, Cixin Liu.

Liu impressively succeeds in integrating complex topics – such as the field of frontier science, which attempts to define the limits of science’s ability to know nature – without slowing down the action or sacrificing characterisation. His smooth handling of the disparate plot elements cleverly sets up the second volume of the trilogy.— Publisher’s Weekly

1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beating to death her father, the physics professor Ye Zhetai, during China’s Cultural Revolution. He had refused to denounce the theory of relativity. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind. She is falsely charged with sedition for promoting the works of environmentalist Rachel Carson. In order to avoid punishment she has to work at a defence research facility involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Over forty years later, Ye’s work becomes linked to a string of bizarre scientist suicides and a complex role-playing game involving the physics “three-body problem” of the title. Nanotech engineer Wang Miao is employed by Beijing police to infiltrate the facility, and he becomes immersed in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredictable interaction of its three suns.

The Reincarnated Giant: An Anthology of Twenty-First-Century Chinese Science Fiction, Mingwei Song, Han Song & Theodore Huters (Ed.) FEAT. Cixin Liu (Author), the reincarnated giant chinese sci fi bookblast diaryJiang Chenxin (Translator), Dung Kai-cheung, Carlos Rojas (Translator), Egoyan Zheng , Cara Healey (Translator), Xia Jia, Linda Rui Feng (Translator), Chi-yip Ip (Translator), Cheuk Wong (Translator), Lo Yi-chin, Thomas Moran (Translator), Jingling Chen (Translator), Chen Qiufan, Ken Liu (Author) (Translator), La La, Petula Parris-Huang (Translator), Zhao Haihong, Nicky Harman (Translator), Pang Zhaoxia (Translator), Nathaniel Isaacson (Translator), Wang Jinkang, Chi Hui, Jie Li (Translator), Fei Dao, David N.C. Hull (Author) (Translator), Bao Shu, Adrian Thieret (Translator) | Columbia University Press | Order Now

This anthology showcases the best of contemporary science fiction from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic of China. In fifteen short stories and novel excerpts, The Reincarnated Giant opens a doorway into imaginary realms alongside our own world and the history of the future. Authors such as Lo Yi-chin, Dung Kai-cheung, Han Song, Chen Qiufan, and the Hugo winner Liu Cixin – some alive during the Cultural Revolution, others born in the 1980s – blur the boundaries between realism and surrealism, between politics and technology. They tell tales of intergalactic war; decoding the last message sent from an extinct human race; the use of dreams as tools to differentiate cyborgs and humans; poets’ strange afterlife inside a supercomputer; cannibalism aboard an airplane; and unchecked development that leads to uncontrollable catastrophe. At a time when the Chinese government promotes the ‘Chinese dream,’ the dark side of the new wave shows a nightmarish unconscious. The Reincarnated Giant is an essential read for anyone interested in the future of the genre.” — Good Reads

Death Notice, Zhou Haohui — trs. Zac Haluza (Head of Zeus) Order Now

death notice bookblast diaryIn Death Notice, the killer of two police academy cadets in a gruesome bombing resurfaces after eighteen years. An entity calling itself Eumenides releases a terrifying manifesto which could either be real, or a nasty vengeful prank. When Sergeant Zheng Haoming, the revered police sergeant whose failure to solve the original case haunted his career, is murdered, shock waves radiate through Chengdu, a modern metropolis in the heart of China’s southwestern Sichuan province. Eumenides’ cat-and-mouse game is about to begin.

Zhou Haohui, the latest author to catch the wave of Chinese crime fiction reaching international shores, had an unsatisfying job teaching engineering at a university outside Beijing in 2007 when he began publishing – online – the novels that would earn him a cult-like following in China. These books – a trilogy about a police hunt for a vengeful killer the law cannot reach – went into print two years later, ultimately selling more than 1.2 million copies. They inspired a serial on the streaming site owned by Tencent, the social media giant, that has, to date, been watched a jaw-dropping 2.4 billion times, according to his agent, China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation. A feature film went into production in April. The British and American publishers hope that it will catapult him into the ranks of other contemporary Chinese novelists – like Qiu Xiaolong, He Jiahong and A Yi – who have reached a global audience with fiction from China’s criminal underbelly.

Confessions of a Jade Lord, Alat Asem — trs. Bruce Humes & Jun Liu (China Translation & Publishing House) Order Now

Confessions_of_a_Jade_Lord_by_Alat_AsemI began to wonder: how do the Chinese view their so-called nationalities and how do their writers portray the effects on their people as they inevitably come into more frequent contact with the outside world, attend school taught in Mandarin, or migrate to Han-dominated cities? Likewise, how do Han authors harness ethnic motifs and depict minor­ity characters?
I read Uygur author Alat Asem’s Chinese-language novel Confessions of a Jade Lord (2013) while studying in Istanbul. His fiction is a Uygur world where Han rarely figure; his hallmarks are woman­isers, insulting monikers and a hybrid Chinese with an odd but appealing Turkic flavour.
Confessions of a Jade Lord immerses us in an underworld peopled by gangsters with their penchant for firewater-fuelled storytelling and philosophical reverie, appetite for Uyghur delicacies such as lagman hand-pulled noodles and whole roasted lamb, fierce loyalty to family and aghines, and a willingness to unsheathe their daggers when honour, brotherhood or jade require. Its bare-bones sentences are rife with details conveying the Uighur experience in China. He describes a man’s whitening beard like the striped skin of a Xinjiang cantaloupe, the equalizing justice of the region’s infamous winters, and the seedy underbelly of locals whose characteristics, amusing as they are unsavoury.” — Bruce Humes, translator.

Alat Asem, Uighur author born in 1958 in Keriya, Xinjiang, is the vice-chair of the Xinjiang Writers Association. He won the Jun Ma Literature Prize for his novel Confessions of a Jade Lord.

Read an extract courtesy of translator, Bruce Humes, HERE

Wedding in Autumn and Other Stories, Chiung-Yu Shih — trs. Darryl Sterk (Balestier Press) Buy Now

wedding in autumn bookblast diaryHaunted by memories of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s, nationalist soldiers from all over mainland China are doomed to live out their days in exile in Taitung County, along the southeastern shore of the island of Taiwan.

The three novellas in this collection tell stories of Chinese men who were forced to leave their loved ones behind and the aboriginal Amis locals they marry or adopt to try to make themselves at home, often in vain, for their wives and adopted daughters and sons end up knocked up, sexually abused, sold into prostitution, happily married, or insane. Set in Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s, Wedding in Autumn and Other Stories captures the suffering and the will to survive of marginalised people everywhere.

Nicky Harman was interviewed for The BookBlast® Diary in 2016, and her translation of Xu Xiaobin’s Crystal Wedding was reviewed.

Nicky took part in the inaugural BookBlast® 10×10 Tour last autumn, appearing at Waterstones, Liverpool, with Roh-Suan Tung @BalestierPress discussing author @YanGeMay and her novel The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, themed #MeToo Moments: men misbehaving in China.

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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