Translator’s Cut: Eric Abrahamsen (China)

In this third edition of “Translator’s Cut” I bring you my conversation with Eric Abrahamsen, a translator and publishing consultant living in Beijing. My goal with these interviews is to introduce readers to translators and the literature they translate from around the globe, one continent at a time. The first two interviews in the series feature Martin Aitken (Danish) and Roanne Kantor (Spanish: Argentina). Look for my interview with Swahili translator N.S. Koenings in the next issue of the SFWP Quarterly.


K.E. Semmel: You live in Beijing. You’re an award-winning translator and a publishing consultant. You’re an advocate of Chinese literature abroad. So let’s start with the most obvious question: How did you get started working with Chinese language and literature?

Eric Abrahamsen: I came to China in 2001 to study Chinese—I was in college at the time, and there was a language component to the international studies degree I was doing, and I wanted to be in China while I was studying the language. I had a year of language to do, then I was done. As I recall, I just stayed here because I had no very pressing reason to go back, though later friends told me I was hell-bent on having some “China adventure,” which I guess in retrospect is what happened.

At first I thought I would be a journalist, and it took me years to figure out I’m not really cut out for journalism. During those years my Chinese continued to improve, and eventually I thought I should try to read some Chinese fiction. My first love has always been literature, though I never wanted to study it, or try to make it my “profession,” as it seemed that would take all the fun out of it. Anyway, I had the good fortune of starting out with Wang Xiaobo—who is still one of my favorite writers—particularly his essays. As I read, I just naturally tried to translate it; it seemed like the appropriate response to writing that I liked. It was a few more years before I tried to publish anything, but I was already pretty much hooked.


KES: What is Paper Republic? What role does it play in exposing the broader international community to work written in Chinese?

EA: Paper Republic started as a kind group blog for translators, a place where we could talk to each other about what we were reading and translating—basically an online community that grew out of an actual community of translators living in Beijing, back when you could do that cheaply. Later we discovered that people were interested in what we were saying, and were using the site to learn about Chinese literature. In some cases, publishers were using it to look for material. We gradually shifted it to be a little more outward-facing; to more intentionally be a window for people abroad to learn about who China’s authors are, and what they’re writing.

Later I turned Paper Republic into an actual company, and it’s the umbrella under which I do most of what I do: editing, publishing consulting, events organization, translating… way too much stuff.

The website itself has changed in nature over the years. For a while I neglected it, for another while I tried to make it a little more publishing-industry focused, but I’ve found that what really interests me is the content itself, and I’m coming back to that. Right now I’m focusing on fleshing out our database of Chinese authors, works, translations and publications, and also experimenting with using the site as a publishing platform. We’ve got free-to-read short stories published every Thursday, a project called Read Paper Republic, and it’s also the main landing site for a magazine of translated literature called Pathlight. All these things are possible because of the work of other translators: Nicky Harman, Dave Haysom, Helen Wang, Karmia Cao, and many others.

I am both blessed and cursed with a nerd streak: I do all the coding and database design myself. That has allowed the site to grow in strange and interesting ways, which would not have been possible if we had gone the normal route of building a website. But it’s also been quite a time sink!


KES: As of July 2014, there are more than 1.3 billion Chinese. But China has multiple languages within its borders. Are most Chinese writers writing in Standard Chinese? Are there rich layers of literature being written in the various other Chinese languages? I imagine this diversity makes life a little more difficult for translators of Chinese literature.

EA: We usually say that dialect is one of the unsolvable problems in translating Chinese literature—there’s just no good solution. How do you convey in a translation that a character is speaking Shaanxi dialect? So mostly we punt on the problem.

It’s not a huge obstacle, however, since for the most part Chinese authors are writing in fairly standard Chinese. There’s always been a sort of political pressure—not only in literature, but in other areas of society too—for people to drop their regional dialects/languages and speak standard Chinese. There’s also the commercial pressure that comes from wanting the widest possible audience for your work.

That said, there are books that are written in very particular local language, rooted very locally, and they greatly enrich the tradition of contemporary Chinese literature. But I think translators mostly stay away from them!


KES: You wrote this incredible article for the New York Times (“The Real Censors of China”), which I encourage our readers to check out. I’m most fascinated by Li Juan. Some of her work has been published online in English, it seems, and is available at Paper Republic. But I can’t see that any of her books have found publishers. How difficult is it for Chinese authors to get their work translated into the English market (or any international market for that matter)?

EA: Oh it’s incredibly difficult! I think that’s the whole reason Paper Republic came about in the first place—we translators assumed that publishers would be busy snapping up Chinese books, and we’d get handed translation assignments (on little silver trays, no less!), and then spend our free time sipping tea. Later it turned out that it wasn’t that way at all: that publishers weren’t at all enthusiastic about Chinese literature, and that we had to flog our beloved projects, for years in some cases, to get them published.

I figured that the root cause of the problem was simply a lack of information: international publishers didn’t know what was out there, didn’t know where to start, and had very little basis for making comparative judgments.

So one of Paper Republic’s key roles is providing a basic overview of what’s out there, to help orient people who aren’t sure where to start. There’s plenty more that needs to be done to get any particular book or author published, but I think this overview information is crucial to improving the situation as a whole.


KES: On a related note, as a translator of Danish and Norwegian I’m most familiar with the Scandinavian countries and their arts councils—who are very supportive of translators and authors alike. How do things stand in China?

EA: As you can imagine, things are fairly complicated in China! The government has a major policy in place, called “Going Out” or “Going Global,” that is meant to promote all aspects of Chinese culture abroad. The policy has existed for several years now, and vast quantities of money have been spent, so far to very little effect. There are a couple of problems. One is that the government has a difficult time seeing itself anywhere but in the driver’s seat. Whereas the most effective thing it could do is simply provide some funding and maybe some informational platforms, then get out of the way, various government agencies usually insist on being the star of the show, resulting in little practical effect. The second problem is bureaucratic incentive (or lack thereof): ultimately, everyone’s job is not to promote Chinese culture abroad, but to please their superiors. Creating actual connections with foreign institutions and individuals is difficult and risky, and in the end brings no political benefits whatsoever. Essentially, no one has any incentive to actually “Go Global,” but every incentive to simply make it appear as though they are.

There are some translation funding programs out there, but they’re usually very hard to navigate for anyone who’s not already in the system.


KES: If you could name three (or more) new voices emerging out of China today—or established writers who deserve greater international acclaim—who would you name?

EA: One writer who is already getting a bit of attention is A Yi, a younger author of crime fiction and dark existential comedy. I’d also mention Yan Ge, who I don’t think is published in English yet—she’s got a great voice and a very sharp eye. A third might be Cao Kou, who I think has a lot of potential. His writing touches on the weird urban/rural split that plagues contemporary Chinese society, these sort of half-life communities that exist at the fringes of cities. Pretty interesting stuff.


K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator. His most recent translation is Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors. He is a 2016 NEA Literary Translation Fellow and the host of “Translator’s Cut.”