Nobel translators who don't translate, and readers who don't read

As a literary brand, the Nobel Prize is a great selling point in China's publishing sector. The Shanghai People's Publishing House scored a coup with the publication of Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (我的名字叫红) in August, anticipating the author's Nobel win. The book has been climbing up the bestsellers chart that announcement, and major bookstores in Beijing and online report more sales of Red in the past few weeks than of Guo Jingming's new anthology or any single Yi Zhongtian popular history.

But the Nobel is not just for contemporary literature; over the past decades, several major publishers have brought out collections of prizewinning works, while small and fly-by-night publishers have made sure that Great Books are available in pirate bookstalls. On the domestic side, though China has yet to win the big one, a publisher has managed to take advantage of the brand by marketing major works by contemporary Chinese as a "Road to the Nobel" series.

In this week's Wenhui Book Review, journalist Xu Jiajun reports on one of the more unsavory aspects of China's translation sector as it intersects with the Nobel brand:

"Collection of the Nobel Prize for Literature" suspected of "Chinese-Chinese" translation

by Xu Jiajun / WBR

The Nobel Prize in Literature is a respected international prize, but a collection under the "Nobel Prize for Literature" flag has been suspected of being pieced together through "Chinese-Chinese translation" has found its way to bookstores with a pricetag of 600 yuan.

The first to uncover doubts about this "Collection of the Nobel Prize for Literature" (Time Literature and Art Press, 2006.10) was Chen Yuanhuan with the Nanjing University Library acquisition department. In creating a record for the library's holdings, Chen noticed some "special areas" in this set of books: the 26 volumes had but a single translator - "Li Si et al." and the managing editor was also a single individual, Chen Chen. "At the time I thought it amazing. This collection involves the languages of twelve countries - what translator is that great, fluent in the languages of twelve countries? And who is that great editor, fluent in twelve languages? Taking a step back, even if such a translator and editor exist, the designation is still non-standard - regardless of the number of translators, or how well-known they are, they should all be credited. How can they be ignored using an 'et al.'?" Chen asked told this reporter.

When Chen Yuanhuan opened the set of books, he was in for another shock: "I randomly pulled the Buddenbrooks volume and browsed through it. I felt it quite familiar, and from the stacks I found the Fu Weici translation published in 1962 by People's Literature Publishing House. Upon comparison, they turned out to be suprisingly similar. For example, a comparison of page 256 of Li Si's translation and pages 436-437 of Fu Weici's translation shows only five differences, and these are completely inconsequential, like '城里' changed to '城中' [both 'in the city'], or '一八六五年' changed to '1865年'. Some places were even changed incorrectly, like a third-person pronoun 'him' changed to 'it' - so pathetic it's comical. This is complete 'similarity'; there is also 'similarity' that jumps around - in The Forsythe Saga, pages 23-24 in Li Si are similar to pages 44-45 in the Zhou Xuliang translation published in 1978 by Shanghai Translation Publishing House; but by page 111 of Li Si's translation, the similarities are to page 155 of Wang Fang's 1997 translation, published by Jilin University Press."

This reporter talked to the managing editor of the series, Time Literature and Arts Press' man in Beijing, Chen Chen. He said, "Li Si, the translator of this set of collected works, is quite famous; he previously translated The Beat Generation. Li Si is not only his personal name, but it also represents his translation company, so we set the author credit as 'Li Si et al. ' I will contact him as soon as possible to provide the media with an answer." This reporter tried to obtain Li Si's contact information from Chen Chen but was refused.

However, when searching online for Li Si's The Beat Generation (垮掉的一代), this reporter unexpectedly came across "beat generation" researcher Wen Chu'an's early expose of Li Si: "[The Beat Generation edited by Li Si] turns out to have turned 'translation' into 'authorship' for publication, and the translation itself is none too great...practically the entire book plagiarizes Naked Angels by American writer John Tytell."

Noted translator Fu Weici told this reporter, "It's no longer a freak occurance for a book to be plagiarized, but this is the first time I've come across this sort of large-scale, 'Chinese-Chinese translation'. The ill wind of plagiarism blows ever more fierce, and if we do not strike hard, the consequences will be unthinkable. I retain my right to sue over this matter."

Flipping through the evidence, Pan Kaixiong, vice-director of People's Literature Publishing House, said that he would take the necessary steps to protect the legal rights of the translator and publisher. Pan also said that he would not rule out filing a joint suit. A marketing representative with Shanghai Translation Publishing House said that his company would also pay close attention to the matter.

In addition, this reporter found a "Notice concerning topic selection for 100 outstanding books in Jilin Province in 2005" on the website of the Jilin Province Press and Publication Department, and "Collection of the Nobel Prize for Literature" stood impressively on the list. In the Notice, this reporter also found the following sentence: "To guarantee the publication of these outstanding books....strengthen the inspection of copy-editing and print and binding quality of the outstanding books, ensuring that quality meets the highest requirements." However, this reporter also discovered that this set of books had more than a few problems with copy-editing. For example, Kristin Lavransdatter had its title printed as 克丽丝汀的一生, but on the copyright page, it was printed as 克丽斯汀的一生. If this kind of book makes it to market, does it not harm readers and libraries?

Yesterday's Beijing Daily Messenger provides some more choice quotes:

The managing editor said that the publisher spent four years preparing this series, and to cut down on rights fees, the authors concerned in the 26 volumes were all out from under their copyright protection period.

On the question of translator credit, he explained, "Li Si is quite famous, and previously translated The Beat Generation. Besides Li Si, this series also used other members of his translation company. Setting the name on the cover, we wanted to make use of Li Si's fame, so we didn't list any of the other translators' names."

When this reporter inquired about the similarities in translation with other previously published books, the managing editor said he couldn't offer much explanation. "We paid Li Si a translation fee of 50 yuan per 1000 characters." But he said that when different translators encounter the same original text, their translations may not be very different.

Zhang Fusheng is an experienced editor and has worked in the foreign translations editing office of the People's Literature Publishing House since 1977. He said that within the industry, this kind of affair is nothing new - many publishers do it, but the readers simply are unaware. "Many authors don't understand any foreign language; books they claim to have translated from Spanish or German are in fact made up of materials they've collected from properly published translations - they copy a sentence here and a sentence there, change a few bits of punctuation, and break or combine paragraphs. Coming up with a new book in this way is really just shameless plagiarism."

A book industry insider who did not wish to be named said that priced at 600 yuan, this set of 26 volumes is without a doubt massively profitable. "Proper publishers look at process and paper, so their costs are a bit higher. According to my estimate, the cost to the publisher for this set is no more than 25%. That is, this set of book costs no more than 150 yuan, since there are no copyright fees and no translation fees. And they might not even have used that great a quantity of paper."

Pamuk's My Name is Red.

People are buying Nobel winners - but are they reading them? In mid-October, China Times took a look at some of the problems people are having with My Name is Red:

Issue 1: The story is too obscure

When My Name is Red was serialized on Sina, many readers posted responses suggesting that the novel was too obscure. One reader exclaimed: "Truly amazing! I know every character, but when they are put together, how is it that I don't know what the writer is actually saying?" Paging through the comments, I found on reader who seemed fairly sensible: "If you truly like it, then it doesn't matter whether the writer has won a prize. If you like it, read it, and if you don't then don't read it."

Issue 2: The title is inappropriate

Around ten days ago [early October], the publisher held a symposium in Shanghai. At the event, a book critic asked bluntly, "Why is the title of this book My Name is Red?"

The critic said that in the entire book, the chapter heading "My name is Red" occurred only once, and Red is only a color rather than a character in the book. "My name is Black" and "I, Shekure" both occur many times, and both Black and Shekure are major characters in the book, so why was "My name is Red" chosen as the title despite this? After reading the whole book, one is still no more enlightened than before.

Issue 3: The author is playing tricks

In the book, the author writes in the voice of a tree, or of a coin, or a dog, or even a color. These are all voiced in the first-person and constantly change.

At the symposium, a critic suggested that the changes of perspective in the book were too frequent. "Although many writers rely on switching narrative perspective to achieve a certain level of technical difficulty, I still think the author has gone a bit overboard in switching perspectives," the critic said.

Beijing's Mirror provided readers with a helpful guide to making their way through the thicket of changing voices and historical details. For readers who just want to finish the book, it suggests the following strategy:

Details that can be skipped

1. Place names and personal names
If the reader is not familiar with the geographical makeup of Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire, then these can be skipped over without causing any problems to understanding the plot of the novel.
2. Religious terms
When encountering doctrine from the Koran or religious terms used by the author, these too can be skipped.
3. Explanations of art theory
To uncover the murderer, the character Black interrogates the miniaturists Butterfly, Stork, and Olive about their understanding of the art of the miniature. Without these discussions, the story still flows smoothly.

For readers who wish to get something more out of the book, translator Shen Zhixing suggests becoming more familiar with the 16th century setting.

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There are currently 2 Comments for Nobel translators who don't translate, and readers who don't read.

Comments on Nobel translators who don't translate, and readers who don't read

Thanks for the chuckle with the criticisms of Pamuk, and advice as to what can be skipped. God forbid readers have their horizons expanded.
Perhaps they could provide a similar service on how to bypass all those tedious references to Chinese culture and history in the 四大名著 :D.

I've personally come across a lot of this kind of plagiarism.

For instance, I've been collecting Chinese translations of Gone with the Wind. At least three or four translations turned out to be ripped off from other translations, with minimal changes to the text.

Similarly, looking at translations of Saint Exupery's The Little Prince, I found one translation, by 刘文钟 Liú Wénzhōng, that was a complete ripoff of an earlier translation by Taiwanese translator 李淑貞 Lǐ Shūzhēn.

The managing editor's comment "that when different translators encounter the same original text, their translations may not be very different" is complete nonsense. Translators almost never come up with closely matching texts, unless they are copying from the earlier text.

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