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Publishing Chinese Authors

by Toby Eady

I look at Chinese characters, I admire their practicality and then their beauty, I try to learn how they evolved. But what do they really mean? Do they have any meaning remotely similar to the Western alphabet? I want to discover China through its authors. I believe in language as a way to understand differing cultures. Chinese calligraphy appears to be a great wall. How to climb over it?

Twenty one years ago I started working with a Chinese author. With the ultimate success of that book, Wild Swans, in thirty one languages, I learnt about how different countries published Chinese writers. I was able to use that first hand experience to help other Chinese authors. A lot of what I learnt was by trial, error and success, and looking at how an author was published in Australia compared to America, Brazil to Portugal, France to Germany, or in Scandinavia. Each country is different, with a different language, and a differing or different culture.

I learnt how to deal with the differences. How to get an outstanding translation into a language that had nothing in common with Chinese, how Chinese had originated as a language, or, most importantly, the Chinese language as a way of thinking.

I learnt how to take a book written in ‘English’ by a Chinese author and turn it into English, as in the case of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves, Annie Wang’s Lili.

The first rule is patience, to wait to find a translator who is able not just to translate but who can write. There are several tone deaf translators who learnt Chinese in Western ‘language laboritories’. Their translations tend to make every book they translate sound the same. Every author writes differently, that’s my experience of working with authors from all over the world. Go back and remember how you learnt your own language, then find a translator who learnt Chinese in a similar way – from parents, siblings, in a house, in bed, on the street, not just in the class room.

I have started with the essence of any book – language. Books are well written or not. In a hugely competitive market, ensure that your book is well written and then well translated. The three authors that I have worked with who wrote in English took just as much time to get right for a Western audience as those written in Chinese, if not longer – Wild Swans seven years, Falling Leaves four to five years with countless editors.

The first half of Annie Wang’s modern novel Lili is brilliant, well-written and provocative, but the second half faltered. Neither her American editor or I could get it to work completely. If it had been written in Chinese, who knows, but it was a first about a young Chinese woman.

Whether the book was written in Chinese or English the publishing story of each Chinese author that I represented was different. I’ll give a few case studies, and say what I learnt from each author.

Wild Swans – initially in 1984 noone was interested in this book, the first proposal failed. The author was distant from her subject. It was with the arrival of her mother’s personal story done as an oral history that Wild Swans came alive. That proposal was bought enthusiastically in England, America, France and Germany, for substantial advances. It had taken two years to get that outline saleable, the writing and editing of the book longer. Initially the publication in America in the Spring of 1991 was flat. Americans believed Amy Tan’s China was China. Her first book The Kitchen God’s Wife was published earlier that year. Later in 1991 Karl Blessing published Wild Swans in Germany, then in 1992 HarperCollins did in England timidly. Why timidly? For two reasons – a regime change at HarperCollins, and the attitude that if it hadn’t succeeded in America then it would not in the UK. Then Jung Chang was invited to the Sydney Writer’s Festival. HarperCollins’s attitude was, ‘So what?’ But from that festival Wild Swans’ success began. Having been seriously underpublished the Swan began to fly, not just in England, but in Japan, where Kodansha timed its publication to a political exchange between China and Japan, and a visit by the Japanese Emperor to China. Countries that had bought Wild Swans suddenly began to sell copies in quantities way beyond their expectations. Initally small publishing houses had bought Wild Swans in Spain, Sweden, and that shows up the innate repetitive conservatism of large Western publishers. The Dutch publisher De Boekerij invited Mrs. Xia to Holland with Jung Chang for another publicity tour. Their sales doubled. Brazil did the same, and so did the English and the Irish. (I learnt from Wild Swans, although it wasn’t an Amy Tan, it still in essence was a Westernised book written on China.)

Belief is what made Wild Swans work. Acorns grow oaks. Publishers are people, they need to believe. It is easier outside a corporation. This goes for agents too. Then there was a growing curiosity about China, a curiosity that wasn’t chauvinistically negative. It taught me about Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Brazil, Sweden, Portugal, and how each country looks at an author. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans didn’t fit America’s view of China, Amy Tan’s did. Don’t look at America as first in the world for authors who are not American. To me every single language is important, every single country that publishes a translation in doing so spreads knowledge. The bible had to be taken from Latin to German to create the Reformation. The bible is the basis of all English language and law. The West has to take Chinese into their languages to understand China.

Wild Swans has now sold over 10 million copies in thirty one languages. That book made publishers aware of China as a subject that could succeed. I have to thank Australasia and Japan, China’s neighbours – their belief made that book successful. Wild Swans is a classic family memoir, a structure recognisable to the West.

And Jung Chang had learnt how to do publicity, to deal with intelligent and shallow interviewers. She speaks English, a major asset. The media in the English speaking West hates interpreters, that is a step too far for English speaking Western media to make – if you don’t speak English or American, how can you be important, or what you say worth listening to? If the media doesn’t have time for translation, who has? This is not the case in European countries where translators are used at interviews.

Falling Leaves took five editors to get to a stage where it could be shown to English publishers. Noone bought it. I turned to a Shanghai Chinese writer who helped the author enormously, but still noone would buy Yen Mah’s book. I persuaded an editor to buy it for £1,000 and told her to publish Falling Leaves first in Australia. Michael Joseph did, and it sold 75,000 copies there before it sold a copy in England. But did that get the Americans to buy Falling Leaves? Twenty publishers turned it down. But the author persisted, and it was bought by a smaller publisher who, with the help of Doubleday, made it successful. It still sells today. It is a classic wicked step mother story. Yen Mah knew the value of publicity and how to buy it, and her family story is understandable to Westerners.

Those two books were benchmarks for me. I had learnt about Australia as a market that had the curiosity to learn about China, welcomed Chinese authors, and that America was not the be all and end all for such a foreign subject – homogenised non-speaking writers, yes; a flash in the pan dissident, for a short time, yes; but for serious authors it is a very difficult market. Fundamentally Chinese literature is for University presses such as Columbia, or Berkeley in California.

The next two authors I worked with, Hong Ying and Ma Jian, had fascinating stories to write. One was frustrated by mediocre tone deaf translations then by her lack of English. Ma Jian’s translation of Red Dust by Flora Drew is exceptional, but his success, a success d’estime, was limited by his lack of English. Red Dust won the Thomas Cook Award, the first Chinese book written in Chinese to win an English literary award. Both Daughter Of The River and Red Dust sold into several languages. A young American publisher bought Hong Ying’s DAUGHTER OF THE RIVEER and had the intelligence to include in his advance for the book a sum of money for Hong Ying to learn English. That was a lesson.

The message for me was, ensure that you have a great translation, and don’t minimise how limited Western publishers are in how they do publishing. Jung Chang owed some of her success to Helen Ellis at HarperCollins, a brilliant publicist who was to help Margaret Thatcher later with what she had learnt on the road with Jung Chang.

Western publishers need repetition. They would prefer to publish the next Agatha Christie, Bernard Cornwell, John Grisham, Dan Brown, before anyone else. A JK Rowling is what they dream of but don’t initially recognise. They are blind 95% of the time to originality, and are overstructured corporations. I am saying this because the success of small publishers, their flexibility, patience and commitment, can create a success that a big publisher can’t. Often they don’t have a sales force that wants to support a foreign author. You’ll do better with a small publisher, they can have flexibility. Constable and Robinson, a small English publisher, sold 200,000 copies of Shanghai Baby, a book turned down by the big six in England. There was a self publicising author.

American and English publishing has contracted into fewer and fewer publishing houses. Too many once independent houses are now squashed into similarity by corporate behemoths. They rarely have the time to publish first time authors. They are brilliant at publishing celebrities, and authors who have continuity. But a first time Chinese author, they just don’t know how to, no matter how hard they try.

The best oriental publisher is Philippe Picquier, an independent French publisher working not in Paris but in the South of France. Other publishers look at his list and will take one or two of his titles each year, translate them into their own language. I met him because he published Shanghai Baby and I then agented this book throughout the world. In one country it didn’t work – America. 9/11 may have had something to do with that. Every Chinese author should look at Philippe Picquier’s list. He buys, he has good translators, and knows his market. He knows what he does. He is not guessing as the big publishers do when they gamble on a translated author, and he keeps the titles he publishes in print. He is a respected specialist, learn from him. He may not be a ‘glamour’ publisher, but he is the best in France.

Two authors I have worked with are different – Xinran and Tim Clissold. Both asked me to work with them. One writes in Chinese, the other in English. Both have been published in China, one in her original text, the other in translation, and if I have learnt how difficult it is to translate Chinese into English I now learnt the reverse. ‘English doesn’t have the same meaning to the Chinese, it will sound ridiculous’. So back to a new translator who worked closely with Tim Clissold. It took two years to find a translator who could equate to Xinran’s experiences. This book, The Good Women Of China, has been published in thirty one languages, and sells successfully everywhere but America. Her new book Sky Burial is being published in twenty eight languages. Her voice, the voice of China, reaches out to women, and some men, throughout the world. (Women are 80% of the readers in the West.) Wild Swans wouldn’t have worked had it been about three men. Sky Burial, Xinran’s second book, has been developed as a play by children in Manchester schools, and is being used in New Zealand, Australia and Germany as a course book for Chinese studies.

Publishing is not a science. Mo Yan’s Red Soughun is a great novel, one that will be read in years to come. Zhu Wen is being translated and published by Columbia University Press in New York. His translator who teaches contemporary Chinese literature at Cambridge University learnt Chinese in China. Esther Tyldesley who translated The Good Women Of China spent four and a half years teaching in Xinye, Guizhuo province. A good translator has to know the landscape of Chinese, its visual relativity. It is a language that comes from daily life, not out of the remoteness of churches. Tim Clissold’s Mr China is becoming a ‘must’ for anyone who is serious about China, but he has lived and worked in China for 18 years. He has immense respect for China and the Chinese. He doesn’t come at the Chinese with preconceptions. He knows how different his first language is to Chinese, knows that how he was taught to think in England is not relevant to China today.

The fact that Wild Swans, Falling Leaves, or Lili were published is a success, but it is a far greater success that Daughter Of The River, Red Dust, The Good Women Of China, Sky Burial, and Mr China have crossed from Chinese to Western languages.

I have learnt that:

  1. Look for Chinese and Western publishers who will look at how to develop a list of Chinese and Western authors together. The culture, language of China is just as important as any other culture or language in the world, and should be understood from the Chinese point of view.
  2. Write the book in your own language, and don’t let the quality of your book be ‘lost in translation.’ Find a translator who learnt Chinese in China. Be patient, and learn how foreign markets work, they are different to China and look for continuity.
  3. Learn how to do publicity. 50% of book publishing in England is publicity. A celebrity can pretend she is an empress with beautiful clothes if she is a good self-publicist. Don’t look down at this part of publishing – your public listens to the radio, watches television. It thinks less and less, much prefers to be told how to think.
  4. Western publishers trust continuity, and so do agents, that is very important to understand. The reverse in China where to have many publishers is a sign of success. The opposite is true in the West – publishers want to build authors, invest in them for a long term future.

Finally, find someone who believes in you and what you have written, and who will back you through thick and thin, laughter and argument. Believe in the time it takes in the West to publish and publicise. Listen to those who have worked in the West and East with Oriental writers. Listen, learn, and be patient. I believe any book taken from Chinese into another language is a success. We have to learn both how to open minds. As independent bookshops open in China, (write for them), ironically they are closing in the West. But don’t forget a publisher can buy your book, love your book, put the right jacket on your book, get your book into the bookshops, but he cannot guarantee that anyone in the public will buy your book.

Take every opportunity to travel, to look, to learn. Go to Literary festivals. Learn other people’s social customs. Don’t hide behind ‘face’, or ‘that’s how we do it’.

One major step forward would be if Chinese and Western publishers offered scholarships to students learning Chinese or English, and as part of that scholarship gave work experience in a publishing house.

There are far too few translators in the West. I regret we, too, use our imperialistic language as a Great Wall. But it is coming down.

China has the authors, the stories, a culture so different from the West, and through writing that culture can be shared, we can become aware of one another.

A last practical case study – Xiaolu Guo came to England after Village Of Stone had been published in China. She came with two chapters translated excellently by a young American living in Beijing. She approached me to be her agent because she had done her research as to who worked with Chinese authors by going into a bookshop and looking at who had published Chinese writers, and who had been their agent. That enabled her to get published by Chatto & Windus in England and then elsewhere in Europe. She has tirelessly promoted her book, taken every opportunity to talk about China today. She is a living example of the determination that an author needs to succeed in another language. She is China, as is her novel, and I can think of authors who got stuck inside their own ‘face’.

Western customs are different – some are good, some bad – but you have to learn what they are, take from them the good and reject what is useless. Meld them into your self-belief, but don’t get lost in translation.

by Toby Eady 3rd May 2005