Good translation has brought this year's Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mo Yan to an international audience.
Many more talented Chinese writers stand to benefit by gaining an international readership, provided more competent translators are found.
There are about 60,000 translators, with 10,000 people employed in work related to translation. Yet, those fully capable of translating from Chinese number less than 10 percent of the total, according to the China Press and Publishing Journal.
With the help of the Project for Translation and Publication of Chinese Cultural Works, some 373 books in six languages have been published in nine countries and regions in three years.
But many Chinese novels that have won top prizes and been well received in China face delays in getting published abroad due to a lack of good translators.
Take the example of the novel Shou Huo (The Joy of Living) by Yan Lianke. Although copyright contracts for it were signed with publishers from Japan, France, Italy and the United Kingdom in late 2004, to date none of the four translated novels have been published, as no competent translators are available.
The rich historical and cultural backgrounds embedded in Chinese literature call for masterful skills not only in languages. Many translators struggle to strike a balance between being loyal to the source texts and being creative in doing so in the target language.
Translating Chinese literary works into other languages, while difficult and tedious, is also low-paid. Few translators want to work where they will struggle to make ends meet, and many quit their jobs for economic reasons.
Usually, translators earn less than 70 yuan ($11) per 1,000 Chinese characters, and on an average day an experienced translator can complete up to 5,000 words.
According to Huang Youyi, vice-chairman of the Translators Association of China, there are many translation “assembly lines” where a group of inexperienced translators work to meet publication deadlines, at cheap rates.
While 57 universities have set up majors in translation in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, courses for specialized translation in Chinese literature are rare. They need to provide more culture-specific, genre-specific modules, relating to literary prose, poetry, fiction and drama.
Students complain about a shortage of specialized training in translating contemporary Chinese literary works. Instead, the courses focus on the study of translated classics.
As for graduates majoring in translation, many forsake literary translation for other jobs that pay better for the same workload.
Of course, translation is essential in bringing Chinese books to overseas audiences, but what matters more is the cultural mindset. Given there are different cultural values in different countries, translations of popular Chinese books may not be favored by Western readers. For Chinese books going abroad, more effort needs to be made to support customized promotion for foreign markets.
Experts say Chinese books still have a long way to go to meet the demand of Western buyers in terms of content. Foreign readers may not be interested in Chinese readers' concerns.
We need talented translators to interpret Chinese literature to global audiences. The key for Chinese books going abroad lies in not only how many we export but also in the understanding of a profound and diversified Chinese culture.
Good translation of Mo Yan's works has resulted in a mix of history and reality.
Hopefully, Mo's success will lure more foreign readers to dig into contemporary Chinese works, resulting in China stepping up its efforts to bring good translation to international audiences.
I’ve lived in China for quite a considerable time including my graduate school years, travelled and worked in a few cities and still choose my destination taking into consideration the density of smog or PM2.5 particulate matter in the region.