Now I admit, right up, that this post is very much a toe-in-the-water sort of post. I know very little about the topic, but what I’ve come across I’ve found interesting and decided to share it. The thing is, we Aussies – those of us born here of Anglo parentage anyhow – tend to be monolingual. We also live in a fairly insular place, being an island ‘n all. Consequently, few of us I think know much about how well or far our literature travels. Occasionally, an Aussie book will do very well – say, Anna Funder’s non-fiction book Stasiland (my review) or Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river – and we’ll hear that it’s been translated into multiple languages. But mostly we tend to be fairly oblivious of these off-shore happenings.
I was therefore intrigued when, a few weeks ago, I found an article in Trove titled “Chinese interest in our literature” from a 1994 edition of The Canberra Times. It was written by Robert Hefner who was, as I recollect, the paper’s literary editor of the day. Hefner commences with:
I first met Chinese author, teacher and translator Li Yao six years ago [ie around 1988] when he was visiting Canberra with author Rodney Hall. Li had just met Patrick White, whose novel The Tree of Man he had translated into Chinese.
Wow, I thought, Hall and White are serious writers – that is, they don’t produce page-turners or simple plot-driven stories. How fascinating – how wonderful too – that our northern neighbours are interested in our literature at that level. Hefner was writing the article because Li was back in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival. He’d discovered that since that last meeting, Li had translated 15 more books, 8 of them Australian. These included Brian Castro’s Birds of passage, Patrick White’s Flaws in the glass, Nicholas Jose’s Avenue of eternal peace [a big seller in China], a short story collection, and Geoffrey Bolton’s A history of Australia. Hefner quotes Li, then associate professor in the Department of English at the International Business Management Institute in Beijing:
Translations of Australian books in China are welcomed by students and general readers, especially Patrick White. I translated A fringe of leaves and it sold 10,000 copies in Beijing. That’s a best-seller, even compared with Chinese authors.
Wow, again. Patrick White a best-seller in China? Who’d have thought?
Li told Hefner things were changing in China, that “people, especially young people” were “looking for something new”, wanting to “know another world, especially a world so far away as Australia”. They were also interested, he said, in how “China is seen through foreign eyes”. Consequently, his most recent translation was Alex Miller’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel The Ancestor Game, which is about early Chinese immigration to Australia. Li* hadn’t decided whom he’d translate next, but was “considering Tim Winton, David Malouf or Rodney Hall”.
That was 1994. Was it a flash in the pan I wondered? I did some very scientific research, that is, I “googled”. And I found all sorts of things, such as the China Australia Literary Forum. It met in 2011, and involved “ten prominent Chinese writers” visiting Sydney for “in-depth discussions with Australian authors, and those involved in the translation and reception of their works”. The Australian writers they met included Judith Beveridge, Kim Cheng Boey, Lisa Gorton, Ivor Indyk, Gail Jones, Nicholas Jose, Julia Leigh, Shane Maloney, John Mateer, Michael Wilding, Ouyang Yu and Alexis Wright. The forum resulted, the report goes on to say, in the translation of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review), which was launched in 2012 at the Australian Embassy in China. Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan wrote the introduction to the translation, and guess who did the translation? Yep, Li Yao.
A second China Australia Literary Forum took place in 2013, this time in Beijing. Eight Australian authors attended, including JM Coetzee. The eight Chinese involved included Mo Yan.
Apparently though, Australian literature had been read in China long before these last few decades. Back in the 1920s four Australian poets, including Mary Gilmore and Roderick Quinn were read. Ouyang Yu (whose Diary of a naked official I’ve reviewed here) is reported as having read a poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon in 1927. (All this came from a 2011 article in JSTOR which is not available freely on the web.) This article disproves the previously held view that translated Australian literature hadn’t been available in China before 1949. Indeed Ouyang Yu has written a paper about the reception of OzLit in China from 1906 to 2008. It’s an interesting survey article which looks at the history of Australian literature in China, including the interest in and value of different forms such as poetry, popular writing, literary fiction, and so on. He concludes by saying that Australian writers are now receiving Chinese awards. In 2009, for example, “Alex Miller became the first Australian writer to receive a Chinese literary award for his novel The landscape of farewell”.
I won’t go on, because I think I’ve made my point about Chinese interest in Australian literature. Quite coincidentally, I discovered a (now expired) call for entries from the Australian Association for Literary Translation for its AALITRA Translation Prize. This prize “aims to acknowledge the wealth of literary translation skills present in the Australian community” and awards prizes for translation of a selected prose text and of a selected poem. Each year a different language is chosen, and in 2016 the language is Chinese!
This is all wonderful for Australian literature, but what about the reverse? How much effort do Australians put into reading translated literature from other countries. If my record is anything to go by, not as much as I’d like – or should!
* I found a 2010 article in The Australian about Li Yao’s introduction to English-language literature. It was in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, and he read, “under the covers” at night, books like Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice! This little comment reminds us too that availability of Australian (or any non-Chinese) literature in China hasn’t had the simple trajectory my post might imply!