Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in China

GrenvilleSecretRiverChineseNow 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”.

Alexis Wright Carpentaria in ChineseThat 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!

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in China

  1. What an interesting post, Sue! I have no idea how much Canadian literature is translated into Chinese. I wonder if China is more interested in Australia because of its relative proximity?

    What a coup for Alex Miller to win that Chinese literary award! And I’ve just added The Ancestor Game to my TBR list since it is about a subject about which I know NOTHING!

    • I’m so glad Debbie that someone else found the topic interesting. I expect proximity has something to do with it.

      I’m glad you’ve noted the Miller. I haven’t read that one, but he’s a lovely writer.

  2. (Anglo) Australians appear to me to be both conscious of and unhappy about being monolingual but what can be done to rectify it? I studied french for 5 years and arabic for one, but where was I ever going to practice them. I’ve tried listening to french tapes at work but if I don’t take notes it doesn’t stick.

    • That’s exactly it, Bill. I’ve changed my mind about compulsory second languages. Learning another language is valuable for a whole range of reasons but some people just aren’t motivated, and forcing them in a situation, ie Australia, where they will not get to practise/use that language is counterproductive I think.

  3. I’ll second Debbie, I had no idea about this and am grateful to you for sharing this:)
    But I am sometimes surprised to find just how often OzLit is translated, e.g. Gail Jones gets translated in Germany, and *squirm* yes, it’s a tad embarrassing how little translated fiction gets read here, as in other Anglo countries i.e. the UK and US. But I have read some Chinese fiction (15 reviewed on my blog) and am particularly keen on Yan Lianke. (Yes, of course, I was introduced to Chinese Lit by Stu from Winston’s Dad, who else, eh?)
    PS Bonjour, Bill, je parle francais un petit peu aussi, et j’ai besoin d’un ami avec qui pratiquer!

    • I’m afraid Lisa that I’m not competent to be a friend with whom you might practice! (I had to get the dictionary out for besoin). I hesitate to say this because you have so many activities already, but dad kept his French up by teaching U3A classes

      • U3A, yes. Mr Gums is in a fairly advanced U3A German class and loves it. But he’s fluent, really, in everyday German. He does have to check the odd bit of vocabulary when he watches German news.

    • Thanks Lisa. I’ve read some translated works too, including some Chinese … But I’ve read more Japanese I must say. I do have a several translated works on my TBR, including a Chinese one for 20 years, As long as nothing happens, nothing will, by Zhang Jie. I love the title.

      As for French, my reading is ok (though not as good as it used to be.) I understood your sentence, but my spoken French is very poor. I can’t imagine improving that now.

      • My spoken French perks up when I’m in France. I don’t understand a word on the first day, but then something kicks in and I start to be able to cope. But I would still classify myself as somewhere between pathetic and hopeless…

        • Oh yes, that’s me with spoken French in France too – and I’d be “hopelesser” than you Lisa as I haven’t practised at all in recent years. I have a retired friend who meets with a friend she met at a conversation class (in Sydney) every week for coffee to talk French. That’s what you need to find, as you say, if you really want to develop. Also, to you watch the French news on SBS?

        • Exactly… I went to French class for about twelve months, but honestly it was a waste of time because most of the people (three different classes, different teachers) were only doing it as a hobby, so they never prepared anything and the teacher ended up having to translate into English. WE would limp from lesson to lesson not really learning anything, and in the end I gave up. But I do Duolingo every day, and I watch French TV series such as Une Village Francais, and from time to time I read something in French as well. (I don’t watch the news, it’s been too depressing in France lately…)

        • Language classes are so tricky, I think. Finding the right level is one thing – beginner, intermediate and advanced often isn’t enough – and then there’s the style and what people want – formal grammatical, conversational, etc. Sounds like you are doing the best you can do.

  4. This is a surprise. I know Australia is one of the countries that Chinese people – now they have more disposable income and more freedom to travel – want to visit. But I would never have thought there would be so much interest in the literature.

  5. Australian poet, writer, philosopher Kit KELEN – a Research Professor at the University of Macau for around 16 years – has been involved for years now in having Australian poets translated into Chinese – mentioned to me just to-day having recently taken a Chinese poet/translator to Bunyah to meet with Les MURRAY – whose poetry he was translating.

  6. I don’t pay much attention to how US literature is received worldwide so don’t feel bad. I wrongly assume all work published in English or translated into English should be available in the US and am often disconcerted that it is not especially when it comes to some of the books you review! Very cool that Australian literature has some popularity in China and that there seems to be an attempt between Australian and Chinese authors to meet and talk shop.

    • Oh yes, Stefanie, we down under people know that there’s no guarantee at all that what’s published in English in one place will be available elsewhere though on line companies like Amazon and the Book Depository have turned that availability issue around big time for small markets like ours. Once upon a time we’d do a special order with a bookshop and 2 or more months later, in most cases. the book would finally appear.

  7. I am learning Spanish at the moment, not making much progress in pronunciation but find reading it is a lot easier. I have visited China several times and they do like to ask questions about Australia. Freedom of expression for their artists is improving, and I understand their thirst for knowledge of Australia and other countries. I think when you travel to other countries you like to read their home grown authors. However, I do find it amazing that Patrick White’s books have been translated into Chinese!

  8. Because I feel that I do a poor job of reading-in-translation, I am always pleased to learn that others are much more aware than I. Fancy that: Chiniese translators working on Patrick White’s novels. And not just a passing fancy, one translator’s obsessive interest in one writer, that kind of thing. But a substantial number, including the incomparable Carpentaria. It’s wonderful to think of it travelling so far, to readers from such different backgrounds, but I also wonder what a single Chinese reader would make of Australia if they were to read only one single work, translated into Chinese, and that work being Alexis Wright’s strange and beautiful story. How interesing to imagine those imaginings!

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