The rise of translated fiction from Asia

The rise of translated fiction from Asia

09 January 2017

For its Spring 2017 issue the Asia Literary Review (ALR) brings together a formidable selection of translated Asian literature. Its latest issue has been produced in partnership with PEN Presents, an initiative from English PEN which aims to help publishers discover – and publish – the most exciting books for around the world, whilst supporting emerging translators in their development as advocates for international literature. Five shortlisted translators who submitted their works to this innovative initiative will be published in the ALR’s latest issue.

Ahead of the 2017 Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, which boasts delectable examples of translated fiction, Literature Programme Manager Hande Eagle spoke to ALR’s Managing Editor Phillip Kim and Editor-in-Chief Martin Alexander about the roots of the publication, the effects of the new global order on the publishing industry, the importance of translated literature in unifying people and ALR’s latest issue.

Hande Eagle: Could you please tell us how you made the decision to establish the Asia Literary Review? What’s the story behind it?

Martin Alexander: It was originally a magazine called Dimsum that developed out of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival about twelve years ago. I was poetry editor from the beginning, and we were pretty much working out of a box. Later, the magazine became the Asia Literary Review and co-founder Ilyas Khan then employed me as Editor-in-Chief in 2011; that lasted for a year until he decided he wanted to move on to other things. So Phillip and I took over ownership three years ago and have been running it in partnership.

H.E: What made you get into literature in the first place?

M.A: My degree was in literature and I have always been a writer and a reader. I had a book of poems published and I was involved in the [Hong Kong International] Literary Festival. So, it was an area of interest that I had anyway. The ALR was a great opportunity to promote poetry from and about Asia and to get voices out there.

H.E: What sets the Asia Literary Review apart from all the other publications that publish Asian literature?

Phillip Kim: First of all, I think we are the only pan-Asian print and online quarterly literary magazine; we cover everything from the states of the Near East through to Japan.  We have a very broad brush. We have been doing this for, as Martin said, about twelve years. As a result, we have a following; and we have a contributor community of authors that know us very well. So I think we have a certain place in the market that nobody else has. We are not affiliated with anybody; we are independent.

The unifying power of literature 

H.E: I’d like to talk to you both about how `literature` has evolved across time and expanded across the world. In which ways and to what extent do you think literature unites people?

P.K: I don’t think you can imagine uniting people without literature. That’s always been the case across time. Certainly in the last fifteen years or so, the proliferation of new platforms such as digital technologies and the internet has allowed many more voices to get published in some form or another. As a result, whether you’ve got short or long pieces, you have the ability to at least get online and potentially find an audience. Of course, getting attention isn’t very easy but it’s certainly there for publishing houses and for magazines, for the pieces that really sparkle. With the way that social and political trends are these days, I don’t think it’s any kind of exaggeration to say it’s absolutely critical that as many voices are out there as possible, so that people understand what unites people rather than divides them. There is nothing better than literature to really get into the minds of people and their lives, and to see how they think and to realise that everyone has the same pains and joys.

H.E: There are also many endangered languages. How do you think the digital platforms are helping them? Do you think they have any influence whatsoever?

M.A: As we’ve found through working on translations and with languages such as Burmese, Mongolian and Thai, having lots of platforms but not very good content doesn’t do anybody any good. The platforms provide opportunities but then you still need to have the right kinds of institutions, whether they are universities or publishing houses, to properly train translators. As we have been experiencing, the best translations are not literal; it has to be an interpretation. It takes time and vision to get enough translators trained up to be able to properly represent languages so that the real life that exists within them shines through.

The famous ‘ten thousand hours’

H.E: So, do you think that anyone can become a good writer?

P.K: No. Anyone can paint a picture, anyone can bang out a few chords on an instrument and anyone can put words on paper. But it’s a talent. Of course, every talent that needs to be developed requires a tremendous amount of work, writing and rewriting, etc. Like anything else that’s rare.

M.A: It does take the famous ten thousand hours – but it’s not just a matter of time because what matters is directed, focused time which is really targeted on honing one’s talent, broadening one’s reading or listening, and looking at other art. Many writers, Shin Kyung-sook for instance, got fed up with being regarded in the West like a new writer just because she was new to the West.  She said, “I have been a successful writer for thirty years. This is not something that happens overnight”.

P.K: I think the idea of the western canon of classical novels being translated into Asian languages is extremely important for developing Asian talent. The novel has historically largely been a Western art form. Having good translations available to Asian populations to study is very important. Surely, you can’t be a good writer unless you are a reader.

M.A: If you look, for instance, at Chinese or Japanese poetry, that in the past tended to be translated by white, male, western academics and intellectuals. Now there is a movement away from that appropriation to having people who are native in the source language becoming native or bilingual in English and other languages, and able to do the translations with the sensitivity of a native speaker. I think that’s a big change in bringing the canons of East and West together and also in expanding the number of translators and their origins.

Writing as a contemporary occupation

H.E: Speaking of studying, there are many creative writing classes and workshops and they seem to be on the rise. What are your views on this? Can someone actually go to a few creative writing classes and bring out a novel?

P.K:  I don’t think you need to have a creative writing course in order to be able to write a novel. But it doesn’t hurt for people to undertake them if they want. I think the fact that enrolments are growing is fantastic as you have maturing economies. Particularly in Asia, once you get to a certain level of economic development not everyone can become an engineer or do the traditional jobs, and people are people. Even the older people are looking into the creative side. Perhaps now, more than twenty years ago, they have the luxury to do that and to diversify their lives and thoughts through creative writing. Obviously not everybody who is going to come out of those courses is going to be a fantastic writer.

M.A: I’d agree with that. I know there is a lot of debate about this. The suggestion is that if you do the course you become a fantastic writer. Of course that’s not the case. You don’t become a fantastic athlete just by playing football. It takes the talent as well as the work. You can train to learn the skills of writing, and you can be shown shortcuts and suggestions and ideas, but there has to be that creative spark, that sense of originality and the ability to articulate something profound in a new way.

H.E: The publishing industry has been through a whirlwind throughout its history, but perhaps more so since the development of internet technologies and the rise of social media. Most publications and media companies ask journalists, writers and translators to do pro bono work or pay very little. At a time when writers and translators should be the force behind positive change with increasing freedom of expression in the West, the industry seems to have made it extremely difficult for them to earn a living. What are your thoughts on this?

P.K: All we can really do as a magazine is to provide a platform for writers to get their writing published. This provides a certain level of publicity. A lot of our subscribers are publishing houses, agents and universities, so it gives writers a chance to get their name out there. Often, writers write simply because they need to. Other kinds of organisations (whether they are governmental, charitable or educational institutions that set up grants) are needed to help people get remunerated for the work that they do.

M.A: There are a lot of people who aspire to be writers and think that they should get paid from the start. Equally there are successful writers who are reluctant to give their work away when they know they can get paid for it. But for many writers, there’s also the problem of “Yes, I get published and that helps my portfolio but at what point do I actually make any money out of it?” I think that is an expectation that’s very difficult to realise for anything more than a tiny proportion of writers.

P.K: I think anybody who sets out to make a career out of their written fiction is being fanciful unless they get extremely lucky, strike it at a young age and get a publishing deal, and “BOOM!”, they are all set. By and large, 995 out of a thousand people who are writers are making their living from another occupation such as teaching and journalism.

M.A: I remember the author Justin Hill saying that he felt for a time aggrieved that he had to teach and do additional things to bring the money in. Even though he’s won prizes and sold loads of books, he still needs to supplement his income. So even for successful writers it’s very rare to be able to make a living from books.

Politics, publishing and censorship 

H.E: What kind of effects do you think global happenings that are changing the global order such as the US adopting isolationist policies, Brexit, and, China’s increasing power, will have on the publishing industry at large?

P.K: You’d hope that censorship is something that’s kept at bay as much as possible. In China and in Russia, that’s unrealistic until there’s real regime change. But in the West, free speech and freedom of expression should be maintained. Up until last year, you’d have thought that was guaranteed but suddenly none of us are quite so certain anymore. All that can be done is for people to be very true to themselves and write what they want to write. We are thrilled that we have a translation issue coming out now because I think the world needs things like this. We need as many voices and languages as possible. If immigration shuts down, please don’t shut down the voices as well. You can still communicate across the borders.

M.A: I think there’s also the paradox of access and quality. It’s unprecedented how much we can read, how much we can get access to and what’s immediately out there. You don’t have to go to a library. You just type something into your browser. My father is 92; he looks things up online all the time. But against that, there’s a narrowing of sources and Google curates your ‘hit list‘ according to what you have looked at before. I think there is a really important role in literature in keeping variety open. You’ve got to look at difficult material, at stuff you don’t necessarily agree with or like because otherwise you end up in a box. And that’s the paradox, when you have so much available and you end up looking at such a limited range.

A matter of life and death

H.E: On that note, your upcoming Spring 2017 issue will feature some very interesting and absorbing pieces. In particular, The Uxoricide by Taiwanese author Yijun Lao, translated into English by Pingta Ku; The Shoe by Korean author Kim Soom, translated into English by Jason Woodruff, and Grass Cradle, Glass Lullaby by Filipino writer Isabel Yap who is a young but very talented writer. Our upcoming Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival is very much focused on spring and life. Yet, despite the fact that these three pieces of writing are stylistically and topically very different from one another, they seem to be dominated by death. What are your views on this?

P.K: Asia is still a difficult place where death surrounds people; it is a part of life for them. When Margrét Helgadóttir talks about the monsters in Asia versus the monsters in Africa, Europe and other regions, a lot of it comes from a sense of what’s home. In Africa, home is very often associated with the place; it’s the smell of the earth, the look of the location. Whereas in Asia it’s much more about relationships, about who’s come before, it’s about the ghosts from the past. When you look at not only landscape but also time, there is inevitably death. It is so much a part of what Asians deal with that it naturally comes out in the fiction.

H.E: Do you think we ignore death in the West?

M.A: I think we absolutely do. Everyone’s story ends in death. But from the sanitising of funeral parlours, to the way chicken is unrecognisably wrapped in cling film, death is something we tend to hide from rather than acknowledge very clearly in our lives.

P.K: [In the West] the idea is that once somebody’s departed, they go to heaven or hell; once they are gone they are gone. Whereas, I think, with spirits it’s around you. In so many Asian countries, whether they’re shamans, Buddhists, Hindus or Confucians, it’s around you. Anyone who has been to an open-air market in Asia knows that it’s blood and guts and death everywhere. They are just much more comfortable with death.

M.A: I think something that’s in those Asian Monsters stories is the sense of people living on, whether it’s monsters in another world, or ghosts, or the dead somehow intervening in the lives of the living. Whether you believe in any kind of afterlife or not, people live on in the human psyche; it’s common that when someone dies you walk into a room and you have a sense that they’re there with you. The pieces that we’re publishing in this issue, while death is at the end of every story, have a tremendous vitality, insistence and humanity in them. I think death is maybe a point of reference and a context in these stories, but nobody will read them and think, “This is miserable stuff!”

P.K: When you think about genres in Asia, frankly, you don’t see a lot of comedy, or romance. They tend to be dramatic or historical. I’ve been to a number of book groups and people are like, “Can we have a comedy next time, it’s all so dreary.” I think the serious stuff is what people are predisposed to write about as opposed to, say, a comedy that is light and fluffy and which has a happy ending.

M.A: And, if you look at The Uxoricide from Tangut Inn, there’s a terrific amount of irony, comedy and black humour, laughing at the living and the dead and looking at the ridiculousness of the human condition. I think that’s a great example of a story that’s got death in it but, bloody hell, it’s full of life!

H.E: Do you think that writing about death is a way of clinging on to life?

M.A: If you don’t write about death and death isn’t part of the way you consider the world, then you’re falling into the pit of fantasy and sensational escapism. If you have a sanitised romantic or merely comic view, you escape from the realities of life. That’s great if you want a sugary pill, but there isn’t much substance in it.

Literature across frontiers 

H.E: What other surprises await us in this new issue? I had a preview of the three pieces that will be published and it’s difficult to envision what the whole selection is like.

P.K: The theme is translations because it’s tied into the competition we did with English PEN. It’s anchored by eight fiction pieces and one series of poems that were among the finalists. There is a lot of variety. There are a couple of Indonesian pieces, a Filipino writer focusing on Asian monsters, a couple of writers from Korea, a few from Japan and a few from China. So we are very happy with the geographic spread.

H.E: Do you have any writers from the Middle East?

P.K: In general, we don’t cover the Middle East. We don’t really know how to place the Middle East because; yes, geographically it is part of Asia but do they consider themselves as part of Asia? I mean, I don’t really see us publishing a piece from Lebanon, because we are getting into a whole different area of social and political debate.

M.A: If you take us as the example, and draw a line from the Bosphorus and the Caucasus down the earth and through the Suez Canal, everything to the east of that and to the west of Alaska, mainly in the northern hemisphere, is Asia. It’s a frame; it’s something from which to deviate. Iranians, for example, see themselves very much as Asians. The notion of Asia is a very flexible one.

The new jewel in the crown: Translated literature 

H.E: It’s very complicated in the translation industry because you have translation houses where corporations send their documents and expect them overnight. Also, I find that literary translators are pushed down and put in the background. Even though the work that is being read is the translator’s, the writer always seems to come first. What are your thoughts on that?

P.K: One of the things we were very pleased to see are organisations such as the Man Booker International Prize giving out equal prize money; obviously they can’t always give the same kind of billing between the translator and the original author, but the recognition of the work of translators has been elevated to a point where they are basically considered equals as far as the prize is concerned. Translating a technical document where you are just trying to get the facts across is one thing; it can be wooden, awkward and clunky but what really matters is that you are getting the facts across. But literature is an art form, it’s a language, it needs rhythm, it needs nuance. It’s impossible to have two completely different languages and just transcribe one to the other and yet communicate the same message. Even though literary translators may get paid even less than technical translators, I think that the work they are required to do is probably double or triple. On top of that, there is also an element of artistic talent you just can’t quantify.

H.E: Talent, and also being able to relate to the text. I think that makes a huge difference.

P.K: You also have to be very fluent in two languages because you might know Mongolian very well but if you haven’t deeply studied English language and literature you don’t really know how to write. I think that’s what someone like Deborah Smith does very well. First and foremost, she was an English major, and then she happened to pick up Korean. I don’t know Korean well enough to do a side-by-side comparison of the text [The Vegetarian by Han Kang] but I would bet that they are very different. In fact, a lot of people in Korea were surprised that the English language version got so much fame and recognition whereas the domestic version of the story didn’t receive quite as much acclaim. Those kinds of cases are attributable to the quality of the work that translators are able to do.

M.A: The PEN Presents project – like the Man Booker International Prize – highlights the work of translators. Organisations like Asia Pacific Writers and Translators bring the work of the translator to a much greater recognition and I think that’s really important. As far as endangered languages are concerned, the web does give opportunities to publish the original text alongside the translation. That provides readers who can appreciate both with the chance to do so. I think that’s a way of recognising and expanding, which is much easier on a digital platform than in a print one.

H.E: To what do you think translated literature owes its success?

P.K: I think it is a natural trend, when you have open borders and platforms like the internet for there to be growth and diversification. Every once in a while, you have an international prize winner from Turkey, China or some other place and people think, “Well, that’s interesting, that work actually won the prize” and they get a little more curious. Because of all these trends, you have people promoting it. Is it a sustainable and enduring trend? I don’t think any of us really know. We hope that with the infrastructure that’s put into place in the industry with literary agents and specialised publishing houses, there will continue to be a lot of focus on translated fiction.

M.A: If you go to the Frankfurt Book Fair, there’s a huge amount of translation into German, French, Italian and other European languages. When I did my degree, there was a tiny amount of literature in translation that I was aware of. It was a shock to me to realise that the English writers I admired learnt other languages to read their literature in the original. People had been doing that since Homer. I think it’s also important to be aware that English is not the only language into which literature is translated. Quite recently there was a competition between, I think, three translators and four computers to do a translation of a literary piece. It was all done blind so when the judges read the translations they initially didn’t know which were by human and which were by computers.  It wasn’t long before they realised that although computers can play Go and chess, they can’t write. To me it was a really interesting vindication of the translator’s art.

Will the literary clock ever stop?

H.E: Do you think that the humankind will ever stop writing?

P.K: No. We may have stopped putting ink to paper but now we push keys and so on. We may one day be doing voice dictation but it’s still writing as far as we are concerned.

M.A: One of my most moving experiences with writing is that I have at home a piece of clay that I can hold in my hand just as the person who moulded that clay long ago held it in his or her hand. And you can see where the stylus has pressed cuneiform into the mud. This is something like 2000 years old, and it’s writing from then that’s survived until now. If you begin with the Epic of Gilgamesh, or even further back to scratchings on the walls of caves, the definition of a human has changed. When I studied archaeology one of the key books was called Man the Toolmaker. Then when Jane Goodall saw a chimp using a tool they had to redefine what made humans. The notion of art and the notion of writing, particularly when it goes beyond basic communication to the creative works of poetry and literature… I don’t think that’s something that will ever be lost.

Every family has narratives and when family members meet, they recast the narratives and there’s interplay. When something happens to you, you retell it to yourself or to someone else: that’s hard-wired into us. We are always giving accounts of what we’ve done, what we’ve felt and what we’ve thought. And in that process of telling a story, however mundane or banal, we shape it and reshape it. That’s something that’s at the root of our humanity.

P.K: We are born to be storytellers.

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, which is taking place from 9 – 26 May, will feature writers and thinkers inspired by topics including the human condition, social issues, and long-forgotten pasts. To see all of the events happening as part of the Festival, please click here