The Translation Crisis in China

(Phoenix Weekly)  The Crisis in Translation on Mainland China.  By Wu Haiyun.  November 5, 2007.

Today, the world economy is converging into one body even though regional cultural clashes are also becoming fiercer.  The situation with translation in China today may lead the Chinese to fall into a new and willing self-imposed blockade from the outside world.

"I really don't understand this.  XX's works are so poor.  How can XX win the Nobel Prize (Booker Prize/Goncourt Prize/ ...)."  For the past couple of years, such questions have frequently been raised at the various literary forums on the Internet.  In the comments, someone will complain bitterly: "What has this got to do with the quality of the writer?  It is just that the quality of our translation is so poor!"

Each year, more than 1,000 foreign literary works are translated and published in mainland China.  But the aura of "a grand nation for translated literature" cannot hide the awfulness of the translations, the crudeness of the translators and the absence of critical reflection on what is happening.

The famous Hong Kong translator Huang Bangjie pointed out: "Since the 1990's, there have not been enough successors in the ranks of translators."  This is very much to the point.  China once had excellent translators such as Fu Lei, Cao Ying, Wang Daogan and others.  But today, there does not seem to be many translators with such sterling reputations.

An important reason for the fall in translation quality is the tendency for mainland publishers to seek quick profits.  Many mainland publishers will leverage the popular works and seek short-term profits.  For example, on the occasion of the anniversary of the birth or death of a famous writer, they will publish the person's works.  These newly translated works are packaged nicely and the printing is excellent quality, but the quality of the translation do not measure up to the previous translations.

Some of the newly translated works are so poor as to be unreadable -- they were translated by "brute force."  One cannot speak of excellence or fluency.  Sometimes one cannot even understand the translation.

The deterioration of translation quality is related to the dire situation of the industry for translated works.

Over the past twenty years, the salaries for most professions have increased by twenty fold.  But the salary for translators has only doubled.  In the early 1980's, the basic fee for translation was 30 yuan per 1,000 words.  At the moment, the basic fee for translation is only 60 yuan per 1,000 words.

The famous translator of Russian works Cao Ying told this reporter that he translates an average of 1,000 words per day.  "A translator who works like myself cannot hope to survive today," said Cao Ying.  But he did not criticize the contemporary translators who could translate a novel of more than 100,000 words in just two to three months.  He said: "I can understand that.  It is hard for translators to make a living off translating.  One must rely on quantity."

The problem is that translation is also the kind of work that has a high requirement on the quality of the worker.  A person who graduated from a university foreign language department (or even someone who has studied overseas) can become a simultaneous interpreter at a large conference, but this person may not be able to handle the job of translating a work of literature.  Translation requires that a person must know the foreign language, have good Chinese-language skills as well as have a deep understanding and grasp of the culture and history of the foreign country.

Nanjing University School for Foreign Languages dean Xu Jun has translated works such as <The Collected Works of Marguerite Duras> and he believes that faithfulness is the most important thing in translation.  The faithfulness can only be accomplished through total immersion in the spirit and substance of the original work.  When Xu Jun translated Milan Kundera's <The Unbearable Lightness of Being>, he wanted to make sure that he accurately the paragraph of the Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea and he did this by reading up on the works about that.

Apart from solid language skills and deep knowledge, the translator must also possess "inspired intelligence."  Translation is an art and a work of creativity, and artistic creation requires inspired intelligence.  This is something that is difficult to explain, but a good translator must have that.

On one hand, the pay is poor.  On the other hand, the job requisites are quite high.  It is no wonder that excellent translators are rare nowadays.

But why do the publishers offer such poor pay to the translators?

Jin Hao is the general manager of the Ten Thousand Languages Cultural Company which publishes the Famous New Ideas Books series.  He made the following accounting for the reporter: To publish a translated work, the royalty is between USD 1,000 to USD 2,000, or around 10,000 yuan; the translation fee is over 10,000 yuan; the cover design and printing costs are around 60,000 yuan.  Suppose the book is sold at 20 yuan with a print run of 10,000 copies.  If every copy is sold, the total income is 200,000 yuan.  The cost of royalties, translation and printing is 40% of the gross revenue.  It must be pointed out that the publishing industry is in the doldrums right now.  Many bookstores require that the books be provided at 50% to 60% of the listed price, and Internet bookstores even want just 40%.  The profit for a translated book is therefore low, and only a book with sales of 7,000 to 8,000 copies can reap profits.  The reality is that except for a few bestselling novels and financial management books, very few contemporary foreign books sell more than 10,000 copies.  Jin Hao told the reporter that their company lost more than 2 million yuan in total in publishing the Famous New Ideas Books series.

Under these circumstances, the Chinese publishers will naturally not pay more to the translators, and they will definitely not offer royalty payments to the translators as might happen overseas.  The publishers attribute the reasons on people not liking to read books, especially those deep-thinking works of literature.  This is not untrue.  But the problem is that it creates a vicious cycle: the readers are unenthusiastic, the publishers refuse to take risks in their planning, the poor pay for translation will not attract top-quality translators, the quality of the translated works deteriorate and the readers like translations less and less.

Once this cycle reaches a certain level, it creates the situation described at the beginning of this essay.  Some book lovers sigh over the deterioration in the quality of translated books.  But many readers are unaware of what is happening and they blame the original writers.  They feel that there are no good overseas writers and there is no need to read foreign writings anymore.

This is the true crisis that the Chinese cultural industry must face up to.  Over the past century, there were two popular waves of translation on mainland China.  The first time was in the 1930's.  Through the efforts of translation masters such as Yan Fu, Liang Qichao, Lu Xun and others, works such as the social evolutionary theory of Herbert Spencer, <Capital> of Karl Marx, the Cosmos of Wilhelm von Humboldt and the philosophy of Bertrand Russell were introduced to the troubled China.  The second wave occurred in the 1980's, when <Les Miserables>, <War and Peace> and other famous works were no longer banned, and they gave a breath of freshness to the Chinese people coming out of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution into these formerly banned worlds.  Today, the world economy is converging into one body even though regional cultural clashes are also becoming fiercer.  But the situation with translation in China today may lead the Chinese to fall into a new and voluntary self-imposed blockade from the outside world.