Conversation with Chinese translator Eric Abrahamsen Part I

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun

I met Eric Abrahamsen at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2014. He kindly agreed to have a conversation about literary translation, publishing consultation, and the state of Chinese literature. 

Eric has been living in Beijing since late 2001, when he began studying Chinese. He received a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo's My Spiritual Homeland (我的精神家园) and a NEA grant for Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun (跑步穿过中关村). In 2007, he and his peers formed Paper Republic, a forum for translators of Chinese literature to share information about Chinese books and authors, and discuss how to get them translated and published abroad. Paper Republic now lists over 250+ translators on their forum and they have worked with over 100+ publishers. 

There is a little bit of that but for the vast majority of censorship, that’s not how it happens. The worst of it, I think, is still self-censorship by writers.
— Eric Abrahamsen

Mickey: How did you end up in China? 

Eric: During college, I knew that I wanted to leave America and have an adventure somewhere else, but I didn’t really have much of an idea beyond that. At the time, I was studying international studies at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. I figured, for some reason, that if I wanted to go abroad, I should study International Studies. It actually doesn’t make any sense when I think about it now but at the time, that was totally my idea. The Jackson School has both area programs and language programs, and so eventually it came down to deciding between learning Arabic and going to the Middle East or learning Chinese and coming to China. I’ve actually been to China before and so I traveled to Tunisia to study Arabic for a summer to see what it was like. After my trip, I concluded that China was more interesting as there were more things going on. At the Jackson School, I basically completed all my degree requirements except for language. Then, I came to China for my last year of university. I completed a whole year of language study in China, sent the language credits back to the school, graduated from a distance, and I’ve been in China ever since. 

Mickey: Why Chinese and not some other East Asian languages like Japanese or Korean?

Eric: The language was very interesting to me. I was more interested in the Chinese language. I came to China once before when I was ten with my family in 1989. It left a big impression on me. I didn’t know what was going on but I was looking around and seeing things. It left a really big impression on me. Then again, in 1999 or 2000, when I was in Thailand, I decided to take a few weeks trip through China. I went overland to Laos and into Yunnan and then did this trip through western China — Yunnan to Gansu then to Tibet and out of Tibet. It was actually a horrible trip. It was the loneliest that I’ve ever been in my entire life and western China was just incredibly difficult to travel around. It was really hard to get around, not knowing the language, and having no preparation, which granted, was my fault. It was a really awful trip but it gave me a bit of a grudge against China and I decided that I was going to learn the language and do it properly the next time around. Those two experiences left powerful impressions on my mind and I think that’s what drew me back. 

Mickey: Reading your biography, you’ve been in Beijing since 2001 and Paper Republic started in 2007. What was going on during 2001-2007? Were you in the process of setting it up?

Eric: Not at all. In the beginning, I didn’t even know that I was going to get into literary translation. I’ve always been very interested in literature and I’ve always wanted to write in one capacity or another. In the beginning, I thought that it was going to be journalism. I thought I was going to be a journalist and write reports from China. For several years, I tried to do that. I worked for a couple of years at a local English magazine. After I left that, I tried to be a freelance journalist. Gradually, the realization dawned on me that I was not cut out for journalism. I would never make a good journalist. I don’t like it. It makes me anxious. I’m just not very good at it. But it took a long time to learn that lesson. I was very stupid. During that time though, as I was living in China, and getting used to the society and making myself at home, my language was improving. I started to get into Chinese literature. That has always been a personal interest of mine and so it seemed natural that after my language reached a certain point where it’s feasible to read books that I would try to read fiction. That slowly crept up on me when I was not paying attention. I was reading books and found a couple of Chinese writers that I really liked and I just found myself naturally wanting to translate. It just seemed like the natural response to reading something in a foreign language that I liked. So I started doing that on the weekends and evenings just for my own pleasure. I translated a couple of essays by Wang Xiaobo (王小波). He’s still probably my favorite writer. I decided to try and get these translations published. I got one of them published and people seemed to like it and I thought Wow! This is pretty interesting. So I gradually shifted to doing translation but I was always doing odd jobs. I was always doing other writings, non-literary translations, or editing jobs. All kinds of stuff. 

Mickey: Can I say that 2001-2007 is your discovery phase?

Eric: It was me being young and clueless and not really knowing what-I-really-wanted-to-do-with-my life phase. I’m sure most people have a phase like that. Mine was just a little bit longer than most. All I knew was that I wanted to write somehow and I had no idea what that meant or how to do it. 

Mickey: As a translator, do you think you have a pulse on Chinese literature? A good grasp on what’s on the rise or which genre is currently popular in China?

Eric: Yeah, absolutely. I actually don’t do as much translation nowadays. I do a lot of publishing consulting and editing of translations. Every aspect of my work now involves learning about Chinese literature and Chinese publishing and helping to interpret that for other people. Particularly, as one of the editors of Pathlight magazine, I spend a lot of time reading short stories by new authors and figuring out what’s going on and seeing what people are reading. I would like Paper Republic to be a place where all that information is. Sometimes I have time to update it, sometimes I don’t. It has fallen behind a little bit, but I feel like the website is where all that information should be. 

Mickey: Can you share what the current trends are? For me, I find it fascinating that sci-fi is picking up in China as sci-fi, historically, is a really difficult genre for Asian countries other than Japan. One plausible explanation is that it is perhaps challenging for these countries, at the current state, to imagine a future where their country is scientifically advanced. But now, I feel like they’re embracing that idea. Do you agree?

Eric: Yeah, I think all of China is getting used to seeing itself as an advanced country and obviously everybody is thinking a whole lot about the future and what’s going to happen to the country and where everything is going. I think right now it’s very easy for Chinese people to think about the future. I think one thing that Chinese science fiction has gotten over, or is in the process of getting over, is going from a very traditional interpretation of science fiction — the space opera, spaceship, hard science, like what people were reading and writing in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s in the US — that’s developing into a little more than what you would call, it would be silly to call it “post-modern science fiction” but something like that, where the books are about more than just a faster-than-light drive. There are more social elements. There is more talk about how technology changes humanity. There are more humanistic elements to the books and I think China is just coming around to that in the past 5-7 years. That means the writings appeal to a lot more people than just hardcore science geeks who want to read the details of the faster-than-light drive. So I think that trend will continue to improve and increase science fiction popularity. 

Mickey: Speaking of science fiction, time-travel was recently banned in TV and other mediums in China. I’m bringing this up because I would like your opinion on the issue of censorship in China. How do you feel about it? Do you think it’s appropriate in certain instances?

Eric: Everybody imagines that censorship is like a bunch of writers trying to write what they want and an army of government officials with red pens crossing things out of the books. It isn’t like that. There is a little bit of that but for the vast majority of censorship, that’s not how it happens. The worst of it, I think, is still self-censorship by writers. It’s writers who know, who have an idea, but know that it would never get published or know that it would be incredibly difficult to get it out there, so they just don’t bother. Or it’s conscious or subconscious edits they make while they’re writing. They might find themselves going in a certain direction and just think I’m not going to do this and dialing it back or changing the plot. I think the worst of what happens is crimping the writer’s imagination right from the very beginning. Everyone thinks of it as the government versus the people, but what people don’t realize is how internalized and socialized politics and government pressures are in China. The worst of the worst that I have seen done in terms of pressure on writers or damage done to their imagination comes from the cliquish aspect of Chinese literature where there is very much an establishment: government bodies, critical establishments, newspapers, magazines, and in order to get published, you have to be friends. This happens in any country, in any publishing industry anywhere, but it’s really, really bad in China. Most writers, if they want to get famous, come to Beijing and start hobnobbing. Then they get to know the editors and the influential journals and start pitching pieces to them, and it creates an atmosphere where everyone is watching each other. Everybody is reading what everyone else has written and wondering Oh, how did he get away with that? or Who should I be pitching my story to? or How should I write so as to please so-and-so? It’s very rare that the writer is just off to some little hole-in-the-wall somewhere in the middle of the countryside where nobody knows about them and just sits down and writes just because they want to write and not because they’re trying to get famous or get published. That does happen. There are writers who do that, but very rare. It is so corrosive to the quality of Chinese literature because it’s an echo chamber. It’s an old boy network and the quality of their writing comes so far down the list of things people are actually worried about. I think that’s horrible. That’s far worse than somebody with a red pen telling you to rewrite something. 

Mickey: Someone told me that authors in country with a high level of censorship or self-censorship in this case have developed a sophisticated system of imagery and tropes as a way to criticize so that they won’t get in trouble. Have you encountered that or do you see that going on right now?

Eric: Mostly that’s something Chinese writers say to make themselves feel better about the situation. Yes, there are ways to work around it but I think the majority of the time, people just don’t say it. The mental model that people are working from is the Soviet Union one. The dissident writers of the Soviet Union and how there really was an adversarial relationship between members of the cultural elite and the government. They were trying so hard with the underground publications and coded messages and all that. The fighting spirit was there. For the vast majority of Chinese writers, the fighting spirit simply isn’t there. It’s not like they’re trying really hard to say all these critical things and finding clever ways to do it. Most of them are just really not interested in writing anything critical. It’s a little bit unfair. There are plenty of writers who try to dig deeper and talk about the roots of social issues, but there’s nothing subversive about it. It’s not like they’re being extra clever in order to avoid censorship. They just tone down the criticism, leave out certain details, and avoid the sharp edges. Blunt the whole thing down. Soften it up.  Blur it a little bit. I don’t see it as a big fountain of creativity where people have claimed that, “Because of this we’re more creative!” I don’t see it at all. 

Mickey: During the Hollywood Studio era, smoking was a way to establish that the couples on screen had sex. You never see them in the act of it, but the next morning, if they’re smoking, it implied that sexual activity had occurred between the characters. Is there some sort of similarity that’s going in China where certain imagery connotes certain things? 

Eric: There’s a little bit of that but is that a good thing?

Part II of this conversation will be posted this Thursday.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can check out more of Eric's work at Paper Republic.