Conversation with Chinese translator Eric Abrahamsen Part II

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Wang Xiaofang's  The Civil Servant's Notebook

Eric Abrahamsen's translation of Wang Xiaofang's The Civil Servant's Notebook

This is part II of my conversation with Chinese translator and publishing consultant Eric Abrahamsen. 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.

If anything is going to stop piracy, then it’s going to be economic pressure.
— Eric Abrahamsen

Mickey: The issue of copyright and piracy in China. I know it’s a very common topic, but do you think the pricing model in China where books are really cheap is good for consumption of literature because it increases the reading base? Or do you think that the pricing will eventually go up? Or is piracy keeping the price artificially low?

Eric: I don’t think piracy is as big of an issue as it used to be. It certainly has not gone away, especially for very popular books. But, it used to be that everything got pirated. It was actually very hard for a publishing house of any size to make money past a certain point. I think the economics of it has changed. It’s just not as profitable anymore to get involved in piracy so fewer books are getting pirated now, only the bestsellers. I do think that Chinese consumers are gradually becoming willing to spend more money for books of higher quality. They’ve been incredibly sensitive to price for years. Anything that was a couple of yuan cheaper, they would’ve been happy to buy a pirated version. I think that’s gradually changing. It’s a little big weird. People are still so insistent that books should be incredibly cheap. Most normal paperback books are somewhere between 25¥ to 35¥  ($3.90 USD to $5.50 USD) which is incredibly cheap but it’s very hard for a publisher to do a good job producing the book when they know that they’re not going to make much money out of it. There’s a changing public perception that books should be more expensive and they should be higher quality but that’s only just starting. It’s the early days for that trend. 

Mickey: How about copyright? If there is less piracy, does that mean there’s an increasing respect for copyright?

Eric: Nope, I don’t think so. I think it’s economics that will squeeze out piracy, not legal knowledge. If it came down to the law, the government could have stopped piracy ten years ago if it just decided to. The law is already in place. What’s lacking is political will. If anything is going to stop piracy, then it’s going to be economic pressure. There is a much stronger awareness of copyright law now, that’s definitely true, and it’s improving quite a bit. Most of what I do is work with sales of translation copyright in and out of China. If we’re dealing with Chinese books which was written like 10 years ago, it’s very common that there was no contract or the contract was one piece of paper saying, “Yes, you can publish my book.” They weren’t even thinking in terms of rights or anything of the sort. That’s really changing. Books that have been published in the past 4-5 years have a much more professional contract, everything is spelled out, and everybody knows who has what rights. And while they don’t always respect what’s in the contract, at least, the contracts are there and people are getting more aware.

Mickey: With the increasing accolades for Chinese writers with Mo Yan (莫言) and the popularity of Su Tong (苏童), and the recent winner of the Nebula award was a Chinese author, is it like a golden era right now for Chinese literature? Is it just greater access in terms of translation to the material or is it just that the writers are becoming better because they’re better trained?

Eric: I think it’s an inevitable consequence of China having more contact with the rest of the world. Culture travels across borders very slowly. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, into the 1980s, Chinese society started to have more contact with the rest of the world but still very little and very slowly. More channels for communication opened up, not just economically, but culturally and socially, and they all are strengthening. I don’t actually think Chinese literature is having some amazing new period of high performance. I think it’s mostly a natural consequence of China emergence to the rest of the world. Publishing is a slow industry, it’s slower than other economic connections and it is now getting around to paying more attention to China. Foreign publishers are starting to learn about Chinese literature. I think it’s just an inevitable process. I actually don’t think Chinese writers are doing much better now than they were before, unfortunately. 

Mickey: As a literary consultant/editor, how different is it from just being a translator? It doesn’t sound like it’s a natural progression for most translators to shift from translating to consulting.

Eric: The consulting part of it is just plain old literary consulting, so helping publishing houses getting into contact with each other and editorial stuff like with Pathlight magazine. I’m editing a series of novella translation for Penguin. That involves picking the novella, finding a translator, editing their translation, and stuff like that. I like it better than just translating. For one thing, I just don’t know that many Chinese writers who are really excited about translating novels and spending the prerequisite 6-9 months on one person’s book, just working on that book and nothing else. There aren’t many books which I would want to do that. Much of the pleasure I derived from translation, I derived equally well from editing other people’s translation. It’s just fun. It’s about thinking about the same questions, but you don’t have to do all the work. Then, there is also a social element, where you’re discussing it with somebody else, you’re having these conversations that I think are really interesting. A lot of that is just as much fun editing as it is translating. You get to do more because somebody else is doing the grunt work so that means you’re working with more writers and working with more translators. You’re not just locked up to this one novel for 9 months. They are very different things and it’s not a normal thing for translators to do to switch between these roles.

Mickey: But you also have the different experience and skill sets that allowed you to take on this editorial and consulting roles. 

Eric: Yeah, but in the beginning, it wasn’t my idea. There was just so little information about Chinese literature out there that I found myself often having to play the role of guide or consultant or whatever. Eventually, that just sort of expanded over time and I realized that I just like it better. 

Mickey: Has Paper Republic evolved the way you originally envisioned it? Or did you just react to what came your way? 

Eric: I never really had that much of a vision for Paper Republic. Several of us translators started it in the beginning and we were just looking for a place where everybody can hang out all night and talk to each other about translation. The vision in the beginning was a meeting place as a social hub and a community. That has come and gone over the years. The site has been more quiet over the past couple of years largely because I haven’t had as much time to put into it. I’m getting back now. In terms of the community, I wish it was stronger but I think it’s doing pretty well. In terms of Paper Republic as a company, I’m revisiting the idea of how to make it a viable, functioning company and hopefully within the next few months, that will be more of a reality. But, I never had that clear of a dream for the thing, it’s just fun to see it there and fun to see people using it.  

Mickey: What do you think of the future of literary translation? Do you think there will be more publishing consultant in China as more people want to tap into the Chinese market? Or is literary consulting already big enough?

Eric: It’s certainly not big enough. There’s hardly anybody else doing what I’m doing. In part that’s because it requires a big investment of time and language study and time and effort just to get to know people here. Partially, it’s also because nobody really expects to make enough from publishing to center their career around this so that’s why I’ve been a little bit foolish, rushing in when nobody else is even interested in [laughter].

Mickey: But you have a monopoly! [laughter]

Eric: But I don’t know what to do with my monopoly! It’s not like I make a lot of money from it. I need to figure how to arrange it a little bit better so I can at least make a living off of it. There’s much more interest in cross-cultural communication. At the same time, the publishing industry itself, both the global and the Chinese industry, are all in this period of uncertainty and upheaval. In some cases, there is blank terror about what they’re going to do in the future. While there is a lot of theoretical interest, there isn’t a lot of confidence that there is money to be made. There is certainly money in selling children’s or educational books in China. But selling Chinese books out of China? Nobody thinks that they’re going to make a lot of money doing that and so that has a knock-on effect of people just not bothering. They take a very pessimistic attitude towards it so while there is interest there, the economics of the whole thing is very odd and people are not certain of what’s going on. A lot of the work I do is either government sponsored, international book fairs, or larger bodies that have vested interest in furthering industry connections. It’s not like individual publishers and publishing houses are all getting really gung-ho and saying, “Hi! We’re going to publish Chinese literature!It’s going to be great! We’re going to love it! Our readers are going to love it!” Nobody is saying that. While this attitude is still here, then it’s going to be hard for things to take off and I probably will continue to be the only person who really bothers doing what I’m doing. 

Mickey: Dreamworks and other studios are grabbing Chinese IPs. They bought The Tibet Code (藏地密码) to try and make a Chinese version of Indiana Jones. Do you think that with the release of these films or media of other Chinese IPs, that the economics will be there?

Eric: For film and media, it’s definitely there. There’s the case of an industry where everybody is making a lot of money, so they’re just rushing in and there’s all kinds of activities and interest. That has rubbed off on literature a little bit in that a lot of studios are very interested in finding stories that can be made into film. In some cases, there have been successes with that and that’s pretty cool. But, the trickle-down effect is pretty minor. That hasn’t had a big effect on the publishing industry as a whole. A lot of Chinese writers have gone on to write teleplays for TV serials or film scripts but that’s already a longstanding tradition in Chinese literature. 

Mickey: Thank you again Eric for taking the time to have this conversation. 

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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.