Improved U.S.-China (Lit) Relations

Scholars at three universities—Iowa State University, Arizona State University, and Sichuan University in China—recently launched Project Yao, a database of American literature translated into Chinese. ASU English professor Joe Lockard explains the appeal of the idea:

“Why, for example, are there so many translations of Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha’ into Chinese? Since 1930 there have been five Hiawatha translations. What do such translations inform us about the global representation of native peoples in the United States?

“Have there been more recent translations of the work of Native American authors into Chinese? Is the translation economy shifting to acknowledge ethnic self-representation? These are the sorts of questions that one can begin to address by using the Project Yao database.”

The database only includes works of American literature published before 1920, so it’s no guide for what contemporary American writers are being read in China. And the database only covers translations published in China from 1999 on, so it’s not yet a very panoramic snapshot of how the country’s changing political climate affected what got translated. But it’s a fascinating start, and if nothing else shows how the hunger for the likes of Jack London and Theodore Dreiser remains undiminished. (Surprisingly, only one work of Mark Twain‘s appears in the database, and even then it’s just a short story.)

According to a 2007 interview with Ha Jin in Guernica, American writers apparently fell in and out of favor rapidly. So when a work by Ernest Hemingway became available, he took advantage of it:

When I was an undergrad in my junior year suddenly American literature became very popular. But at the time many of the books were not available. One book, The Old Man and the Sea, because it was a short book and was written in clear, very lucid, English, had a bilingual edition made just for the English students in China, so a lot of people knew that book. As a result, Chinese readers talked about Hemingway. In that story there’s a fight between a man and a shark. You can conquer but not defeat a man. We were taught a lot of Marxist morals. But this kind of Hemingway American mentality, at least as expressed in that small novel, was fresh to the young people at the time, so we all somehow believed in it. But when I was working on The Bridegroom, I was much older by then, I really wanted to give some comic touches instead of tragic. That’s why I made the narrator unable to remember Hemingway’s name.

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