Thursday, 2 May 2013

Chinese Children's Literature

China has lots of stories. There are all sorts of fantastic tales, about monsters, warriors, ghosts and heroes. It's got the one about the naughty Monkey, who goes on a great journey and fights all the time. It's got the one about the cowherd who falls in love with a goddess. There's a festival in China that celebrates their love. There's the one about a lady who lives forever on the moon, with a rabbit and a lumberjack who can't chop down the cinnamon tree. The stories capture the imagination of children across China.  I remember wanting to read about them when I was at school. But these are old stories. They're really more like folk-tales. You can read them in English, some I did, but they aren't so much translated into English as being written as an English 'version'. There are lots of new ones in China that are popular with children too, but what I want to know is whether or not they can be read in English. Can they excite children who read English in the same way?


Over the last few months I have been investigating translated children's literature from mainland China. It hasn't been easy. I know that there is a lot of it in mainland China; the four classics (三国演义-San Guo Yan Yi,水浒传-Shui Hu Zhuan,西游记-Xi You Ji,红楼梦-Hong Lou Meng) all have numerous children's versions and picture books, readily available in book shops, supermarkets and street markets. Writers such as  Bing Xin, Zhang Tianyi, Sun Youjun, Sheng Ye, Zheng Yuanjie, Zhou Rui and many more besides are familiar names in China as children's literature writers. There is also a wealth of online Chinese literature aimed at young adults; if you look them up on you will find they are added regularly, and there are plenty of sites that you can find through Baidu (百度一下您就知道). The problem is – an this could be because I haven't looked in the right place – that I can't find much of it in English translation (I think only Sun Youjian has some of his works translated and published that you can find on Amazon...).


One  children's story that I have found from mainland China and translated into English is in a collection of Ye Shengtao's works. It's perhaps pertinent to note that Ye is  one of the founders of children's literature in China, or 童话-tonghua, which up until the 1920s did not exist. Children read literature before this, of course, but they read the same literature as adults. Tonghua came about when China was trying to adapt to new ideas from foreign countries. The notion that children were different from, and had different needs to, adults was one of these ideas (for more on this see Dr Ho Laino's essay 'Children's Literature -Then and Now, 1997). This idea seems to have stuck, as there are lots of stories and books published in China, in Chinese, with children in mind. But what I want to know is why does it seem like hardly any of it, if any at all, has been translated for children in English?


I've been looking to the translation of Ye's '稻草人’ - Dao Cao Ren – to find out more, as it is arguably his most famous children's story. The translation by Ying Yishi was published in 1987. I've got to admit, the story is an odd one for a children's story, and I'm not sure it's the most likeable one I've ever read. I don't think that as a child (spoiler alert) that I'd like to have read about a girl who gets sold by her alcoholic father and commits suicide, and about a sweet old lady whose husband and son have died tragically, who's lost her money and whose crops are destroyed. Even the helpful scarecrow of the story can do nothing, and in despair drops down in the dirt of the field. It's a bleak tale, and the translation doesn't sugar-coat it.


But the translation is interesting. It captures the tone of the original, that of a children's tale, very well. The issue that I have with it is that it was put into a collection with Ye's adult literature – How Mr Pan Weathered the Storm. Its publication like this suggests to me that the translation was more about preserving Chinese 'Literature' in English than about translating a Chinese children's story for children to read. The translation also omits a religious reference from the original, which is perhaps politically motivated, and the scarecrow talks of how he wants to cook up something nutritious, which is translated in a way that would not sound very delicious to a child in English (grub guts and gruel anyone?). I get the impression that although the original was written with children in mind at the time, its translation in 1987 did not share this aim.


Because of its  content, it seems like an odd story to translate for children. But why is it one of the only Chinese children's stories in English translation? Julia Lovell, in her article last February for Prospect magazine, noted that anglophone publishers were generally only interested in publishing something which incites controversy -'either sex or politics; and ideally both'. It could be that these publishers think this way because it is what readers want; sex and politics. I've been exploring translating children's literature in terms of Gideon Toury's norms theory, and perhaps such desires are the stronger literary norms in anglophone cultures.  Maybe chinese literature, and even more so for its sub-genres, is marginalised in English. If this is the case, then I see very little hope for literature which is both 'Chinese' and 'children's literature' being translated into English and published.


I am, however, willing to think otherwise. There might be a cornicopia of children's literature translated into English out there, and perhaps I just haven't come across it yet. If so, I would love to hear about it and I would love to read some of it. I hope that there is lots out there, and that there is lots more on the way. The sheer size of the country suggests that China has all sorts of interesting people with interesting things to say, and with all sorts of interesting ways of saying them. I know that China has lots of stories to tell, and lots of children's stories that can capture the imagination, and I want to read more of them.


Thomas Newell translates from Chinese into English, and is currently a studying for an MA in Literary Translation at the UEA as well as an interning for Arc Publications. Contact

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