‘The Abandoned Capital’
Great Chinese literature required to push past st language barriers
In 1993, the heavyweight contemporary author Jia Pingwa published his first urban life novel Fei Du ( The Abandoned Capital) telling a story of an intellectual’s life in the 1980s. The novel was soon banned for explicit sexual content and its “vulgar style” but was re-released 17 years later in 2009.
Now, Hu Zongfeng, a professor from Northwest University based in Xi’an, has recently finished his first draft of a translation with his English partner Robin Gilbank and is contacting overseas publishers to promote the book.
This is the second book of Jia Pingwa to be translated into English and expectations for it in international literary circles are high. One reason is because its French version has already won a literature prize.
The controversial book
The story happens in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, where Jia stayed for over 20 years since attending college there. The city is also referred to by some as the Abandoned Capital, the same name as Jia’s novel. Xi’an was Middle Kingdom’s capital before 756, and was gradually ignored by the ancient emperors.
With its famous terracotta warriors forever standing at the ready, Xi’an is a rich cultural center with a deep historical background.
The book tells of a writer, Zhuang Zhidie (translated as Butterfly by Hu), who gradually loses himself in his idle daily life and becomes decadent in his cultural city during the 1980s when China was in the early process of urbanization and modernization.
He keeps different relationships with four women including his wife. The vivid description of life among intellectuals and the explicit sexual content attracts both praise and criticism. Some have labeled it as the modern version of Plum in the Golden Vase (or Jin Ping Mei), a pornographic novel from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
According to the postscript, Jia wrote the book in his 40s, after a series of miserable life experiences: He calls it “a work of misery.”
“The Abandoned Capital is a powerful novel to tell the psychology of contemporary Chinese people as the society experienced rapid development and the reform,” said Hu, “even reading it today, we can still feel the novel is so profound and straight to the point. Though it was banned in the Chinese mainland, it grabs overseas attention.”
Jia was conferred with a medal granting him the title of Knight of Arts and Literature by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication in 2003.
The Abandoned Capital was translated into many languages, including Russian, French, Japanese and Vietnamese, and its French version by Genevieve Imbot-Bichet won the Prix Femina Étranger, a French literature prize, in 1997.
Before the English translation of The Abandoned Capital, only one ne novel by Jia had d been translated into English. Fuzao, titled Turbulence by American sinologist Howard Goldblatt, won the Pegasus Prize for Literature in America in 1991.
Goldblatt said he once tried to translate another novel by Jia Pingwa called Qin Opera, but finally gave up because Jia used a lot of obscure dialect and idioms of Shaanxi Province in the book, according to a report on the Xi’an Evening News in 2008.
Hu also mentioned about the difficulties of translating Jia’s work into English, so he chose to cooperate with an English sinologist Robin Gilbank.
“If Robin cannot understand what I am trying to say, I will explain to him and he finally comes up with an idea of how to express it in English. Some of the idioms are hard to understand for English readers, and we will take a note to explain,” Hu told the Global Times by e-mail, “Jia Pingwa was also invited to discuss the difficulties in translation with us, thanks to Mu Tao, executive deputy editor of Mei Wen magazine.”
Jia asked Hu to retain every single sentence of the novel. Some netizens questioned the move saying that translation is a recreation by the translator, and too many requirements will make the translation even harder.
When asked about this, Hu said, “I don’t think the request by Jia limits me, and I believe translation should keep the original flavor of the Chinese novel.”
A literary pr predicament
The d difficulty of translation is always a great barrier on the p path of promoting dom domestic literature to the world.
Chinese readers will ne never agree that country lacks great writers , but one has to admit that on a worldwide scale the i impact of Chinese contemporary literature is quite limited. Even though Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year year, the wave of Chinese literature going overseas did not really reach the expectations of Chinese publishers.
Hu said, when he visited America in 2003, he read The Reader’s Companion to World Literature published by New American in 2002. In this 800-page book, only five Chinese writers (including foreign Chinese) were mentioned: Four of the five are ancient philosophers, such as Confucius and Zhuang Zhou, while the only contemporary writer, Gao Xingjian who won Nobel Prize in literature in 2000, became a French citizen in 1997.
“I have read some articles by so-called ‘popular Chinese writers’ overseas, who thought the only way to keep their market is by exposing the dark side of China in order to cater to the foreign readers’ taste for novelty. However, I believe things will change with the constant deepening of China’s opening up,” said Hu, “we have to know our own country well if we want the Western people to know more about our modern life.”
Chinese author Jia Pingwa signs copies of his book Fei Du and others for readers at a university in Xi’an in 2009. Inset: Copies of Fei Du