Image of Photo of Nicky Harman
photo by Alex Hofford

A drop in the ocean: The (in)visibility of Chinese literature in translation

The China Centre lecture on Tuesday 30 November 2021 was delivered by Nicky Harman, prize-winning literary translator (Chinese to English) and former co-Chair of the Translators Association, The Society of Authors.

Nicky Harman’s lecture located translated literature from Chinese into English within the wider context of literary translation. She pointed out that China has a tremendously vibrant literary scene, with a significant number of works published on a wide variety of topics. However, translations of works of literature from Chinese into English constitute just 3% of the total amount of literature translated from foreign languages. A large amount of China’s rich output of literature is unknown to Western readers. Moreover, among the works that are translated from Chinese, there is a preponderance of works on science fiction and a growing volume on martial arts. Chinese translated literary works are almost invisible in the international literary prizes. In contrast to the dearth of works translated from Chinese into English, there is a huge number of works translated from English into Chinese.

Nicky Harman emphasised that part of the reason for the dearth of Chinese translations into English is the wide cultural difference between China and the West: ‘Chinese fiction is different’. For example, Chinese novelists are happy to tell the reader the end of the story at the beginning, which is hard for Western readers to accept. However, part of the reason also is the vast gap between the Chinese and English languages. Nicky Harman concluded that the most effective translation from Chinese into English typically involves close collaboration between a Chinese and a Western translator.

The Q&A session included: the gap in aesthetics between China and the West; the difficulty of translating long ‘signature works’ from Chinese into English; resistance from Western publishers to works translated from Chinese; the dearth of native English speakers with the level of language skills necessary to translate Chinese literature; the role of ‘fan-led’ initiatives in translation; the challenge posed for translators by the complexity of Chinese personal names; and the contrast between translating Chinese poetry and Chinese fiction into English.

Nicky Harman lectured in translation at Imperial College London 2000-2010. She now works as a freelance literary translator from Chinese. When not translating, she works on, a non-profit website promoting Chinese literature in translation, and actively promotes translations through blogs and other social media, talks and author-translator events. She organizes translation-focused events, mentors new translators, teaches translation summer schools and judges translation competitions. She was co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors, UK) from 2014 to 2017. She is an Advisor to The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, based at the University of Leeds.