Two years ago, when I returned to China after completing my studies in France, I found a position as an editor of Chinese translations of French literary works. As a person who is passionate about literature, I was delighted to have found a way to make a living doing what I love most. However, little did I know that the cruel and onerous reality of working in a publishing house would quickly leave me feeling emotionally and physically drained.
As far as the translation of foreign literary works is concerned, quality is of the utmost importance. However, the state of literary translation in China made my job as an editor a far cry from what I expected. In China, literary translation is rarely well-paid: French-to-Chinese translators generally receive just 70 to 80 yuan ($10 to $12) for every 1,000 Chinese characters, while English-to-Chinese translators earn even less. As if these rates weren’t derisory enough, there was the rule that if a translator’s fees for a particular project exceeded 800 yuan, the publishing house would deduct 20 percent in taxes from anything over that baseline amount. Not surprisingly, very few talented, qualified translators are willing to work for such pittances.
Translators must invest an enormous amount of time and energy if they are to successfully bridge the colossal divide between Asian and European languages. But owing to poor pay, however, many translators do a slapdash job. Some not only fail to adapt the structure of the original text so that it conforms to Chinese syntactic and stylistic conventions, but also make countless basic mistakes. Small wonder, then, that China’s most well-known online book review platform, Douban, is filled with criticisms of Chinese translations of foreign works.
Of all of the botched translations in recent years, the most laughable are perhaps the mistranslations of the names of some of the greatest contributors to China’s history and culture. The English translations of historical figures and works often use an archaic form of romanization — Wade-Giles — as opposed to the now-standard Pinyin. Or, in the case of the great sages Confucius and Mencius, they’ve had their names latinized as a means of rendering them more palatable to Western audiences. To make things even more confusing, certain historical figures’ names have been rendered in English according to their pronunciation in Cantonese, not Mandarin. These days, any ambiguity that results from these multiple transliterations can easily be dispelled through a quick online search. But in some translations of foreign works, the names Chiang Kai-shek, Mencius, and Sun Tzu — whose original names in Chinese are Jiang Jieshi, Meng Zi, and Sun Zi — have been transcribed back into Pinyin, producing gibberish such as “Chang Kai Shen,” “Meng Xiusi,” and “Sang Zu.”
Sometimes, it’s because the translators have an insufficient grasp of the language in which the original text was written, but more often than not, it’s a matter of work ethic rather than ability. Foreign language teachers at Chinese universities are required to translate a certain number of books. Consequently, we had many teachers who were willing to translate for us, even though we could only offer them modest remuneration. The translation samples these teachers produced were usually up to scratch — but when we saw their final efforts, we were sometimes dumbfounded by just how bad they were.
Because some teachers take on translation work purely as a means of fulfilling their school’s requirements, they don’t bother putting in any effort, and end up producing translations filled with errors and omissions. The most head-scratching work we had the misfortune of reading came from a teacher who had delegated the task of translating the book to several of his students. The final translations he gave us were highly inconsistent, not only in terms of their overall writing style but also in more fundamental terms, such as the way in which place and people names were translated.
The haphazard attitudes of incompetent translators can be even more infuriating than their work. The most extreme example I can think of was a woman who decided to translate a book for us because she wanted to spruce up her résumé before applying to overseas schools. Her Chinese translation was virtually incomprehensible — but when we asked her to correct the errors and improve the style, she outright refused, arguing that she had already done everything in her ability, and that it was now up to the editors to wade their way through her mangled prose. Our only recourse was to dock her pay, and I basically had to translate the book all over again.
While many of the translators who worked with us were seemingly indifferent to the quality of their own work, our editors were bound to the finished products by a deep sense of responsibility. This meant that every time we received a terrible translation, we were inevitably required to work overtime. In my work as an editor, I was required to proofread and edit in excess of 10,000 Chinese characters a day — but this is virtually impossible when you’re dealing with a poorly written translation. However, our bosses didn’t take into account factors such as the difficulty of the task at hand; they merely complained that we were slow and inefficient. My only option was to continue editing once I got home from work, and my working hours soon began to creep into my evenings and weekends.
A decent salary would have at least somewhat softened the impact of such stressful and tiresome work, but editors in China receive pitiful wages. An entry-level editor receives about 5,000 yuan a month, which is barely enough to cover the cost of renting an apartment in the suburbs of Shanghai and keep oneself fed and clothed. As a result, there is a high rate of attrition among editors: In my two years on the job, the majority of my colleagues left to pursue careers elsewhere.
But why is it that publishing companies pay translators and editors so poorly for their work? I suspect that the cheap cost of books in China is the main culprit. To use my two most familiar points of reference as an example, the cost of a cup of coffee from Starbucks is more or less the same in France as it is in China: the equivalent of four or five U.S. dollars. In China, this is about the same price as a book.
In France, however, a book is three to four times more expensive than a cup of Starbucks coffee. The recently released French translation of “Ping Ru and Mei Tang: Our Story,” hailed as one of China’s most beautiful books, sells on Amazon France for 23 euros ($27), for example, while the original text is sold on Amazon China for only 24.6 yuan — more than seven times less. Furthermore, China’s 14th National Reading Survey revealed that the average price Chinese readers are willing to pay for an approximately 200-page paperback novel is 14.42 yuan, or just over $2.
I long to introduce the most outstanding foreign works of literature to a Chinese readership, but my ambitions have been repeatedly quashed by the unfortunate reality of publishing in China. The cheap cost of books means that both translators and editors are forced to work for paltry wages, and under such unfair working conditions, it is difficult to improve the quality of translations. This in turn gives translations of foreign literary works a bad name among Chinese readers, perpetuating a vicious cycle. The more powerless I felt to right the wrongs of an entire industry, the more I kept coming back to one remaining option: to simply walk away.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and David Paulk.
(Header image: Moment/VCG)