Chinese-English No.6 2017 2018-05-02
A Lai Famous Chinese writer, Winner of the 5th Maodun Literary Prize
Michael Kahn-Ackermann: I hear that you have been to a lot of Confucius Institutes and delivered lectures. Would you please tell about your feelings about your experiences there?
A Lai: First of all, I have got a new understanding of Confucius Institutes. My impression is that many of them are on university campuses. While the university is a higher education institution, the Confucius Institute is mainly to teach Chinese language of the level of junior high school in China. I thought there must be a gap in terms of the level of teaching. Therefore, when I was invited to give lectures at a Confucius Institute, I indeed hesitated, wondering what kind of audience I would face. If they were beginners of Chinese, it might be rather difficult to talk about literature and culture. But that was not the case. It turned out that my understanding of the development of Confucius Institutes over these years was far from enough. Present at my lecture on the first day were the former ambassador to China and many influential local writers of my age. It was until then that I realized the communication at a Confucius Institute is actually of very high level.
Another feeling is that in those successful Confucius Institutes, the foreign partners show great enthusiasm. For example, once when I visited a Confucius Institute, the director, who was pregnant, insisted on accompanying me to a branch campus several hundred kilometers away for another lecture.
Michael Kahn-Ackermann: Now the government has made a lot of efforts to introduce contemporary Chinese literature, but I don’t think Chinese literature has reached its deserved position in the international community. What do you think the problem lies in?
A Lai: If translation is equal to “going-out”, we in fact started it very long ago. Some writers of my generation such as Mo Yan, Liu Zhenyun, and Yu Hua had a lot of their works published abroad before China began to consciously promote the “going-out” of literature. My first book Chen’ai Luoding (The Dust Settles/Red Poppies) was published in the United States in the 1990s. There was an interesting story about the book. I suddenly received a check and was asked to go to the bank to cash it, and I was told it was the publishing payment. At a quick glance, I found it was fifteen thousand US dollars. When I was in the bank, it turned out that it was actually one hundred and fifty thousand US dollars. That was the first time I got so much money. For a Chinese at that time, it was a fortune. This story shows that the acceptance of a book by the foreign readers happens naturally. It mainly depends on whether they have realized its value. In fact, globalization began rather late in China. When we are now advocating “going out”, it is not that we want to step into the outside world, but that the world is coming to us. We just have to deal with the situation.
The idea of “going out” may have a bad effect on us writers. In order to sell books abroad, one has to figure out what others want, which may result in a deviation from the aesthetic appreciation and experience of Chinese people. Finally the works become neither Chinese nor Western. Those works which are successful in “going out” are still based on the reality of China. Of course, this is also a process of constant communication with the outside world. Some of the early American writers such as Neruda and Whitman have had a great influence on me. They were open but at the same time they adhered to their own cultural positions. Today Chinese writers including me should have such a spirit, and this is the showcase of cultural self-confidence.
Michael Kahn-Ackermann: The going-out of literature has always been faced with two major problems: translation, and cultural differences. What do you think?
A Lai:Literature is a means adopted to understand people from the language. Culture is only behind “people”. If literary exchanges can be viewed more from this perspective, there should be more common ground.
There are many factors that influence publishing, and translation is a technical problem. At present, there are indeed few good translators. They prefer to choose books by themselves and only work on those they believe worth translating. The “going out” of the culture represents the image of a country, and I believe it will never happen as a whole but on a project-by-project basis.
Another factor that affects “going out” is the publisher. An important indicator of the quality of a publisher is its market influence. However, when we authorize a foreign publisher to publish a book, we usually choose the one that first expresses the desire even though we know little about it. Therefore, I suggest that we do some research on the publishing houses of the countries we mean to publish in and further understand their actual operation and development. This will be more helpful than a fund of tens of thousands of yuan.
Michael Kahn-Ackermann: When we recommend books by contemporary Chinese writers to foreign publishers, they often reject them because of unfamiliarity. What do you think of the problem of cultural differences?
A Lai:In the context of globalization, publishers are more concerned about their commercial interests. They have to consider business risks as what kind of books to publish. On the other hand, today European and American culture has become the mainstream of the world in both form and content. When people feel the superiority of their own culture, they tend to refuse other cultural experience. This explains why nowadays the curiosity of Western readers about the others is not as strong as before. Europe and the United States are not any more in the great navigation era nor in the colonial era. Although colonization is not good, people at that time at least had a strong curiosity about the outside world. French and British literature of that era is full of adventurous spirit.
From the new cultural movement all the way to the present, the Chinese have been fearing the familiar, but liking the new and longing for experience from foreign literature and art. A growing culture must be the one that people are full of curiosity about and desire for the outside world and unfamiliar experience. It is said that before China joined the “Universal Copyright Convention”, a lot of foreign literary works had been translated into Chinese. When Márquez came to China and found his One Hundred Years of Solitude, though unauthorized, were sold everywhere, he was so astonished and angry that he decided not to authorize the Chinese to publish his works in his lifetime.
Michael Kahn-Ackermann: When giving lectures abroad, many Chinese writers find that most of the audience are Chinese. Do you have any good ideas of how to arouse the interest of foreign readers?
A Lai:The lectures I gave at the Confucius Institute at Catholic University of Chile this time have received very good effect. In the first lecture, I chose to talk more about the audience instead of myself. I started with my understanding of a particular writer of their country and his works. I said that I was very excited to come to the place Neruda had written about as I liked Neruda very much when I was young. I was able to see with my own eyes the sea, the trees, the relics, and the people... All the scenes depicted in his poems were presented one by one in front of me. They found such lectures very easy to accept, so the news that I would give a lecture in another university soon spread. When I expressed my respect for and my understanding of their culture, we harvested mutual understanding.
Another thing is that we should be good at working with local institutions. By saying “going out”, we inevitably influence people outside the Chinese culture. Domestic institutions are often unfamiliar with the situations in foreign countries and can not effectively organize local people. Therefore, in order to attract foreign readers’ interest in Chinese literature, we must cooperate with influential local institutions and thus achieve the goal of “doing more with less”.
Michael Kahn-Ackermann: A friend from a publishing house once said to me that if China had Márquez with One Hundred Years of Solitude, there would have been no problem for the going-out of Chinese literature.
A Lai:I totally agree with it. When one thinks of some famous names, such as Su Dongpo, Li Bai, and Du Fu, the first thing that comes into his mind is that they were good writers or poets. To some extent, it is not an issue of which country they were from but an issue of whether they were good or bad writers. So first and foremost, we have to produce good works and make good Chinese writers a group. No one will deny the literature of the Tang Dynasty because there were so many good poets.