Creative non-fiction / December 2015 (Issue 30)

Read Paper Republic

by Nicky Harman

Editors' Note: We at Cha have long been fans of Paper Republic, an organisation devoted to promoting the translation and publication of Chinese literary works. When we heard about their exciting new project, READ PAPER REPUBLIC, we were only too happy to give them some space to tell us about it.


READ PAPER REPUBLIC is a project run by four literary translators, aimed at readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water. Between 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, we are publishing a complete, translated, free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one every Thursday for a year, RPR-01–RPR-52. We are: Eric Abrahamsen, Dave Haysom, Helen Wang and myself, Nicky Harman.


Last year, a journalist friend grumbled to me that Paper Republic posted only excerpts from Chinese novels. Why not complete short stories, he asked? The rationale for publishing novel samples had originally been simple: Eric Abrahamsen, founder of Paper Republic, was aiming to persuade publishers to take a punt on novels they could not read and translators they did not know. Posting short stories was quite a different challenge. Who would translate them? And for no fee? And who would read them? Still, the seed was sown, and three months later, in June 2015, READ PAPER REPUBLIC was launched.

Our intended audience has always been the general reader, people who might never have read anything translated from Chinese before. We have chosen a wide selection of pieces, from fantasy to mystery to sci-fi, from memoirs to poems and song lyrics (complete with audio link) and from romance to political allegories. Think of READ PAPER REPUBLIC as a year-long Chinese feast.

The four of us agreed that our focus would be on contemporary writing, with a few exceptions that I will come to. The stories must be well-written and well-translated, and the literary banquet must offer something to suit all reading tastes. Some are new translations made especially for READ PAPER REPUBLIC, others have been published before in literary magazines that are hard to track down now. (Republishing made the complete lack of funding, which might have seemed like a major obstacle, much less important. It has also given some fine translations a new lease of life.) In making our choices, we have aimed to reach a consensus, but we also have a chief editor, Dave Haysom, editor of Pathlight magazine.

One of the most rewarding, and initially surprising, aspects of the READ PAPER REPUBLIC project has been the generosity of our translators. They range from the well-established to first-timers, but what they have in common is enthusiasm for the READ PAPER REPUBLIC idea; in particular, Jeremy Tiang, the prize-winning author, playwright and translator, has been hugely supportive and donated a new story, "There is Nothing to Bind our Hearts Together," RPR-16 in the series.

Reaching the readers has been a significant challenge. We decided from the outset that we would work with like-minded organisations and literary websites, pairing our weekly stories with what they were doing, thus tapping into their readership. So, for example, in July 2015, we posted "January: Bridges" as RPR-03. The author Dorothy Tse, the translator Nicky Harman and editor Dave Haysom were guests at a discussion of the story on how author, translator and editor work together, in Leeds in the UK. Our hosts were Writing Chinese and Leeds Writers Circle, the event was filmed and the video, called The Story of a Story, is now available to view on the London Free Word Centre website. "January: Bridges" featured once more at the City University (London) Translation Summer School the following week, when Helen Wang prepared a competing translation, and she and Nicky Harman took part in a translation slam, debating their versions before a packed hall of students. One story, three different events, a network of connections, all aimed at creating a buzz in the literary world around contemporary Chinese writing.

Another example: in August this year, we pegged our stories to the Twitter campaign, Women in Translation Month (#WiTmonth) and posted five consecutive stories by women authors and women translators. This introduced new readers to READ PAPER REPUBLIC and led to a number of complimentary retweets, as well as an invitation to blog on the Biblibio website, whose founder Meytal Radzinski launched WiT Month in 2014.

While our focus is on contemporary fiction, we have included a few early twentieth century writers such as Lu Xun, Lao She and Shen Congwen. With Lu Xun's "Autumn Night," RPR-18, translators Dave Haysom and Karmia Olutade have found an imaginative way to reach new readerships: they have posted the original Chinese with detailed annotations to their translation on, an interactive website which allows readers to annotate their favourite stories and lyrics.

For Chinese New Year 2016, the Year of the Monkey, we will be posting a sequence of stories about monkeys and other animals, both classic and contemporary. We will post an episode from W.J.F. Jenner's translation of Journey to the West and are delighted that Professor Jenner has agreed to write an essay especially for READ PAPER REPUBLIC on how he tackled this classic work. A sequence of London-based activities to attract children and adult readers alike is also in the pipeline.

Our authors range from some who are well-known in translation—A Yi, Wang Xiaobo and Zhang Yueran have already made an appearance—to others who will be virtually unknown in English. Here is a flavour of our eclectic mix:

A Yi kicked off our series, at RPR-01, with "Who's Speaking Please?," translated by Michelle Deeter. A Yi is best-known for crime fiction (his A Perfect Crime, translated by Anna Holmwood, appeared earlier this year), but he surprises us in "Who's Speaking Please?" with a bittersweet love story with an unusual twist: the hard-done-by lover is a man and the faithless partner, a woman.

The young Sichuan-based author, Yan Ge, has provided a story about small-town life, "Sissy Zhong" (RPR-10). Yan Ge has aroused a lot of interest among Chinese critics for her use of dialect, some of it colourfully rude. But there is much more to her writing than swearing; it is full of acute comments on human relationships, and she has a wonderful ear not just for dialogue but also for the things that remain unsaid. "Sissy Zhong," one of a series of vignettes she wrote in preparation for her major novel about small-town life, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, manages in just a few pages to be touching and funny, and to shock you with its denouement.

From Hong Kong, we have two stories by Dorothy Tse (RPR-03, RPR-07), whose precisely imaginative and surreal writing put her on the long list for Three Percent's Best Translated Book Award 2014. Monica E. Carter, one of the BTBA judges, in "The Fringe Elements," describes her stories as "boundary-pushing ... speak[ing] to the difficulties we face in the world today in a new and exciting way."

From the geographical margins, there is "Painless" (RPR-12), by Yerkex Hurmanbek, a Kazakh writer from Xinjiang, whose story "Eternal Lamb" was adapted into China's first Kazakh-language feature film in 2011. Hurmanbek is unusual because most published "ethnic" fiction is written by Han Chinese, for example Li Juan's "The Road to the Weeping Spring" (RPR-02). This is a controversial issue (see, for example, the comments after Li Juan's story and the blog Ethnic China Lit: Writing by and about non-Han Peoples of China). But, politics aside, we chose "Painless" on its literary merits. In the words of the translator Roddy Flagg, it is "a bleak and sad little story. The first sentence delivers body horror and social anxiety, the first two paragraphs see hearts stop and bones splinter."

Here, to whet your appetite, is how "Painless" opens. In just a few lines, we experience the family's shock and shame, and the mother's pain:

Nobody in the village noticed that my brother's six-year-old daughter had chewed off all her fingers. Only her little palms were left, like two tiny shovels. But more mobile and fleshier, with a child's warmth. She took bowls of food using her palms like pincers. The sight stopped her mother's heart for an instant; the right ventricle blocked and wouldn't let the blood through so the breath caught in her throat. It was a bit like when their pasta-maker choked on a lump of dough, or the neighbour's tractor spluttered to a halt outside.

My sister-in-law's heart had actually stopped a few times, years back. But my brother knew how to restart it: the philtrum, a pressure point in the depression just below the nose. Once he dug in so hard his nail left a crescent-shaped wound on her upper lip. The neighbours asked what had happened. I was breaking lamb bones for the marrow, she said, and a splinter of bone flew out. You should be more careful, they told her. That's a pressure point. You could have killed yourself. It's fine, she said. I'm still here.

We are featuring essays too: "Crows," by Cao Wenxuan (one of China's best-known children's authors), translated by Helen Wang, is RPR-14. "Crows" is written for adults, but we are featuring stories suitable for young readers, too, and not simply for the sake of adding variety to the READ PAPER REPUBLIC mix. The UK school national curriculum now stipulates that literature should be included in foreign languages teaching. With mandarin Chinese a popular choice at secondary level, there has been considerable interest from teachers in acquiring suitable material. Coincidentally, and quite independently of READ PAPER REPUBLIC, our editor Dave Haysom (who teaches in Beijing) last year taught Shen Shixi's Jackal and Wolf in Helen Wang's translation, and Helen corresponded with the students about their impressions of the book and the challenges of translation. So there is clearly much scope for interesting young people, wherever they are, in Chinese literature.

No matter how experienced the translator, each piece is gone over thoroughly by one of the team; our maxim is that, just as the translator is the author's best reader, a good editor is the translator's best reader especially as, in our case, our editors understand the source language and are translators themselves. If you watch the video Story of a Story, you will see how that process works.

One characteristic all our translators share is an abiding enthusiasm for particular authors and a desire to make their work available in English. We have milked that enthusiasm by asking each one to write an introduction, saying why they chose their story, essay or poem. Their responses have been personal, quirky, inspirational and always informative.

Take, for example, Eric Abrahamsen's introduction to his translation of Wang Xiaobo's "Mister Lover"(RPR-5):

This story is one of a collection of Tales of the Tang by Wang Xiaobo: stories ostensibly set in the Tang Dynasty, but peppered through with suspiciously modern elements. From the point of view of the translator, the difficulty lies mainly in tracking Wang's shifts through the various vernaculars – he casually tosses in a "stinking-ninth" (borrowed from a Cultural Revolution term listing the least-desirable social classes), continually floats in and out of mock-epic imperial-historical style, while the dialogue mostly sounds contemporary.

Or Dave Haysom's account of how he chose the intriguing names for the protagonists in his translation of "The Death of Zernik" (RPR-6), by Zhu Yue:

Translating names can be one of the trickiest challenges facing the translator of Chinese: do you use pinyin to transliterate the sound, at the cost of losing any meaning implicit in the name, or directly translate the actual meaning, at the risk of "'Princess Jade Phoenix' chinoiserie"? Zhu Yue's invented names thus constitute a refreshingly different kind of challenge … the story is not set in any specific country, and the names do not precisely map to the sounds of any actual language.

As we look towards the end of our year-long project (RPR-52 will appear on 16th June 2016), the first question must be, have we succeeded in raising the profile of Chinese literature in translation? This is hard to quantify (although we can, and will, tally up the number of views, reviews, blog mentions, tweets and collaborations). But already the project has produced a huge feel-good factor, among translators, readers and authors, too. The second question is: what next? We are considering a collection, The Best of READ PAPER REPUBLIC, as an e-book or even a print book. We are open to suggestions. READ PAPER REPUBLIC has always aimed to be interactive, and we hope that you, reading this article, will feel inspired to post your comments, reviews and suggestions on its website. 


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