Pathlight – A magazine makeover

On Tuesday evening, I attended the Royal Asiatic Society lecture at the Radisson Plaza Xingguo Hotel in Shanghai, this time given by Alice Xin Liu (English managing editor of Pathlight Magazine) and Eric Abrahamsen (Founder of Paper Republic) presented ‘The Oldest Magazine In China Gets A Makeover‘. Produced by Paper Republic (Chinese Literature in translation) and People’s Literature Magazine (《人民文学》杂志社) it is a new magazine in its trial period called Pathlight Magazine: New Chinese Writing. It is based on People’s Literature Magazine, the oldest and first literary magazine created in communist China in 1949 where Mao Dun was its first editor but as an English edition, thus, trying to present well-translated Chinese literature in English contexts for the first time. It is currently in its second issue, made in conjunction with The London Book Fair this year with the China Market Focus 2012. Here’s a quick run down of a few of the things they said that evening…it was interesting to hear about publishing in China, Chinese to English literary translation and the Chinese literature industry as it’s not usually my realm of discovery…however, the transition through translation from East to West is something I am definitely familiar with…and it’s inherent problematics. The two dog figurines on the stage made my English journalist friend, Susie, and I laugh…just so quintessentially British somehow…don’t you think? They look like they are having their own discussion.

‘There is a certain image of foreigners in China that just can’t be trusted – we basically just don’t know how to suck up! They believe that foreigners still don’t understand China and they shouldn’t be translating Chinese literature because they just don’t get it. Most people want to know whether we are censored. We only publish things that have been published in Chinese or in Chinese literary magazines so some of it has already gone through a censorship process. Both sides seem to have Vito power, but who is going to back down? The way literary magazines are published in China is difficult. A book or magazine has to have a publishing number, where for magazines a publishing number is harder to get as the media format is more publicly accessible. Most people get a book publishing number then make a mock book-like magazine. Manuscripts are checked by the Foreign Languages Press, usually we have the same man where he has the power to censor. Everything that we read here in China from Chinese printed books to English editions are censored. For Pathlight censorship is not very overt…it has already been mentally censored previously. What does that say about our magazine? Well, it is a specific Chinese product that has already gone through a process.

As regards translation, it is a craft to be taken seriously…It’s a process of writing and rewriting where it is better if you are a writer as well as a translator. We sit in our underwear translating…not together though! In Chinese, they remove wrong characters or characters that don’t work, whereas in English we go through a rewriting and full editing process not just this kind of translation. Also they don’t use native language translators, which Pathlight do…actually there are very few Chinese to English literary translators out there…where there is a new movement of commercial translators. Very few people are doing this at a level where you’d want to publish them.

We haven’t spoken yet about the problems with the writing from China. What makes them special? And why do we want to translate them? We take pleasure in acting as an agent for them pushing them forward shaping their voice for the English-speaking public, feeding that audiences appetite, which is a hot topic right now. We wouldn’t get to hear these on a daily basis as they are so domestic, some suggested by ‘People’s Literature’, but not all. The value of Pathlight is the writing, the way your skills as a translator can develop and the talent you can come across. There are other literary magazines that come out of China but they are usually just submitted to, therefore rather random. Pathlight settles on a theme first, talks to Chinese counterparts, discussing writers that fit to the theme. We look at content first to look at a finished product…look at a view of what’s out there rather than a grab bag of what’s fun to read that doesn’t give you a sense of what’s there. We believe this is more of what people are reading in China. China is reading a lot of really random, not always boring, but always original writing.

Q: What are you doing differently and what choices have you made with Pathlight in the fiction that’s translated?

A: We have been looking at women writing about the things going on around them…universal themes such as by Shen Wei…or Zhang Yueran. More urban writing too…modern writing dealing with issues that might be written about in London, UK or USA from a Chinese perspective. We try to stay away from magical realist derivative styles of writing, looking for imaginative narrative styles with interesting linguistics that are exciting to translate.

Q: What do you think foreign editors who publish outside of China look for in Chinese literature? And are Chinese writers cooperative in starting a relationship with a translator?

A: The editors in the West are more interested in the “pictures” that they know something about. They’re most likely to pick the stories that have hype around it, that are marketable and popular. A general feeling is too much has and is published about the Cultural Revolution and about “sexy” China and now no one know what’s left. We now want modern writing from China. We have a young generation of writers who are very media savvy and sell a huge number of books…but they shouldn’t choose then. What they should want are the generation who are getting into their 30s, born after the Cultural Revolution so they have a different perspective, but it’s hard to find as they are not well know…it is hard to give them a name…such as writer Di An. It is also logistically hard to get hold of writers, as some don’t respond to emails or are busy with “official duties”.

Q: Where are you expecting your readers to be? What happens after the three trial issues? Will there be criticism?

A: We are producing an e-version and in print, where the 2nd and 3rd are both available digitally for free. We are hoping that will be the main conduit for readership.

Q: What do you think has stopped Chinese literature gaining prevalence on the international stage like Indian literature?

A: Translation is an issue, a lack of translators also creates a bottle neck. Also how quickly society is changing…it takes a long time to get a handle on anything…it is hard to keep up with the pace of change in China. Writers in China thinking too much about yesterday or spend too much time on Weibo (just speculation). I want to publish something that bowled you over not me over. The West don’t appreciate the things going on in Chinese literature…the sentimentalism or melodrama…the West are more emotionless. There is a lot of misunderstanding between the editor, writer and translator because of the cultural difference where it is very hard to convince a different audience than the one at home.

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