Founding a Paper Republic

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Translator Eric Abrahamsen 

American translator Eric Abrahamsen is not only on the lookout for new Chinese writers, but also bridging the gaps between Chinese and foreign publishers to bring the contemporary literature of China to the world.

Abrahamsen's love for literature is the driving force behind Paper Republic, a publishing consultancy which aims to connect Chinese and foreign publishers, something that proves to be more complicated than his love for literature and language.

"I'm splitting my brain a little bit," he said, smiling. "One half just is the literature I think is valuable. The other half is what publishers need, what market potential there is and how Chinese and foreign publishers can cooperate."

"If you don't think about this then you can't convince anyone to accept [your translations]."

Abrahamsen came to Beijing to study Chinese in 2001. Though he had no intention of becoming a translator at that time, his long-term interest in Chinese literature eventually drew him to translate well-known Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo's popular collection of essays, My Spiritual Home.

Since then, Abrahamsen has worked as a teacher, editor, and freelance journalist. In 2007, he started his website Paper Republic with several native English speakers and translators to become a "full-time freelance translator".

"In the beginning we didn't have any big plans. We just thought it would be fun if we had a website. After about a year we realized people outside of China were checking it out," said Abrahamsen, whose work includes published translations of renowned Chinese writers Su Tong and Yu Hua in newspapers and magazines.

Though he has been offered jobs by Chinese publishing houses in the past, he feels foreign publishers have a better understanding of promoting abroad.

"Only they know how to promote a book in their own market," he explained.

A big fan of urban-based fiction, Abrahamsen said he especially seeks out works by younger writers and always on the lookout for something new, which as he points out has become quite a challenge.

"Sometimes I have the feeling that writers are confused a little bit. There is so much happening in Chinese society and things are developing so quickly, they don't really know how to absorb and digest it all. It's like that the whole generation is getting lost, confused and don't know what to do," he said.

He also explains that although there is a lot of curiosity in the West, it is going to take some time before Chinese literature can be really popular among Western readers.

"Publishers don't know what readers want because readers don't know what they want to read," he noted, "They first need to have a clear understanding of what China really is in order to absorb Chinese literature."

Another difference between Chinese and English literature is the craft. In the West, authors tend to focus less on plot and more on how well the story is written, according to Abrahamsen.

"People are very careful with how they put their sentences together and how they put their stories together. And they do a lot of revision, a lot of drafts."

But in China, many writers often write one draft and read through, fix some points and then send it to publishers. "You just get writing that is just very floppy and not very carefully written, which makes it very hard for us to publish abroad."

Winner of the 2009 PEN Translation Fund Grant Recipients issued by the world's oldest international literary and human rights organization, PEN American Center, Abrahamsen is currently working with Penguin to translate Wang Xiaofang's Note of a Civil Servant into English, his first foray into full-length novel translation.

However despite his success, he admits he still finds it difficult to get translations of Chinese fiction published, especially the ones he thinks deserve attention.

"It is very hard to convince publishers to go for a book. Usually they pick things based on their own criteria and come find us," he said.

"We just want to translate great literature and they want to publish things that promise a larger readership."


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