Much more than books were to be seen this week at the Beijing International Bookfair. In conjunction with the book exhibit a local English language bookstore/library plus café, the Bookworm, hosted a talk by the literary agent, Toby Eady. As the top literary agent for contemporary Chinese books, both fiction and non-fiction, Mr. Eady chose to speak about modern Chinese writers.
Tall, debonair, British born and the son of a famous woman writer, Mr. Eady has been a literary agent since 1968. He publishes books from all over the world and sells their rights to foreign language publication houses. But Mr. Eady has a special place in his heart for Chinese literature, particularly memoirs and fiction.
"Western thinking is so lateral but Chinese thought, because of the characters and language, seems more creative and Chinese words seem to express more feeling," Mr. Eady told the audience. He recounted that he had been fascinated with China since he was a teenager, and that he found Chinese stories incomparable to western fiction.
"The biggest problem," Mr. Eady explained, "Is finding the right translator for a Chinese book; it's really key. So many translations are bad, they are what I call 'tone-deaf translations'; they can make a work fall flat." Because Chinese and English languages reflect completely different ways of thinking, the translator must be able to feel the voice of the writer, empathize and work on the same emotional level. "Academic translators may be well educated but I want my translators to be people who have had the same experiences as my authors; these people must have visceral knowledge. Translating is a very underestimated skill. If you are writing in Chinese a translator can kill your book through a poor translation. It is imperative that your book has a voice. The living language must come through in your writing and it has to be conveyed through the skills of the translator as well."
When Toby Eady and Associates accepts a Chinese writer they usually give the author a contract for two books. "We prefer our Chinese writers to write in Chinese. The book is translated. We keep the same translator for both books," he said. "This is because each translator is as unique as each writer and they form a team."
Mr. Eady said, "When I work with a Chinese writer I like them to give me an oral history; it helps a writer find his or her voice."
"I know in China you can publish in six weeks, but the western world does not work this way. It takes a lot of time; it's very different. Be prepared to wait," Mr. Eady commented.
According to Mr. Eady the Australian market is the best place to publish Chinese fiction. He stated that the Americans are just not interested in this genre, and that the European market is hard to enter. He explained that the US market has many American-Chinese writers; their fiction is received better than current Mainland Chinese fiction.
The literary agent stated that he is seeking out new Chinese authors. "The Chinese experience is very different than any other human experience in the last 150 years. The emotional relationships Chinese people have had in the last 50-60 years are completely different than the western life. Good books tell stories about people; they recount character. I have the instinct to pick the winners, I guess. It’s been very exciting publishing these books; I've been very lucky. I'm looking for stories that demand to be told."
Mr. Eady remarked that the Olympics will undoubtedly generate new interest in Chinese books, both fiction and non-fiction. When a member of the audience asked him why he only cited Chinese writers that were female, he grinned and answered, "I guess I just like women more and their writing appeals to me. It's a matter of taste; it's my taste. Chinese men are much more restricted in what they'll write about. And remember, seventy five percent of the readers in the world are women. I think that my life as a literary agent has been, in a way, a life of supporting women and encouraging women writers. That's not such a bad way to lead one's life."
(China.org.cn by Valerie Sartor, September 1, 2007)