The Routes and Reasons for Chinese Literature in Translation

Event Start Date:

On the 16th of November, the Meanings, Identities and Communities Cluster hosted Dr. Josh Stenberg to give a talk on “The Routes and Reasons for Chinese Literature in Translation”. Dr Stenberg received his B.A. from Harvard College, his M.A. from the University of British Columbia, and his PhD in Chinese Theatre from Nanjing University. Dr Stenberg is currently Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. The event, organized in collaboration with the Chinese Literature and Culture Teaching Cohort, celebrated the launch of the new undergraduate Creative Writing and Translation track within the Global Cultural Studies major. It was attended by approximately 15 faculty and 30 students.

Dr Stenberg began his talk by surveying the intellectual landscape of translation. Translation Studies was a relatively young field which emerged in 1988 and was heavily focused on the state’s involvement and official documents. It was only in 2011 that Translation Studies shifted focus and began looking to the people behind the translation. As Dr Stenberg pointed out, different people in different places during different times would have different translations even for the same texts. Moreover, Dr Stenberg also highlighted the hierarchical relationship between languages. He pointed out that many English texts were translated into other languages, yet the corpus for non-English texts translated into other languages was sorely lacking. It is within this context that Dr Stenberg positioned his talk for the evening.

Dr. Stenberg shared that according to his research, when non-English texts do get translated, they are done due to either state incentives, a theme fit, a style/genre fit, or a class fit. This was done through his analysis of four different cases: the arrival of Chinese narratives in European compared to Southeast Asia, Indonesian texts translated into Chinese in the early PRC period, practices of self-translators and his experiences translating contemporary Chinese-language literature.

In the first case, Dr Stenberg showed how historically Chinese theatre was translated into French mainly by French orientalists who were using a philological way of deciphering the Chinese culture. Chinese works were first translated into French before being spread across Europe and translated into various other European languages. In the second case, Dr Stenberg showed how state incentives and theme-fit heavily influenced Indonesian texts translated into Chinese. In the early PRC era, many books written by the Indonesian Left Wing Artist Association (LECRA) such as Bunga Rumah Makan were translated and distributed in mainland China. These books were heavily anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist. Dr Stenberg posits that these topics would have heavily resonated with 1950s China.

In the third case, Dr Stenberg analyzed the work of self-translators. Dr Stenberg focused on writers in multicultural societies such as Australia and Canada who write and translate their own work. While some writers self-translate to assert some connection in being part of a multicultural network, other writers self-translate to explore and critique issues of language and identity. For the fourth case, Dr Stenberg used his own experiences to highlight that some of the translation projects he undertakes are also chosen for publication due to theme-fit. He cited a recent example of Chen Xue’s “Venus,” relating that while the usual publishers who pick up literary translations were not interested, possibly because of the controversial trans theme, The Guardian ran it specifically because of that theme, exposing the story to a wider audience than it otherwise would have reached.

The talk ended with a lively Q&A session. Dr Stenberg answered questions on the relationship translation had to writing, the historical background of China in the 19th century and the relationship of the print market in Chinese translation projects.