——by Odo, independent Spainish book reviewer
Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Verbena C.W., editor-in-chief of Beijing Guomi Digital Technology, a company that is translating into English and publishing works by Liu Cixin and other Chinese authors. We talk at length about fiction in China and the company plans for the future.
Odo: Beijing Guomi Digital Technologyis a young publisher of Chinese fiction translated into English. How did it all begin?
Verbena C.W.: Our company was set up in 2010. Yes, we are only two years old, so you could definitely say that we are very young indeed. Our team is mostly made up of authors and editors with a keen interest in both Eastern and Western cultures, dedicated to facilitating cross-cultural communication and inspired by their work between cultures.
In China, about 10 years ago, indie writers had already begun to serialize their novels on forums and literary websites. This lead many Chinese readers to very early on form the habit of reading on their PC. Now reports show that the e-book market in China has already expanded to a total 4 billion RMB. Though Amazon only launched the Kindle Store in 2007, somewhat later than the boom in China, we have already seen a rapid growth in the number of indie authors self-publishing book specifically produced for the Kindle. We saw this development as a great opportunity for intercultural communication and as a chance for us to bring translations of Chinese novels to a Western audience so we joined KDP.
Our team is scattered throughout the world; the States, Australia, Romania, Japan to name just a few countries. We work together online to bring the best results to our audience. Most of us have not even had the chance to meet face-to-face.
Odo: So far, you have published five novellas by Liu Cixin. Are you planning on publishing more of his work? Maybe his novels?
V.C.W.: Yes, in fact we are currently talking to the author and his Chinese publisher about the publication of his novels in English. Among his works, the hard science-fiction trilogy Three-Body is the bestselling and most highly acclaimed for mature readers. In China, this series won over many who had never before read any science-fiction. If you are interested, here you can find a brief introduction to the author and his works. We are also considering translating and posting a couple of interviews of his from both mainland China and Hong Kong.
Odo: What kind of science fiction is now popular in China? Other than Liu Cixin, what fantasy and science fiction authors are “hot in China” at the moment? Are you planning to publish any of them?
V.C.W.: A Song of Ice and Fire is very popular in China right now! If you had asked several months or a few years ago, I would have told you it was Twilight or Harry Potter. In general, Chinese readers have a great fondness for Western science-fiction and fantasy literature.
But if you ask me who the most beloved Chinese science-fiction author is, I would definitely say Liu Cixin. It is quite simply the fact that before he came along, most readers in China would not even try science-fiction written by a domestic author and so no publisher dared to publish science-fiction from a Chinese author. The only way Chinese writers of science-fiction could give their works an audience was to post them for free on the internet or in the Science Fiction World magazine. Books were completely out of the question. That is why Liu Cixin wrote so many stories in novella form.
Things are very different in the realm of fantasy. Chinese readers are crazy about fantasy stories that feature elements from ancient China. We usually call those works “Eastern Fantasy” to distinguish them from books like Harry Potter and the vampire stories coming to China from the West. Eastern Fantasy melds traditional elements like kung fu, Taoism and ghost stories into stylistically modern fantasy narratives. It is a very hot genre in China right now, although some Chinese writers have also tried their hand at incorporating Western style fantasy into their works. Jiang Nan, for example, is a famous Chinese author who has written fantasy stories about Dragons that merge Western and Eastern concepts. Cang Yue is another representative of this trend. Just last year he published a story that played off of a Catholic background, even while drawing upon the Japanese manga influences. You can find more information about contemporary Chinese fantasy authors at: http://www.hotinchina.net/?p=519 & http://www.hotinchina.net/?p=553.
We are currently not sure if publishing the denser, pure Eastern Fantasy literature is something we will look at; The cultural barriers make the translation difficult and we might be left with a mess of footnotes that will do more to bore than excite the Western audience. But yes, we are definitely interested in publishing fantasy stories where the Chinese elements pose less of a barrier.
Odo: The fantasy and science fiction markets are clearly dominated by works originally written in English and, unfortunately, not many translations are currently being published. Do you think that this will change in the near future?
V.C.W.: That is true! Many publishers in China see this reality and therefore do not even try translating the works of Chinese authors. Just as Western writers cannot really dominate the kung fu fiction market, Chinese writers haven’t really broken into the fantasy and science-fiction market.
What we are currently doing, is selecting those works that fit both domestic and foreign appetites and, by choosing the right translators, we can successfully lower the inherent cultural barriers. Many of our translators are English writers which helps. We always encourage our translators to consider the Western audience’s tastes when they are working on a project. What we are looking for are expressions that are natural to English, not word for word translations from the Chinese original. For us, the best translation is a novel that reads like a story written by native speaker.
I believe the internet and e-publishing will, in the further future, bring great changes in this area; I mean in 50 years or so. I would think that in that future both writers and readers will grow up in a global environment and may well use English more extensively than even their mother tongue, if it strikes their fancy and they enjoy life on the internet and the contact with foreigners it allows. Cultural differences could then easily cease being barriers and instead become more a matter of personal style and identity. Writers will then be able to study the entire book market from a truly global perspective, allowing them to clearly understand the needs of genre audiences and fulfilling those needs with professional prose accessible to all. Maybe then, we will see the best kung fu stories come from Spanish writers.
Odo: You have also published Dark Prospects, a suspense novel by Xu Lei. Will you focus on certain genres or do you intend to publish Chinese fiction in general?
V.C.W.: Xu Lei is a very interesting author whose personal story makes a good tale in and out of itself (you can find some background here). I think that most of his works would fit into a sub-genre that hasn’t yet made its mark on Amazon: Mystery fantasy.
His works tell fantastic stories with a suspense-filled narrative that also encompasses elements of adventure and romance fiction. A great example for this is his eight book series, The Grave Robbers’ Chronicles. This suspense story revolves around a band of grave robbers who are pointed toward a great secret buried in a series of tombs by an old notebook that was left behind by one of their forefathers. They set out to find the secret that can save their missing kin and to grab treasures while they are at it. The novels frequently feature the walking dead rising from their tombs and the notebook’s advice on how to deal with them. The tombs portrayed in the stories reflect the Chinese geomantic tradition.
Similarly, Dark Prospects combines elements of suspense and science-fiction. The first book is purely a historical mystery about a Japanese bomber left behind in World War II. To learn the buried secrets of that plane the protagonist and his prospecting team go on a deadly mission of national import. Things get weird as they come upon a pitch-black space a kilometer below the surface.
In the second book (soon to be published), the protagonist finds himself thrown half-a-year back in time and confronted with a radically changed perspective on the events yet to take place. He comes to learn the right choices that allow him to unravel the mysterious plots of his enemies and save both his colleagues and his lover. In the end, the author does answer the big questions raised in the story, but he leaves the reader with plenty of room to speculate and contemplate. Time travel is not a new theme in science-fiction, but using its in such a key capacity was a very much a new experience for Chinese readers.
As mentioned before, we intend to publish good Chinese fiction, fit for both Eastern and Western appetites. Science-fiction, fantasy and suspense are all genres that we are looking to, as they naturally tend to pose lower cultural barriers. Maybe we will also try romance stories in the future.
Odo: What is next for Beijing Guomi Digital Technology? Can you give us a sneak peek on your future projects?
V.C.W.: Another project currently in translation is a crime fiction series. Its Chinese title directly translates as Psychological Criminals (we would like to use a different title in English). It was written by Lei Mi, the best crime fiction writer in China (You will have noticed that I am always boasting that our authors are the best of a genre in China, but it is true and the precise reason why we want to translate their works. As of yet, Chinese novels are not very popular in the English speaking world and we want our readers to get a chance to sample the best; And thereby give us the best chance to win them over).
Psychological Criminals (let us use that name for now) is a four-book series of books that tells the story of a young Chinese policeman called Fang Mu. At first, he is just a student in a small law school, but soon his best friends and his lover are cruelly murdered one by one on campus. The only reason for the killings appears to be that all of their names appear together on a library card. This event not only profoundly changes the protagonists destiny, but also shapes his psychology. He actually hates being a policeman, but murderers find him to be a good challenge, playing mind games with him for their enjoyment. Throughout the books, the reader is offered a look at the darker, more disappointing aspects of China’s social reality, just like the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo offered a good view of the social problems facing Sweden.
Odo: Where can our readers learn more about your publications?
V.C.W.: Check out our blog for some additional background material, information on our newest publications and hot social news from around China; Or simply search for “Verbena C.W.” on Amazon.com, you will find all our publications.
We will also offer discounts and announce freebies over our Twitter feed, so follow us on @HotinChina if you are interested.
Odo: Any other thing you would like to add?
V.C.W.: Yes! Please give Chinese fiction a try, and please post your reviews on Amazon and retweet the publications you enjoyed. We give away free books to all reviewers and retweeters, so send us an email and ask for the specific book you would like as gift.
Odo: Thank you so much for your answers and good luck with all your projects. We look forward to them!