Feature: Becoming a global hit: Chinese bestsellers take on the world

by Han Liang

BEIJING, Nov. 3 (Xinhua)– Drinks, cheers, and applause. It’s the world’s biggest book fair. The Frankfurt, in its 70-year history, has never hosted a themed event dedicated to a Chinese author, until a few weeks ago.

Mai Jia, China’s Dan Brown, brought his spy thriller “The Message” to the event, where copyrights for more than 15 countries were sold or agreed upon within hours.

Previously, his “Decoded” has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 33 languages — a hard-won success for Chinese authors, as Western publishers rarely put translated novels before their own bestsellers, according to Tan Guanglei, Mai Jia’s literary agent.

Matching a well-written, smartly-translated story with a top publisher is the key to success in foreign markets. In short, “it’s all about picking up the right book and taking it to the right people,” Tan said.

Readers around the world have been captivated by John le Carre’s “Cold War” mysteries and Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” series. Mai Jia’s novels are unique for adding a Chinese touch into the genre.

His “Decoded” is a legend about an orphaned math genius devoted to cryptography and deciphering, while “The Message” features a locked-room spy game set in China in the 1940s. Wang Dewei, a Harvard professor of Chinese literature, said the story intrigues readers with a riddle to solve.

Mai Jia attributed his popularity among foreign readers mainly to his books’ translation. A good translation could give a novel a “second life,” he said.

Both his books were translated by Olivia Milburn, an Oxford graduate in ancient Chinese. English readers were impressed by the classic beauty and elegant taste of the language in “Decoded”.

“This strange, twisting tale is told in fizzy, vivid and often beautiful prose,” reads an Economist review, calling it a book “everyone should read” and Milburn’s translation “a treasure.”

With Mai Jia’s brand appeal and Milburn’s strength in language, foreign publishers expect “The Message” to become another global hit.

Mai Jia is not the only Chinese author who benefited from good translation. Liu Cixin’s sci-fi epic, “The Three-Body Problem” translated into English by Ken Liu, garnered the Hugo Award, known as the sci-fi Nobel Prize.

Readers gave it four-and-a-half stars on Amazon’s book review page, saying Ken Liu’s translation “made incredibly smooth reading as if it were the original work.”

Ken Liu, a Chinese-American sci-fi writer himself, said a translator would deliver the author’s thoughts and emotions accurately “only if he could hear the author’s voices in his mind.”

The translation itself won’t necessarily make a bestseller. A touching story that resonates with global readers is a must, literary critics said.

The London Book Review called the Three-Body trilogy “one of the most ambitious works of science fictions ever written.” It created a brand-new world, picturing a universe far beyond the three-dimensional world and predicted catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to contact an alien civilization, the review said.

At the 2018 Frankfurt event, the German version of Liu Cixin’s “Dark Forest”, the second volume in the series, became the talk of the town.

Chen Feng, the copyright broker behind Liu Cixin’s books, was delighted to see that almost every event Liu Cixin attended was over-booked. Watching the long queue in the author’s book signing event, an attendee asked: “Is he a Nobel Prize winner?”

The path to global fame is not easy. Mai Jia and Liu Cixin wrote good stories. Translators broke the language barriers. It is the literary agents who brokered the deal with foreign publishers. They are the “invisible hands” pushing Chinese authors into the global market, observers and analysts said.

Tan told Xinhua that to sell Chinese stories abroad, they are competing for the precious time and attention of foreign book editors. “To allure them, convince them, you got to be good and play by their rules,” he suggested.

Drawing a clever parallel between Chinese and Western books will help publishers catch the essence quickly and situate it properly in their own cultural context, Tan said.

Mai Jia’s The Message, for instance, was compared with Agatha Christine’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” “The Zoo on the Grasslands”, a novel by Chinese writer Ma Boyong, seen as the Chinese version of Yann Martel’s “Life of PI,” appealed to several publishers at the book fair.

Meanwhile, it is critical to know the people behind the books. The publishing world is a circle of publishers, book detectives and literary agents. “Make contacts and friends, build trust and a brand, so that once you sell the books, they are in safe hands,” Tan said.

Tan’s idea was echoed by Chen, Liu Cixin’s copyright agent. He understands the efforts top publishing houses like Tor devoted to promoting Liu’s books: polish editing, reports in national papers, reviews in the Wall Street Journal, publicity events, access to major bookstores and placement in online shops.

By 2017, with more than 300,000 English copies sold, the trilogy has become a New York Times bestseller, according to the publisher. Even former U.S. President Barack Obama and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg are among its fans.

Global readers’ passion for original Chinese storytelling reflects the world’s interest in a fast-growing Asian country and its culture. “You can catch the heartbeat of a nation by reading its novels,” Mai Jia once said. Once foreigners are willing to sit down and listen, then it’s the perfect time to tell our stories, Chen said.

Still, to translate passion into sales requires talent and perseverance. More professional translators and literary agents are needed in China, and a copyright broker mechanism needs to be nurtured in the country, Tan said.

In the end, to ensure the long-term success of Chinese stories in the global market, the real task is not selling books, but to “bridge the cultural gap between the East and the West,” Tan said, and to “win the hearts and minds” of readers.

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