When you read a new literary translation from another country, you can only assume that the piece is an accurate representation of culture in that society. For example, if someone from another culture were to read The Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, they’d get a relatively good idea about what our culture is like, and what it was like when those books were written. For example, the Chinese translation of both would be a window into our culture for the people of China. However, the converse is not true for Chinese literature. For a myriad of reasons, the translated Chinese works that we read in the United States are extremely inaccurate representations of the culture.
Censorship Prevents us from Accessing Questionable Material
Compared to China, the censorship requirements in the United States are lenient. Seeing Snooki’s butt on Jersey Shore or reading about detailed intercourse in a top-selling book are commonplace in this country. Unfortunately, these are some of the cultural representations we put out. Censorship in China has greatly limited such output, so it’s difficult to see what the culture is really like through literature. Translation services aside, many writers are hesitant to write about their life in the country because they are worried that they’ll be punished.
Translation of the Literature is Scant
Unfortunately, when depictions of life in China are published, many professional translation services that focus on literature do not bother picking them up. This is because such depictions don’t sell well in the United States. Instead, these translators tend to focus on novels that were written by Chinese authors with a western flair, often ones that were actually born in the U.S. Such novels are more relatable for American readers. While they’re entertaining, many ignore the realities and changes happening in modern China.
If you’re looking to get an accurate representation of the culture in modern day China, don’t rely on the literary translations that are available in the United States. They ignore many of the aspects of the culture, both because of censorship and scarce translation. Relying on such works for a cultural understanding would be like someone watching only Disney films to get an idea of American culture. To get an idea of modern Chinese culture, you just might have to visit with a professional translator by your side, or at least hire one to translate a less marketable book.