These thoughts went through my mind as I visited Beijing and the International Book Fair with a focus on the local books published for the Chinese young readers.
First, simply about communication and information exchanges.
It was quite an education for me to truly understand that the “WORLD” wide web as I see and use it is definitely NOT so “world wide.” YouTube, Google-platform, Facebook, and Twitter are all inaccessible in China, unless someone has installed IP masking devices (VPN, etc.) So, when I tweet or share something on Facebook from New York City, I cannot guarantee to reach the millions of potential internet users in China. According to the editor of one of the publishers, Fairrosa Cyber Library site often shows up without her being able to load the included images — and no YouTube videos can be displayed either. Furthermore, since my recent reports on Newbery & Caldecott winning publishers feature Google spreadsheet graphs (pie-charts), the information, without a plain text summary, was inaccessible to the Chinese readers of my blog.
Although I always knew about the differences in accessibilities of certain sites in China, experiencing it first hand definitely made me think twice about my comfortable assumptions.
Another striking realization came after I spoke with several representatives of major children’s book publishers: either with the editors, publishers, or rights managers: each told me that they have all sold their best titles internationally. Upon further inquiry, “internationally” means Korea and other Asian countries such as the Philippines, and France, and other European countries such as Germany. They almost NEVER meant North America, especially The United States. They all told a similar tale: the U.S. publishers of children’s books only wish to sell Chinese language rights and have the books available in China for sale; very rarely would a U.S. publisher seriously consider buying and translating Chinese originals into English editions for American children. I wonder if this situation will change any time soon?
I have always noticed that translated children’s books are scarce on the U.S. market and felt sad that the U.S. children do not have the same level of exposure to world literature and diverse viewpoints and sensibilities that I had the good fortune to have, growing up in a small island country. I read books translated from all over. Some of my all time favorite books that were re-read many times were from Italy (Heart or Education of Love), France (Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Thief series), Cuba (Malfada – a satirical comic strip series), Japan (manga) and India (Buddhist allegories.) And while there have always been publishers who work hard at bringing books from other cultures to the U.S., there seems to be some difficulty to sell these titles when the cultural landscape and sensibilities differ greatly from the everyday, presumed mindset of the U.S. children.
Case in point: One thing I noticed was how the strong Chinese tradition of not shying away from sad endings remains evident even in picture books for fairly young children. Tragedy is quite common in traditional Chinese literature, theater, and now TV shows and movies, and children are often familiar with many somber tales.
Take these two books by Cao Wenxuan (曹文轩) for example:
|The Last of the Panthers shows the devastating scenario of the “last” of many species and there is no uplifting or hopeful ending when our Panther gives up on itself and falls into the perpetual sleep. It is heart wrenching but so effective. A young person reading the simple text and looking at these gorgeous pictures would acutely feel the pang of loss of such majestic animal and might be inspired to be more responsible in caring for our natural world.|
|Another title is the Hat King. A story set during the Sino-Japanese war when the boy and his grandfather (a magician skilled in “hat tricks”) had to endure the deaths of the boy’s parents at the concentration camp and even when they successfully escaped from the camp, they had no house to go back to any more. And that’s how the tale ends. This is a story almost never told to the children in the U.S. It’s powerful and bleak — but it’s also real and full of familiar affection.|
Will either of these titles, which are top-selling picture books, or dozens of other quality peers, ever find their way to the general U.S. mass market? And if and when they do, will they be translated faithfully and stay intact?