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Chinese publishers set off in daring new direction to boost flailing Russian literature publication industry in China

Chinese readers browse Russian publications at the 2015 Beijing International Book Fair.

Photo: IC2017-09-26

When asked to name a few Russian books published within the past decade that have become bestsellers in China, Chinese publishing industry veteran Zhang Hongbo admitted that he couldn't name a single one.

"The last Russian book that created any buzz in the Chinese mainland was Forest Newspaper by Soviet writer V. Bangiune [Vitaly Bianki] (1894-1959)," Zhang – director-general of the China Written Works Copyright Society, a major organization involved in the State-sponsored Chinese-Russian Inter-translation Project launched in 2013 - told the Global Times on September 12.

The Chinese edition of the classic 1927 series' was reprinted a dozen times in the two years following its 2007 debut, Zhang said.

"I can't recall any Russian work of literature selling better than that one over the past decade," he noted.

Once a major part of any Chinese readers' must-read list, works from big name 19th century authors such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, as well as Soviet wartime classics like How the Steel Was Tempered and Franz + Polina used to exert a great influence on Chinese people, especially those born after the 1950s.

However, due to the changing political and cultural climate, Russian literature in China has been on the decline over the past few decades.

Ups and downs

The first golden age for Russian literature in China began in 1915 when Chinese progressives and intellectuals started the New Cultural Movement. The ideals of the movement resonated well with the revolutionary and realist spirit of 19th century Russian literature and so a number of major works were introduced to China. Russian literature experienced a second spring in the 1950s, a time when Sino-Soviet relations entered into a "honeymoon period."

During that time, Russian language and literature were all the rage in the Chinese mainland. According to Chinese scholar Chen Jianhua's The Sino-Russian Literature Ties in the 20th Century (1998), from October 1949 to December 1958, 3,526 works of Russian literature were translated into Chinese and more than 82 million copies of Russian works were printed.

However, it was not long before this fever was brought to a halt as relations between the two countries soured in late 1950s.

Later, China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the Soviet Union's disintegration in 1989 further aggravated the situation, leading to "a decrease in the number and type of Russian literature publications in China," Zhang said.

While sales of centuries- and decades-old Soviet classics have remained fairly stable over the years - according to Zhang, partly because they have remained high on Chinese education authorities' lists of recommended books - modern Russian literature works, even those that were bestsellers in their home market, have been given a cold shoulder in China in recent years.

Entangled situation

A lack of qualified translators is one of the factors that has led to this situation, Zhang noted.

Though the Russian language is now classified as xiaoyuzhong, or a "marginalized foreign language category," in China, "the number of students studying Russian as a major in Chinese colleges hovers around 20,000 - not a small number at all," Zhang told the Global Times. "But only a small portion of them end up taking up literature translation as a profession."

According to Zhang, through the efforts of government-led cultural exchanges, translation of Russian literature peaked in China in 2005, which marked the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, and 2006, China's Year of Russia. However, while a large number of works were coming into China, none really managed to strike a chord with Chinese readers.

"I remember introducing a series of detective novels by Russian writer Alexandra Marinina that had sold tens of millions of copies in their home market to China," Zhang recalled. "They didn't perform as well as we had expected - a dozen of books in the series only sold around 100,000 copies in total."

He also mentioned that when domestic publishers began publishing Chinese editions of the tie-in books to the world-renowned Russian animated children's TV series Kikoriki in 2014, they also failed to live up to expectations.

Zhang pointed out that poor marketing strategies in China have been another barrier that has hindered sales of Russian books.

"Many readers don't hear about it when a new Russian book comes out," Zhang pointed out. "Publishers should utilize multimedia to reach out to their readers - obviously they're not doing enough in this respect."

Despite mediocre sales, publishers of modern Russian literature may be able to turn things around as the rising popularity of one form of Russian art has created an interesting opportunity for them.

New directions

In recent years, Chinese adaptations of classic Soviet and modern Russian stage plays have been becoming increasingly popular in China. This in turn has increased demand for Chinese translations of these types of plays, such as Soviet playwright Lyudmila Razumovskaya's popular 1981 drama Dear Yelena Sergeevna, Zhang said.

"Some stage actors and directors have told me that they are desperately looking for the Chinese editions of Russian plays," Zhang said.

"Many audiences too, after watching the Chinese versions of famous plays, want to go read the scripts to them," he noted.

Zhang said his institution has closed deals with a number of Russian drama agencies to introduce more theater scripts to China in the future.

In addition to this, Russian children's literature, a focus for domestic publishers over the past decade, still has the potential to be a major trend in the years to come.

Currently, a majority of the 39 Russian works that are being translated into Chinese as part of the Chinese-Russian Inter-translation Project are aimed at young readers.

"Five of the top 10 global bestselling children's literature authors in 2016 are from Russia," Zhang told the Global Times, explaining that Russia's unparalleled strength in children's literature publishing is a major draw for him and many other Chinese publishers.

Newspaper headline: Beacon of hope

Source: Global Times.