The continent’s best-loved texts are increasingly being translated into Chinese, but publishers are skeptical of their wider influence.
Western media frequently depicts China as a neocolonial power that
seeks to import Africa’s natural resources at fire-sale prices, with
precious little interest in the continent’s people or culture. At the
same time, certain Chinese media outlets have recently come under the
spotlight for their representations of Africans, while many black people in China complain that interactions are rife with racist stereotypes.
economic considerations drive much cross-cultural exchange between
China and Africa, the latter’s cultural exports have the potential to
profoundly shape the ways Chinese people view the continent. The
translation of African literature, for example, may give Chinese readers
valuable insights into the sheer diversity of human culture and
experience across the region.
Few avid Chinese readers of fiction
can name an African author or novel, and those who do often cite “Things
Fall Apart,” the highly acclaimed novel by the Nigerian writer Chinua
Achebe that portrays the tragic encounter between the Igbo tribe and
British colonialism. It was first published in Chinese in the 1960s and
has been reprinted countless times since. While literary circles in
Africa no longer worship at Achebe’s altar, China’s literary
establishment continues to trumpet him as the reigning “father of
African literature,” almost to the exclusion of emerging authors.
the founding of the modern Chinese state in 1949, there have been three
waves of African literary imports. The first, which emerged in the
1980s, was ideologically driven. Empowered by Beijing’s policy of
promoting solidarity with the Third World and newly independent nations,
state-run imprints like the Foreign Literature Publishing House
translated and published a substantial number of African works such as
those by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa
Thiong’o, the Senegalese poet (and former president) Léopold Sédar
Senghor, and the Algerian writer Mouloud Mammeri. Anthologies of
translated African folktales for children even appeared.
the ’90s and 2000s, imported African literature was top-heavy with
winners of globally recognized awards such as the Nobel Prize in
Literature. Imports slowed and tended to focus less on the works of
socialist-inspired thinkers in favor of high-profile Nobel laureates
such as J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, both with South African
roots, and Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz.
Today, the popularity of a generation of young African
writers is changing that picture again, although barriers to import
remain. In particular, a Chinese translation of Chimamanda Ngozi
Adichie’s “Americanah” launched early this year, the fifth of her books
to appear in Mandarin including last year’s “Purple Hibiscus” and the
controversial “We Should All Be Feminists.” According to the online
bilingual database African Writing in Chinese Translation,
only two other black African writers have five or more of their works
available in Chinese: the abovementioned Soyinka and Achebe.
2017 saw a sizable batch of translations launched in China — the
database records eight new titles, four from the prestigious People’s
Literature Publishing House. Prominent among them is “Tomorrow I’ll Be
Twenty,” a novel by renowned Francophone Congolese author Alain
Mabanckou, who is now based in the U.S. and thus a so-called African
diaspora writer. Two others are translations from Algerian writers who
also write in French: Boualem Sansal’s dystopian novel “2084: The End of
the World” and Kamel Daoud’s retelling of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger,”
which is titled “The Meursault Investigation” and for which Daoud received death threats in the form of a fatwa.
of African literature say that Chinese publishers have expressed
interest in a number of other fictional works, but are quick to mention
that certain rather perplexing attitudes and practices by Chinese
publishers hamper understanding and impact sales to the “China black
“There seem to be far more hurdles in accessing the Chinese
market than the already immense difficulties of an African publisher
accessing the European, North American, and Arab markets,” says Richard
Ali, chief operating officer of the Lagos-based publishing house
Parrésia. He points out that currently, there are almost no platforms
where African and Chinese publishing professionals can easily interact.
Take the industry’s largest global event, for instance. “At the
Frankfurt Book Fair, I didn’t encounter a single Chinese publisher,
literary agent, or translation agent. So, how does the conversation
Meanwhile, China-based publishers often seem to be on a
single-minded quest for a blockbuster.
Says Pierre Astier, founder of
the Paris-based literary agency Astier-Pécher whose stable includes
several African Francophone authors: “I’ve been to China three times in
four years to understand the market and meet people. We haven’t done
much business with China up to now, though it is constantly developing.
But I have not yet perceived a serious interest in African literature,
except for very big names and best-sellers.”
This preference is
affirmed by the Nanjing-based publisher Yilin Press, which has built its
reputation on translated literature. Between 2011 and 2013, Yilin
published three novels by Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, but has not
ventured further into the market for African fiction. “We will continue
to keep our eye on African authors,” says Danielle Yang of Yilin’s
international cooperation department, “and if there are any winners of
major awards, books that possess best-seller potential, we will consider
buying the rights.”
Among African publishers, Black Tower Publishers is perhaps the most proactive in marketing its writers
internationally. It opened a subsidiary in London in 2016 and, according
to founder Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, is represented by the Intercontinental
Literary Agency (ILA) in China. “ILA attended the Beijing Book Fair in
August  and had meetings with over 40 publishers,” Bakare-Yusuf
notes, adding that Cassava Republic also met with Chinese publishers at
the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE in 2015 and 2016.
do believe there is a market for our authors in China,” Bakare-Yusuf
concludes. “We know that there are growing business links between China
and the African continent, and we are keen to make works by African
authors available in Chinese. We hope that when the Chinese audience is
able to read and see the diverse representation of African humanity, it
might allow them to recognize its complexity.”