An Interview with Nicky Harman from Paper Republic

Read Paper Republic has been publishing one new Chinese fiction per week since June 2015. Our editor-in-chief talks with Nicky Harman about it.

Yesterday’s Translation Tuesday article was jointly published with Paper Republic, a collective of literary translators promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Their new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water. Between June 18, 2015 and June 16, 2016, Read Paper Republic is publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone.

Our editor-in-chief, Lee Yew Leong, conducted a Skype interview with Nicky Harman, one of the founders of this new initiative, to find out more.

Lee Yew Leong: How did the idea for Read Paper Republic come about?

Nicky Harman: Well, we as translators are aware that our own passion for Chinese lit and our work doesn’t always match the general reading public’s interest so we decided on a project that would (a) bring a wide selection of contemporary work to readers, and (b) have a finite term, i.e. it wouldn’t go on forever so we could feel able to put all our energies into it. And we chose short stories because although they are an under-appreciated form in the West, they are nice and short (by definition!) and complete and Chinese writers write very good ones.

LYL: Who is “we” in this case?

NH: We’re Helen Wang and myself in London, and Eric Abrahamsen and Dave Haysom in Beijing. Eric, of course, founded Paper Republic, but we’ve worked as a collective for some time, and were all keen to revitalise the site. Dave is editor of Pathlight and was a brilliant addition to our team because of his editing skills.

LYL: All of you are also united by one thing: you’ve either contributed to Asymptote or taken part in an Asymptote event!

NH: Indeed. Asymptote has been a great inspiration to translators, and very deserving of the London Book Fair Award for International Literary Translation Initiative it got this year.

LYL: And it was an honour to receive the award from you in London, as well as to meet a contributor in the flesh for the first time! Now, given that the team is split between London and Beijing, how do you manage to work together?

NH: We have weekly meetings on Slack, and somehow manage to communicate pretty well in terms of planning strategies, publicity, scheduling, editing and everything else that needs doing.

LYL: I envy you the fact that you are only four people in a team; it must make organizing much easier. At Asymptote, we use a combination of Trello, Google spreadsheets, and gchat meetings to organize work. Because the team is so large, we ask everyone to fill out internal questionnaires every quarter to collect all the feedback in one place.

Now, back to your project, can you tell us more about its scope? For example, does Read Paper Republic only endeavour to represent Mainland Chinese literature or do you also publish works from other parts of the Sinophone world?

NH: We look to represent every part of the Sinophone world. We ran a Taiwanese piece by Liglave A-wu last week and have also published two Hong Kong writers, Dorothy Tse, at numbers 3 and 7, and Jacky Yuen, at number 14. We’d love something from Malaysia and Singapore but have nothing in the pipeline yet.

LYL: I hear you about the difficulty of getting Malaysian literature in Chinese! After five years, we are only publishing our very first Chinese Malaysian author (Chang Kui-Hsing) in the upcoming issue, and this came after quite a bit of research. We had to identify a suitable work to introduce to our English readers, commission a good literary translator to translate it; on top of that, we­ worked on several drafts with her over the course of half a year before greenlighting it for publication.

NH: I’ll look forward to reading it!

LYL: What criteria do you use to curate these pieces?

NH: Our main criterion is that a piece should be well-written and well-translated. We go for excellence and we go for variety. We want our stories to stand the test of time, to be a resource not just for this week but for the future, and we may also publish a “Best of…” anthology at the end of the project. If we can link our story to events or news or new publications, that’s icing on the cake. For instance, Dave translated a Yan Geling story for us to mark the publication of Yan Geling’s Little Aunt Crane this autumn.

LYL: What percentage of your articles has been reprints, and what percentage is never-before-published/specially commissioned translations?

NH: About half our stories to the end of the year will be previously unpublished. Not sure we will keep up the same rate for the second half of the project, we’ll have to see.

LYL: One big part of publishing literature in translation takes place “behind the scenes,” so to speak, where you secure publication rights, commission translations, edit them and proofread them etc. But marketing also plays a crucial role in connecting the authors with more readers. What have you done so far to try to gain a wider audience, and how much do you think you have succeeded?

NH: Yes, I’d say that about nine-tenths is the “behind the scenes” work. In general we spend a considerable amount of time reading available stories and editing. The translators are then asked to obtain relevant permissions, and to write brief introductions which have been an inspiring addition to the stories. Of course, we were quite clear from the start that that was only the beginning. No point in having stuff online if people don’t know it is there. So we have developed a marketing strategy. We use social media, hashtags and so on. We aim to link up with other organizations, so that we can tap into their readerships, and we have also “pegged” our stories to specific events that were already in the public eye. This can require quick thinking: for instance, the ending of the one-child-per-family policy got us thinking about how authors have written about it. Helen linked up with Lu Min, who produced a beautiful essay from 1980, “A Second Pregnancy,” about its effect on her family. Helen translated it, and we were able to post that piece within a couple of days. In addition to using Facebook and Twitter, we added comments to newspaper articles about the policy, calling attention to our piece and the Read Paper Republic series in general. It is hard to know exactly what caught people’s attention (or rather where they spotted it) but we had a deluge of hits for that story on Read Paper Republic.

LYL: That is very good quick thinking, and it shows a certain media savviness on your part—to curate for topicality. Has your project caught the attention of any media outlets?

NH: That’s our aim! Obviously our stories are not always so topical, but part of the scheduling discussions revolve around how we can link to current events or current media interest. It’s worth mentioning face-to-face events we have organized with like-minded organizations too. For instance, Leeds Writers Circle and Leeds University Writing Chinese project hosted one of our authors, Dorothy Tse, and Dave and myself, in an event which discussed “The Story of a Story”, how a story progresses through creation, translation and editing, which they video’d and is now available on the London Free Word Centre website. (The Free Word Centre will host Helen and me in the spring, to discuss some of our favourite short stories from Read Paper Republic, at one of their Wanderlust series of events.)

LYL: So, is this all a labour of love then? Do you get support for what you do?

NH: We get no funding, so you could call it a labour of love. But I think it’s worth answering this question in several different ways: first, of course we believe that all translators should be paid for their work. And we may be able to do this in the future, Eric is looking into it. But we decided in this instance, that it was worth doing for nothing. We are taking the long view: if we can raise the profile of Chinese literature then we will have succeeded. If other more long-term, sustainable projects arise out of this one-year project, then we will also have succeeded. It is worth saying that we knew from the start that we had a great fund of stories already very well translated, which had appeared in journals which are now out of print or difficult to get hold of for western readers. So we expect to do a lot of re-publishing, where the story deserves a fresh outing. What we didn’t expect was the amount of goodwill from other Chinese to English translators who have in some cases given us new, unpublished translations or even done a translation especially for us.

LYL: I wanted to return to something which I’ve been thinking about lately and which you briefly touched on in your answer. It seems that Asymptote and Read Paper Republic have the same mission, which is to raise the profile of world literature (which Chinese literature is a subset of). In order to achieve this, we have poured so much into our projects but also kept it free of charge to readers with an eye to connecting the literature to as many readers as possible.

But there’s also an opposite impulse to pay both ourselves and the translators and authors we feature, and this payment, in the absence of government funding and crowdsourcing, would have to come from sustainability initiatives, of which charging readers for access is by far the most obvious one.

Is this a situation that cannot be resolved, inherently?

NH: My gut feeling is that it’s hard enough to get the general reader to approach Chinese literature, without charging them for it! Having said that, we firmly believe that translators (and authors) should be paid. Otherwise, where are you going to get skilled and experienced translators from? I think this is a hugely difficult problem, but not insurmountable—there is the possibility of grants from organizations, also independent fundraising via Indiegogo etc. Also, it’s sometimes possible to tap into someone else’s funding for a specific event—for instance, Writing Chinese at Leeds University invited us so we were able to hold, and film, that event. We need to be able to find some way of sustaining our projects. But for our first year with Read Paper Republic, we decided to use our own labour and skills and contacts, and put the fund-raising on hold for the moment. You’ve been highly successful with funding Asymptote, haven’t you?

LYL: Yes, we’re currently running one at the moment in fact, a small Indiegogo campaign to raise money for our anniversary events. (We’ve reached almost 75% of our target, up from 45% after Margaret Atwood started canvassing support for us on Twitter! Screenshot attached below.) This came after a much bigger one that we launched last year that ended up collecting about $25,000 from our readers. Still, it’s nowhere enough to support our true operating expenses, which I, and a few other team members as well, absorb. We all work at Asymptote as a labour of love, pitching in what we can. There is only one full-time volunteer at Asymptote, and that’s me, but having foregone a salary for five years now, I probably can’t keep doing this unpaid for much longer.

But the other thing is, as a magazine committed to diversity issue after issue, we don’t qualify for funding from any national body. For instance, never mind that I, the founder of Asymptote, am Singaporean, I was told that my magazine wasn’t Singaporean enough when I approached the National Arts Council; they wanted to impose a minimum quota of between four to eight Singaporean articles every issue. I didn’t take their offer up, of course. Lately, from a past contributor and a friend, I’ve been hearing about other models of sustainability. Apparently Words Without Borders not only outsources its editing of certain special features to outsiders but also tells its appointed editors to apply for funding themselves to pay the translators, authors and editor of those special features. Again, although I have great respect for what Words Without Borders does, this is something that I would have difficulty accepting, because I don’t want to outsource the responsibility of maintaining a high standard. All this to say that idealism has its price!

But I’m curious as to why no Chinese organization would step forward to fund your clearly valuable initiative? Have you thought of approaching the Confucius Institute, for example?

NH: I believe Eric is in discussion with some organizations in China, but of course, government bodies there have their own agenda, and Read Paper Republic is fiercely independent so we would need to be quite sure what the conditions were before we accepted money. We would welcome an approach from the Confucius Institute.

LYL: As an organization which also values its editorial independence above all, we can certainly empathize! Best of luck with this. Before I end this interview, perhaps you could point us to two or three stand-out pieces that have already appeared in Read Paper Republic, that our readers could dive right into?

NH: That’s a hard question to answer! As of this week, we have 27 stories to choose from and the variety is enormous: sci-fi and fantasy, love and sex, a political allegory and a protest poem, reflections and memoirs, and adventures. I hope readers will browse through the translators’ introductions at the head of each story and pick something that appeals to them. Here’s a couple of my personal favourites: “Sissy Zhong” by brilliant Sichuan author Yan Ge, a chatty little tale that ends with a horrible twist; “Painless” by Kazakh-Chinese Yerkex Hurmanbek, where, the title notwithstanding, a great deal of pain is expressed; and, on a more cheery note, a wonderfully funny Lao She story called Mr Jodhpurs, which we will post on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015.

Head over to Read Paper Republic now to explore their archive of Chinese Literature.



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