Independent Publishing and the Chinese Market: Issues of Translation



So far I have provided a general introduction to the Chinese Market and opportunities for independent authors to succeed there, especially through popular platforms such as Fiberead. Here, I would like to discuss the most important element in the process of internalisation – translation – with a focus on that from English to Chinese.

As a professional translator with more than 18 years of experience in English/Chinese translation, I have seen plenty of cases where excellent translation helps to transform English titles into bestselling Chinese masterpieces. Meanwhile, I have also seen plenty of Chinese translation mistakes that completely destroyed the literary voices of some English authors, not to mention the chances of their titles to survive in the Chinese World.

It is obvious that I advocate for professional translation, which, like professional editing and cover design, requires authors to pay for quality. However, I would like to emphasise here that crowd-sourcing translation, as used by Fiberead, does have its benefits. Below are some real-life examples to support this argument.

Traditional Chinese vs. Simplified Chinese

It is important to keep in mind that written Chinese involves two systems – Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. An example here, using Chinese characters “dragon” and “tortoise”, demonstrates why Simplified Chinese is easier to learn to read and write:


Although Simplified Chinese is becoming increasingly dominant across the globe, there are millions of readers worldwide who use Traditional Chinese, such as those in Taiwan, Hong Kong and many diasporic Chinese communities.

Therefore, when negotiating contracts over territories, you don’t have to sign over both Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese rights to publishers. Because Chinese readers in these two sub-markets often have considerably differnet literary tastes and demands, it is best to maximise the value of your writing by trying out one specific territory at a time. It also provides flexibility to move your titles around, so that they are not “locked down” by those publishers who only have time, energy and skills to handle one Chinese writing system.

General Translation Requirements

Even with the introduction of Western translation theories in recent decades, most Chinese translators abide by the traditional principles of faithfulness, fluency and elegance. This means a translator needs to accurately express the meaning of an English text, and to convey it in such a fluent and graceful way that readers would think the resulting Chinese text is authored by a Chinese writer in the first place. This is why a translator needs to have an excellent grasp of both English and Chinese languages, not only in reading but also in writing. Particularly in literature, one cannot produce a good translation if he or she is not a good writer.

Many freelancing translators out there are specialised in industrial, commercial, technical and/or scientific translation, and are often on high demand in these fields. This, however, does not guarantee they are experienced in literary translation. If you are interested in hiring freelancing translators, be sure to inquire about their experience in literary translation.

As mentioned before, a professional translator not only represents your writing in another language, he or she can also serve as your proofreader/editor. This is because they work on your writing one sentence at a time, and can often discover the mistakes overlooked by your proofreader/editor.

Problem of Google Translate

As an author, you would not hire a machine to write books for you, no matter how sophisticated its algorithms are. Google Translate converts a piece of writing word by word and, in doing so, lacks cohesion and grace and that unique literary style/voice each and every good writer possesses.

One Good Thing about Google Translate

However, precisely because Google Translate converts a piece of writing word by word, it can be used to demonstrate how translation can go wrong, particularly to those monolingual authors who have no way of checking the quality of their Chinese translation. A word of caution: Such checking can only help authors comprehend the problem TO SOME DEGREE.

Here is how you do it: Use Google Translate to convert a paragraph of your Chinese translation back to English, then compare it with your English text.

Example One:


Existing Simplified Chinese translation:


Conversion back to English:


Example Two (slightly longer):


Existing Simplified Chinese translation:


Conversion back to English:


Example Three (even longer):


Existing Simplified Chinese translation:


Conversion back to English:


Most of the horror in these examples is caused by Google Translate as a machine. It often puts a “he” in front of sentences with unknown subjects, and its ignorance of tenses is maddening. More importantly, instead of detecting the subtle differences between words with similar meanings, it tends to select the most basic denotations of the words supplied. The choice of “large” instead of “sizeable”, the use of “giving vent” over “externalising”, the change from “cast” to “troupe” and from “mouth” to “lower lip”, the translation of “Mai” as a name into “wheat”, and the replacement of “defunct” with “old” are all good examples.

Common Problems in Crowd-sourcing Translation

However, it is clear that some of the mistakes in these examples are results of misinterpretation of the English text. I should point out here the Chinese translation used in this analysis is done by a team of four volunteers appointed by Fiberead. Throughout the translation process the translators were required to proofread each other’s work. However, they did not contact the author to discuss potential problems. Nor did they post possible solutions online for public consultation, a strategy for which Fiberead is renowned across popular Chinese social media platforms such as Sina Weibo. One of the four translators was in charge of coordinating the overall style of the Chinese translation, as well as marketing the Chinese ebook. As of the writing of this article, Fiberead has yet to supply the author with a copy of the Chinese translation. This is despite the fact that the Chinese ebook was published more than two months ago.

The mistake in Example One is the neglect of the word “fascinated”. In Example Two, “do it again”, “body language” and “discontent” are unnecessarily added by the Chinese translators. The most shocking mistake takes place in Example Three, where the Chinese translators have completely misunderstood the sentence “not reach the first night”. The word “ennui” is also misinterpreted as “exhaustion”, which leads to Google Translate’s “burnout”. Finally, the word “easily-excited” is misunderstood as “delving deeply into the play”, which leads to Google Translate’s “looking into the drama”.

As demonstrated here, what often troubles amateur translators is not difficult vocabulary or complex concept, but an author’s unique writing style and distinct choice of words. In this case, not only is this author’s writing precise and succinct, but such choice of words as “lassitude” and “ennui” also poses a challenge to those Chinese volunteers who are not well read in English literature. In this case, their lack of desire to ask questions and seek consultation cost them dearly. This is despite the fact that ordinary Chinese readers are unlikely to know these mistakes exist. Nor would the author know the Chinese translation wasn’t professionally proofread – until now.

Pros and One More Con in Crowd-sourcing Translation

As an experienced translator, I abide by the Code of Ethics designated by the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators regarding “Maintaining Professional Relationships” and “Professional Solidarity”. Specifically: “Practitioners have a loyalty to the profession that extends beyond their individual interest… They ensure [that] they foster a mutually respective business relationship with the people with whom they work and encourage them to become familiar with the interpreter or translator role.”

Therefore, although it hurts (a lot!) to promote my competitor, I have to say, for those authors who are unwilling to pay for professional translation for financial and/or other reasons, the crowd-sourcing translation model used by Fiberead does have its benefits. Not only is their service free (as of the writing of this article), but authors get to have their Chinese ebooks promoted across all major platforms, including, Dangdang and Baidu. These distribution channels receive 30% of the proceeds from the sales, with the remaining 70% divided between the authors (30%), the translators (30%), and Fiberead (40%).

Meanwhile, although the acceptable price for a Chinese ebook remains low, proceeds from the sales can be considerable when one takes into consideration China’s huge population. Imagine you have published a Chinese ebook through Fiberead and so far sold 5,000 copies, with each copy being priced at 1 U.S. dollar (approximately 6.35 Chinese Yuan). Then, the proceeds you will receive (pre-tax) can be calculated as:

US$1 per copy x 5,000 copies x 0.7 x 0.3 = US$1,050

Hardly worth the bother, you say? Not if you increase the number of copies sold to 50,000, which is still modest when compared to 667 million that is the number of China’s Internet users. Besides, all this will be extra income, particularly when you think of those backlist titles that have long ceased circulating and selling in English.

Meanwhile, a final concern for those authors interested in Fiberead’s service: Because the translation of your book will totally depend on those voluntary translators to be found online, be ready to wait for someone who is truly interested in and capable of translating your work to come along. Take August and September 2015 as an example, where Fiberead renewed calls for voluntary translators for a total of 16 titles. Among them, 11 have waited for four to six months, two for seven months, one for nine months, one for 15 months, and one for 20 months. It is unknown at this stage what will happen to these titles after the termination of their three-year contracts with Fiberead.


Keep in mind that readers in the Chinese World, like their peers in the West, desire good content that is professionally produced, presented and promoted. You have paid for professional cover design and editing, so make sure your book receives the best Chinese translation that it deserves.

Author Bio

Christine Sun has a B.A. in Chinese Literature, a Master’s degree in Journalism and PhD in Languages, Cultures & Linguistics, titles she rarely uses except when demonstration of expertise is clearly required. She is the founder and manager of Melbourne-based Australian publisher eBook Dynasty, which helps English-language authors, agents and publishers worldwide to promote their titles as digital and print books in both Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. eBook Dynasty is a Partner Member of the Alliance of Independent Authors, with Christine serving as its China Ambassador since August 2015.



9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jean Reinhardt
    Nov 09, 2015 @ 22:52:14

    Reblogged this on The Writers' Workshop Blog and commented:
    Thinking of translating your book into Chinese? Here’s another very useful post from Christine Sun on the pros and cons.


  2. Jean Reinhardt
    Nov 09, 2015 @ 22:52:48

    Thanks Christine, this is very helpful and I’ve reblogged if that’s okay.


  3. Fernanda
    Nov 15, 2015 @ 00:53:56

    hello I am a writer Italian , I translated a book in English language , I could sell a book in English on the Chinese market? or I should translate into Chinese..


    • Christine Sun
      Nov 16, 2015 @ 00:29:03

      Hello Fernanda, There is certainly a market for English-language (e)books, but I would also suggest you translate your book into both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese to maximise its potential. Cheers.


  4. Christine Sun
    Nov 16, 2015 @ 09:16:30

    Hello Fernanda, I would suggest you at least use a human being to do the translation, if not a professional translator. Cheers.


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