Monday, October 17, 2011

China's Officialdom Novels: Translators Pay Attention!


There is a rumor on the Chinese internet that, at various government levels, Party bosses are requiring their secretaries and subordinates to make a new novel their "must-read." This novel, which I'm reading right now, is titled "No. 2 Boss." (By the way, the Chinese word "首长" is a bit difficult to translate precisely in this context.  I'm using "boss" for the moment.  If anyone has a better suggestion, I'm all ears.)

In China's "officialdom" jargon, "No. 2 boss" refers to the boss's secretary (administrative assistant), and this novel's protagonist is the secretary of a provincial Party chief (roughly the equivalent of a governor). Such a character's wide perspective on the Chinese officialdom sphere, from the central government and Party apparatus to the local bureaucrats, supports a plot that is never dull.

The author, Huang Xiaoyang, apparently has intimate knowledge of government business and its daily particulars. In this tremendously entertaining and stunningly detailed novel, Tang Xiaozhou, a journalist-turned-secretary, navigates the open strife and veiled struggles of provincial politics with great skill and craftiness.  While more or less maintaining the tenets of basic decency in a world full of corruption, the protagonist does not sacrifice his own opportunities for advancement.

I have finished reading the first two volumes of the long novel, which can be bought online and in bookstores everywhere in China. The author is still working on the third volume, and is publishing one page a day online as he writes it. Such serial installments as a form of novel publishing in China can be dated back to 1892, according to this study. The difference today is the internet has overtaken newspapers. I confess that reading one new page a day of a Chinese novel has added a certain addictive pleasure to my daily morning tea.

The political worldview expressed in "No.2 Boss," not surprisingly, has a heavy imprint from a Chinese politician's cynically pragmatic angle, and some of it might be unacceptable to American readers. At times, I also feel the book's excessive number of sex scenes undermine its literary quality. (I hope to address these issues more explicitly in a longer review later.) On the other hand, the novel's realistic and meticulous portrayal of Chinese political culture has irreplaceable value to anyone who is interested in understanding China.  Nowadays, an unprecedentedly large number of Western writers and journalists are working and living in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities,  publishing more and more books written in English.  These books make significant contribution for the world's understanding of China, and the viewpoint of  outside observers is often refreshing to Chinese readers as well.  However, no foreigner could have written a book like "No.2 Boss"; the nuance could only come from the hand of a cultural insider.  

By the way, officialdom novels are not a new genre in China as some foreign observers think. The genre flourished in the Qing Dynasty. In my youth I read with great interest several of those novels mentioned in this article. The genre disappeared in the Mao era, but has made a comeback in recent decades. It seems to be reaching a new peak now. The fact that the genre has become hot again might be a bellwether for the level of government corruption.

Update: here's my longer review in Foreign PolicyThe Rules of the Game

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7 comments:

transliterationisms said...

There's nothing wrong with boss. It can be something like "The Real Boss" or "Your/The 2nd Boss."

"Number 1/2" (noun) is a value statement, but not in the way you want to use it. And it's Chinglish.

"The (real) person in charge" or something like that is more of the meaning with less of the translationese.

Given all that, and that I can't think of anything at the moment we call the 'executive secretary' who actually runs things, a more free translation might be in order: "office politics", "centers of power", "Secretary-General", "Party Secretary" something like that. Something like "Number 2" alone might confused more than it would help. That's far too much already.

Rand(45) said...

Second in command ? Deputy leader ? Second fiddle ?

transliterationisms said...

I like Second in Command.

Xujun Eberlein said...

I like "Second in command," too. The only thing is it sounds good in writing but not quite right in a dialogue where the protagonist is addressed as "二号首长".

Anonymous said...

Is there an English translation of this available yet?

Xujun Eberlein said...

I don't think so. The 3r volume of the novel is not finished yet.

Anonymous said...

Are there any other officialdom novels that have been translated into English (and which you would recommend)?