Why Haven’t More Asian Authors Attracted a Global Audience?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Is it a problem with a lack of translations? Cultural bias? Or simple lack of interest?

By Edward Nawotka

asia globe

Asia contains 60% of the world’s population, yet is has only been awarded a handful of Nobel Prize winning authors (Sweden has more prizes than all of Asia combined). Certainly, a large part of the problem is the fact that so few Asian authors have been translated, but the question is “why?” Is it due to some extent, as suggested by today’s feature story about the Chinese writer Han Han, to nuances of the culture being lost in translation.

It takes some head scratching to think of a Chinese or Asian author who has been able to attract a global audience in recent memory. From Japan, Haruki Murakami is perhaps the biggest international star (and the translation of Q184 (which is only finally reaching American audiences this fall) should help expand his profile. Among the Chinese authors to make it translation, HarperCollins took a big bet on Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, which proved to be a modest success but hardly the knockout bestseller that was anticipated.

Will Han Han, who’s first work appears in English next year, be able to do it? Perhaps, but there will be challenges. For starters, the first book being published here is not one of his Salinger-esque novels — the work that made him most popular — but a collection of essays, blog posts and other nonfiction ephemera. Secondly, by all accounts, Han Han isn’t necessarily interested in global fame — he has not traveled to overseas literary conferences and was notably absent when China was Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair two years ago. The simple fact may be that Han Han’s indigenous audience is so big and so demanding, there is little need to put effort into pursuing one overseas.

The irony in all this is that over the last decade hundreds (if not thousands of books) have been written about China in an effort to understand its economy, culture and people — yet we have so little words of their own to go by. But if the world’s culture goes the way its economy appears to be moving, we’re going to want to rectify that situation — and quickly.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.