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A Pair of (Not So Sharp) Blue Eyes: Misstep in Publishing My First Book

The first published book of mine is a translation of Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes.

I signed the contract to translate the Victorian novel near the end of 1985, when China was still caught in the tide of a revival of leaning which had begun fervently in the early 1980s. This was after years of cultural proletarianization. Classics from Western, as well as Chinese literature, were hot items in bookstores. Cervantes, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, translated by an older generation of scholars of foreign literature, were being revised and re-published. So were Hardy's major novels like Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Riding the crest of this tidal wave, the editors at a prestigious publishing house in my hometown Nanjing, which specializes in translations of foreign literature, were interested in undertaking a new project in Western Classics. Having finished my master's thesis on Hardy, I suggested A Pair of Blue Eyes. They liked it, and my partner, who was living in a different city, and I plunged into it with fervor.

I was responsible for translating the preface and Chapters 20-40, and with writing the translators' note. Both full-time college teachers, we had to burn a lot of midnight oil. To live up to the three cardinal principles of translation upheld in China—faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance—we often labored long over a particular word, phrase, or sentence to catch the spirit and color of the original, and recreate it in a very different target language.

To ensure stylistic consistency, we kept the post offices busy for quite some time by sending the manuscript of every chapter to each other for comments and revisions, creating a little tale of two cities of our own. At the busiest time, my wife, my father and my mother-in-law mobilized to help “climb the squares,” a Chinese expression for the slow process of copying manuscripts.

By the time the translation was done, it was almost 1987. By then, however, the renaissance seemed to have cooled off. With the economy switching to a market gear, the nation was caught in another fever. More and more people fell head over heels in a hot pursuit of dollar signs. Fewer and fewer people had the patience to chase the stars, or listen to the nightingale on the balcony. The pace of life was getting faster, and pop culture was the thing of the day.

Naturally, our publisher had difficulty promoting the sale, the orders from bookstores fell measurably short of the six thousand copies minimally required to break even. Thus, the proof of the book had been locked in the dark limbo of a storage room ever since, despite our repeated efforts with the editors.

Finally, early 1994, finding the waiting too suspenseful to our liking, and worried that a longer night of sleep for the book might bring even more and worse nightmares, we each offered to contribute 1000 yuan, the equivalent of two months salary for a college professor, to resurrect the book. We could not afford to wait for another major revival of learning. 

The translation is still in print today, but I haven’t seen a penny from the publisher. I repeated the same mistake in 1996, when I published another Hardy translation (The Well-Beloved) with the very same press. Without even a contract! The first print run was 10,000. And the book is still in print too. I didn’t go back to the press to ask for my fair share. Seeing the work in print seems my most gratifying reward. What else do I want? :-) What else could I have done differently, given the circumstances, given the world of inequities between publishers and writers? What would Thomas Hardy himself have advised, from his experiences (of failing to get his first book, The Poor Man and the Lady, published) ? One thing I do know, however: (Poor) Writers/ translators are humans too, who are entitled to their fair share, and need to put food on the table too.