Database reveals Chinese love for American literature
Imagine a Chinese student curled up with a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” trying to figure out whodunit.
Or such other quintessentially American books as Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” or Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
What works of American literature are Chinese readers devouring? And why?
Questions such as these will be answered by a new database, Project Yao, that has just been launched as a tri-university, multicontinent project by scholars in China and the United States.
Project Yao, which takes its name from an ancient Chinese word for “when two people meet and look at each other,” is a large, searchable database of Chinese translations of pre-1920 American literature. The time period will be expanded as scholars at the three participating universities – ASU, Iowa State University and Sichuan University – continue their process of discovery.
Cheng Xilin, director of Sichuan University’s American Studies Center, says he and his colleagues are thrilled with the project. “I believe that Project Yao will help promote cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Chinese and American academics.”
Project Yao’s creator, ASU associate professor of English Joe Lockard, says, “We did not know what size data set we were dealing with, so we are beginning with a limited sample of more than 1,300 works. Even this number of published translations from the 19th century forward demonstrates the depth and strength of literary relations between the two countries.”
With the database, a user can check whether a specific author or text has been translated from English to Chinese, or research different types or periods of translation.
“Translation functions within a social context and this tool helps users to understand the development of the corpus of U.S. literature in Chinese,” Lockard says. “What authors and works get translated, and why? The information here enables mapping of literary relations between China and the United States.”
Why do Chinese readers like to read American literature?
Lockard suggests that “China has a lengthy and complex intellectual relationship with the West, and that this relationship has gone in both directions more than many Americans recognize or credit.
“For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and to a lesser extent, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, were both deeply interested in Chinese philosophies and literature. Among Chinese readers, it is interesting that so much publishing attention gets paid to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin gets treated as an example of a successful life and as a moral model.
“There have been many editions of his ‘Autobiography’ and his aphorisms from ‘Poor Richard's Almanack’ seem to have particular appeal.”
Lockard says the project intrigued him because he has a long-standing interest in ideologies and economies of translation.
“Why, for example, are there so many translations of Longfellow's 'Song of Hiawatha' into Chinese?" he says. "Since 1930 there have been five Hiawatha translations. What do such translations inform us about the global representation of native peoples in the United States?
“Have there been more recent translations of the work of Native American authors into Chinese? Is the translation economy shifting to acknowledge ethnic self-representation? These are the sorts of questions that one can begin to address by using the Project Yao database.”
The project had its genesis in relationships between ASU and Sichuan University, and ASU and Iowa State University.
"The ASU Department of English has expertise in digital publishing emerging from the Antislavery Literature Project and its collaboration with the EServer at Iowa State University,” Lockard adds. “That provided a foundation for partnering with Sichuan University to create a new online public scholarship project. Sichuan University is responsible for administrative management of the Project; Arizona State and Iowa State universities provide development assistance and technical support.”
The EServer, the world’s most popular online humanities Web site (http://eserver.org), is a digital cooperative directed by Geoffrey Sauer, an assistant professor in the ISU Department of English.
EServer is open to the global academic community and the public, Lockard says. “This is what we mean when we use the phrase ‘public scholarship.’
“Public scholarship provides free, accessible, high-quality digital scholarly resources to everyone who can use them. The resources we build are low or no-cost to operate, and can be developed and sustained without huge expense.”
Project Yao also is important because it fosters collaborative relationships, says Maureen Daly Goggin, interim chair of the ASU Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Projects like this emphasize the value of academic collaboration and transnational work, productively engaging new information technologies.
“We have been partnering with Sichuan University for several years as a sister institution and are delighted to see the latest fruit of this cooperation,” she adds.
A related research project already is under way between ASU and Sichuan University, Lockard saiys. “We have already begun work on a paper on Chinese anthologies of American literature, and further collaborative work is planned.”
Eserver is located at http://eserver.org, while Yao’s address is http://yao.eserver.org.
For more information about Project Yao, contact Lockard at email@example.com.