Inside Chinese Publishers’ Growing Interest in African Literature

Since the 1980s, 106 African authors and 269 titles have been translated into the Chinese. Here, an insider provides an overview of the last two years, and a preview of 2022.
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The Chinese edition of Congolese author Alain Mabanckou's Mémoires de porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine), released in 2020. Credit: Sohu.com.

The Chinese edition of Congolese author Alain Mabanckou's Mémoires de porc-épic (Memoirs of a Porcupine), released in 2020. Credit: Sohu.com.

“This has been a great year for African writing,” said South Africa’s Damon Galgut upon receiving the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel, The Promise. Several other African authors also snagged prestigious European literary prizes in 2021. They include Tanzania’s Abdulrazak Gurnah who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Senegal’s David Diop who won the International Booker Prize for At Night All Blood Is Black, Senegal’s Mohamed Mbougar Sarr who won France’s Prix Goncourt for The Most Secret Memory of Men, and Mozambique’s Paulina Chiziane who won Portugal’s Camoes Award.

But how keen are Chinese publishers on Africa, arguably an “emerging” supply market in the Middle Kingdom? It is partly because of this that I run AfroLit4China, a bilingual database of African writing published in the Sinophone world since the 1980s.

There have been:

  • 269 African works published in Chinese
  • 106 African authors now available in Chinese 
  • 62 Chinese publishers with at least one African title
  • 40 African titles released by People’s Literature Publishing House
  • 16 African works published in China during 2020-21

The Publishers

Since the ‘80s brought the first wave of translated African literature in China, some 62 China-based publishers have released at least one African literary work. Five of them have purchased rights to at least 10 titles. They include Yilin Press, Foreign Literature Publishing House, and Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House, none of which published new titles in 2021.

Shanghai Translation Publishing House made itself the talk of China’s publishing circle in 2021 with its purchase of all ten novels by Gurnah. Editorial department director Feng Tao said that his firm aims to translate and publish five of Gurnah’s novels in 2022. With this, Shanghai Translation now owns the Chinese-language rights for more than 20 African books, including seven by another Nobel laureate, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz.

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Other Chinese publishers with at least five translated African titles include Sino-Culture Press, specializing in North African literature; Citic Press, with six of Mozambique’s Mia Couto’s novels translated from the Portuguese; Thinkingdom Media; Taiwan’s Homeward Publishing, with novels from Francophone West Africa; Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing, with titles by Mahfouz and Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Beijing Yanshan Press, with titles by two more Nobel laureates, Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka and South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer; and World Affairs Press, publisher of an anthology of poetry, some translated from indigenous African languages.

African Titles Published in China in 2020

Highlights include notable non-fiction books by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

BookAuthor (Nationality)Publisher
My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite (Nigerian) Guangxi Normal University Press
Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous: The Story Behind the HeadlinesNgozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigerian)China Fangzheng Press
Expedition to the Baobab TreeWilma Stockenström (SouthAfrica)Sichuan People’s Publishing House
Teoria Geraldo Esquecimento   José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola)  Citic Press
Mémoires de porc-épic              Alain Mabanckou (Congo-Brazzaville)   Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press
Robert Shaaban: The Selected Poems   Robert Shaaban (Tanzania)Shandong People’s Publishing House
African Literature: An Anthology of African Literary Criticism and Theory   Editors: Tejumola Olaniyan (Nigeria), Ato Quayson (Ghana)East China Normal University Press
Indaba, My Children        Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa (South Africa)  Zhejiang Gongshang University Press 
The Prison Letters of Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela (South Africa)Shandong University Publishing House

African Titles Published in China in 2021

Highlights include four new works by Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. With 12 books, he is one of Africa’s most published authors in Chinese.

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BookAuthor (Nationality)Publisher
An Orchestra of MinoritiesChigozie Obioma (Nigeria)Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House
Jiki Magayi: An Anthology of Hausa LiteratureAbubakar Imam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Muhammadu Gwarzo, and John Tafida (Nigeria)East China Normal University Press
The Death of Jesus  J. M. Coetzee (South  Africa)People’s Literature Publishing House
Birth of a Dreamweaver: A Writer’s Awakening Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)People’s Literature Publishing House
Dreams in a Time of War     Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)People’s Literature Publishing House
In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)  People’s Literature Publishing House
Wizard of the Crow   Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)  People’s Literature Publishing House

African Titles Forthcoming in China in 2022

There are 18 new works in the pipeline—the largest number of any year to date.

BookAuthor (Nationality)Publisher
Les Soleilsdes indépendences Ahmadou Kourouma (Ivory Coast) Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
Anowa Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana)Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
The Joys of Motherhood   Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria)Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
Stories from a Shona Childhood Charles Mungoshi (Zimbabwe)  Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
Aventure ambigue  Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Senegal)  Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
The Soul of the White Ant         Eugène Marais (South Africa)  Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late ColonialismMahmood Mamdani (Uganda)  Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
The History of the Yorubas  Samuel Johnson (Nigeria)Zhejiang Business University Publishing House
Admiring Silence       Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)Shanghai Translation Publishing House
 AfterlivesAbdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)Shanghai Translation Publishing House
By the Sea Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)  Shanghai Translation Publishing House
The Last Gift   Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)Shanghai Translation Publishing House
Paradise Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)Shanghai Translation Publishing House

Titles in Indigenous African Languages

During the ’90s and 2000s, African literature in China was top-heavy with winners of globally recognized awards, such as the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel cachet still holds great attraction, as seen in how a single publisher snapped up rights to all 10 of Gurnah’s novels. However, this focus on European prizes also meant that the works published were written first in English.

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A few publishers are now investing in writing in indigenous African languages. Two of the first three titles in the VI HORAE Africa Series, from East China Normal University Press, are rendered in Chinese directly from African languages—none of the customary “re-treads” here via the intermediary of English. According to commissioning editor Shi Meijun, the Chinese translators learned African languages ​​as undergraduates, and several have lived and studied in Africa.

The books include Selected Poems of Shaaban bin Robert, translated from the original Swahili and published in a bilingual Swahili-Chinese format. The Body Will Tell You: Selected Works of African Hausa Literature has four novellas in its first part, while the second consists of 200 short parables—inspired by West African oral folk literature as well as Aesop’s fables—compiled and retold by Yusufu Yunusa. 

Like Swahili was in East Africa, several West African languages ​​were written in an Arabic script, ajami, in pre-colonial times. But under the British, a Romanized alphabet became the official script for Hausa in 1930.  

“Modern Hausa literature was formed under the combined influence of Islamic and colonial British cultures, a phenomenon that is interesting in itself,” Meijun said. “In 1933, Hans Vischer, Director of the Colonial Board of Education in Northern Nigeria, proposed a contest for fiction written in African languages. Stories of 20,000 words or so were welcome, and they could be didactic in nature, but should not simply imitate mythology. Rupert Moultrie East, Director of the Bureau of Translation, received entries from Islamic scholars from all over northern Nigeria. 

“The four novellas we are translating and publishing in Chinese—by Abubakar Imam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Muhammadu Gwarzo, and John Tafida—were the winners of that competition. These works marked the origin of the Hausa novel, and, with them, the Latinized Hausa literature of Northern Nigeria entered a new stage of indigenous literary creation, going beyond mere translation of foreign literary works.”

Another press with robust plans is Zhejiang Business University Publishing House. Its series of African classics, Africa Humanities Classic Translation Group, already consists of a dozen or so books, mainly novels, but also non-fiction touching on racism and colonial rule.

The press purchased Chinese-language rights to another eight titles, but, to the best of my knowledge, they have not been published. They include Stories from a Shona Childhood, a non-fictional work about the Bantu-speaking Shona of Zimbabwe, and The History of the Yorubas, about one of Nigeria’s key ethnicities.

A version of this report first appeared, partly in Chinese, in AfroLit4China.

Bruce Humes
Bruce Humes is the founder of AfroLit4China, a database of African literature in China. He is a bilingual publishing professional with three decades of experience working in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He directed editorial content for China’s leading management portal, Chief Executive China. He is a translator of contemporary Chinese fiction, including Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon and Wei Hui’s long-time best seller Shanghai Baby.

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