Manuel Pavón-Belizón, Spanish translator, holds a BA in Translation from the University of Granada and a MA in Chinese Studies from Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). He is currently a PhD candidate at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. His research focuses on the translation and transnational circulation of Contemporary Chinese Thought and Literature. He has translated works by Lu Xun, Li Er, Wang Xiaobo, Can Xue, Fang Fang, Xiang Zuotie, and Zhu Chaomin, among others. He has been awarded the Chinese Literature Translation Prize of the Confucius Institute at the University of Granada, and the “1x1” Poetry Translation Prize (Chinese) by the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He is a member and editor of China Traducida, a group of translators and an online Spanish-language platform disseminating Chinese literature and thought.
What made you get interested in China?
When I was a child, my aunt said we would make a trip to China in the year 2000. At the moment, the year 2000 seemed a very distant point in the future. Still, that plan lingered in my mind and I would think often imagine what China would be like. Funnily enough, my aunt and I met finally in China in 2008, when she visited me while I was studying in Beijing.
I think that, before the “global rise of China” became a widespread idea around 2008, many people in Europe had an exotic fascination about China. I probably shared that fascination in my childhood and in my adolescence. Growing up in a small town where access to specialized information about Asia wasn’t evident at all, I guess the power of such imageries kept my interest alive. Later at college, as I plunged into the study of the language and its social context, I had the intuition that those imageries were in fact hindering my understanding about China, but also about wider issues. Thinking retrospectively, I believe the desire to overcome that delusion became somehow the motivation behind my further interest in Chinese History, Thought and Literature.
What motivated you to spend quite a long time in studying Chinese language and culture?
In 2002, I started studying Translation at the University of Granada and I chose Chinese as my second foreign language. At the beginning of the 2000s, very few Spanish universities offered Chinese, so I thought “it’s here and now, or never.” Then, our professors transmitted their passion for Chinese culture. I still remember how I was enthralled by their explanations about History and their personal experiences in China. Their accounts were like seeds sown into my mind. Without that, I don’t think I would have come this far in the study of Chinese language. Nowadays, many people study Chinese because they see it as a way to get better job opportunities or participating in international trade, and so on, but, in the early 2000s, most of the students I met were rather motivated by the cultural aspects. Later on, I realized that the reception of Chinese works was rather scarce in Spanish. Moreover, in my context, I found a pervading ethnographic and exoticizing approach to China. I thought I could make some little changes by translating different Chinese works into Spanish.
In the works that you translated or published, how did you objectively show the readers the real Chinese culture and China’s change and development in recent years?
The most popular images and discourses about China are produced by the press, especially by the Anglophone press, even in Spain, and this is a one-sided account. A Chinese account about China isn’t necessarily “truer” simply because it comes from China, but it has a unique value and it is absurd to try to understand China without listening to what its own people have to say about their social constituency. I think the translation and publishing of works –both fiction and non-fiction– by Chinese authors is essential if we want to have a richer, more complex and nuanced view about contemporary China. For this reason, I tend to choose authors that can provide a more complex vision of China than the one supplied by the mainstream media. In recent years, I am also paying attention to the works of Chinese scholars and non-fiction writers.
Concerning your current study on Chinese culture and language, what are the difficulties and challenges?
Most of the practical difficulties have been solved by the proliferation of digital tools. For instance, it used to be difficult to get Chinese books abroad. But now, you can get the electronic versions online. Also, the proliferation of mobile social platforms provides instant access to ongoing debates in China. The challenge now, in my view, is to switch the vision of China merely as an object of knowledge in favor of a vision of China as a context of knowledge production that can be relevant beyond China itself. This change of paradigm could lead to a deeper, more substantial cultural exchange, and the translation of Chinese works can push forward in this direction.
China is now promoting its communication and cooperation with the rest of the world. So what do you think are the challenges and difficulties facing China in aspects of translating and publishing Chinese works in foreign countries?
To increase the quality of the reception of Chinese works, it is necessary to know the features of the local publishing sector. For instance, in Spain, smaller publishing houses tend to boast more cultural prestige than bigger ones. Besides, as I said before, the translation and publishing of Chinese works in Spain is dominated by an ethnographic approach. This narrows the scope of the reception to a readership that is previously interested in China. To overcome this impasse, we must pay attention not only to the conditions of the local publishing sector, but also to the local social conditions: What are the concerns of the local society? What are the interests of the people there? The History of the ancient trade routes may provide models of how to achieve meaningful intellectual exchanges through translation: just as one example, the wide diffusion of Buddhism in China through those routes can be explained not because Buddhism said something about Tianzhu (India), but because its ideas interpellated the existential concerns of people in China at the time. Likewise, the works selected to be translated today should interpellate local concerns. Sometimes those aspects are implicit in the works, but they need to be made somehow explicit and emphasized in their presentation to the local markets.
What challenges and opportunities do you think will be brought to China and your country by the Belt and Road Initiative?
Culture sometimes travels in the slipstream of trade, just as it happened in the ancient Silk Road. So I hope that, beyond achieving more dynamic and balanced economic exchanges between these regions, it will also foster richer and enduring intellectual engagements. Also, China is a leader in the research and development of renewable energy. In Spain, there is also a huge potential for new energy sources, so I think the BRI can bring many opportunities for this sector in China and Spain.
The purpose of the Project of Writing on China by Foreigners is to enable overseas sinologists, writers, media workers, academics and celebrities to have the opportunity to share their interest in the Chinese culture. They are welcome to tell the stories