The Business of Translation
“I wouldn’t be doing this just to make money,” says translator Bruce Humes. While studying anthropology in the 1970s, the young American was required to learn a foreign language, and he chose Chinese. Sine then, he has applied his linguistic talent to a variety of lucrative ventures, from media to marketing to management. But translation remains his passion and his preferred area of business, and not for monetary reasons.
Arriving in Taiwan in 1978 to study at Taiwan Normal University, Humes soon left school and began work with President Translation, the leading firm of its kind on the island. Before long, he moved to Hong Kong and spent much of the 1980s editing international trade magazines with Global Sources. In 1993 continued work with the same company in Shenzhen to launch a Chinese-language magazine about international management.
Eventually, Humes began telling himself, “My Chinese is helping me make a good living and helping my boss make a killing in the China market. But surely I can do something in publishing that's not aimed at solely at businesspeople.” That something was literary translation.
While perusing a Shanghai bookstore, Humes spotted a catchy title with a seductive cover. After reading the book and thinking it might appeal to foreign tastes, he approached the author and asked if she would like an English translation, but she refused. A few weeks later, Shanghai Baby was banned (and burned) in China, and Wei Hui came back to Humes, setting in motion one of the most successful publications to come out of China in recent years.
It took Humes roughly three months to finish translating Shanghai Baby, and his efforts earned him $10,000 USD. “It was very difficult, but highly enjoyable,” he said. Usually, publishers choose both the book and the translator, but in this case, Humes choose both the book and the publisher. “I chose it because it’s marketable,” said Humes, who beat out another translator with a PhD for the rights to translate the book.
Humes has yet to translate another full-length novel, but he hasn’t stopped trying. Recognizing the lack of Chinese books translated into English, Humes has teamed up with a Hong Kong literary agent to bring Chinese literature to Western audiences. Hoping to ink more book deals with foreign publishers, he has translated excerpts from the writings of Chun Sue (of Beijing Doll fame), Mu Zimei, and Feng Tang, a Beijinger who writes about growing up in the capital.
The business of translation is not easy, and Humes estimates that he earns only 25 percent of his income through translation. Most of it comes from export management training, which he hosts in cities such as Xi’an, Dalian, Shanghai and Xiamen. “The literary translation business is based in Beijing,” he says, but this hasn’t stopped him from remaining firmly based in Shenzhen. Referring to his quirky attire and love of biking, Humes explains, “There are very specific expectations of foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai. But in Shenzhen, I feel free. I like the environment here.”
While primarily a Chinese-to-English translator, Humes is more interested in reaching the large Chinese audience by publishing translations of foreign books in China, such as those from African and the Middle East. Citing Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s prize-winning Things Fall Apart, Humes says, “I want to play a part in opening up China, intellectually and culturally, to the world outside. There is a wall here, and the wall is about language.”
To this end, Humes is planning to pursue an MA in Translation Studies in the UK, specializing in translation history. Upon completion, he wants to return to China and start a business that will “teach the next generation of translators, specialize in identifying, translating and publishing foreign literature for readers in China, and help give people a wider view about what the world is about.”