As I desperately scramble to prepare my syllabi for the new semester (our winter break falls on the lunar new year), I run into the same problem I’ve dealt with every semester since I began teaching in Taiwan: hardly any ethnographies (or social science textbooks for that matter) are translated into Chinese.
This is not a problem unique to me, the only non-native speaker in the department; all the Taiwanese professors share the same frustration. Almost all of my colleagues are educated in the US or Europe and wrote their dissertations relying heavily on English language sources, almost none of which have been translated. They naturally want to teach using the materials that they are familiar with from their own studies. (At another time I plan to write more about the ways we and our students cope with this situation, such as when students resort to scanning entire chapters, or even books, and running them through machine translation software which spits out pure gibberish. But for now I want to focus on the issue of translation.)
Whether texts are old or new, famous or obscure doesn’t seem to matter. What is translated seems to largely be a matter of the personal whims of the translators. In some cases I’ve been told that the translations which do exist are so bad that student’s prefer to use the English (although I’ve yet to see a student read the English version when a translation is available).
Looking for numbers on the web, all I could find were a number of articles bemoaning how parochial Americans are, with translations comprising only about 3% of the literature and poetry published in the US (1999 numbers). My guess is that the percentage in Taiwan is higher than that, and there are books from China as well although some students make faces when forced to read simplified characters. Although the bookstores are full of translated fiction, nonfiction is another story, and ethnographies are nowhere to be found.
I think there are serious implications for how non-English speakers learn Anthropology, which touch on the theory/ethnography discussion emerging out of Strong’s last post. While teachers often complain that Taiwanese students don’t get “theory” and don’t know how to think critically, it is precisely the grand works of theory and critical thinking which seem to get translated – not the ethnographies which make up the vast bulk of anthropological writing.
What to do? It would help if there was a simple way to see which books have been translated. Finding translations is an art of its own, requiring some fancy use of Google’s advanced search features. But more useful might be setting up some kind of translation wiki like what my friend has set up for the China Study Group website.