Eatery on Kat Hing St, Wuhan, site of Chi Li’s Life Show (Source:

I am very much looking forward to attending the Intercultural Literacy, Communication, and Competence in the Context of Multiculturalism Conference at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan in November this year. I’ve never been to Wuhan before (nor anywhere else in China) and what I usually do before going anywhere is read. I’ve asked my students and colleagues from China for recommendations, and as soon as I mention Wuhan, they’ve all said: “Chi Li! You have to read Chi Li’s novel about a restaurant owner in Wuhan.”

I’d heard the advice a couple of times but googling “Chi Li” turned out to be easier said than done, particularly as I had a summary of the plot of her most famous novel but no title. I asked around some more among the Chinese I know, wondering whether there was a translation into English and the answer I received was “Of course! She’s very famous. Her work has been translated into many languages.”

So, I asked for “Chi Li” in Chinese characters and then googled “池莉” – restricted to English-language sites, of course, as I can’t read Chinese. This way I found the Wikipedia entry for Chi Li although it’s only a stub and disappointingly short. However, at least I found out the English title of the novel I was after this way: Life Show. The Wikipedia link from “Chi Li” to “Life Show” however did not bode well: “Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name” it says.

No matter, I now had the author and the English title and so I should have found the book in a matter of a few clicks. It wasn’t to be. In a blog post on ilookchina I learnt why:

Although many of her novels have been translated into French, there are no English translations yet, which is a shame.

What?! A famous Chinese author not translated into English?!

Unfortunately, it’s true and I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. Global book translations look very much like a one-way street out of English. According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum English is the original language of a cool 1,220,893 books translated into other languages. The runner-up, French, is the source language of less than 20% of that number with 215,216.

Chinese is in 16th position – behind such relatively minor European languages as Swedish (7th), Danish (9th), Dutch (11th), Czech (13th), Polish (14th) and Norwegian (15th).

Table 1: Top 20 Source Languages of Translated Books (Source: Index Translationum)

 1.  English  1,220,893  8.  Japanese  26,735  15.  Norwegian  13,812
 2.  French  215,216  9.  Danish  20,675  16.  Chinese  13,267
 3.  German  199,232  10.  Latin  19,102  17.  Arabic  11,829
 4.  Russian  101,119  11.  Dutch  18,723  18.  Portuguese  11,143
 5.  Italian  66,044  12.  Ancient Greek  17,172  19.  Hungarian  11,018
 6.  Spanish  52,387  13.  Czech  16,300  20.  Hebrew  9,802
 7.  Swedish  38,662  14.  Polish  14,034

By contrast, considering the target languages into which the world’s books are being translated, unbelievably English is nowhere near the top. As Table 2 shows, English is only in fourth place as the target language with less than half of the number of translations than the 1st placed, German. If you think 4th place is not bad, consider the number of English-language readers and the size of the English-language book market, and the position is obviously ridiculously low.

Table 2: Top 5 Target Languages of Translated Books (Source: Index Translationum)

  1. German 290,828
  2. French 237,890
  3. Spanish 228,151
  4. English 145,737
  5. Japanese 130,610

The figures for source and target languages of books translated in the world are a good indicator of the inequality of cultural flows. The UNESCO figures make a mockery of the rhetoric of intercultural communication: it’s almost as if the whole world was listening to the communication emanating from a narcissist.

In Australia “becoming Asia-literate” is currently a very fashionable media topic. How that is supposed to happen without translations from Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Korean and Asia’s many other languages, I don’t know.

As far as my quest to read at least one novel by Chi Li before I visit Wuhan is concerned, I’ve now ordered Le Show de la vie and will be looking forward to brushing up my French while I learn about China!

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • “it’s almost as if the whole world was listening to the communication emanating from a narcissist.”

    Narcissist = the United States and UK (SO TRUE!). Even more so in the US becasue of so many parents raising children with a false sense of self-esteem. Many in America are obsessed with self-esteem. It has almost ruined the public education system in America.

    Did you consdier the movie of Chi Li’s work “Life Show”?

    Since the movie is a Chinese made film, we can hope that it is true to the book.

  • PS: My wife is Chinese and she read Chi Li’s book. I just asked her how close the movie was to the book and she said, “Pretty close.”

    • Thanks, Lloyd! Yes, read about the movie on your blog and will definitely look it up! Really enjoy your blog – thanks for that!

  • Jenny Zhang

    When Ingrid replied that she was happy to accept our invitation to attend and address the forthcoming conference on Research and Applications of Intercultural Communication (, she asked me to recommend her a good novel about Wuhan to read. I answered without a moment’s hesitation “Chi Li’s ‘Life Show’ (池莉《生活秀》)”。Chi Li is one of China’s best-known contemporary writers. Her novels are usually set in Wuhan, the city she lives in. As the novel “Life Show” was adapted into an award-winning movie in 2003 and there is a good number of professionals are engaged in literary translation in China, I took it for granted that the novel must have a translation into English. Surprisingly, it’s hard enough to find a few lines about the writer on English websites, let alone the translation of her works. The search result set me thinking. The decline of China in the 1800s awoke the late Qing government to China’s technological inferiority to the West and the necessity of Western learning. A hundred years later opening up became China’s basic state policy. During the past three decades of economic reform, the Chinese government has always stressed importing Western learning but didn’t give due attention to cultural export. As China’s economy has been developing rapidly, the government joined soft-power competition by exporting its culture. Since last year, the Chinese government has taken a series of measures to encourage cultural exports, including setting up national research funds to encourage translating great works of Chinese literature, history, culture, philosophy and others. I hope more good literary works which reflect the realities of today’s China can be translated and introduced to readers all over the world so as to promote Intercultural Literacy, Communication, and Competence in the Context of Multiculturalism

  • In the early 1990s, a friend of mine gave me a book, “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto, for a birthday present. I was both happy and *amazed* that it was translated into English. Recently a Swiss colleague of mine in Thailand asked me to read his draft journal article based on Ryu Murakami’s work. My colleague complained that he can’t read all Murakami’s books as most of them are yet to be translated. To be perfectly honest I didn’t think much of this, let alone this as the ‘inequality of cultural flows’, until I read this post – obviously I’d taken it for granted that Japanese literature was of a marginal value for the world audience;-(

  • Khan

    Like Kimie I have also never thought about translations in terms of inequality of cultural flows. A thought provoking and eye opener post indeed. In India and Pakistan, there has been a long tradition of translating knowledges from English and other European languages into local languages. Getting all Shakespeare’s works, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Chekov, Kant etc is not very uncommon. Similarly the translations of local writers such as Ghalib, Iqbal, Manot etc are also easily available in English. The interesting point is that it is mostly the locals who are the translators of these works from one language to another. They earn their livings by it and they believe that it is the greatest service to one’s literacy and language. The institutionalization of translation as source of knowledge comes from the establishment of University of Usmania in undivided India where the motto was teach all scientific knowledge in local languages based on translation from European languages into Hindi/ Urdu.

  • Guo Jian

    Chi Li is one of my favourite contemporary female writers and I appreciate her novels as well as her way of raising her daughter.

    It was really shocking to know there’s only a little introduction about her and no traslation for her works in English.I have to admit I’ve never pay attention to this before.Quite interesting !!More research needs to be done and it concerns many complicated reasons for such a phenomenon.

    thank you for your information and Jenny’s resrarch!!!

  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Thanks to Ingrid for pointing out a central issue in China’s cultural globalization, namely cultural trade deficit. We’ve been very active in importing than in exporting in cultural exchanges, as Jenny also commented above. I think it is because Chinese culture or Oriental cultures in general have been long time regarded as inferior to Western culture. Chinese or Oriental are expected to learn from the Euro-Americans and to build their nation on the model of Western modernization. This Orientalist discourse has been naturalized for ages and has also been internalized by Oriental countries, at least to some extent. The good sign is, as Jenny mentioned above, the Chinese government has promulgated some policies to promote cultural export. We’re expecting to see positive effect in near future…
    Ingrid’s blog also reminds me of Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, the most prominent translator couple who had translated a lot of Chinese literary works to the English-speaking world and had also introduced many foreign literary works to China. They had made the greatest contributions to cultural exportation of China’s classic literary works. Unfortunately we’d lost them, Xianyi in 2009 and Gladys in 1999. I hope we can see some followers of the Yangs in China in near future too…

  • A reader just drew my attention to this related and fascinating blogpost at

    Most Favored Nations
    Tim Parks
    Shortly before his death in 1980, the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson suggested that social engineering was like trying to reverse a truck with five or six trailers attached to it through a complex maze; you might get somewhere, but where and with what collateral damage would never be clear. So it’s hardly a surprise that the decision in many countries around Europe to insist on English as a second language—to facilitate trade of course and to promote a global scientific community—has had some unexpected effects, not least on literature.

    In Milan, where I live, the city polytechnic recently announced that some post-graduate courses are soon to be taught exclusively in English. But Italy is hardly in the forefront. About 56 percent of Europeans speak a second language, and for 38 percent of them that language is English. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where it’s fairly common to find university courses taught in English, the figure is more like 90 percent. Even where the percentage is smaller we are nevertheless talking about the most educated part of the community, those more likely to be reading novels, particularly literary novels.

    Continue reading at

  • Pingback: Multilingual Macau | Language on the Move()