From Publisher to Translator

Mabel Lee is one of several Australian literary personalities who will speak at the annual Australian Writers Festival in Beijing during March. She spoke to Sophie Loras about her work as a translator and publisher of Chinese works.

Born in country New South Wales into a bilingual Cantonese / English speaking family, Mabel Lee became Australia’s first fully “homegrown product” in Chinese Studies when she was awarded her PhD degree in Chinese intellectual history of the late-Qing dynasty in 1966 at the University of Sydney – a significant milestone for someone who had begun their undergraduate Chinese studies knowing only 100 Chinese characters and being able to write only her own name and those of immediate family in Chinese. A long way indeed, when today, Mabel Lee is best known for her internationally acclaimed translation work of Gao Xingjiang’s Nobel prize-winning novel Soul Mountain in 2000.
“In July 2000 my translation of Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain was published by HarperCollins Australia, and three months later it was announced that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I found myself launched in a new career,” says Mabel of the win.
She went on to translate Gao’s second novel One Man’s Bible, a collection of short stories Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, and his collection of essays The Case for Literature.
As a result of that translation work, Mabel was chosen as one of the 50 outstanding translations of the last half-century by the UK Translation Association of the Society of Authors in 2008.
Prior to that however, Mabel co-founded publishing business Wild Peony Pty Ltd in 1980, because she says, “publishing urgently needed Chinese-language teaching materials, but also with the goal of publishing the work of Australian academics, especially their translations from Chinese, Japanese and Korean literature.”
“At the time, Australian publishers, as part of the English-speaking world, were not interested in publishing translations, especially of Asian writings.”
Mabel had begun teaching Chinese language in 1966 at a time when existing Chinese language teaching materials were few and “mostly unsatisfactory”.
She created her own materials, improving on them year-by-year starting with stenciled copies and later photocopied sheets.
“In 1980 I had produced a book manuscript for spoken Chinese that was accepted by a local publisher. However, they failed to submit an application for a government subsidy by the due date, so I withdrew the manuscript. “
A friend suggested they form a publishing company and despite neither of them having any experience in the publishing industry, they each took out an overdraft and established Wild Peony Pty Ltd., publishing several Chinese text books which sold well in schools and universities in Australia and abroad.
Her next aim was to publish literary translations and academic writings on East Asia produced by Australian scholars and translators, later obtaining the rights to publish the University of Sydney East Asian Series and the University of Sydney World Literature Series.
Today, Wild Peony publishes books on the literature, art and history of China, Japan and Korea, especially those that focus on cultural crossings, “whether these are negotiated through translated texts, reproductions of artworks, or human relocation from the region to other countries, especially to Australia,” says Mabel.
The business’s biggest challenge is financial, with projects often relying on external funding. And since the death of her co-founder in 2007, Mabel does everything in the business, from rigorous editing, checking all aspects of the printing process, applying for printing subsidies, shipping books overseas, to handling invoices and dispatching local orders.
“It keeps me very busy,” she says.mabel_lee_shen_jia_wei_cover_web
“The highlight,” says Mabel, “is always with a new book coming out in print – Shen Jiawei’s Wang Lan is the most beautifully designed book Wild Peony has published.” (Pictured right)
Mabel says Wild Peony books have made a unique contribution on behalf of Asia-background writers and artists who are Australian, though its Art Series, Autobiography Series and Poetry Series.
“By bringing Asian perceptions and voices into English is important and makes a contribution to fostering a better understanding of Asian cultures,” says Mabel.
“By publishing translations of Asian writings that have not been taken up by big publishers, Wild Peony is filling in an important gap in the publishing world of Australia and the rest of the English-speaking world.”
Mabel’s translation work includes Gao Xingjian’s fiction and non-fiction, and Yang Lian’s poetry.
“I would not try to translate anything that did not linguistically, intellectually and aesthetically resonate with me. In the process of drafting a translation, I try to get as close as possible to the moods and linguistic rhythms contained in a work, and I read through the translation many times until I feel that I have grasped the inner energy of the work that I am translating,” says Mabel of the delicate translation process.
“I have never studied or read much on translation theory, but I have always enjoyed translating Chinese writings that I liked into English.” 

*Mabel Lee is Adjunct Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney and co-founder of Wild Peony, a publishing enterprise aimed at fostering a better understanding of Asian cultures in the English-speaking world.
Mabel will be speaking at several venues in China as part of Australian Writers Week on Chinese literature and translation.
For more information and full listing of speakers for Australian Writers Week in Beijing in March visit:
For more information on the Beijing Bookworm International Literary Festival held between March 4 and March 18, 2011, in China visit:
For a full listing of Wild Peony publications, visit:

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