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Professor Allan Barr Translates Book for Top Chinese Blogger and Race Car Driver

This Generation book cover

The latest translation project by Professor of Chinese Allan Barr has brought him into the world of Chinese pop culture, political criticism and blogging. This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver) is a collection of blog posts by Han Han, a national celebrity in China who is both controversial and celebrated as a blogger, race-car driver and best-selling author.

Barr was initially approached by Simon & Schuster publishers to translate Han Han’s novel 1988 as he was serendipitously approaching a year-long sabbatical.

“I turned the novel down, but did agree to edit and translate a collection of Han Han’s blog posts, a project that seemed more intriguing to me and one that gave me the freedom to pick and choose among Han Han’s blog posts and shape the English edition as I saw fit,” recalls Barr. He had to sift through hundreds of posts.

Han Han, who was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2010 and was the subject of a New Yorker profile in 2011, dropped out of high school, even after winning a writing prize. After dropping out, he published essays and wrote his first novel, Triple Door, at 17 years old. The satire of education and authority sold two million copies. He continued to write, but also became a professional rally race driver and released a music album. His blog is among the most popular in China, and his controversial remarks on politics have irritated both conservatives and liberals within the nation.

Some of the topics covered in This Generation, which is Han Han’s first book to be translated into English, include China’s educational system, corruption, inequality, official malfeasance, censorship and current affairs such as nationalist protests in China against Western countries and Japan.

“Han Han’s style is sarcastic and playful, full of mischievous puns, and channeling his distinctive voice and conveying his wicked sense of humor were the biggest challenges I faced,” says Barr, who has been at Pomona since 1981.

Barr first became interested in translating contemporary Chinese authors when teaching ID1 seminars on Chinese fiction. His first effort was a volume of short stories by Yu Hua, which led to a series of collaborations with the author.

The concept of one book, China in Ten Words, was developed after Yu spoke at Pomona in 2009. Barr had invited the writer to speak during his U.S. tour for his novel Brothers. When discussing the topic of Yu’s speech, Barr suggested Yu speak about China from a writer’s point of view, and Yu built his presentation around two common words in the contemporary Chinese language: 人民 (“people”) and 领袖 (“leader”). He realized he had other words he wanted to write about and developed the idea into a book.

“When I drove him to LAX at the end of his visit here, we agreed that I would translate the book into English,” recalls Barr. “Yu Hua wrote China in Ten Words over the months that followed, sending me each chapter as he completed it. The book’s 10 chapters all take a different word as their theme, in a wide-ranging discussion that involves memoir, anecdote, and analysis.” The book’s Taiwan edition mentions Pomona in the preface, says Barr, but that reference didn’t make it into the English edition. The book was not published in mainland China due to its critiques of the country.

Published in 2011, the book was Yu’s first nonfiction work published in English, and received high praise. A Wall Street Journal review notes that it “captures the heart of the Chinese people in an intimate, profound and often disturbing way. If you think you know China, you will be challenged to think again.”

Barr says his working relationship with Yu as been tremendously rewarding. “Familiarity with him as a person has given me a better sense of how to convey the tone and register of his language, and collaborating with him on the English translations of his books has also brought me into contact with publishers and editors and given me a much fuller picture of the publishing world.”

Barr also translated Yu’s Cries in the Drizzle and several opinion pieces that have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune. His next translation of Yu’s work will be the novel Boy in the Twilight to be released in 2014 by Pantheon.