An interview with etvolare: “From Wall Street to Chinese Web Novels Translations”

Hey everyone, part II of the Peking University series, back when etvolare still ran volarenovels! This was quite a bit of fun to do, and you’ll also see some outdated information when it comes to the novel lineup since the interview took place at the beginning of May 2017. Note: etvo no longer runs volare~

The Chinese reading community delineates quite definitely between “male” novels and “female” novels. Basically, any novel with a harem, tons of violence, and basically a male MC is a “male” novel, and any novel with lots of fluffiness and female MC is a “female” novel. Hence the categorization of volare as a “female novel site” due to our higher weighting in romance novels. This certainly makes explaining volare’s “off the beaten path” focus an interesting exercise.

From Wall Street to Chinese Web Novels Translations—Interview with volare novels Founder etvolare

By Yingxuan Xiao (Peking University Chinese Department)

To start off, can you introduce how exactly volare was started? I heard that you lived in America for about ten years and worked in New York in the finance and accounting industry. How did you begin translating Chinese web novels?

etvo: I grew up in Taiwan on a steady diet of wuxia TV shows and romantic novels. I was, without a doubt, an unabashed and utter bookworm. This love has always been with me. I would occasionally do some work with translation agencies amidst work and studies. Translating online literature was actually something I began inadvertently.

I was on the web one day looking for new works to read and somehow landed on an online literature translation site, leading me to try translating myself. The more I translated, the more interested I became, so I set up my own website. In one respect, it was my hobby and a desire to share Chinese literature with the world. In another respect, translating web novels imparts great feelings of accomplishment. I always highly anticipate the responses from my readers.

Were you still working in New York at that time? In everyone’s eyes, Wall Street’s banking industry is very busy and highly financially rewarding. You were still able to find time to translate, choosing to do something with much fewer returns under those circumstances. You must’ve relied on your love and passion in order to persevere! Are you now running volare full time? Resigning from your job requires so much courage!

etvo: That’s right. Work was indeed very busy; not only was I translating, I was also managing volare, so I translated rather slowly. I resigned from my job on January 1st of this year (2017). New hopes for the new year! I then returned to Taiwan and registered volare as a company. Making this decision definitely required enormous courage. Even now, some of my family doesn’t understand, but I feel that everyone wants different things in life. Many people yearn to be part of  New York’s financial sector, but only after joining do some realize that reality is not what they had imagined it to be. After working for many years, I felt that its atmosphere did not suit me, along with the fact that I was just a little hot blooded—why have Western works influenced the entire world so much, and yet Chinese literature has barely made its way out? I hoped to improve this situation.

I’m actually a conservative person, but if I didn’t take this risk, volare would never truly be established. This is possibly the greatest gamble I’ll ever take in my entire life!

You’re so bold! Though what you obtain in return definitely makes it worth it. I’ve noticed that volare’s web page is very concise and straightforward, making it very user friendly for those who access the site for the first time; it must have been pretty hard to design this. Did you do this yourself, or did you ask someone specializing in web design and development to help?

The website can be divided into two parts—frontend and backend. I did the initial frontend, the part of the website that we can see, and was forced to self learn it at the time. The backend I couldn’t do, so I invited a specialized backend developer. With the recent addition of a marketer, operations improved one step further. Besides luck, I believe my previous profession had a lot to do with why I was able to accomplish these things. Since I was already used to how big companies operated and had obtained some knowledge in regards to this field, applying it to running the website was relatively easy.

volare’s Distinguishing Quality: “Alternative” Works and Female-Oriented Novels

At the end of November 2015, you started translating your first novel, Sovereign of the Three Realms (SOTR). In December you founded volare and began releasing chapters for SOTR, later publishing them on Wuxiaworld as well, while your second book, Great Demon King (GDK), initially started on Gravity Tales but later returned to volare. It appears that volare had a deep relationship with Wuxiaworld and Gravity Tales when being established. I heard that you began translating GDK because you really liked it, and saw another translator drop it after only translating the first few chapters. In terms of the translation community for Chinese novels abroad, what’s the present situation for how its members interact with each other? Can you give us a simple introduction about the current state of affairs?

etvo: When I discovered this field, Wuxiaworld was the first large scale website I stumbled upon. I didn’t understand anything at that time and sent an email to RWX, bouncing off the walls in excitement and randomly dishing out a self-introduction. (etvo note: Ren… I hope you deleted that monstrosity!) I told him that I thought his website was really great (cue mad sparkling eyes) and asked him if he needed any help. We would chat on and off when we bumped into each other online later and gradually got to know each other.

Then why didn’t you just join Wuxiaworld or Gravity Tales, rather than start a separate website? It’s so hard to maintain a website by yourself!

etvo: Indeed, all I wanted to do in the beginning was to have a place to store my translations and hadn’t planned on managing my own website. It is indeed quite troublesome. However, after thoroughly understanding this scene, my deep rooted hot-bloodedness came out to play once again. I saw that a lot of lady novels, as well as alternative novels, didn’t seem to get a lot of love. Everyone seemed to prefer wuxia and xianxia. I brought it up to RWX once before, but perhaps he has less interest in women’s literature because he’s a guy? Not to worry, come one come all to me! This consequently brought about my ideas of establishing a website, gathering such works, and putting them on the site.

Yet right now, I see that among volare’s 27 novels (May 14 increased to 28 novels), the number of male-oriented and female-oriented novels are roughly split evenly (male 14, female 13). The genres also seem to be a motley collection. How did you choose these books?

etvo: English readers don’t actually delineate by male or female literature that clearly, and rather use the genres of wuxia, xianxia, xuanhuan, modern, comedy, and so on. I have introduced some male readers to women’s fiction—they too love to see the scheming between characters or the domineering female protagonist trampling the villains. Readers on both sides likely have different preferences, as many Western male readers also like to weep and rail at the novels they’re reading!

I would term all the other works on volare as “alternative”, which includes genres such as comedy, science fiction, etc. volare’s selection does seem a bit scattered at first glance, because I focus on the story itself and the author’s writing skills. Trite and cliche plotlines such as the rich, handsome guy falling in love with the silly, pretty girl; the rise of the trash cultivator, etc. are ones I’m not as interested in. This is why the works on volare all have their own unique flair and loyal readers.

That must mean that every book is one you’ve filtered and believed to have distinguishing qualities?

etvo: Yes. Every novel on the site has been carefully chosen. Of course, after finding a good translator, the most important thing is seeing what the translator wishes to translate, as well as the authorizations for the work. This year, thanks to the attention of various corporations this year, volare has already received multiple indications of partnerships. We also have a small library of pre-authorized works waiting to be adopted by their translators.

I understand now. On one hand, you are searching online for translators who already have translations; on the other hand, you have a library of authorized novels waiting to be translated . Do you usually read more Chinese novels or English ones? For Chinese literature, do you go on each site and view their novel rankings, or do other readers give you recommendations?

etvo: I have a wall full of English books in front of my table, but my computer and cell phone are filled with Chinese novels, split roughly fifty-fifty. The Chinese novels I read are typically dependent on the recommendations of other readers, as I don’t really look at the novel rankings that much since they rarely have books with the “unique twists” that I like to read.

As of now, the site has 27 novels. I find the distribution of their raw sites rather unexpected:  10 Qidian, 3 Qidian MM, 3 JJWXC, 2 Yunqi, 2 Xiang5, 2 iReader, 1 Tadu, 1 ReadNovel, 1 Zongheng, 1 17K, and 1 XXSY. It is very understandable that the male-oriented novels are mainly from Qidian, but the female-oriented novels are a bit different than what I had imagined. I originally thought that there would be more from JJWXC, and there is surprisingly not a single book from Hongxiu; however, there are actually 2 books from Xiang5, which is not that popular in China.

etvo: I didn’t know that Xiang5’s popularity was that low. In the very beginning, it was a translator called Ruyi who was translating their novels, and since I wanted to establish an official company, I went to chat with them about a partnership. We have also already reached an agreement with iReader and are presently talking with 17K, Zongheng, and other websites.

The most important thing is to first obtain authorizations of the novels on the site, and it might not be as relevant to reach out to Hongxiu about partnering when we currently don’t have any of their works. (Clarification note: Hongxiu is owned by Qidian’s parent company.) As for JJWXC, I really do want to work with them, but after reaching out to them, I realized that the expectations for both sides are slightly different, so we haven’t been able to reach an agreement for the time being. I feel that this is a real pity and will try contacting them again in the future.

If volare plans to lean towards female-oriented novels, would you consider adding boy’s love, slash fiction—these types of genres?

etvo: I currently don’t have any plans for these two genres, since for one, I still haven’t reached an agreement with JJWXC, and two, this subject matter is indeed a rather sensitive topic.

volare’s Translators and Editors

What are your requirements for translators and their translations?

etvo: Quality above all. Since we are “human translators” and not “machine translators”, the works that we translate should seem like they were natively written in English. Only in this way do we not let the authors, readers, and ourselves down.  Speed is certainly also important—if we translate slowly, it will be hard to be warmly received by the readers, though I wouldn’t sacrifice quality for speed.

Is there a fixed criteria? Such as each a certain number of chapter releases each month?

etvo: There isn’t. I feel that this type of fixed criteria would actually restrict the growth of the translators. My only hope is that they translate well and happily. As for factors such as forming a conducive and supportive environment for the staff and ensuring the speed of updates for readers, this is responsibility that lies on the shoulders of the person in charge. Of course, many translators enjoy interacting with readers and will set a minimum rate for chapter updates.

Currently, what countries or regions are the website’s translators roughly from?

etvo: As of now, there are about 30 translators who come from all around the world, including North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, etc.

Then how do they know Chinese? Are they all ethnic Chinese? I know that RWX is ethnic Chinese, GGP (Gravity Tales founder) is American born Chinese.

etvo: Most of them are ethnic Chinese and Chinese living abroad. A small number are Westerners who have learned Chinese.

I’ve noticed that for every book, besides the translators, there are also many editors. Are these editors also filtered and invited by you? Or are they fans who decided to volunteer? What is their main job?

etvo: The editors have an extremely high proficiency in English, and are responsible for polishing the flow of the writing and structure after the translator has translated a chapter. They will not, however, look at the original text and make guesses about what more to add or delete. The editors are mostly filtered by me, though some are those who have been working with their translators for many years.

Can you thoroughly explain the filtering system by which the translators and editors are chosen?

etvo: Before hiring an editor, I would first personally audit the first round and give them a sentence that had been purposefully restructured into a mess. If they can correct it properly, I would then give them a chapter that’s approximately 3,000 words. During this process, I also chat with them about their interests and preferences. If they are also able to pass the second round, then I recommend the editor into one of more appropriate translation teams according to need. The lead translator would then test them with a chapter of their own novel and start working with the editor after this process is complete as well. Translators also go through a similar filtering process.

Then do these translators and editors do this full-time? Or are they all concurrently working other jobs? For each novel, how are the incomes of the translators and editors distributed?

etvo: Some do it part-time; only I work full-time. The incomes are distributed by the lead translator; I occasionally check in to make sure there aren’t any problems, though I don’t regulate how income is distributed.

Then where does the income come from? How does volare currently earn revenue?

etvo: Because I have contact with Wuxiaworld and Gravity Tales, based on my understanding, our business models are all similar to one another—reader donations, crowdfunding (Patreon), and advertisements. In the future we may place more emphasis on ebooks, mainly platforms like Amazon. Overseas readers are already rather used to reading ebooks, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue with this aspect.

Do you have any books that are currently being sold on Amazon?

etvo: Not yet. This is part of our future plans. (etvo note: DCF will likely be the first novel we publish, and we’re looking forward to getting that started this year!)

volare’s Readers

I saw that in a previous interview, you brought up that 30% of volare’s readership comes from America, 5% from Canada, 10% from Western Europe, and 12% from Southeast Asia. Are there any new changes to these numbers?

Etvo: Western Europe has increased to 17% or so lately, with the remainder holding steady.

You said volare’s monthly visitors (unique IP) has already reached the millions; however, I’ve noticed that there aren’t many comments left under the translations. Why is that?

etvo: Some readers like to comment, others like to lurk. We also have reddit and Discord that others may utilize more often. [Note at posting: interviewer was looking at TOC comments and not chapter comments.]

From my understanding, reddit is a forum that resembles Baidu Tieba. Discord is something similar to QQ and WeChat groups?

etvo: Yes, Discord is similar to QQ groups or Wechat groups. We have many groups and actually, all of the translators in the scene communicate with each other often. Some use Skype, others use Discord—sometimes for the members of an entire site or just one novel. volare’s Discord has more than 1,500 members (note: volare’s Discord has grown to 2,500 members in mid June. Further note at time of posting: we actually have 2,800 members as of July 1.)

Wow! That is a super huge group! Have you paid attention to their discussions? Why do you think that overseas readers are so interested in Chinese web novels? Could it be that a great majority of the readers are ethnic Chinese? Or are a lot of them “true foreigners” who have great interest in Chinese culture?

etvo: I will occasionally read the comments, though I usually rely on volare staff to help me keep an eye on them. I think overseas readers like our fanciful flights of imagination, out-of-the-box thinking and innovative topics. A major advantage of online literature is its adaption speed, with many current events or trends easily being written in. For instance, one of our recent novels that we’re collaborating with iReader for, “Red Packet Server”, is about a chat room that links to the Heavenly Court. The MC interacts with them through the group and competes with the Monkey King and other deities in the group for red packets. Readers can also understand much about Chinese culture through the novel, making it quite fascinating. This is something you’d never see in Western literature.

I feel that most of the readers are likely “true foreigners”, Chinese overseas may not wish to read translated webnovels? Because if they can’t read Chinese, they may want to watch dramas instead. After all, a real life Yang Yang is much more handsome than any dashing male MC, haha!

The process in producing English bestsellers is a well oiled machine. There are essentially books of every genre. Besides being able to quickly add new elements, what other advantages do Chinese web novels have?

etvo: I really love the interplay between characters in webnovels, and the emotions in Chinese web novels are very rich. Perhaps I need to revisit my favorite English novel, but I always feel that the love, hate, passion, and animosity written in Chinese web novels are more able to touch people’s hearts.

In that case, between Chinese female-oriented novels and English romantic fiction novels, such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, do you feel that there are any essential differences?

etvo: Besides the differences between authors’ writing styles and that both sides write about very tried-and-true  topics, the one biggest distinction is that because of the contrasting backgrounds of Chinese and Western novels, the way they look at and depict things are also different. Other than new and original topics, plots with current trends integrated into them, and abundant emotion, I feel that Chinese web novels have another advantage: it’s currently in vogue with Western readers who may view them as a new toy. There’s a surge of interest in it currently, but this type of passion may fluctuate uncertainly.  

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