Found in translation: understanding Chinese demand for British content
Today, Nesta, Beijing-based social network, Douban and The Literary Platform are launching an experiment that will propel the work of one of Britain's best-regarded novelists into the heart of China's thriving social networking scene.
Two short stories by David Mitchell, author of novels including Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas, have been made available for a translation contest on Douban Read, part of China's 70-million user cultural networking site, Douban. The best of the translations will go to a public vote, with the winner ultimately available for sale through Douban Read's ebook service.
This project is about much more than providing a challenging translation test. The Chinese market for creative content is expanding rapidly. Some British cultural success stories, such as TV series Downton Abbey, Skins and the IT Crowd, have attracted a cult following in the country; yet many other attempts to penetrate the market have fallen puzzlingly flat.
More than any other sector, the sale of creative content is highly sensitive to local cultural norms - fail to read the market correctly, and the chances of success are remote. As a result, despite its leading position in many cultural and creative sectors, the UK has punched below its weight in China, with exports lagging many other countries.
How, then, do we go about finding out what type of creative content is attractive to a Chinese audience? The key lies in social media. China now claims around 500 million internet users, and is home to a quarter of all social network users in the world. Trialing content with consumers and seeing what they like is a more reliable (and more time efficient) way to gauge what people actually want than asking them through a survey.
Douban itself is one of China's most popular websites, ranking 20th by popularity in the country. Its users are a natural niche for the UK's creative content companies: 92.5 per cent of Douban users are in the 18-35 age group and 70 per cent live in the major urban cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, Xi'an, Hangzhou and Shenzhen.
It fiercely defends its independence and its users engage in frank and lively discussions on all aspects of the country's cultural life, from literature, film, and music, to China's education system.
With Douban we are collecting a rich set of high-frequency data on user behaviour to track the impact of the contest. What are the wider cultural preferences of users that participate in the contest as translators or voters? What interest does the contest spark in other British writing?
How much of this converts into commercial sales? Do contest participants go on to look up related content, such as the Cloud Atlas film on the sister Douban Movie site?
By placing the work of a leading British author directly onto Douban - and analysing how audiences interact with it - we hope to gain fresh insights into what Chinese audiences like, as well as exploring new translation and ebook revenue models.
Hasan Bakhshi (@hasanbakhshi) is Director, Creative Economy in Nesta's Policy & Research Unit. Philippe Schneider is an independent researcher