From fiction translated to self-published poetry, Mongolia's publishing sector flourishes
Situated between Russia and China, Mongolia is a large but sparsely populated country, whose long, cold winters offer plenty of time for reading. Now that 30 years have passed since Mongolia's transition from state socialism to a free market economy, the country's publishing market has evolved and reflects the priorities of a more internationally connected society.
Ulan Bator's shelves are packed with international translation literature, and new local authors write in their native language. So what are the Mongols reading?
From monopoly to plurality
In 1924, Mongolia became the second country in the world, after the Soviet Union, to adopt state socialism as its ideology. Its ties to Moscow were so close and its relations with its southern neighbor, China, so cold, that Mongolia in the 20th century was often described as the “16th Soviet Republic” (the Soviet Union consisted of 15). All that changed in 1990, when from January to March, Mongolia experienced its own glasnost-inspired revolution, and adopted a democratic system based on political plurality and the market economy.
One of the sectors most affected by the sudden changes was the editorial. With socialism, the content of books, newspapers, and magazines was heavily censored and shaped by Moscow's ideological control. With the revolution, that system collapsed. The resulting freedom for all implied greater freedom of expression, but it also meant the end of state subsidies for the production and distribution of books. According to Bayasgalan Batsuuri, a writer and literary translator who co-founded Tagtaa Publishing:
After the democratic revolution of 1990, due to the closure of the state owned publishing factory, we experienced a whole decade of dark years. We had nothing to read but leftover books from the socialist period. But from early 2000, several private companies emerged and started to rebuild the industry. Now we have five big private publishing companies, and more than 40 independent publishing houses. I think that today, the publishing industry is one of the rising sectors of Mongolia.
After the democratic revolution of 1990, with the closure of the state publication factory, we went through a whole decade of dark years. We had nothing to read other than books left over from the socialist period. But from the beginning of 2000, several private companies emerged and began to rebuild the sector. We now have five large private publishing companies, and over 40 independent publishers. I think that the publishing sector is currently one of the booming sectors in Mongolia.
Therefore, the outlook seems positive. But there are obstacles. Although there are more than six million Mongolian speakers in the world, the market for Mongolian language books is very divided by the differences in alphabets. Mongolia uses a Cyrillic alphabet, imposed by Moscow in 1940, used by the country's three million inhabitants.
Meanwhile, around six million Mongols live in China, and about half speak their ancient language. China is also home to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where the traditional Mongolian alphabet is in official use. Also known as “Bichig,” it was inspired by ancient Uyghur script and is written in vertical lines, going from top to bottom.
According to a survey conducted by Batsuuri in 2019, more than 600 books are published in Mongolia each year, at an average price of $ 7.5 for paperback books, and $ 14 for hardcover books. This makes books quite expensive since the average monthly salary is less than $ 400.
The same study mentions that almost two thirds of these titles are national works and one third are translations. Most readers are between 21 and 38 years old.
Most of the book stores are located in the capital, Ulan Bator, where more than a third of the population lives. However, online reading and books are also on the rise.
History buffs and armchair travelers
Two major topics of interest seem to shape reading habits in Mongolia: national history and the biggest names in world literature. The first is related to the legacy of strong censorship under the socialist regime. After the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s, which killed more than 30,000 “enemies of the people” or ideological opponents, the Communist Party of Mongolia imposed a rewriting of national identity that erased much of history. of the Buddhist country, culture, literature and art. Many Mongols continue to rediscover forbidden parts of their heritage, which has led to a high demand for books on history and traditions, as Baatsuri explains:
Historical novels are more popular: after centuries of external pressure and lost identities, our people have an inevitable need to recover their national from their history.
Historical novels are more popular: after centuries of external pressure and lost identities, our people have the inevitable need to recover the nationality of their history.
Likewise, Batsuuri makes sense of the popularity of literature translated through Mongolian historical traditions:
Mongolia has a very rich history of translation. The first recorded translations are from the third century BCE, when our ancestors translated mainly religious manuscripts from Sanskrit, Uyghur, Tibetan, Chinese, Persian, and Arabic classical literature. During the socialist period, Russian classics and Soviet literature were translated under strict censorship.
Mongolia has a very rich translation history. The earliest recorded translations are from the 3rd century B.C., when our ancestors primarily translated religious manuscripts of classical Sanskrit, Uighur, Tibetan, Chinese, Persian, and Arabic literature. During the socialist period, Russian classics and Soviet literature were translated under strict censorship.
Today, Mongols can travel, migrate, and publish leading figures in contemporary world literature. Japanese Murakami Haruki, Turkish Orhan Pamuk, and Chinese Yu Hua are all popular choices, and so are world classics like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, and Fyodor Dostoevski.
Consequently, Mongols have access to more literary options than before. Many names would have been unthinkable under socialism. But what has been gained in diversity is sometimes lost in the quality of translations, says Oyunzul Ariunbold, a 24-year-old translator and literary activist who ran a book club for several years in Ulaanbaatar.
Before 1990, the state commissioned translations. That meant that the books had high standards: there was meticulous editing and proofreading. Today, some people say that the quality of books has gone down, and that translated works can be unreadable, blaming young translators. There is some truth in this criticism, but it's getting better. And I & # 039; m just grateful that a reading culture is growing amongst young people, so that for example, my niece can read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Mongolian.
Before 1990, the State commissioned translations. That meant that the books had high quality: there was meticulous editing and correction. Today, some say that the quality of books has dropped, and that translated works may be unreadable, and they blame young translators. There is some truth to this review, but it is improving. And I am grateful that the culture of reading is growing among young people, so that for example, my niece can read “Kill a Mockingbird” in Mongolian.
Ariunbold argues that Mongolian independent publishers seek true diversity:
A lot of emphasis is given to modern classics. Basically, we are just catching up with modern literature. One publishing house, for example, publishes only one author per country per year, to avoid ending up offering only white male authors from Europe
It is emphasized in modern classics. Basically, we are catching up with modern literature. A publisher, for example, publishes only one author per country per year, to avoid ending up offering only white male authors from Europe.
Paper is popular
Despite the high prices and the variety of other forms of entertainment now available with the internet, cable television, Mongols value paper books. The culture of reading in Mongolia seems to be deeply rooted, especially since self-published books are very popular, as Batsuuri explains:
In our culture, books are very respected, and during the Soviet period, the reading culture developed intensively. For a population of three million, our national bestselling record was 95,000 copies: a book by a Mongolian author who self-published. In 2019, our company published Yu Hua & # 039; s novel “To live” (活着) and we & # 039; ve already sold 12,000 copies.
In our culture, books are highly respected, and during the Soviet period, the culture of reading developed intensively. For a population of three million, our national sales record was 95,000 copies – a self-published book by a Mongolian author. In 2019, our company published Yu Hua's novel “Vivir” (活着) and we have already sold 12,000 copies.
Oyunzul Ariunbold expresses this impression:
Nobody expected “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” by Turkish author Sabahattin Ali, to become so popular, and yet it did. People are in need of emotional books, stories of vulnerability when society expects them to be tough and stoic. People are definitely using their phones and tablets to read, but we still have huge respect for paperbacks.
No one expected that the Turkish writer Sabahattin Ali's “Madonna in a Fur Coat” would become so popular, and yet it was. Emotional books, stories of vulnerability are needed when society expects them to be tough and stoic. People are definitely using their phones and tablets to read, but we still have great respect for pocket books.
Perhaps the biggest change in Mongolian reading culture in recent years has been the phenomenon of self-publishing. As the poet and journalist Yesunerdene Tumurbaatar explained to Global Voices:
If you have a bit of money, it & # 039; s easy to print your own book yourself. Usually people print a thousand, then either sell them directly to bookstores or at their own events.
We organize events where we read poetry and perform music. That & # 039; s how I sold two collections of my poems.
If you have some money, it is easy to print your own book. Normally people print a thousand, and then sell them directly to bookstores or in their own activities.
We organize activities where we read poetry and play music. This is how I sold two collections of my poems.
At least for now, it seems that the Mongols have a lot to think about in those harsh winters.