A traveler back from China reports that Herman Wouk's ''The Winds of War'' is a favorite with Chinese readers. And, of course, everybody feels obliged to ask: Why? Is this long novelistic account of World War II simply a palatable way for Chinese readers to bone up on Western history? Or does Wouk's respectful, patriotic treatment create a tone congenial to a people given to venerating rather than satirizing authority?
As the traveler, and others, struggle to explain the phenomenon, it only seems to become more inexplicable. Things get even worse when China-watchers try to explain the considerable readership for Saul Bellow, a more complex and definitely satirical writer. The only theory appears to be that, well, Bellow is a Nobel prize-winner, and - here we go again - the Chinese venerate authority.
Almost any explanation tantalizes the explainer, revealing how stereotyped one's analysis of (a) the Chinese and (b) the American author in question must become in order to make a fit.
It is a little easier to explain why Russian readers respond to Upton Sinclair and Jack London, novelists with socialist philosophies - though the enormous popularity of Tennessee Williams must undercut any generalities about Russian taste where American writing is concerned.
The most confident culture-theorist has to be a bit mystified why the French so take to the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - a taste that spills over into films, giving generations of actors employment as ''the new French Bogart.'' And what in the world can it mean to a Parisian reader to become immersed in the Yoknapatawpha County of William Faulkner - another French favorite?
There are match-ups that bring out the absolute worst in cultural generalizing. Few cases have produced more banal misreading than the Japanese taste for Edgar Allan Poe. The double absurdities that have been committed against both the Japanese and Poe exceed anything even that author's black fancy could imagine.
Translation is a kind of parody, the Harvard scholar of translation, Reuben Brower, has observed, meaning that intentionally or unintentionally there is a mockery in the process. It is always a bridge too far. Or, to use another metaphor (as Brower does), one is playing at a risky game of ''mirror on mirror.''
When we arrive at this point of humility, we are ready to acknowledge that even our own native best sellers baffle us, to say nothing of those adopted by other countries. The past is a kind of foreign country, and looking back 10 years to 1972, many of us must be left without an explanation to account for the number one best seller then - ''Jonathan Livingston Seagull.''
After a while, whether one is Chinese or American, does one read a best seller simply because it is a best seller - because everybody else has read it? But why does a best seller become popular in the first place? Very few answers satisfy.
W.H. Auden offered a fascinating clue when he suggested that every book gets translated even by a native reader, who, through the inevitable processes of interpretation, turns the book the author wrote into the book he or she wants to read.
We love the books that we half-shape to our needs, even while the authors are half-shaping us to their purposes.
The very intricacy of the act of book-loving is enough to drive you into oversimplification, arguing crankily that there's a casual, random explanation for the Chinese success of ''The Winds of War.'' Maybe the Wouk translators just got there first before, say, the Updike translators. Doubtless there's more to it than that, but we intend to tiptoe away from all tour guides who insist upon supplying neat bilingual explanations for such things.
It's much less of a strain to explain, for instance, why the Chinese love Charlie Chaplin. In that case, the problem would be to explain why not.