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  • Jan 14, 2018
    The Agent’s Battle, the Translator’s Cultivation: Notes on “Secrets of Chinese-to-English Translation: The Arts of Translation and Editing”
    by Chen Yu-Haw ∥ Translated by Canaan Morse

    First published on November 30, 2017 by Readmoo News


    Once more, the annual Taipei Rights Workshop convened in our capital city. Its introductory event, held at the Yueyue Bookstore, was a lecture and discussion on the translation and sale of Chinese works of literature abroad. Interestingly, both non-Chinese guest speakers (one from Germany, the other from America) discussed their passion for the poetic charm and beauty of Chinese literature in fluent, Beijing-accented Chinese.


    From Discovery to Cooperation: The Agent’s Art of the Deal

    “My Chinese is not…particularly good,” stated Lena Petzke, her words chosen with humility and care. Lena came from Germany to China with an undergraduate background in Chinese to get a Master’s degree at Renmin University; she is now an acquisitions editor for Penguin-Random House North Asia, in charge of English translations of Chinese titles.


    Having already published the translated works of literary heavyweights like Mo Yan, Bi Feiyu, and Ge Fei, Lena’s primary responsibility is acquisition and rights negotiation: “From title selection, to purchasing rights, to sourcing translation and editing…all the way to critical aspects of communication and manuscript editing.” Lena’s description of her work begins with the search for Chinese titles that might make waves on foreign markets, or that bear canonical literary merit. Yet in her view, the most difficult aspect of selling Chinese literature in translation may very well be achieving proper communication between author, publisher, editor, and translator.

    “[We consider] differences in sentence structure and meaning, along with whether or not to add explanatory text to the translation, and the accuracy of the style….” Simply translating a Chinese novel back to front, sentence-for-sentence will not necessarily make it saleable. The translator may create new orders from language the author wishes to preserve, the source publisher may not agree to small details on the contract, or any number of other situations may arise that require Lena to move repeatedly between author, translator, and editor as a negotiator, like the famed wandering advisors of the Warring States period, who traveled between many royal courts to explain, interpret, and persuade into cooperation.


    The Translator’s Challenge: Always the Poetry That Disappears

    According to Lena, the most ubiquitous problem one faces in the course of translation involves communicating the meaning of the source text in language intelligible to an English reader; style, plot, and logic must all be clear. The second speaker, Canaan Morse (translator, editor, and poet, and also English editor-in-chief of Books from Taiwan) also admits that the most basic yet most essential task of translation is exposing readers in the target language to the linguistic context of the original.

    Canaan notes that writing itself is an act of translation, as the author expresses non-lingual ideas and images on the page through writing. Therefore, a secondary transformation of those ideas through translation requires the translator to focus not on re-constructing information but on received context. “A good translation is a text with a shadow; a good translator stands next to and not in front of the author.” Thus the translator is a “servant of two masters,” standing between author and reader, doing her best to understand the needs and intentions of both.


    Meanwhile, “the translator has the final word on his own draft.” Canaan explains that “when I find an ambiguity in the draft, I check it against the source text, but I always allow the translator the last word.” His words exemplify his own professional ethics: maintain loyalty to the source text. Even when employing an artist’s creativity to the crafting of the translation, one does not try to overcome or pass the source text, but allows it to say what it has to say.

    Translation’s Final Objective: Expanding the Reader’s Imagination


    “Only through translation can we transmit global cultural and artistic knowledge across borders.” Canaan believes that by daring to step beyond a linguistic comfort zone, the literary translator assumes responsibility for cultural development and transmission. Lena expresses a similar passion for her own work, noting: “Crafting books that will expand Western readers’ understanding of Asia is truly a worthwhile endeavor.”


    During the discussion section, an audience member asks whether a translator’s experiences living in the homeland of the source language will affect his translation. Both speakers strongly confirmed that this was the case, with Canaan adding: “We’re currently translating the Taiwanese collection A Ga, and if the translator doesn’t understand Taiwanese culture, or can’t understand Hokkien, there’s no way you can bring that flavor out.”

    One of the most popular questions was: among the tens of thousands published every year, how does a particular book get translated, and become an influential presence in a foreign market? To this, Lena smiled mysteriously and replied: “When we see it, we know,” leaving the audience to ponder untold possibilities.


  • Jan 14, 2018
    Openbook: A New Force in Literary Reviewing
    by Hsien Jung-Chiu || Translated by Canaan Morse

    The hottest party on the chilly first weekend in December was the Year’s Best Book Award ceremony, organized and hosted by Openbook. Publishers of all generations gathered on and off-stage to celebrate the winners; some old lions of the industry admitted that the news of having won brought them to tears, while some young editors averred it would be a moment they would never forget.


    Though Openbook is still a very young digital literary review platform (officially started in February 2017), it has in a few short months attracted a sizeable following of diehard fans, and established significant credit in Taiwanese publishing circles.


    Openbook’s Editor-in-Chief, Chou Yue-Ying, once sat at the helm of one of the most influential literary reviewers in the country: The China Times newspaper’s Open Bookliterary review section. In 2016, when the newspaper’s governing body decided to redesign the section and cut its long-standing awards program, Chou’s deep commitment to her work motivated her to resign from the newspaper and strike out on her own. When asked why she felt comfortable leaving a safe position in mainstream media in order to start a money-hungry online project from nothing, Chou responded: “Many readers would justifiably wonder, can’t our society sustain a professional book reviewing platform? Engaging once more in the work of literary reviewing, with a new philosophy and on a different platform, seemed like an absolute necessity to me.”


    Obviously, “Openbook” and Open Book look like much the same thing, and the new project does on some levels carry on the spirit of its predecessor, yet it is also much more than just new wine in old bottles. Visitors to the Openbook homepage are greeted with a wide array of options. “OB Shorts,” for instance, stitch together short, clearly written reviews of seven to ten books within a single piece, allowing for a quick-hit style of reading that viewing numbers suggest makes them popular with busy urban readers. Another popular project is called “Monthly Partnered Reading,” and features input not only from authors and publishers, but also from housewives, rock stars, YouTube streamers and more, in a bid to draw out the full diversity of the reading experience. Even author interviews are crafted along unique lines; sometimes they’re held in the gym or in the kitchen, sometimes even with masks on. By changing the boundaries and sometimes poking fun of the format of the author interview, the author’s actual creative spirit finds new and different points of entry into listeners’ imagination.


    Most of these new ideas are the brainchildren of Openbook’s Creative Director, the author, publisher and bookstore owner Chen Hsia-Min, who is both passionate about reading and a constant source of creative energy. He and his crack team of writers, makers, and videographers have been bringing readers new surprises for months now. “Our goal is to make content that’s powerful, as well as energetic and vibrant. We want that kind of atmosphere to motivate imaginative reading.”


    Beneath this new and highly colorful surface is a vision that is closely attuned to trends in contemporary reading. Chou Yue-Ying states: “In fact, the core message we wish to transmit is that these books and author’s we’re putting out there are worth attending to in contemporary Taiwan.” Chen Hsia-Min emphasizes that “We’re not only looking to give off a youthful vigor; we also want to be closely connected to the times.”


    Openbook stands as an excellent example not only of how traditional print publishers have re-invented themselves and their work online as their industry gradually dies; it also shows how an online cultural media outlet can break its way out of a flood of disjoined information, grab the attention of readers, and bring positive energy into their world. Two weeks before the Best Book Awards were announced, they posted this status on Facebook: “We sincerely believe that the choices for this year’s Best Book Awards, taken from a booklist that came together slowly over many long months, will embody the love our world has for reading.”


    Truly, the people behind this new, promising project have themselves a tender and unspeakably deep love for reading, too.

  • Jan 14, 2018
    Shortcuts to the World
    Clare Chi

    I spent the first half of November 10th, the second day of the Frankfurt Book Fair, amid an energetic flurry of meetings, and hustled my way from the day’s work into the evening event: a meet-up for attendees of the 2017 Zev Birger Fellowship, held five months before. A ten-minute trek got me to Joe Pena’s, which was already full of faces now familiar to my eye – fellow editors from England, Turkey, Brazil, Italy, Holland, and Austria, whose individual arrivals each elicited a cheer from those already there. I looked at the packed bar, and remarked to a friend, a rights manager from Hanser: “I feel like I’m back in Jerusalem, but now everyone’s dressed nicer.” She laughed and nodded in agreement. One absentminded joke took me back to scenes of that summer.


    At 4:00 a.m. on June 9th, my plane touched down in Tel Aviv. I made my way through early morning darkness to the cab stand, and set off for Jerusalem. Arriving at the hotel an hour later, I found two other early birds: a rights manager from Suhrkamp and an editor from Ullstein. Early check-in was not an option, it turned out; and while the manager explained at length that we were perfectly welcome to wait in the lobby and use the wifi, we decided that a long walk in search of food might suit us better. So we set off towards the old city, and my Jerusalem experience officially began in those quiet morning hours.


    That evening’s welcome party featured introductions by all thirty-seven participating editors, rights managers, agents, and scouts, who came from over twenty countries. At one point, an editor from the Brazilian house Intrinseca mentioned offhandedly that his house published 50 Shades of Grey. The announcement set off a chain reaction, and we began to connect with and discover each other on the basis of our relationship to a single book.


    In those initial days, we toured the fortress of Masada, braving the intense summer heat as we learned how a Judaic community resisted the Romans down to the last man, woman, and child; we visited the Holocaust Museum, and were brought back to one of the bloodiest chapters in human history; were taken around Kinneret, Israel’s largest publisher and media giant Yediot on a tour of their historical development that brought us back in time to see the Israeli publishing world through the eyes of a local. In Mahane Yehuda Market, we stuffed ourselves on local food, gazed at the multicolored spices, and came away with gifts of all kinds. We sat in the Thai restaurant by the event locale, and discussed Hygge, Lagom, Sisu, and the recent fervor for the Scandinavian spirit, while an editor Garzanti (Italy) tried to find words in Italian that best represented the soul of Italian culture. By the seaside in Tel Aviv, we splashed in the water and talked about the difficulties of learning foreign languages. Every day of that short week, we found ourselves more and more excited to spend time with each other.


    While long rides and long waits are an inevitable part of touring with large groups, those mundane moments were actually opportunities for rich communication. The group dynamic stimulated everyone’s curiosity, and questions for our international colleagues were endless; everyone wanted to know about the others’ takes on best-selling literature, book fairs, audio books, e-books, fixed-price laws, reading habits, the troubles of being an agent, and even the weird habits of their bosses. My deepest impression came from a conversation I had with a fellow participant from the Indian publisher Kerala (who had also attended the 2005 Frankfurt Fellowship) at the awards ceremony for the Jerusalem Prize. I asked him what his most valuable takeaway from the fellowship experience had been, to which he instantly responded, “acquiring rights,” and described in moving detail the troubles and excitements inherent in the process.


    The magic of the publishing industry – and the greatest quality of its members – lies in the ability of a single book to bring thirty-seven strangers into animated conversation. The total absence of competitive relations meant we were free to share publishing plans and recommend books we thought suited the other’s market. A Turkish editor told me that Pretty Little Mistakes had done so well in Turkey that the author had written a second sequel exclusively for the Turkish market. She, the editor, was desperate to find an equivalent title for children, but had had no luck. I enthusiastically recommended to her the Icelandic title Your Very Own Nordic Mythology, published by Forlagid, as a perfect match for her, and gave her the publisher’s contact information. Book fairs brought us together, and books connected us to each other, forming bonds that run further and deeper than we know, and allowing us to spend a week like college students in a foreign land. This ineffable emotion is, to me, the deepest source of value there is.


    It seems the bond won’t be effaced by the passing of time, I thought, as we all took a group picture by the bar at Joe Pena’s. I walked up to the Turkish editor and asked her if she’d looked into the Icelandic title; when she told me that the contract was already being negotiated, I found that news of her success made me happier than selling one of my own books.


    The end of our party marked the halfway point of the Frankfurt Book Fair; the next time I saw them was Friday, as book fair attendees went out to celebrate the closing of the event. A colleague and I decided to stop into the Frankfurter Hof for a drink, and we had no sooner got in the door than another Jerusalem fellow, the editor-in-chief of the Serbian publisher Agora, met me at the door with a smile. We congratulated each other on having successfully come through another book fair, and talked about which fellowships we might be applying to next. Every ending, I thought to myself, is itself another beautiful beginning.


    They say that to learn another language is to see another world. After the Jerusalem Fellowship, I felt that to meet another person is to step directly into another nation’s publishing industry, and to establish a new channel of communication.