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  • May 23, 2017
    On Publishing San Mao
    by Iolanda Batallé

    What were my reasons for publishing Diarios del Sáhara (Stories from the Sahara) by San Mao? Two years later, as I look back on the event, the question itself seems strange because I don’t remember the decision being a conscious one. I had acted directly, as if motivated by intuition. A strong curiosity, shared by those who understand Taiwanese literature well, arose in me: how could one of Taiwan’s most popular authors still be unpublished in Europe? Curiosity has this in common with desire: if it is not satisfied, it will grow endlessly. Thus it grew in me, as I discovered that San Mao’s work did not exist in any of the languages I spoke, neither in Spanish, English, French, nor in Italian.

     

    Though I could read no more than a few pages translated into English, I soon found myself captivated by the intense and tragic life of Echo Chen (the name San Mao used in the West). I too had lived far from my native country at a young age. My life had also been interwoven with love stories that did not always end well. I too felt that living and writing were one and the same. I quickly perceived all these similarities between her life and mine, and my decision to become her editor quickly solidified into an unquestionable resolve. I no longer needed mere reasons to publish her, as the decision was not something I could re-examine or re-assess. It was something I would do, full stop; whatever the cost, I would be the person to restore life to San Mao. I wanted to publish her books then for the same reason I do now – to read them. The vast majority of the pages she wrote remained a mystery to me. I want to experience this part of her life as though I had lived alongside her during her days in the Sahara.

     

    Over the years, I have crossed paths with the people who loved her. In Madrid, I met the family of José Quero (her husband), including his sisters-in-law and nieces, with whom Echo had cohabitated and corresponded frequently. I met César, José’s brother, and could sense in his expression a bit of the peace and sweetness that Echo saw in her beloved’s eyes. I met her friend Nancy from the Canary Islands, who was at her side when José died. I travelled to Taipei to meet her sister, Mona, and her younger brother, Henry. They were both very kind to me. I also met the director of Crown Publishing, the son of the editor who offered Echo her first chance to be published. I recall Henry speaking to me of the young, rebellious Echo, of her difficulties at school, her happiness when telling stories, of her return to her homeland, and of her last years.

     

    The slow and meticulous process of translating and editing this precious book into Spanish and Catalan has confirmed a thousand times what I felt the first time someone (a young woman with blue hair) spoke to me of San Mao: it was an absolute necessity. And the project that became Diarios del Sáhara has truly been a pleasant labor. Yet the most wonderful part of the story has been finding San Mao, not only in her words, or in the people who knew and loved her, but also in the eyes of a twenty-year-old young woman, a student of Spanish who read San Mao in Chinese. Her gratitude and joy moved me deeply. This young lady, a traveler just like Echo, was Echo’s new incarnation. There are hundres, thousands, hundres of thousands of San Maos roaming the world. I discovered the immense capacity of San Mao’s work to stand the tests of time, just like the works of Kerouac, Bowles, or Conrad, Dickenson or McCullers, authors one wants to discover when one begins to live.

     

    What was my motive for publishing San Mao? Only one, which is the sum of everything: life.

  • Apr 06, 2017
    A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop (II)
    By Anne Meadows

    What then of us, the eight fellows who had come so far to talk about the challenges we face in our own countries? Dave Haysom, a translator from Chinese into English and editor of the Chinese literary magazine, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, and Gloria Masdeau, a Spanish-born editor and rights seller at the Beijing publishing house Shanghai 99, talked about the difficulties of getting Chinese-language works published in the West. The English-language editors – myself, Janie Yoon from Anansi in Canada and Johanna Castillo from Atria in the US – spoke of readers’ reluctance to encounter translations; whether this might now be changing; and how we as publishers seek to overcome it. My company, Portobello Books, has had great success in the past years with a number of translated titles, most notably Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which has sold more than 150,000 copies in the UK alone. There have been big successes too for other UK publishers, with “Ferrante Fever” and “Knausgaard Mania” improving the visibility of literary fiction in translation. A widely quoted study commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize found that literary fiction in translation is actually on average outselling literary fiction publishing in English. Michel Van de Waart, an editor at De Arbeiderspers in Holland, spoke of a growing insularity in the Dutch market, which is nonetheless much more open to translation (14%) than either the UK or the US (3%). In Thailand, where Sirithada Kongpha founded her publishing house, Legend Books, the market for literary fiction is very small, and there is little or no support from the Thai government. Bookstores are closing, as they are worldwide, and magazines are generally only. The South Korean market fares a little better, with 21% of titles translated (43% of which are from Japan; 23% from the US; 8% from the UK). But according to Jungha Song from Sigongsa, a law fixing book discounts at a maximum of 10% of their recommended retail price in perpetuity is driving readers to second hand bookstores and hampering publishers’ profits.  Finally, New York-based scout Bettina Schrewe spoke of helping publishers around the world discover and acquire the best new American writers, a job which sounded both exhilarating and exhausting.


    A well-run fellowship is an exchange of expertise between multiple cultures, so after we had finished talking for two days about our own books, careers, and cultures, we sat down to listen. In Encounter, a bookstore-cum-cafe in the Zhongshan District, we heard short pitches from Taiwanese translators, rights sellers, book reviewers, and critics. It was literary speed dating, with a bell rung every five minutes pushing us on to the next table and the next proposition. Taiwanese literature is as diverse and varied as that of any other country, but among the books I heard about there were a number of notable confluences: a return to questions of the environment and its protection; an unusually high number of novels set in coffee shops; short story collections sell (they struggle in the UK); and illustrated books are thriving. 


    I returned to England after two weeks in Taiwan to find things much as I had left them: dark and cold, Trump-ridden. The London underground was chaotic and aggressive, whereas Taipei’s metro had been smooth, efficient, and polite. Nothing tasted as good in those weeks as gua bao had, and I missed both the other fellows and my hosts. In idle moments I found myself searching for Taipei on Instagram and dreaming of going back to open a coffee shop of my own. As a publisher abroad, your hope is to discover something remarkable you can bring home. In Taipei, I had heard about one novel over and over again – Wang Ting-Kuo’s My Enemy’s Cherry Tree – first from the Chinese translator of Alice Munro, and later from journalists, students, and our hosts. Back in London, homesick for somewhere that is not my home, I sent this novel to two readers whose taste I trust.  


    I brought a number of things back with me from Taiwan: a green stone found on a beach in Hualien; hand-forged Chinese characters from a foundry in the ramshackle district of Datong; a lifelong love of gua bao; and new friendships forged with the other fellows and with my hosts. Of these, Wang Ting-Kuo’s novel is the only thing I can share with you. We’ll be publishing the English translation in 2018. Meanwhile, if you have the chance, go. 
     

    A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop  (I)

  • Apr 06, 2017
    A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop (I)
    By Anne Meadows

    I arrived in Taiwan late on a Sunday afternoon in November. Outside the air-conditioned halls of Taoyuan International Airport, the weather was humid. In London it had been raining on and off for weeks. I had been travelling for sixteen hours and back home it was still early morning. As the taxi sped from the airport along the freeway towards the hotel where I and the other fellows of the Taipei Rights Workshop would be staying for the week, the city grew in density around me until at last the world’s second tallest building, Taipei 101, came into view, framed by the mountains. Knowing very little about Taipei, I had anticipated tall glass skyscrapers, buildings jutting against one another. I had thought it would feel like a city from the future: uniform, glassy, unwelcoming. What I saw from the taxi cab window was far more familiar: a jumble of architectural styles, bulky steel and glass buildings rubbing shoulders with older blocks, wide plazas bordered by a rare glimpse of a Japanese factory or Confucian temple; a colour palette with more earthy tones than silvers. All the while in the background was the presence of the mountains. Taipei felt cradled. By the time the taxi arrived at our hotel, I was in love.


    The Taipei Rights Workshop has been bringing together publishing professionals from around the world with Taiwanese editors, translators, and rights sellers since 2013. In the 2016 cohort, we were eight – six editors, a translator and a scout – from three different continents; seven different countries; and six different time zones. All of those present were facing challenges in their markets – diminishing review space, bookshops and readers that are shy of translations, the proliferation of other endless forms of entertainment. Publishing, it is often said, is in a state of crisis, but here we were, eight people who had travelled a great distance in the hope of making new connections and bringing home a piece of Taiwanese literature. The fellowship itself, founded and run by the indefatigable agent Gray Tan and his colleagues at the Grayhawk agency, is an example of this same optimistic spirit and a resolve to make literature travel.  


    Over the next five days, Gray and our hosts Grace Chang, Jade Fu and Emily Chuang acquainted us with the history and culture of Taiwan. At the National Palace Museum we saw ceramics so delicate they were almost transparent and ornate sculptures hewn from a single piece of jade. Standing in front of a case which holds a 30th century BC representation of our universe – sun and planets orbiting around a disc of jade – I felt overwhelmed by a culture and craftsmanship that extends back in time so much further than my own.


    Taiwan’s modern history is as complex and multi-layered as its ancient treasures. After the Museum we ate at The Grand Hotel in Zhongshan District, one of the world's tallest buildings in a Chinese classical style. It was constructed on the orders of President Chiang Kai-shek after his flight from mainland China in 1949. The hotel was built over the remains of the Taiwan Grand Shrine, a beautiful Shinto complex from the early days of  Japanese occupation. The Grand Hotel embodies Taiwan’s twentieth century: Japanese colony until 1945, Republic of China and the West’s ally during Mao’s rule, and now; a country in limbo, a modern democracy with a thriving economy which is nonetheless unrecognized by the United Nations and which is regarded by China as an errant son. What then to make of Taiwanese literature, which shares a language its Chinese counterpart but remains distinct from it? Indeed Taiwan, because it is a democracy, does not suffer from the censorship imposed on Chinese editors and authors. If you are a radical Chinese writer, your work is more likely to find a home in Taiwan. If you are a bookseller or publisher, it is in Taiwan that you can exercise independence. If you are a foreign editor looking to translate Chinese authors, you would do well to turn to Taiwan first.


    The bookstores we visited in Taipei were bustling. At Eslite’s multi-level flagship store (a chain similar to Waterstones or Barnes & Noble) we wandered through room after room filled with books, many of them translations. Western big hitters dominate in Taiwan as they dominate across the world. The Girl on the Train has sold 100,000 copies(Taiwan’s population is only twenty-four million). Around 40% of the books published here are translated. Of these, 55% come from Japanese and 30% from English, mostly from the United States. Compare this to Britain and America, where a mere 3% of titles are translations. At Crown Culture, publishers of the magnificent writer Eileen Chang, we were told that fiction sales are at an all time low, and sales in general are being driven by film tie-ins. As with most of the Western world, print sales of newspapers in Taiwan are in severe decline, and review culture is vanishing. Book recommendations come from celebrities or social media, and the books that sell best are often film tie-ins, or self-help. Most books will have only a single edition, rather than a hardback followed by a paperback. At Readmoo, an innovative, multi-platform e-book publisher and app developer, they are experimenting with “gamification.” Readers who purchase an ebook are invited to enter competitions and are rewarded with points they can then use against future purchases. The app connects to your social media. It’s Amazon meets Instagram meets Nintendo, and it’s working: their number of readers is increasing month by month. Publishers in the West would do well to pay attention.
     

    A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop  (II)

  • Jan 05, 2017
    Far Afield: The Fantastic Journeys of Chinese Books in Translation (II)
    By Chen Yu-Hao. Translated by Eleanor Goodman.

    First published on October 12, 2016 by Readmoo News

    https://news.readmoo.com/2016/10/12/161012-books-from-taiwan/

     

    3. Is Taiwan’s uniqueness a major selling point?

     

    Literature that deals primarily with Taiwanese culture frequently faces hurdles in foreign markets. Tan offers an example: a book about Taiwanese tea will be unique, but many foreign readers will have no use for it. They don’t know anything about Taiwan, nor do they know anything about the culture surrounding tea. A strategy for this kind of book is to translate it into English and sell it in Taiwan primarily to tourists already interested in the island and who want to bring a piece of Taiwanese culture back with them. Grace Chang suggests that one can go a step further and combine such projects with sightseeing tours, and offer accounts of scenic sites in different languages. If there are overseas orders, it can be sold directly abroad and avoid other licensing issues.

     

    4. Popular Taiwanese authors should be easy to sell abroad, right?

     

    Being known as a “famous Taiwanese blogger” or “one of Taiwan’s most controversial  writers” does not necessarily carry over to the international market. As soon as you enter the global arena, where you can’t rely on reputation, book sales are dependent again upon the quality of the work.

     

    For that reason, the essential thing is the contents of a book. What kind of book has a chance to make it out of Taiwan, to be translated, published and sell well in other countries? Literary agents are constantly on the lookout for the right books to introduce to a foreign audience books. The fact that Taiwan’s bookstores are being overtaken by large numbers of translated books can be a problem for local writers, yet it is also a chance to examine bestsellers from different countries, and figure out what the most popular kinds of books are right now, to ferret out where an opportunity may lie.

     

    Gray Tan believes that there is no shortcut: “It comes from looking at and reading a lot of books.” The more books you read, the better you are able to grasp potential trends.

     

    Literary categories in Taiwan and abroad do not always align. Some, like the essay or newspaper column collection, are not as familiar to foreign readers as they are to Taiwanese.  Young adult novels face strong competition from U.S. authors, so it just might be that picture books, with little or text, can better overcome cultural differences and different reading preferences, and have a better chance to be published abroad.

     

    IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE

    Grace Chang thinks that the success of a Chinese-language book entering a foreign market depends primarily on the people involved, from the translator to the agent to the editor. Time and effort must be invested by many in order to make it all work. Opportunities won’t just come knocking; connections have to be made. This is why book fairs play a crucial role in the introduction of  domestic titles to the global market.

     

    “Think about it, if you’re trying to buy an apartment, do you want to just see photos of it, or do you want a real estate agent to show you the place and tell you about it personally?” Chang asks with a laugh. You have to be there at the book fairs, because you never know whether a foreign editor might pass by your booth and “discover” a book.

     

    It’s also a good idea to attend fellowship programs, where you can talk to editors, scouts, and agents from other countries, and build up your international network. Very often, a single book sale is predicated on years of friendship and meetings at book fairs. Your relationship is just as important as the content of the book.

     

    The Ministry of Culture of Taiwan has been sponsoring the Taipei Rights Workshop (TRW) since 2013. It’s a program that combines the traditional fellowship model with a series of presentations from publishing experts from around the world. There’s also the Books from Taiwan program, which was initiated in 2014 and works to introduce Taiwanese books to foreign publishers. Gray Tan and Grace Chang continue to be essential players in the greater project of introducing Chinese-language books to a larger market, desirous of showing off this island’s creativity to the rest of the world.

     

  • Jan 05, 2017
    Far Afield: The Fantastic Journeys of Chinese Books in Translation (I)
    By Chen Yu-Hao. Translated by Eleanor Goodman.

    First published on October 12, 2016 by Readmoo News

    https://news.readmoo.com/2016/10/12/161012-books-from-taiwan/

     

    The night air was cool, and under a thin drizzle in the Songshan Cultural Park, the log-cabin-style Yue Yue Bookstore was lit with a warm glow. Gray Tan, founder of the Grayhawk Agency, and Grace Chang, rights director for Books from Taiwan sat together on a brown leather couch. The two were holding a talk titled “Far Afield: The Fantastic Journeys of Chinese Books in Translation,” in which they called upon years of experience in the rights business in order to impart secrets of selling Chinese titles in other countries.

           

    Typhon Megi had postponed the talk for a week, but the two still drew a full house, including editors, translators as well as writers. With Chinese books gradually receiving greater notice abroad, more people have become interested in the topic. Speaking as a pioneer in representing Chinese-language authors in international markets, Gray Tan disabused the audience of four common misconceptions.

     

     

    1. Does translation just mean English translation?

     

    We tend to think that when we talk about the translation of Chinese books, we mean translating into English, assuming the enormous English-language market to be the main goal for Chinese authors. Although it can’t be denied that English is the world’s most influential language, the English-language market is the hardest to break into. Gray Tan, with seven years’ experience selling Chinese books abroad, tells us that only 3% of the books published in America are translations – an astonishingly low number.

     

    “Taking modern and contemporary Chinese literature together, the number of books published in the United States in any given year can probably be counted on one hand.” Tan said. It would be much more effective to prepare English-language materials (or “rights lists”) so all international editors can read about books in which they might be interested.  Such introductory materials should include plot summary, author bio, sales and review excerpts, and above all, a sample translation by a native English-language translator.

     

    These synopses are like a book’s ID, serving as an introduction and an advertisement. How many copies have been sold in Taiwan? Has it been made into a movie? Any positives that will help sell the rights should be listed, creating a strong case for the book.

     

    It is also very important to use comparison titles (“comps” for short) as reference. For instance, The Man from Riversouth, the novel that has been adapted into China’s biggest TV series, Nirvana in Fire, can be described as China’s answer to The Count of Monte Cristo and Game of Thrones.

     

    This will give a foreign editor an immediate, general idea of what the book and author are like. Although it won’t be completely the same kind of work, this is still an efficient method for promoting a book.

     

    2. Is the friendly relationship between Taiwan and Japan conducive to selling Taiwanese books in Japan?

     

    When you go into a Taiwanese bookstore, the shelves are packed with translated works, and aside from the large quantities of literature from the U.S. and the U.K., many come from Japan. From the literary giant Haruki Murakami to manga and “light novels”, Japanese literature in translation is extremely popular in Taiwan. Does the closeness of the two cultures and peoples help the sale of Chinese books in Japan?

     

    Gray Tan once again threw a wrench into the conversation, noting that the Japanese market is quite closed, and both the quality and quantity of their own books are high, which doesn’t allow for much translated work. Readers there are not accustomed to reading works in translation, and that extends to more than just Chinese-language books. Even global bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games have sold poorly in Japan. An international bestseller could be licensed in thirty foreign languages, except for Japanese. Tan proposed instead that we can turn our attention toward Korea, where interest in Chinese culture is high and there are many Chinese language learners. It’s a market that should not be ignored.

  • Dec 26, 2016
    All the Clichés Apply (II)
    by Neil Gudovitz, Founder/President at Gudovitz & Company Literary Agency

    Most American readers have likely NEVER read a single work of nonfiction from a non-English-language author, not including the Greek philosophy he or she might have pretended to read in school.  And except for possibly a Nordic thriller here or there, the same is true for fiction. 

     

    In light of these realties, Americans can be forgiven for believing that we have all the best ideas in the world, and that everybody wants to be like us.    Many of us simply don’t know any better, and American publishers haven’t frankly felt the need to bring authors and ideas from international markets.   As such, they don’t have the structure, the processes, the expectations or the desire to consider publishing a translated work. I work with many editors at non-English language publishing houses around the world, and if these editors don’t review English-language text themselves, they always have “readers: who do.  It’s a necessity, plain and simple.  Not so in the US, though strangely I’ve heard that several have lately found Japanese-language enabled readers.

     

    Editors in the US and UK will not agree to publish something they cannot read.  Since they have NO patience for imperfect translations, they will in every instance conclude that the work necessary to prepare the text is too expensive and too time-consuming.    The simple fact is this: most editors answer to their bosses.  The idea that somehow a process can be funded and adopted to ‘perfect’ a translation, one which would require bringing on a translator to review the translation delivered from overseas is not a feasible one.   There are too many English manuscripts submitted daily for a publisher to add one or two new steps to the process in order to publish a translation.    

     

    Remember those leopards and their spots?   That’s American publishers – they are what they are.

     

    And here’s more bad news:  American publishers will not pay for the translations of authors who they have not published before.



    “Wait a minute,” you publishers must be saying now, “That’s not fair. We do that all the time.”  Yes you do, and thank you for that.  But as we’ve already agreed, life is not fair.  

     

    Another obvious obstacle is the unavailability of a given author to do local, long-term promotion.  My favorite cliché is that of the chicken and egg, but here the yolk is on us: a publisher will never bring an author over until his or her book is a success, but that success is almost impossible without the kind of ‘in-market’ presence, in print media, TV and radio that get the book and author known.   There is no replacement for this. 

     

    In the case of Marie Kondo, Sunmark, Penguin Random House (PRH) in the US and UK made extraordinary commitments in terms of staff and money to make interviews with the author possible.  They paid for interpreters, they dedicated staff to the (seriously) 24/7 job of promoting the book and the author.  And Sunmark and PRH combined to fund an extended, no-holds barred author tour, several of them in fact, in both London and NYC, LA , SF and Boston.    It all started with the Cathy Hirano translation, but take out one of the pieces above and you very likely would have had a book which was a solid performer, perhaps 50,000 sold.

     

    But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My message to publishers in Asia is this:  you must prepare a native-language translation of an entire book. You can start with (3) chapters if you absolutely must, but you need to commit from the beginning to fund and prepare the entire translation.   Those (3) chapters could – maybe – be enough to keep the publishers interested, but if you want a book to get the chance it deserves, you need to accept that you must prepare a native-language translation of the entire text.      

     

    I should note that you (or your agent) may get super lucky and find a publisher in the US or UK who agrees to publish a book based on a sample translation. But if you rely on that possibility, you are limiting your field of possible publishers by about 98%?     Go bold or go home.

     

    You may know of a book that was published in English that didn’t have a full translation, but do you also have stories about the hundreds of thousands of great books that never get published in English because the original publishers didn’t commit to funding a high-quality translation?

     

    I’m going to tell you a secret.   Marie Kondo’s first book was licensed into 42 languages.   38 of them were outside of Asia.   All of those publishers had full access to the original text in Japanese, as well as the English-language translation.    All but one of those 38 publishers chose to translate from English. The exception was Italy, where there is a cultural tradition of publishing books from Japanese. But if you as an Asian publisher still think that you can have the kind of success with a book you want to have if the text is NOT translated into English, ask yourself why all those publishers around the world chose to translate from English.   Then ask yourself if the money Sunmark spent to fund a quality translation hasn’t been the corporate investment of a lifetime.

    I’ve written a lot about the past, but let me bring us back to the present. I'm working with the amazing Gray Tan and Jade Fu at The Grayhawk Agency, and together we’ve had Taiwanese illustrator Amily Shen (“Wonderland”) published in the US, also by Penguin Random House.

     

    We are also working together on the terrifically exciting Cats of the Floating World and a unique book that Grayhawk represents from the PRC, titled Room to Breathe. The literary agency world is a small one, with various strong personalities, some sweet, some sour, a few bland and many spicy. But one thing I know we all agree on is that Gray Tan understands this business. He’s among the elite agents in the world, and I don’t think there’s a more respected nor innovative agent working today. The publishers he works with also get it, or at least they do after Gray has counseled them. There are no shortcuts, no relying on “lucky breaks.”  A book can be a masterpiece, but if 99% of the publishers outside the Chinese-speaking world can’t read it (or only read it in a stilted translation), what’s the point?  

     

    Lately I’ve been having great international success with other exciting Sunmark titles out of Japan, and the Korean superagent Danny Hong (who also gets it) and I have sold several Korean authors into English-speaking markets.  In cooperation with Kenny Okuyama at the Japan UNI Agency, a Japanese book, originally published in Japan by Wani Books, titled now in English “Goodbye, Things” will publish in Spring 2017 from W.W. Norton in the US, and across the world in the next year.  And guess what?  Wani delivered a full, terrific translation too. 

     

    But turning back to Taiwan, I want to leave you with some good news. Your market is unique, and uniquely positioned to introduce books to the world books that people want to read.   You’re the “newest” nation in a part of the world dominated by ancient cultures, and as such you have a vibrancy and an optimism that I don’t think anybody else in Asia can match.  You have a rich cultural pedigree but aren’t weighed down by the past; and let’s face it, the realities of geography and economics being what they are, you have to work harder and smarter to survive and thrive.   The oppression and suppression of free expression which dominates your neighbor to the West, and the cultural and political conservatism which results, are not elements which weigh you down. Everybody loves an underdog (oh sorry, cliché alert…) and Taiwan is that. In illustrated works as well as non-fiction and fiction, there’s a palpable energy and ‘crackle’ emanating from Taiwan these days, and if your markets’ publishers want to be known as the ‘next Sunmark’ and share the best of what’s publishing in Taiwan with the rest of the world, they’ll capture those qualities in translations that express the original text in its finest essence. 

  • Dec 26, 2016
    All the Clichés Apply (I)
    by Neil Gudovitz, Founder/President at Gudovitz & Company Literary Agency

    All the clichés apply.   Go bold or go home.    You have to spend money to make money.  A leopard can’t change his spots.   And likely 1001 more but I’ll stop there, sparing you the suffering.  Clichés are like dental x-rays or family vacation photos, best kept to oneself.

     

    I've worked for over 20 years to license English-language books for translation into other language-markets.  During that time I’ve licensed books into more languages than I can remember, including Klingon…almost . (That was for a computer science book in the 1990’s and there’s a lot about that era we’d all like to forget.   The deal never went through because the ‘licensing publisher’ insisted on a bilingual contract. I wish I were joking…)   During my career, I’ve had a few opportunities to work on books written in languages other than English, but it was not until 2013 that I came upon a work that seemed to have the credentials to become a worldwide bestseller. I was having dinner in New York City with friends from the Japanese publisher Sunmark. Wanting to get them out of Manhattan and the tourist belt, I packed us all on the subway and took us to an Uzbeki restaurant in Queens.  We ate whatever the waitstaff put in front of us (most of it was on a stick) and drank Uzbeki beer, which comes in 3 varieties:  weak, medium and strong.  As I had to find our way back into Manhattan, I opted for the ‘weak’ beer but Sunmark was more courageous.   Even weak Uzbeki beer has a way to make its impact felt and after a while, as we discussed the books Sunmark was publishing, it struck me that a book they had recently published about tidying your house not only could be attractive to an American publisher, but it simply HAD to be the next big thing.  To my knowledge there had never been an Asian practical self-help book that sold very well in the USA, but this book seemed to so much going for it.  The assets of the book, combined with the perhaps unnaturally relaxed environment as we drank on, left me absolutely certain that Marie Kondo could be a bestseller.   Sunmark agreed, or at least I remember them agreeing, and we all got pretty excited about what was to come.  Unfortunately it was some special Uzbeki dessert glue-like substance so our celebration was interrupted, and then I proceeded thereafter to take us on the wrong direction on the subway.   At that point I’d only lived in NYC for 21 years so it was of course understandable.  

     

    Eventually our course was righted and another course took hold, one which eventually led to over 7 million copies of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up being sold worldwide, with more than 5 million of those coming in languages other than Japanese.   Everything about that book was a perfect storm, from the contents to the author herself to the emerging notion that people (particularly) simply have too much stuff and too little idea of what to do about it.   The book takes what is commonly regarded as a rather unpleasant task and makes it not only fun, but life-changing. But when asked, as I have been many times, to identify the ONE key to the book’s success outside of Japan, the element without which none of it could have happened, I always point to the simply flawless translation of the Japanese-language text submitted by Cathy Hirano, a translator born and raised in Canada who studied and now lives in Japan.   What you read in the American or British edition is 98% identical to the copy Sunmark delivered to my inbox some months after that drunken dinner.  

     

    I don’t frankly recall if they told me they were going to deliver a full English translation, or if I first said that it would be necessary to do so, but it was something we agreed upon without discussion. At that point, Sunmark had enjoyed excellent success in the American market with several other titles in translation, and they well understood what it took to reach that goal.  They didn’t doubt the quality of their work and they wanted the translations to reflect that quality to the greatest extent possible.    

     

    And this is one of the key points I wish to communicate in this piece: good enough is NOT good enough.  A skilled, University-trained translator, one who perhaps lived or studied for a time in the US or the UK is NOT enough. For a foreign-language book to be published in the US and/or the UK, the requirement is, without exception, is that the translation be prepared by a translator who was raised and educated in an English-speaking country. There is no substitute for this. I know what you’re thinking, “But isn’t something better than nothing”? Why can’t a translation be done by a highly-skilled local translator who has translated English into Chinese?” 

     

    Because it can’t. I’ve seen hundreds of bad translations and almost all of them have one dominant characteristic: the translator was translating away from his or her mother tongue.   There are also bad ones from native-language translations, but each one NOT from a native-language translator has been bad.

     

    A skilled native-language translator understands his or her language in ways that other translators cannot, and has a better sense of nuance, slang, and facile use of language that mark the best translations, the books that people clamor to read. 

     

    Remember that awful cliché that “you have to spend money to make money”?   That’s the idea here.   But why must this be the case? Because -- cliché alert – it turns out that life isn’t fair.    Hundreds of thousands of books published first in English are published in other languages around the world every year, by publishers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.    So this exchange of ideas and information is a two-way stream, right?   Not exactly.   Fewer than 1% of fiction works published in the US every year are from foreign-language authors (classics of literature excepted), and less than 1/10th of 1% of trade nonfiction works published each year come from foreign languages. Recent political events have confirmed what I'm afraid many of us already knew:  the American public is a bit too xenophobic for comfort.  But we shouldn’t think this is a new phenomenon, it simply has a new champion.  One result is that for too many Americans the rest of the world is something to be avoided, to be feared, and from which we must be protected.  “America First” is not just a political rallying cry, for many it’s become a preferred way of life.

  • Jun 30, 2016
    How Japanese Readers Engage with Dystopian Reality: Translating Egoyan Zheng’s Ground Zero
    by Kuramoto Tomoaki. English translation by Canaan Morse.

    To what extent can a fictional novel change reality? The question engages the concept of the novel on its most fundamental level of significance. Egoyan Zheng’s Ground Zero provides an answer to that question based on the complex relationship between “reality” and “fiction.” After the March 11th earthquakes visited Japan with the “reality” of nuclear crisis, many authors gravitated toward dystopian settings of terror and despair. By contrast, the anti-nuclear Ground Zero employs a “realism” in its description of space and human events that attempts to change “reality” through “fiction,” and to break through the established models of dystopian narrative.

     

    Maintaining support for anti-proliferation policy and working with readers to change our current “ground zero” is Zheng’s ongoing and uncharted project. The novel describes a futuristic Taiwanese society in which nuclear crisis has already changed daily life irrevocably, and yet established structures of power remain in effect. While the narrative may resemble dystopian science fiction, it narrates our past as much as our future. As a member of that greater “our,” I know that once nuclear non-proliferation laws acquire global legitimacy, international readers will be able to engage fully with this reading space.

     

    An author who can bridge the divide between “reality” and “fantasy” through metafictional narrative tactics can help readers change a society in love with nuclear power (the events and spaces of this novel mirror those of contemporary Taiwan almost exactly). This sort of narrative strategy will continue to call readers to its space and to its cause. I’m confident that the most suitable readers for this unfinished narrative project are “the sons of the atomic bomb” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

     

    I also believe that my responsibility as a translator is to introduce as well as participate in this project. The concrete process of translation revealed several differences in “reality” between Japan and Zheng’s Taiwan. Perhaps Japanese readers will be able to continually engage with the novel’s plot, and thereby engage with this project of reception and creation.

     

    In Ground Zero, Egoyan frequently notes the deeply flawed construction of the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant. The wreckage left by that plant symbolized not only the shadow of Taiwanese martial law, but also the rise of Japanese and American imperialism. After martial law ended, the Taiwan Power Company ignored widespread civilian protest marches, as well as strong opposition from the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union and the Oversight and De-Proliferation Association, and proceeded with construction at Lungmen. In the end, General Electric won the rights to construct the plant, while Toshiba and Hitachi designed the reactors. Both of the Lungmen plant’s reactors were designed and built by Japanese state-owned enterprises, and constituted a rare success in the nation’s new mandate to “develop nuclear power solely for peaceful purposes.” The deeply flawed Lungmen plant was, therefore, the mutant offspring of a hegemon that dictated other nation’s nuclear policy (America) and a country that had once felt the effects of nuclear development before transforming into a nuclear provider itself (Japan).

     

    Japanese readers will not fail to sense that the exposure of government power structures following the nuclear crisis in Ground Zero invokes comparisons to Japan after the March 11th disasters; Egoyan’s satirical portrayal of the government that carries on with old nuclear policy after a disaster like nothing has happened obviously bears directly on Japan’s case. Hochen Duanfang, chairman of the previous Executive Yuan’s Nuclear Safety Committee, leads a team of commandos to the disaster site knowing full well that radioactive wastewater has made it into drinking water reservoirs. Yet he fakes a sudden discovery, ensuring his mission is a success, and he rides the subsequent wave of national fame into a candidacy for president of the ruling party. Similarly, the Japanese government claimed that its crises had been “totally unpredictable,” and protected executives in the Tokyo Power Company from legal liability, all while strongly pushing the commercial benefits of nuclear power. Perhaps the nuclear policies implemented by Japan then were even more damaging than those described in Egoyan’s novel. The fifteen “commandos” who ventured into the disaster site will also stir memories among Japanese readers of the “Fukushima Fifty,” the employees who remained at the Fukushima disaster site who supposedly volunteered to remain in the disaster area and contain radiation. As the number of victims rose to thirty thousand, most of those who were working in radioactive areas turned out to be temporary employees, not “heroes” from the Tokyo Power Company. Takahashi Tetsuya, a professor of philosophy at Tokyo University who researched how the Fukushima Fifty became so-called “great martyrs of the Japanese nation,” pointed out that Japanese nuclear policy was a predatory institution that required the sacrifice of others in order to operate. It was only after the truth could no longer be hidden that the government began trumpeting the “great martyrdom” of the Fukushima Fifty through mainstream media, in order to keep themselves and the Tokyo Power Company from assuming responsibility. On some level, Egoyan’s “commandos” present the post-crisis Japanese government in cameo, thereby effecting a bitter satire of an institution ripe with contradiction.

     

    The Japanese version of Ground Zero is forthcoming this March from Hakusuisya Press. As the translator, I hope Japanese readers find in it an entry point through which to engage with with Egoyan’s unfinished project to influence reality through fiction, and end Japan’s fateful marriage with nuclear power.