• Jun 29, 2015
    Tools for Editing Translations
    by Canaan Morse. Translator.

    One of the several reasons many American publishers don’t like working with translations is because their editors don’t know how to edit them. With multilingual editors still a significant minority in the industry, it still appears to be common practice for the editor of a translation to position herself either too far from the text or too close—to leave too much of the editing to the translator, possibly out of respect for the foreign source text, or to edit the translation as if it were written in English, without regard for its non-English origin.

    I’d like to offer here three analytical tools in the form of questions for the editor of a translated text. These questions are, of course, founded on certain assumptions about the nature of literary meaning-making. The first is that all appraisals of quality are contextual: the editor decides what ‘works’ by comparing the text to itself and to other texts from his experience. The fact that the translation is related to another text that exists in a foreign linguistic environment makes the editor’s job harder, but not impossible. This leads into the second assumption, which is that the old saw about translation being impossible is at the most untrue, or at the least unimportant. After Derrida argued with great force that all utterances are self-contradictory, literary artists continued to practice their craft. Moreover, as our understanding of translation broadens, we begin to find elements of it embedded in seemingly more ‘original’ practices of creative writing and reading. As outdated understandings of the process are overturned, so too is the conception of the product as an inferior version of an ‘original’ text; we begin to see it as something more than a monolingual work of literature.

    Question 1: Is it justifiable?

    Good translators often represent phenomena from the source text that are considered inseparable from the source language (puns, cadences, assonances and rhyme schemes) by borrowing or creating analogous structures within the target language. Burton Watson imitated the perfect symmetry of five- and seven-character Tang poems (律詩) by regulating numbers of syllables per line. William Lyell translated peasant dialogue in his rendition of The Real Story of Ah Q (Lyell 1990) * into a blue-collar American dialect with a slightly Southern twang. In both cases, the translators’ inventions built new interpretive contexts in order to reproduce similar linguistic effects. Here is a more extreme example, excerpted from Brian Holton’s translation of Bai Hua’s poem ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’**:

    紅,是寂寞紅 red is Lady in Red
    春,是玉堂春 spring is Might as Well Be Spring
    秋,是漢宮秋 autumn is When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall
    魚,是黃花魚 fish is Like a Sturgeon Touched For The Very First Time

    味,是上海味 taste is the taste of Shanghai
    玲,是張愛玲 clang is Eileen Chang

    No literal translation of the classical drama types 《玉堂春》or 《漢宮秋》will replicate—or do anything but destroy—the ironic cadence of the original, which satirizes these hallowed names by associating them with single characters and seemingly trivial things like fish. Similarly, there is no translation of 玲 as a single character that will echo in Zhang Ailing’s (Eileen Chang’s) English name. The translator responds to extreme difficulty with extreme invention, employing playful satire in the construction of the first stanza, and a complex homophony (ling 玲 (delicate, ornate) – ling 鈴 (bell) –clang) in the last line. As Holton’s editor, I allowed these decisions because they were justifiable both within the English text (they established a recognizable interpretive context) and in comparison to the Chinese (they imitated crucial effects created by the source text).

    2. Does it ‘wobble’?

    I borrow this word from Ezra Pound, who suggested that good poetry would not ‘wobble’ when translated, but I use it quite differently. While divergence from a source text is not necessarily a problem (for reasons just discussed), bad translation often creates a kind of ambiguity that can be spotted immediately by an experienced editor. One such editor, reading my translation of He Qifang’s 何其芳 essay Autumn Begonia, left this comment by one sentence: ‘Interesting how I can tell where the translation veers off even before I look at the original.’ He was responding to a stylistic decision I had made in an action-heavy sentence which not only made that sentence stand out, but also created ambiguity where none existed. The text ‘wobbled’ in front of the reader. Good translation editors learn to spot wobbling text on their first read-through, and most of it can be fixed by working with the translator to find more fitting alternatives.

    3. Does it work?

    How much do you love the work you’re reading? Is the text awkward and unnatural—what we call ‘translationese’—or does it stay with you for days? There have been many cases in which bad translation has limited the artistic power of a work; there have also been cases in which a brilliant, inspired translator has created a text that is significantly different or better than the source. Ezra Pound’s translations of Li Bai 李白 in Cathay come immediately to mind, as do Robert Lowell’s translations of Sappho in Imitations. These are fairly far-out examples of translatorial license, but in any such instance, the editor will need to make an ethical decision about whether the translator’s additions have done more good than harm, as well as how she should understand the ownership of the text. If she believes that good art carries its own independent weight, and recognizes the translator as one creator of a hybrid text, then she should afford some leeway to the translator when it is justified (see Steven Bradbury’s translated version of Hsia Yü’s poetry collection Salsa for examples of co-creative translation).

    That being said, the question ‘does it work?’ does not have the kind of authority over the previous two questions when its subject is a translated text as it might when the text is monolingual. Since translations exist in a balance with their respective source texts, the editor must balance his appeals to his own aesthetic sense with consideration for what he doesn’t know, which can be done by comparing his answer to the third question with his answers to the first two—and, of course, by working with a translator who can be trusted with veto power over any change made.

    Translations are not summaries, copies, or references. They are independent works of literature that exist in a special relationship with other works, which makes them unique and different in a positive way from monolingual texts. The three questions I’ve presented above were formulated as tools for practical editing, to help translation editors make decisions that are both objectively defensible and artistically sensitive.

    *Lu Xun 魯迅, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Trans. William Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990.
    **Bai Hua 柏華, ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’ 假兒歌. Trans. Brian Holton. Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, Issue 6, 2013.

  • Mar 26, 2015
    Same, but Different: A Lesson from Across the Straits
    by Jo Lusby, Managing Director of Penguin China

    There is a sense around the publishing world that a major bestseller is hiding somewhere in China, the one book that can race to the top of English language charts. So far, however, it has proved elusive. Chinese literature in English generally falls into the ‘important’ rather than ‘popular’ category, alongside eating kale and drinking green juice, reading Chinese literature in English can often feel like something that is done because it is good for you, rather than for the simple pleasure.

    Penguin Random House sells imported US and UK books into China, and partners with local publishers to co-create Chinese language books. More than anything else, however, it is our work to publish Chinese books in English that I am called upon to discuss.

    Penguin opened its first China office in Beijing in 2005; today, we employ twenty-two people in three Chinese cities. Back in 2005, before we had established a legal entity or found an office space, my boss asked me to get started by looking for a Chinese novel that could be translated into English. The idea was to emulate the origins of Penguin in India more than twenty-five years ago, who made their mark signing up a slew of major Indian writers who went on to become household names in the West. It felt like the right way to get started in China, in part because there was an interest in finding stories from China, and also because it felt important that our business was not a one-way traffic of books from the West to China, but a genuine two-way.

    A novel called Wolf Totem 狼圖騰 by Jiang Rong 姜戎 was a surprise bestseller in late 2004, and by April 2005 it was firmly established at number one in the bestseller charts. It was no hidden secret, it was piled high in every Xinhua Bookstore. Its fans were college students, business executives, young girls—the novel was read and interpreted differently by a wide range of readers.

    I had been working for Penguin for one month when I bought myself a copy. I read it, talked to friends who I knew had read it, and I thought it was something really interesting and quite different. I also liked the idea of publishing something that was not ‘banned in China,’ but rather ‘big in China.’ I managed to get hold of the author (Jiang Rong is a pen name and at that point his true identity had not yet been revealed online) and when I said I was calling from Penguin he was very enthusiastic. He was keen to sell his book to us, but as this was my first book deal I wasn't sure how to negotiate the next step of actually buying it. That was how it ended up with our CEO making the deal, face to face, on a visit to Beijing, in the executive lounge of a hotel. Jiang Rong spent an hour telling amazing stories about baby wolves, ancient cultures, incredible encounters, and sold my colleagues on the ideas that were captured in the book. It was an unusual way to buy a book, none of our international colleagues who would be responsible for publishing the book had been involved in the acquisition, but it was just a wonderful story that felt like the right thing at the right time.

    From the moment we signed Wolf Totem it created a lot of buzz internationally. Partly, it was because it was such a Chinese story—life on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the 1960s and 1970s—and it was revealing of a very romantic time and place that Westerners really didn't know anything about. Equally importantly, it was a story with many universal themes—humanity versus nature, tradition versus modernity, threats to the environment, not to mention one man's relationship with an animal—that made the story feel much more accessible than a lot of Chinese literature.

    In many ways, Wolf Totem benefitted from timing: Penguin was the first English language trade publisher to set up an operation in China and, as such, it became a talking point for people interested in understanding the local literary and business scene. It raised our profile locally, as Chinese readers were proud that such a popular work was being embraced overseas. But it also raised expectations from Chinese authors, who hoped we would keep repeating this trick and that everything we bought would generate the same degree of buzz, which of course, was just not possible.

    Since that acquisition in 2005, the process has evolved over time. Nowadays, we acquire the rights to Chinese writers that range from literary celebrities to genre writers and classic authors. We don’t look for authors who ‘represent China,’ but works that we believe tell a great story that has appeal beyond the Chinese context and setting, writers such as Sheng Keyi 盛可以 and He Jiahong 何家弘. Sheng Keyi writes wonderful novels about loss of innocence, whereas He Jiahong writes rich and detailed crime stories with forensic and authoritative insider detail.

    We enjoy publishing books that will challenge readers' expectations about the subjects that Chinese writers are prepared to address. When we published the officialdom novel The Civil Servant's Notebook by Wang Xiaofang 王曉方, we heard from various quarters that it was an unusual choice. From my point of view, I think it was a wonderful project to work on. This novel—fiction that deals with the inner workings of the Chinese political system and examines how corruption can move through the ranks—could only be written convincingly by a Chinese insider and this is precisely the kind of story that should be translated for readers in other cultures. Our goal was to publish it along similar lines to the books of Andrey Kurkov such as Death and the Penguin; absurdist, satirical, strange, and distant, yet with connections to the known world.

    While Wolf Totem was the most famous book of its time, we are as willing to buy small, unknown books as we are to acquiring major bestsellers. A book's popularity in one country does not guarantee it success in another, and books unknown at home can strike a chord elsewhere.

    Selling the first works by Chinese authors in foreign translations is highly challenging, even if that writer is a major name at home. Literary festivals are critical in establishing new authors in Europe and Australia, but with non-English speaking writers their participation is limited and complex. Journalists and broadcasters rely on people being available—a writer who can take a taxi across central London to join a BBC discussion about recent events will be chosen above someone who must be hosted by satellite link from halfway around the world. Bookstore signings—small, intimate events—are scheduled at the last minute and at very low cost.

    For the Penguin China list, we have looked at what readers have responded positively to and adjusted our publishing mix accordingly. So for example, with crime novelist He Jiahong, we realized that the greatest selling point was his expertise on anti-corruption and miscarriages of justice, so we published a non-fiction Penguin Special on his work with the Chinese ‘innocence project’ as a way to cross-promote and introduce him to a wider readership.

    We also had to accept that while being the first people to publish translations of Chinese literary fiction was a real pleasure, we needed some heavy hitters on the list as well. And so we recently published Nobel Laureate Mo Yan's newest novel, Frog in English.

    It's been almost ten years since we acquired the foreign rights to Wolf Totem and over that time, I have come to the conclusion that readers really don't care if a work is translated or not. They just want a great story. If it doesn’t appeal to them, they won’t read it. I have adapted the way I evaluate and talk about our books as a result, choosing to focus less on translation and more on the stories.

    Publishing has few certainties. Buying books from authors involves taking a calculated risk and even a book you are passionate about may fail to find a readership. I find myself thinking a lot about the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and thinking about how he found such great success internationally. Of course, he's a wonderful writer, but I would guess that the majority of readers forget his are works of translation when they read his novels. While his stories could only take place in Japan—the country is very much a character in each story—you don’t read his books to understand Japan. And so, when I read a book from China and think about publishing it in English, I have to think: Do I care? Does it matter to me if they live or die, if the guy gets the girl, if it all ends well? Too often I don't care, I'm not invested in the story, and no matter how accurately it portrays life in China, it will not make up for the sense that the story doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I look for books that take the reader on a journey and, more than anything else, I look for the books that I myself want to read.

  • Mar 26, 2015
    Translating Children’s Books
    by Helen Wang, Translator

    As children, we like books for their stories and pictures, and for the special times and feelings we associate with reading or being read to. When we grow up and look back on our childhood favourites, it can be quite shocking to open a book you once adored and discover that you now consider it dated, sexist, racist, or boring. The story and the pictures are the same as they always were, but you, the reader, have changed, and the world you live in has evolved. In a similar way, translating children’s books can be shocking too.

    My first translations of children’s books were the picture books I read with my own children when they were little. They would choose a book and I would read. If they chose a book in a foreign language, then I would read the words in that language and tell them the story in English. It was fun! It also taught me three important things when translating children’s books. First, that the storytelling is crucial. Children quickly lose interest if the storytelling isn’t right. Second, that it’s essential to edit appropriately for the audience. Does the praying mantis have to be so gleeful about eating her husband after they’ve mated? Third, that if you can do the first two, then you can probably translate just about any children’s book.

    However, not everything that can be translated can be published. For a while, my son was crazy about the television series Black Cat Police Chief 黑貓警長 and we read-translated-edited the books that accompanied the series at home. A few years ago, I showed some images of the front covers of those books during a lecture at the Annual Chinese Teaching Conference in London. There was a lively reaction from the young teachers in the audience. But when I said I didn’t think the books would ever be allowed in UK schools or libraries, there was a confused silence. They remembered enjoying the books themselves, and it was only when I pointed out the motorbike-revving, the gun-brandishing, the ever-angry expressions, the violence and police brutality that they began to see them from a different perspective.

    We want children to enjoy books. Some books entertain, some books educate, and many books do both. But when we are translating children’s books across languages and cultures, we have to be aware of different tolerances. Sometimes a draft translation can feel wrong and it can be helpful to look objectively at a direct, or literal, translation and consider if it conveys the author’s original intention. Perhaps the impact is stronger or weaker than the author intended, or the tension in the storytelling feels awkward, or the joke just isn’t funny in English. Children’s books can be packed with cultural complexities—try translating a nursery rhyme and see if you can retain the fun, the rhythm and the compact cultural references all at the same time. It’s not easy!

    Why did my children choose particular books? Well, they were little, and at that age, it was the visual appeal of the books, the quality of the printing and production, the illustrations and the story. It wasn’t about translation or where the stories came from. It was about the books.

    But when children in the UK go to a library or a bookshop, they generally don’t have much choice when it comes to foreign or translated titles. Helpful staff may offer to order them in for you, but they seldom have the books there on the shelves. And because the staff rarely see translated children’s books, they probably don’t know them and aren’t in a position to make recommenations. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation and means you really have to want to find these books and often have to order and pay for them without seeing them first. Personally, I think it’s a bit dishonest to blame the lack of translated children’s books on a lack of demand.

    In fact, many of the favourite stories for children in English are adaptations of stories from other countries that are so domesticated now that it’s often assumed they were English to start with. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast were translated from French by Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century. Snow White, Rapunzel, The Frog Prince, and Hansel and Gretel were translated from German by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century. The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina were translated from Danish by Hans Christian Anderson, also in the nineteenth century. Many of these stories came from even older folk tales, and who knows where they might have come from originally. They survived because they were good stories and were told over and over again.

    Looking at lists of books with multiple translations, it’s striking how many of them are children’s books. Although these lists are probably not wholly reliable, the figures are still remarkable. To give a few examples: The Little Prince (253 translations), Pinocchio (240), Alice in Wonderland (159), Anderson’s Fairy Tales (159), The Adventures of Asterix (114), The Adventures of Tintin (112), Pippi Longstocking (70), Harry Potter (67), Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl (67), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (65), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (60), Heidi (50), Winnie the Pooh (50), The Moomins (44), Miffy (40), Paddington Bear (40), The Tale of Peter Rabbit (36), Anne of Green Gables (36), Charlotte’s Web (35), Totto-chan, Little Girl at the Window (35).

    I’ll end with a more recent ‘international children’s classic’: The Gruffalo, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Since it was first published in 1999, it has been translated into over fifty languages, including Chinese, as 咕噜牛. And it was inspired, says the author, by a Chinese story, probably 狐假虎威, which I assume she must have read or heard in English. In other words, The Gruffalo was inspired by an adaptation of an account in the Strategies of the Warring States (战国策) compiled well over two thousand years ago!

  • Mar 26, 2015
    Translating Body Language
    by Nicky Harman, Translator

    I have worked as a literary translator for around fifteen years and I have noticed some interesting cultural differences between Chinese and English when it comes to how the human body and its functions are described in literature. When I began to do some research, I discovered only one other article which deals with the same topic: David Pollard’s ‘Body Language in Chinese-English Translation,’ which appeared in An Encyclopaedia of Translation: Chinese-English English-Chinese, published by the Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, in 2001. Pollard reaches the conclusion that in Chinese fiction, great attention is paid to the outward manifestations of emotions and that, when translated directly into English, this can sound very strange. This became the starting point of my research.

    I am a working translator, so it is not enough for me to understand those differences. I have to find ways of translating them. So let me start with some practical examples and ask whether and how they can give us some useful guidance on translating these cultural and literary differences.

    I want to start with an example from a novel I am translating. This is an intensely emotional scene in which a husband and wife realise their marriage has failed. They are about to go to the 離婚登記處. This is what the Chinese says:


    If I translate that directly into English as ‘her face went green, his face went grey,’ unfortunately, this doesn't mean much to the English reader. So a direct translation will give the reader the words but not the meaning of the sentence.

    Chinese has many rich and various ways in which to describe the body, body movements and bodily functions, and the feelings they express. Here are some I’ve come across over the years:

    1. There are verbs in Chinese for movements which one can picture exactly but which have no equivalent in English.

    a. 我嘴努努電梯。This could be described in English as ‘I pursed my lips’ OR ‘made a moue’ OR ‘jerked my chin in the direction of the lift’. The problem with 努努嘴 is that there is no single verb in English for using your mouth to indicate something without speaking. So all these translations are too long and somewhat unclear.

    b. 白眼 (NB Pollard gives 轉眼). This is the definition I have found: 朝上或朝兩邊看時露出的白眼珠。用白眼看人,表示輕蔑或厭惡。But we don’t turn up our eyes to express scorn in English, so generally the translator has to express it in a more general way: ‘looked scornful’ or ‘showed her repugnance.’

    2. English has only a small number of verbs to describe the actions of pick up (with the hand), hold (in the hand) and carry (using hands, arms or back), but Chinese has a much larger number of verbs, with very specific meanings: Hold (in the hand) 拿、握。Pick up (with the hand) 拎、拾、掇、撿。Carry (using hands, arms or back) 端、 抱、背、 抬、提、夾。So in this example, we have to use the same word in English, carry, for two different words in Chinese, 提 and 挽:


    3. Sometimes Chinese is very specific about what part of the body is moving, when English simply says or implies the body in general. In this example, a woman is lost in the desert, surrounded by a pack of 豺狗:
    瑩兒望著那些環顧的眼,伸了伸脖子,想,你們來吧。‘Ying faced up bravely to the encircling eyes. Come on then! What are you waiting for? she said to herself.’ My English translation doesn’t mention her neck. Instead, I have described her general body language (she stands tall and faces the 豺狗) and her feelings (brave).

    4. Sometimes the meaning of a sentence seems obvious to the Chinese reader but needs added explanation in English.

    a. 他嗷嗷叫。‘He cried out,’ but was it in fear? Physical pain? Mental anguish? So in English we have to add an explanation: ‘He cried out in anguish.’

    b. 肉販說,一揮手。 ‘The butcher waved.’ But did he wave in greeting or was he waving them away or beckoning to come? So in English the translator might add ‘The butcher waved them away.’

    5. English is less explicit and colourful than Chinese in describing bodily functions. A literal translation can sound embarrassing in English. More importantly, it can sometimes sound crude, when that wasn’t the author’s intention.

    a. In this story, an elderly couple are discussing what to have for dinner. The husband is annoyed: 他煩了。我怎麼知道?剛剛吃的東西還沒有化成屎,你叫我能說什麼?Because they are polite, urban people, it would give the wrong impression in English to translate 化成屎 as ‘turned into shit,’ as it is too crude.

    b. Snot is a fluid we don’t usually mention in connection with adults, even when they are in floods of tears. So how to translate this woman’s grief ? 她哭得鼻涕都流出來了。 If I translate it literally, (‘She cried until the snot ran down her face’), it makes both the writer and the woman in the story sound childish.

    6. Finally, the head and the heart. In Chinese, many things happen in the heart that happen elsewhere in English. A simple example: 我心裡覺得。But in English, we don’t think in our hearts, we think in our heads, in our minds. So the translation here is simply, ‘I think.’

    a. Here is a more complex example: 他非常溫柔地說:你還有我嘛。他的這句話深深地擊中了我的心,我知道原來這就是愛情。It may surprise you to hear that in English we do not get hit in the heart, even when we’re in love. We might translate this as ‘a kick in the gut!’

    b. And another example: 當然,丫頭的死,真揪了我心上的肉……那時,我心裡最不能碰的,就是這事。This is a perfect illustration of Pollard’s observation that in Chinese literature, there is a focus on the ‘outward manifestations of emotions.’ In English, we do talk about the heart being ‘wrenched’ 揪. So: the death of a baby is ‘heart-wrenching.’ But what about 我心裡最不能碰的? ‘The bit of my heart that I didn’t want touched?’ In English, we can’t really express this in quite such a concrete, physical way. I was interested to learn that in traditional Chinese medicine, the brain/mind doesn’t appear at all as a key organ of the body, only the heart. But does this answer the question as to why so much of Chinese thoughts, as well as feelings, happen in the 心?

    What’s the solution? Some guiding principles

    What should guide our choice as to how we put these expressions into English for the English-language reader? How much liberty does the translator have? This is a debate that has been going on for as long as translation itself.

    Looking back through the history of Chinese translation, I have found that there was a great debate around the translation of the Buddhist texts into Chinese around 230 AD/CE. The question was, should a translation be unhewn 質 and direct 直, or elegant 雅?* Even before the Buddhist translators, there was Laozi, the Daoist philosopher, who said: 信言不美, 美言不信。 These are almost the exact same words as an old French saying about translation: ‘Quand elle est belle, elle n’est pas fidèle, quand elle est fidèle, elle n’est pas belle.’

    Translation theory often focuses around the core questions of faithfulness, domestication versus foreignisation, and loyalty. But rather than ask if a text is loyal to word-choice, I personally prefer to use the ideas of a translation theorist called Christiane Nord. She talks about the notion of loyalty to the author’s intentions. Nord says that: ‘The bigger the cultural gap, the smaller the possibility for the readers to establish analogies with their own world. But the translator has a responsibility to both the target audience, whose subjective theories have to be taken into account, and the source-text sender, whose communicative intentions must not be turned into their opposite. The responsibility is what I call ‘loyalty’. **

    What is interesting about Nord’s concept is that with ‘loyalty’ she is talking about two relationships: between translator and author, on the one hand, and translator and reader, on the other. Faithfulness and domestication/foreignisation imply comparisons at the textual level. Faithfulness focuses on a similarity between the source and the target texts, and ignores the communicative intentions of the author.

    Lets go back to the coloured faces and look at the thought processes that I go through as a translator in order to decide on a translation. First, what does the author mean? What is the author trying to express? Then, what resources do I have at my disposal?

    Of course I can consult dictionaries and the Internet. These tell me that a green face in Chinese can be angry (氣得臉發綠 or 氣得臉發青). This, of course, is different from English, where a green face expresses either jealousy, or physical nausea. Perhaps anger is meant here, although it is not explicitly stated.

    Since the dictionaries and the Internet have not given me a clear answer, I could ask the author. Questions on the text can be the start of a very rewarding professional relationship. In this case, this is what she wrote to me in an email:


    According to Christiane Nord, we should look at communicative intentions of the author; she wants to convey the idea that husband and wife are angry and upset. But she is also using vivid imagery, so my English translation has to use vivid imagery too.

    So here’s one solution:她的臉發綠,他的臉發灰。他們一前一後騎著車……
    ‘Whey-faced, they got on the bicycle…’
    Whey is the clear liquid from milk, which has gone sour and separated. Whey-faced means pale or grey with misery and anxiety.

    Or I could choose a more ‘English-style’ translation and describe their emotions directly:
    ‘Looking angry and miserable, they got on the bicycle…’

    Whether I choose (a) or (b) for my translation, the English reader will not picture a green and grey face, but they will understand the author’s intention.

    As I hope this essay will have shown, in describing emotional states, Chinese describes body movements and leaves us to infer the feelings, but English does the opposite. In other words, Chinese is more specific physically, less explicit emotionally. In English it is the other way around.

    I think that the issue of translating body language illustrates, in microcosm, the challenges that translators face. Every day, translators perform a balancing act: we try to retain the richness and colour of the original but also put it into a different language, and different cultural context, in such a way that it has meaning for the reader. We are rarely satisfied with our efforts. I imagine that all translators struggle with a feeling that something has been lost in their translations. But one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is that we get the chance to examine the text really closely. We could call it getting inside the head of the author. We ask ourselves, what mental image did she or he have in their mind when writing those words? Why did s/he choose that particular physical image to describe an emotional state and not another one? Whether we are translating body language or descriptions of a landscape, or martial arts action scenes, the words we choose should both be loyal to the intentions of the author while also reflecting the richness of the language into which we are translating, English.

    *Martha Cheung, An Anthology of Chinese Discourse on Translation, Volume One: From Earliest Times to the Buddhist Project, (St. Jerome Publishing, 2006)
    ** ‘Loyalty Revisited: Bible Translation as a Case in Point,’ in The Translator, Vol 7, Number 2 (2001), p 195










  • Jan 26, 2015
    On Agenting in Asia
    by Kelly Falconer, Founder of the Asia Literary Agency

    I first visited Taiwan in 2012, when I was editing the Hong Kong-based Asia Literary Review (ALR). I was encouraged by the enthusiastic literary culture in Taiwan, by the eclectic taste and appetites of Taiwanese readers, and of the open-24-hours phenomenon that is Eslite bookshop/department store/shopping mall—every bibliophile’s dream come true.

    In 2014 I visited again not as an editor but as an agent and founder of the Asia Literary Agency, representing Asian authors, experts on Asia and writers living in the region.

    After spending several years in London working as an editor of fiction and non-fiction, both in-house and freelance for the likes of the venerable Weidenfeld & Nicolson (an early proponent of literature in translation), Virgin Books, Constable & Robinson and Granta magazine, I moved with my husband to Hong Kong in July 2011. As it turned out, Granta had put in a good word for me with the ALR, who rang up and asked if I’d like to join them as one of their new literary editors: a small team of three. I jumped at the opportunity.

    We were a good team: diplomatic, agreeable, and we turned our attention very specifically to what was going on in Asia. Martin Alexander, a poet and our editor-in-chief, commissioned mainly but not exclusively the poetry; my lovely colleague, Kathleen Hwang, a renowned journalist, and I commissioned most of the fiction and non-fiction. And though I had brought a voluminous crate-load of books from the UK, mostly from the Western canon, it sat there, unread, as I became captivated by another time and place.

    I wondered why we in the West were not reading more books from writers in the East? Especially now with Asia rising?

    We at the ALR had to find out who was writing what and who was published by whom, who was a rising star and who a member of the venerable elite: ‘from the Bosphorous to North Japan’ as Martin put it. So we started making friends, picking up the phone. We had a fabulous launch issue, focused on Korea, both North and South, including an interview with Shin Kyung-Sook, published just before she won the Man Asian Prize for Literature.

    Unfortunately, and as these things often happen, the ALR funding was pulled at the end of December 2012, which left us all at unexpected loose ends. But you see, this is where the real fun began…

    When the ALR role wrapped up, a few authors approached me separately and completely out of the blue to ask if I’d represent them.

    Ah! I thought. Of course!

    Like most good agents I have a golden address book full of contacts and after a year of rolling up my sleeves at the ALR I had added pages to that with the many wonderful people I’d met working in the Asia publishing scene. It made sense and felt an entirely natural transition. It seemed as if everything I’d been doing with my life (including my former career as a Korean linguist, my love of introducing people, my ability to happily roll up my sleeves and get on with any job) had been leading me directly to this point.

    Luckily most of my authors write in English, which means we don’t have to worry about translation as an additional start-up cost. Nevertheless, and as Gray Tan has pointed out, this means that we do compete direct with American, Canadian, Australian and British authors writing in English. I’d qualify that: yes, we do compete, but my authors are writing from a different point of view and we aim to persuade editors and our readers living outside of Asia to look outside the bounds of their own environments and that of the familiar round of names we see again and again on the bookshelves and bestseller lists. Nevertheless, the story and the writing must be interesting enough to stand on its own, regardless of whether it is in translation or not, though it is true that those books that are translated are usually the crème de la crème in their native language or countries and present a very particular and relevant insight into their native socio-economic landscape. They also tend to enhance the English-language market with fresh, new and exciting voices within a particular genre; for example, the crime-thriller HANGING DEVILS by He Jiahong, the John Grisham of China.

    One of the greatest strengths and most wonderful things about Asian writers is that their scripts and ideas tend not to be influenced by the Western canon. But the fact is that, generally, readers in the West want to read something familiar, or if it is not familiar they want to be able to see it pyrotechnically multi-dimensionally without thinking they are having a history lesson. To many readers, and unfortunately also to many editors in the West, what’s going on in Asia now, the way people live in Asia now, whatever’s relevant to those of us living in Asia now, may as well be happening in outer space and/or a different dimension. And it is not only just because what Asian authors are writing about proves a challenging sell, but it’s also the way they write. For example, Indian authors, when focusing on their own audiences, tend to write prose that is denser and with a more intricately layered vocabulary than you’ll find in many literary novels published in the UK (perhaps with the notable exception of Will Self). Chinese writers too have a style different to writers in the West, in part shaped by the unique features of their language. So this is where a good translator will come in, influencing the tone and pace so that, while the essence of the story remains in tact, the flow of it becomes something more easily understood by English readers.

    One minor challenge about being an agent in Asia, representing Asian writers, is explaining the agent’s role to authors, particularly in China and to some in South Korea, also. These two countries don’t have an agent culture like ours in the West, and the Chinese authors are incredibly wary, if not distrustful, of the term ‘exclusive’ in the agent-author contract. They worry they might lose control, or be taken advantage of. And I’ve found that many authors in South Korea believe that money equals success, in part due to the highly publicised advances achieved by the likes of Shin Kyung-sook, Jang Jin-sung and Hyeonseo Lee. So their initial reaction is that they are not interested in representation unless it means the promise of a lofty advance, that to be given anything less would be shameful. It takes finesse and patience to persuade them that the value of a deal is not only in the money but in the reputation of the publisher and that the value of an English debut can be unquantifiable, leading perhaps to bigger advances, an international profile, eligibility for awards, and/or more deals in other countries. You must understand the myriad social and cultural reasons behind this. With China it is only in part due to their scant regard for copyright, which means that authors are very often taken advantage of, with their works reprinted and sold without their approval; in Korea such regard for money is in part due to their new materialism, coming after years of real hardship and poverty.

    What is frustrating to me as an agent and as a voracious reader interested in other cultures, is that the West is still catching up to what’s going on in Asia now. I had three people ask me at Frankfurt last year if I had read FACTORY GIRLS by Leslie T. Chang, as if this brilliant yet eight-year-old book had just been published. Editors still seem to be looking for books about the Cultural Revolution and its consequences and about the dividing of the Korean peninsula, rather than what is happening NOW, when progress has been happening so quickly it’s as if it’s been in light years. The foreign editors wanting me to sell books into the East approach me with titles that are often totally inappropriate: why would the newly urban Chinese have any interest whatsoever in a book about the middle-class, second generation Chinese-American experience in America over the last fifty years?

    I would think that, given how China is and has been on an unprecedented upsurge, along with Korea and Taiwan, and how other Asian countries are in the midst of some of the most profound cultural and political changes in their modern history (one only need look at Burma, where censorship was allegedly and only recently lifted), that the West would be desperately wanting to read as much as possible, as quickly as possible, from this region to understand the new world order. Because it is certainly here.

    Not every book will work in translation. It is important to find the right books for the right countries and to work with people you trust and like. It’s a long game, and selling a script often takes a huge amount of effort, time and energy. We must all support each other, I think, in this most wonderful endeavour to introduce stories from other parts of the world. It is my hope that we become less and less foreign to each other, so that our stories become more familiar.

  • Jan 26, 2015
    How To Win The Foreign-Language Steeplechase
    by Markus Hoffmann, Partner at Regal Hoffmann & Associates

    I’ve often thought that being a literary agent is not so dissimilar from being an athlete, that is, a competitor in track and field. Actually, for the sake of this article, let’s stick to the track aspect, because most field competitions involve throwing things, which is not something one should necessarily encourage in an enclosed space like an office. But for the track competitions, I believe the comparison between agent and athlete holds: every submission you make is like one of the races at the Olympic Games.

    First, there are the sprints: 100m, 200m and 400m. These are very intense, high-energy affairs that demand absolute focus and are over quickly. Selling a memoir by a celebrity is the kind of submission that falls into this category: you submit, editors go crazy and offer lots of money, and you conclude a very significant deal in no time at all.

    Then, there are the middle-distance races: 800m up to 3,000m. I’d put selling an excellent non-fiction proposal into this category: you submit, editors read and share with colleagues, in-house discussion ensues, you set up phone conversations between editors and author, you might need to tweak the proposal a little in response to editors’ comments, and then you conclude a very satisfying deal. The whole process still doesn’t take all that long.

    Next up are the long-distance races: 5,000m and up. You can probably guess what I’m going to talk about here: exactly, a great literary novel! Selling one of those has become all about endurance and tenacity. You submit, editors start reading and then get distracted by a corporate meeting or Twitter, you remind them, they go back to the novel, they like it, they share it, they try to convince their sales and marketing department that yes, this one will be worth all the effort it takes to publish a literary novel well, and eventually, an editor or two, or maybe even three, make a moderate offer which you try very hard to improve before settling on a deal that makes you think that you really should sell more non-fiction. But at the same time, there simply isn't anything more rewarding than helping a great novel get published. Occasionally, a long-distance race can even turn into a marathon: we’ve had instances at the agency where it took us two years to sell a novel, but sell it we did. As I said, tenacity is the name of the game, or just sheer stubbornness.

    It’s at this point that we get to the really interesting disciplines: the ones where you’re not simply running, running, and running some more to get to the finishing line, but where for some inexplicable reason obstacles are put in your way that you have to leap over without falling. The 110m hurdles, for example. But for me, the most awesome of the obstacle races has always been the 3,000m steeplechase. That’s right: I'm finally getting around to explaining the title of this essay! The water jumps and hurdles that seem designed to break your stride and make you stumble on the way towards the finishing line.

    Again, you will already have guessed what kind of submission I’m going to compare to the steeplechase: an acclaimed work in translation that you’re trying to sell in the English-language markets. While such a submission can share characteristics with a short-, middle-, or long-distance race, more typically, it comes with some added hurdles. I want to look at those obstacles in a little more detail, and offer some tips for how we can leap (or, as the case may be, awkwardly climb) over them.

    Obstacle 1: Language

    The first and almost always the biggest obstacle is language. It’s not for nothing that we talk about a language barrier. In fact, in the case of trying to sell a work in translation, it’s not just one barrier but several that are stacked on top of each other:

    i) The American co-agent doesn’t read the source language. This is never ideal but often unavoidable. Trust in the primary agent’s/publisher’s recommendation is essential here: the agent you work with needs to know that what you’re asking them to represent is of the highest quality and has the potential to cross over into a different language and culture.

    ii) The American/British editor doesn’t read the source language. This will almost always be the case if the language of the work you’re trying to sell isn’t French, German, Italian, or Spanish. With very few exceptions, you’ll only make a deal if you can provide substantial and brilliantly translated sample material in English; sometimes, a complete translation into another major European language can help, but even then you’ll almost certainly need at least some English material, also because of obstacle iii) below.

    iii) Nobody else within the publishing house reads the originating language. And by ‘nobody else,’ I specifically mean the sales and marketing departments. This is where things often get frustrating because an editor may love the project you’re trying to sell, but his or her beloved colleagues refuse to see the sales potential. Providing as much ancillary information as possible is important to get over this one: sales information, prizes, awards, other foreign-language sales, all of this helps.

    iv) First-rate readers and translators from languages others than the main European ones can be hard to come by. With the exception of the so-called ‘usual suspects’ – a smallish group of editors in New York who have access to reliable readers and trust their judgement – editors often struggle to find reliable readers and translators, so the more resources you can provide, the more likely it is you’ll overcome this particular problem.

    Obstacle 2: Market perception

    Works in translation, unless they get a lucky break and are selected by Oprah Winfrey (which is what turned German novelist Bernhard Schlink’s THE READER into a number one New York Times bestseller) or become a runaway phenomenon like Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, tend to be considered harder to sell than homegrown titles. The main reasons for this seem to be:

    i) Foreign settings and themes, as well as different narrative aesthetics, may not be immediately accessible to American/British readers. At the same time, it’s that very foreignness that can make a work in translation attractive, precisely because it doesn’t provide more of the same. It’s a balancing act and it takes some careful market analysis to make sure the work you’re trying to sell occupies the sweet spot where it’s both familiar and new enough to entice.

    ii) Authors don’t always speak English and typically live abroad so are harder to promote. There’s not much to be done about this, although a translator might be able to help a publisher’s marketing efforts.

    iii) Commercial fiction, children’s/YA titles and most non-fiction will almost always have an English-language equivalent that robs the title in translation of its raison d’être. This is another instance where trusting the primary agent/publisher is important: they need to have a good enough awareness of the market they’re trying to sell into to know what does and what doesn’t have a chance of working. Needless to say, a book in any category that has become a phenomenon in its home market will have a bigger chance of selling internationally.

    Obstacle 3: Finances

    Translations are expensive. This is true, but in my view mostly a false argument since American/British publishers can relatively easily compensate for this by paying a lower advance. And translation grants are available for many languages by this point. Providing as much information as possible about possible sources of funding is key here.

    Obstacle 4: Legal and contractual hurdles

    American publishers have a frustrating habit of refusing to accept the principle of reciprocity when it comes to key contractual issues, which means that when you’re licensing to an American/British publisher, you shouldn’t expect to be granted the same terms and conditions that they would demand if they were licensing to you. Some of the typical sticking points include:

    i) American/British publishers will, at times, refuse to enter into an agreement if the license term isn’t for the full term of copyright but limited to a set number of years, even though they would never license one of their properties for term of copyright to a non-English language publisher. This is one my pet peeves because it simply isn’t fair. On the other hand, the reality is that most works you’ll sell will at some point go out of print and as long as you negotiate a strong rights reversion clause, you’ll be able to get rights back. This is the pragmatic approach I usually take, and encourage the rights holders to understand. There are instances, however, where the rights holder can’t legally license rights for term of copyright (because they themselves don’t own term of copyright) and this obviously needs to be brought to the acquiring publisher’s attention before the deal is formally concluded.

    ii) American/British publishers will refuse to pay permissions for illustrations and other third-party materials. Also frustrating, but often the price of admission into the US market, in my experience. You should be aware of this and factor it into all the other terms of the offer when you’re negotiating the deal.

    iii) American/British publishers will insist on the laws of the US/UK governing the terms of the contract. The compromise we as an agency offer, and usually reach agreement on, is that the country of the party against whom a suit may be brought is the country whose laws will govern a lawsuit.

    iv) American/British publishers will, in rare cases, feign surprise at having to pay for the translation. Making it explicit when negotiating key terms that the acquiring publisher is responsible for translation costs will ensure this doesn’t turn into an unexpected obstacle later in the process.

    Selling foreign-language titles is challenging, there’s no doubt about that. The obstacles you encounter in the process can seem daunting indeed – come on, not another hurdle! – so focusing on some of the more straightforward races instead can be tempting for an agent who has to make a living from the commission he or she earns. On the other hand, there is a certain perverse pleasure to be derived from overcoming these seemingly insurmountable hurdles. And, if you will forgive me for ending this article on a highly idealistic note, since we’re all part of a global and increasingly globalized industry, I think we owe it to the consumers of those beautiful story-containers we call books (or e-books) to ensure that they are as diverse, innovative, and exciting as possible. It is part of our job to counteract the homogenisation of global culture that is taking place all around us. So, let’s hear it for the steeplechase!

  • Dec 12, 2014
    New Books in German: Not Just About New Books in German
    by Jen Calleja, Acting Editor (2013-2014), New Books in German

    Literature in translation is the most wonderful kind of cross-cultural communication: the sharing of meaningful stories between cultures. Though interest in translated literature is undoubtedly having a renaissance with a selection of publishers shouting proud about how much they want to publish more translated literature, literary journals having dedicated translation issues and the wider media exploring the process of literary translation in their articles and interviews, the amount of foreign-language literature being translated into English is still so much less than in the other direction.

    The market for translated literature is still relatively niche and everyone within the translation community internationally is trying to raise its profile and whet their readers' appetite for it. During my roller-coaster sixteen months as acting editor and acting editorial consultant for the journal New Books in German I experienced how interconnected the world of translation is—and must be. To promote any literature in translation, one needs to promote all literature in translation and know the literary landscape as a whole. It would of course be wonderful to think that all publishers and readers are keeping a keen eye out for books in translation and that the strength of a book alone should be enough to carry it into another language, country and market, but unfortunately this isn't the case.

    Founded in 1996, New Books in German is a project helping to get more German-language fiction, non-fiction and children's books into the international market. Both a biannual print magazine and a website, NBG publishes reviews for a selection of curated titles; interviews with publishers, writers and translators; features on current trends in German literature; and information on a selection of the latest translations in English of German books. Most of the books selected for review in the magazine are guaranteed translation funding by the financial partners of the magazine should an English-language publisher buy the rights, which is a wonderful additional incentive for publishers wishing to branch out into German literature but are put off by the irksome additional cost of hiring a translator.

    The array of print and online-only publications with the same mission as NBG (including 12 Swiss Books, Swedish Book Review, Books from Finland, New Spanish Books, Fiction France, 10 Books from Holland, to name a few) likewise not only promote individual titles, but also interview literary translators, follow trends in the publishing world and bring news on the current popularity of certain genres of translated literature in general. These publications also learn and take inspiration from one another and in some instances have the same models and editorial processes as each other. The role of these publications, including NBG, is to act as mediator between the publishing houses at home and publishers abroad by highlighting a selection of their language's best (and also typically contemporary) literature. You can't pitch books blindly into a foreign market, no matter how great the book is. NBG, for example, seeks books that are first and foremost outstanding, but that would also not be too problematic to translate and that would find an English-language readership (this, I should add, is why our partnership with the German Book Office New York is so important; even the various English-language markets differ, so it's good to have a broad perspective on which books could work in English translation). The books need to have a fighting chance, so knowing the market you're trying to enter is imperative.

    NBG receives financial and promotional support from a group of partners comprising the Frankfurt Book Fair and German, Austrian and Swiss cultural organisations. Representatives of these partners also make up NBG's editorial committee with additional support from the magazine's publisher the British Centre for Literary Translation, the German Book Office New York, as well as a rotating array of enthusiastic and generous guests who are publishers, agents and literary translators. Those directly involved with NBG, though representing different countries within the German-speaking world, want to support and promote the best German-language literature regardless of nation and primarily wish to strengthen the image and rate of exchange of translated literature and the variety of literature available overall. They believe in translation. Extending this idea of variety and excellence, the Frankfurt Book Fair, which distributes the magazine internationally and stocks hundreds of issues at the Fair itself, has a similar focus on promoting international literary exchange and dialogue by hosting a guest of honour nation at each Fair. NBG is proud to reflect this in each autumn issue by publishing an interview or feature on the guest nation and their literature and a guest piece by the FBF that covers a current trend or issue within the international book market.

    NBG's editor of the last five years, Charlotte Ryland, has been taking the magazine and the project as a whole from strength to strength, finding new ways of promoting titles and the take up of books with new initiatives including the highly successful Emerging Translators Programme. The ETP was founded in 2011 as a way of finding and nurturing new translating talent while also helping promote the titles appearing in the magazine. Each spring, NBG invites translations of the same extract from a new German-language fiction title and commissions the translators of the six best submissions to translate samples from titles being reviewed in the upcoming NBG. They then get the chance to workshop their finished samples with an award-winning literary translator to perfect their work and learn about the process and career of a professional translator of fiction. It makes perfect sense to create a competition and immersive workshop alongside the magazine; what good is promoting German-language books if there aren't exceptional literary translators to translate them and publishers don't know where to find them? The ETP benefits all parties involved: the translators have the opportunity to hone their craft and get what is usually their first taste of translating literature professionally, the German-language publishers receive a polished sample translation at a reduced fee to use in their rights work and promotion, and NBG gets to meet the potential literary translators from German of the future that it can happily recommend to English-language publishers.

    Vital to the future success of literature in translation is for publications and platforms like NBG to continue getting information and resources to the right people, while also helping with international networking. Part of the wider, ongoing work of the project is to connect publishers with their foreign counterparts, and publishers with translators, so that the ultimate objective can be achieved: international authors' books reaching the hands of international readers. Though the languages may be different, the goals are the same: the diversification of literary voices and the sharing of incredible stories.

  • Dec 12, 2014
    Taiwan/Fiction, and all the way to France
    by Gwennaël Gaffric

    I was invited by Philippe Thiollier, editor of L'Asiathèque Publishing House, to direct a new imprint, Taiwan / Fiction, which we launched in October this year.

    Taiwan / Fiction is not strictly speaking the first dedicated series of Taiwanese literature in France. The Lettres Taïwanaises collection was created in 2000 by three professors, Chan Ching-Ho, Angel Pino and Isabelle Rabut, who have published (and sometimes translated) literary works by the Chu family (Chu Hsi-Ning, Chu T'ien-Wen and Chu T'ien-Hsin), Ch'en Yin-Chen, Chang Ta-Ch'un, Hwang Ch'un-Ming, and more recently Wuhe.

    Taiwan / Fiction's goal is somewhat different to that of the Lettres Taïwanaises imprint, since the texts we will translate and publish are primarily contemporary novels and not necessarily classics or already well recognised in the history of modern Taiwanese literature. We are instead interested in writers that appears to us to be representative of new voices, new viewpoints and new literary experiments from the island.

    We will concentrate on living authors who explore the changing world in which we live through their literature. Thus, we don't simply focus on historically 'representative' Taiwanese writers or literary movements, but authors whose works have a wider resonance, which are not limited to their own contexts. Of course, this doesn't mean that these authors can't talk about the singular Taiwanese experience, on the contrary, we would like to introduce in French works that can show that the Taiwanese experience illustrates and reveals the current state of our world, or generates fresh perspectives on it.

    In the original statement announcing the launch of our collection, we wrote as follows:

    [...] The ambition of the Taiwan / Fiction series is to translate and publish texts whose subjects and scope should go beyond Taiwan or the so-called 'Chinese world' to echo beyond it and offer new thoughts on global issues. Among them: environmental concerns, identities of local languages and cultures, the impact of colonialism on memory, of economic globalization on traditional ways of life, gender and sexuality, etc... The above topics do not necessarily imply a duty to publish so-called 'social activism' novels, but high-quality stories whose aspiration is not simply 'art for art's sake', but a wish to question our daily realities.

    Hence, we hope to introduce the authors we will publish not strictly as 'Taiwanese writers' but as 'global writers with a Taiwanese view on the world.' For example, the French translation of the Taiwanese writer Wu Ming-Yi's THE MAN WITH COMPOUND EYES recently received the French International Insular Book Award. It was the first Taiwanese novel to ever receive such award in France. We hope to promote Taiwanese literature in this same vein: Taiwanese literature should not only interact with 'literature written in Chinese language' or some separate space of 'Asian literature', but must be brought into a 'world literature', where Taiwan can speak to an international audience.

    Among the first texts we have selected, we will publish the queer science fiction novel MEMBRANES by Chi Ta-Wei and a unique literary experiment, the two screenplays written for the cinema classic A City Of Sadness, written by Wu Nien-Jen and Chu T'ien-Wen respectively.

    In the future, we would like to introduce to French-speaking readers a variety of texts, all thematically strong and of the highest literary merit, including novels and short stories by authors such as Badai, Kao Yi-Feng, Lai Hsiang-Yin, Wu Ming-Yi, Lo Yi-Jun, Wuhe, Hung Ling, Chen Hsuë, Chu Yu-Hsun and many more.

    But like in any new literary imprint, we too have encountered some (temporary) obstacles that we have had to overcome.

    Firstly, we face a problem common to all Taiwanese literature in translation, namely a basic lack of media interest when compared to other 'national' literatures, such as those of China, Japan and now Korea. It is therefore important to offer significant translations with an original point of view with respect to Asian literature in general, but also books that can attract the attention of a reader who isn't necessarily attracted by Taiwan itself at first glance. Texts on issues such as ecology, war, memory, sexual identity, the vitality and reinvention of ancient religions and cultures or new technologies seem to us very powerful in this regard.

    For decades, l'Asiathèque Publishing House has been a recognised and respected force in the French publishing industry specialising in texts relating to Asia. But until recent years, L'Asiathèque mostly published scientific and cultural books on the continent, such as works of classical literature and language textbooks, but very few contemporary novels. A challenge for us will be to seduce an audience who is not usually familiar with this kind of material from a publishing house such as L'Asiathèque. Hence the publication of the novel MEMBRANES, which is not only a high-quality work by a wonderful storyteller, but also offers cross readings on original issues. To us, this seems the perfect way to draw in future readers.

    Another challenge we are facing is that of the small number of French translators who are familiar with Taiwanese literature and society and the presence of different Taiwanese languages in literature from the island. This question was of particular pertinence while working on the oeuvre of Kan Yao-Ming, an author we particularly admire. However, our ambition is to work with young and talented translators and we are not afraid to experiment in order to recreate the same multilingual and multicultural textures we find in the original text.

    As for the rights market, since we have only just launched the series and L'Asiathèque is still not considered a publisher of general contemporary literature, it has not been easy to get a place and gain influence in the financial negotiation for the rights to contemporary works with big potential. We hope that the future success of our collection will allow us to simplify these procedures.

    A final problem is of course related to the funding needed to run a project like ours. It is difficult in the early stages to accurately assess the size of our potential readership and any financial investment is a risk. Hopefully, we will be able to access French and Taiwanese cultural grants to help us in this regard.

    But whatever the challenges, we are very excited about the road ahead and we can't wait to introduce to French readers the richness of Taiwanese literature.

  • Dec 12, 2014
    Taiwanese Literature Off the Page
    by Darryl Sterk

    For me, until the summer of 2011, Taiwan literature had mostly been 'on the page', so to speak. I'd been translating for the Taipei Chinese Pen for several years. The Pen would send me an essay and a story, and I would translate it, rewrite it several dozen times and send it to the editor and proofreader for suggestions or corrections, which I would mostly ignore before going on to rewrite it again. But in the summer of 2011, I met Gray Tan and was soon engaged to translate a sample of Wu Ming-Yi's THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES about a trash vortex in the Pacific. Little did I know I would soon be engulfed in a vortex of activities related to literary translation. I kept translating in my own fashion. But in time, I also had to do a lot of extra-textual events, for which I wasn't exactly trained. I was a Sinologist, writing my dissertation on post-war Taiwanese film and fiction. Ask anyone doing a Ph.D. on contemporary literature and you'll hear a lot about critical readings of different kinds: Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, New Historicist, whatever. When I got my Ph.D., I was proud of how 'critical' I had become and how well I was able to 'read'. But for better or for worse, there was no time for critical rants about capitalism in the extra-textual activities which became a natural extension of my translation of THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES. Indeed, the novel was itself partly a capitalist commodity and my job was to promote it. A Ph.D. is no practice for promote things and was worried that I wouldn't be able to do it. Luckily, Gray Tan picked the right book, particularly for me. THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES is easy to be enthusiastic about, and the writer, as I soon discovered, is a really nice guy. Wu Ming-Yi's environmental concern is something I share and his scientific knowledge, of tiger butterflies, Moltrechi's tree frogs and albino banyan trees, simply blows me away. The audiences I addressed were mostly people who love literature and care about the environment. Promotion has never been easier.

    So what extra-textual activities did I have to undertake? Actually, 'where' would be a better question. When Gray Tan sold the English translation rights to Harvill Secker in November of 2011, it was a milestone. Several dozen Taiwanese novels had been published in English before, but all with university or boutique presses like Columbia University Press or the Gay Sunshine Press, which published Howard Goldblatt's translation, CRYSTAL BOYS. Wu Ming-Yi was the first Taiwanese writer to be taken on by a major English language trade publisher. Naturally, the success story made waves and a year and a half later, when I delivered the final draft to the editor, the Ministry of Culture decided to organize what I took to calling a World Book Tour. Actually it was only to North America, but it was still a Big Deal. In the space of several weeks I committed myself to three intercontinental trips: New York and Toronto in October 2013, San Francisco in February 2014 and Montreal in May 2014.

    As soon as I got to New York I paid a visit to the offices of Random House, where Lexy Bloom and the folks in charge of the Vintage Pantheon imprint—which the American edition of THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES bears—are located. Wu Ming-Yi had arrived from Germany, where he was attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. We had a conversation about how to market the novel, focusing not only on the Taiwanese community in North America but also on readers of speculative or fantastical fiction. After brief photo shoot, we went back to the hotel to rest a bit before the evening event, a speech at the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office. Wu Ming-Yi and I did a reading from the second chapter of the novel, which describes the traditional lifestyle of the people of Wayo Wayo and introduces Atile'i, the main character. I talked about the process of translation, comparing the different versions of specific sentences or passages from the translation and attempting to explain and justify my final version. We got a warm reception from the audience of about fifty, including a little old Jewish lady, who was there with a Taiwanese friend. I promised her I would send her a copy but promptly mislaid her address.

    After dinner with New York-based Taiwanese graduate students, we flew to Toronto to give a talk at my alma mater, the University of Toronto, on inspirations for the novel and its translation. I talked about the end of Thoreau's WALDEN, about the 'strong and beautiful bug' that comes out of the table made from apple wood, in reference to the stag beetle in THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES which Alice Shih pierces with a needle, only to discover it still alive several days later, pacing the void with its three pairs of legs. I gave an interview for the Toronto Star, which really gave us a nice write-up the next day. The following evening, we were on stage for the International Festival of Authors at the Harbourfront Centre with a Portuguese writer who was talking about translation even though he didn't know his translator, and who was intrigued by my translation of the Chinese word for penis into English in the scene where Dahu's father takes Dahu to the seaside and squeezes his little willy (not his cock, which, the Portuguese author observed, would have belonged in an entirely different novel).

    The second trip we took was to San Francisco, at the invitation of Professor Andrew Jones at Berkeley. We heard scholars talk about the legal and scientific ramifications of the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, which in THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES turns into a floating trash mountain that crashes into Taiwan's east coast. Occupying the high seas, which are under no nation's jurisdiction, the vortex is no one nation's responsibility. I talked about mythopoeia in the novel: the Atlantis myth of the people of Wayo Wayo is a moral fable about the ecological need for limits on human desire. We visited the People's Park, went past Ursula K. Le Guin's old house—Le Guin had written a blurb for THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES in which she said, 'Wu Ming-Yi treats human vulnerability and the world's vulnerability with fearless tenderness'—and saw an intrepid river otter at the seaside. A miracle. Before we left we heard that the city authorities were banning plastic bottles.

    The third trip we took was to Montreal for the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. We all had a good impression of the city itself, especially the bagels and the murals. The event we performed at the Blue Met went very well. We were interviewed by the lovely Yan Liang, who is also a writer and who works at the CBC. The questions she asked we had heard a dozen times before: What was the most difficult part to translate? Why the mixture of technical and lyrical? Where did the inspiration for the plot come from? And a bit more specifically: Why can the man with the compound eyes only observe, not intervene? Ming-Yi answered that the man is based on the Guanyin Bodhisattva, who, similarly observes the suffering of all sentient beings in the world without offering help.

    On all these trips, at all these events, I was called upon to interpret for Ming-Yi, which initially was quite a challenge. As a translator I had received no special training in interpreting. I never learned how to take notes. Thankfully, Ming-Yi divided his remarks into minute long chunks, which I was able to turn into comprehensible English. I'd read a lot about Ming-Yi and of course I was intimately familiar with THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES. After all the events we've done together I've learned even more, about his hardscrabble upbringing in a mall called the Chunghwa Market which was torn down several years before I made it to Taipei in 1995. About his university days in mass communication. About his environmental and literary baptism and his decision to become a novelist against his father's wishes. (Sadly, his father never lived to see his son become so successful.) About how he fell in love with butterflies and with Aldo Leopold, the great American observer of nature's rhythms. About how he wrote and organized sit-ins against a project to build a massive petrochemical refinery on a wetland! About the history of the environmental movement in Taiwan and the history of Taiwanese nature literature. About his plans for his next novel, a story of a bicycle thief that also tells of Taiwan's industrialization over the past several decades. After the fact, I think I am at least a competent Chinese-English interpreter for Wu Ming-Yi. (Gwennaël Gaffric, who did his Ph.D. dissertation on Wu Ming-Yi's writing, would be the man to interpret into French.)

    Was the World Tour worth it? I think of it in Buddhist terms, as planting seeds. Some seeds will not sprout, others will grow beyond your wildest imagination. Some of those seeds must be silently growing as I type, even though it feels like we are going through a lull in the buzz we generated from last October to May of this year. Wu Ming-Yi and I were invited to a literary festival in Burma, but were both too busy to go: maybe next year. There's been talk of taking us around Asia, to Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore. THE MAN WITH THE COMPOUND EYES is a great novel and might go on to become a sleeper hit. As it's said in Chinese, one tells ten, and ten tell a hundred; I've been sending one copy to ten, hoping that ten will send copies to a hundred. I've sent several paperbacks to Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, and to anyone I can think of who likes speculative fiction and who is concerned about environmental issues. I'm still looking for the address of that little old Jewish lady from New York.

    Christmas is coming up: I have a great present idea for you.