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  • Jul 17, 2017
    From Familiar Strangers to Friends: On Promoting Taiwanese Literature in Translation in Thailand and Vietnam (II)
    by Itzel Hsu

    Vietnam: Remaking Taiwan’s Reputation

     

    Vietnam’s situation is similar to Thailand’s to a certain extent. Vietnamese readers show significant interest in Sinophone culture, and their country’s complex history with China has motivated the development of a sizable group of Chinese speakers. Books in translation also hold a prominent share of the Vietnamese market, within which books from the Chinese market have been gradually catching up to Anglo-European translations in terms of popularity. Unfortunately, Taiwanese books can claim even less visibility here than in Thailand.

     

    Also at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, I had the chance to meet with editors from Nha Nam, a major Vietnamese publishing house. They expressed the wish to know more about Taiwanese books, in the hopes that Taiwanese titles might add an innovative edge to the Chinese-language titles they offer; most Vietnamese readers know of no Taiwanese authors beyond Giddens Ko.

     

    While Nha Nam expressed positive interest in Taiwanese literature, for most Vietnamese readers, Taiwan is a place both familiar and strange. It is frequently a source for negative news – Vietnamese girls who faced abuse after marrying Taiwanese men, Vietnamese laborers being cheated in Taiwan, arrogant Taiwanese factory owners, or Taiwanese companies in Vietnam causing water pollution so bad it resulted in major protests. Sometimes I wonder how much interest there could still be in Taiwan by now. 

     

    Gidden Ko’s popularity in Vietnam was significantly buoyed by the adaptation of his story into the movie You’re the Apple of My Eye. His tales of adolescent love and lost were easily accessible to general readers, with Gidden’s unique authorial voice adding an extra aspect of freshness. I can say with confidence that Gidden’s work was able to catch Vietnamese readers’ attention because his popularity in the Chinese-language market motivated production of the movie, and because he told tales that resonate with readers’ commonplace experiences. His Taiwanese identity was no more than a line on his résumé.

     

    Sometimes, well-intentioned friends at Thai or Vietnamese publishing houses will make promotion suggestions based on their own understanding of Taiwanese books; they’d love to know about new Taiwanese titles on business management, the business memoirs of influential Taiwanese entrepreneurs, or books on new trends in the Asian economy. Of course, it would be ideal if those entrepreneurs were heads of famous international businesses, and their memoirs could be useful to young people, and if books on economic trends focused on development, trade deals, or economic integration. In short, these editors’ suggestions are founded on the belief that Taiwanese people really know how to make money. 

     

    While we can’t claim that their understanding of Taiwan is inaccurate, it is true that structural problems in Taiwanese society have pushed the business management genre down a path different from what they might expect. In Taiwan, domestic bestsellers in business management tend to focus on stocks and investment strategy, while the renown of most successful businessmen is usually limited to the island. Most titles don’t say much about practically successful business methods, while books on management and economic trends tend to be translations from English or Japanese. 
     

    Familiar Strangers

     

    The most profound impression left on me by the abovementioned meetings was that for neighbor nations who interact on a regular basis, we know comparatively little about each other. From this we may suggest that the obstacles to promoting Taiwanese books in these markets are not technical – preparing suitable translations, and the like – but related to national brand management and the depth of our communication. How do we make Taiwan more visible and more relatable to these readers? How do we bring forth those unique aspects that differentiate Taiwanese work from Chinese work? How do we get to know each other better, so that we may find spiritual sustenance in each other’s culture? 

     

    In this effort, we literary agents must rely on outside support. I have to mention the Taiwanese government’s “New Southbound Policy,” which has gathered energy from the entire government, and provided us with significant assistance. As our Thai and Vietnamese neighbors become aware of our good intentions in the political sphere, and decide on Taiwan as a vacation destination, cultural communication will inevitably improve, motivating more and greater chances for rights sales. 

     

    And yet, governmental support is not enough. Only recently, I had the chance to connect with the Vietnamese and Thai translators of the well-known Taiwanese author Wen-Yung Hou. The Thai translator, Mr. Anurak Kitpaiboonthawee, is a household name in the field of Chinese translation, while the Vietnamese translator is the famous Vietnamese author Trang Ha, who studied abroad in Taiwan. Not only were they both instrumental in helping their publishers acquire translation licenses, they proactively offered suggestions for book events to help readers learn about Taiwan. Their enthusiasm moved me deeply, and drove me to think more about what I myself could do beyond merely selling rights. I sincerely hope I can live up to the standards they have set. 
     

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    From Familiar Strangers to Friends: On Promoting Taiwanese Literature in Translation in Thailand and Vietnam  (I)

  • Jul 17, 2017
    From Familiar Strangers to Friends: On Promoting Taiwanese Literature in Translation in Thailand and Vietnam (I)
    by Itzel Hsu

    As consistent readers of this column probably know, even Chinese-language books that come with a complete English translation have a much easier time finding audiences in Asian countries than in Europe or America. The reasons are exactly what you’d expect: better cultural and geographic proximity make the exchange of ideas quicker and smoother, while greater populations of Chinese learners create greater demand. Yet in the process of promotion, we often find that bottlenecks can emerge even in markets where prospects seem strong. Here, I would like to examine two particularly interesting case studies: Thailand and Vietnam. 

     

    Thailand: Competing with Publishers in China and Around the Globe

     

    In 2015, after only six short months working as a literary agent, I flew to Germany to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. There I turned several email relationships into personal relationships, including with rights managers from Amarin, one of Thailand’s most influential publishers. I knew that as a comprehensive publisher, they put out all kinds of books, yet I was very surprised to hear them say that they were expanding their list of Chinese books in translation. 

     

    Thai interest in China has a long history, motivated in recent years by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s enthusiastic promotion of Chinese language learning. Their bestseller lists frequently feature Chinese kung fu epics, romances, and novels adapted for television; even Taiwanese light novels have found enthusiastic young readers, and established its own place beside domestic and Japanese counterparts. The fact that a major publisher like Amarin decided to move into an already competitive market has two major implications; first, that Chinese books in translation can be profitable, and second, that their market still has room to grow. 

     

    Thailand is an ideal market for the promotion of Chinese-language books. It boasts a large number of readers familiar with Chinese literature, as well as editors and translators who read Chinese, and can appraise Chinese manuscripts directly. Even a rights manager who doesn’t speak Thai need only to find the right book and prepare introductory materials in Chinese and English to make a play to sell Thai rights. 

     

    Given such excellent conditions, could Amarin become a major buyer of Taiwanese copyrights? The answer is, probably not. With the exception of a few publishing houses that consistently published Taiwanese literature, most houses that work with Chinese-language books have their attention firmly trained on China, where single print runs can stretch into six or seven figures, viewings on screen adaptations of books regularly move into eight figures, while books about successful, high-value business figures can also amass significant returns. Even if such blockbuster successes in the Chinese market can’t be copied to the same degree in Thailand, they create such significant public dialogue that works from Taiwan appear to pale in comparison. 

     

    There are other kinds of publishers in Thailand who prioritize good content over everything else. While they do not necessarily target Chinese-language books, their orientation makes them important potential buyers. Publishers like these exemplify in a specific and subtle way the nature of the translated literature market in Thailand – a high percentage of works translated from other countries and regions (America, Europe, and East Asia, among others), spread through many different genres. Grabbing the attention of such cosmopolitan, omnivorous readers involves competing with the best books in the world.
     

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    From Familiar Strangers to Friends: On Promoting Taiwanese Literature in Translation in Thailand and Vietnam  (II)

  • 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!