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  • 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.