What then of us, the eight fellows who had come so far to talk about the challenges we face in our own countries? Dave Haysom, a translator from Chinese into English and editor of the Chinese literary magazine, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, and Gloria Masdeau, a Spanish-born editor and rights seller at the Beijing publishing house Shanghai 99, talked about the difficulties of getting Chinese-language works published in the West. The English-language editors – myself, Janie Yoon from Anansi in Canada and Johanna Castillo from Atria in the US – spoke of readers’ reluctance to encounter translations; whether this might now be changing; and how we as publishers seek to overcome it. My company, Portobello Books, has had great success in the past years with a number of translated titles, most notably Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which has sold more than 150,000 copies in the UK alone. There have been big successes too for other UK publishers, with “Ferrante Fever” and “Knausgaard Mania” improving the visibility of literary fiction in translation. A widely quoted study commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize found that literary fiction in translation is actually on average outselling literary fiction publishing in English. Michel Van de Waart, an editor at De Arbeiderspers in Holland, spoke of a growing insularity in the Dutch market, which is nonetheless much more open to translation (14%) than either the UK or the US (3%). In Thailand, where Sirithada Kongpha founded her publishing house, Legend Books, the market for literary fiction is very small, and there is little or no support from the Thai government. Bookstores are closing, as they are worldwide, and magazines are generally only. The South Korean market fares a little better, with 21% of titles translated (43% of which are from Japan; 23% from the US; 8% from the UK). But according to Jungha Song from Sigongsa, a law fixing book discounts at a maximum of 10% of their recommended retail price in perpetuity is driving readers to second hand bookstores and hampering publishers’ profits. Finally, New York-based scout Bettina Schrewe spoke of helping publishers around the world discover and acquire the best new American writers, a job which sounded both exhilarating and exhausting.
A well-run fellowship is an exchange of expertise between multiple cultures, so after we had finished talking for two days about our own books, careers, and cultures, we sat down to listen. In Encounter, a bookstore-cum-cafe in the Zhongshan District, we heard short pitches from Taiwanese translators, rights sellers, book reviewers, and critics. It was literary speed dating, with a bell rung every five minutes pushing us on to the next table and the next proposition. Taiwanese literature is as diverse and varied as that of any other country, but among the books I heard about there were a number of notable confluences: a return to questions of the environment and its protection; an unusually high number of novels set in coffee shops; short story collections sell (they struggle in the UK); and illustrated books are thriving.
I returned to England after two weeks in Taiwan to find things much as I had left them: dark and cold, Trump-ridden. The London underground was chaotic and aggressive, whereas Taipei’s metro had been smooth, efficient, and polite. Nothing tasted as good in those weeks as gua bao had, and I missed both the other fellows and my hosts. In idle moments I found myself searching for Taipei on Instagram and dreaming of going back to open a coffee shop of my own. As a publisher abroad, your hope is to discover something remarkable you can bring home. In Taipei, I had heard about one novel over and over again – Wang Ting-Kuo’s My Enemy’s Cherry Tree – first from the Chinese translator of Alice Munro, and later from journalists, students, and our hosts. Back in London, homesick for somewhere that is not my home, I sent this novel to two readers whose taste I trust.
I brought a number of things back with me from Taiwan: a green stone found on a beach in Hualien; hand-forged Chinese characters from a foundry in the ramshackle district of Datong; a lifelong love of gua bao; and new friendships forged with the other fellows and with my hosts. Of these, Wang Ting-Kuo’s novel is the only thing I can share with you. We’ll be publishing the English translation in 2018. Meanwhile, if you have the chance, go.