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WE, THE LABORERS
By Lin Ya-Ching
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
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  • Observations on the Current State of Taiwanese Books in Japan
    Jul 17, 2020 / By Ellie Huang ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    Japan had been a major country for literary translation since the Meiji period, actively introducing works from Europe and America. However, since the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in 1991, translated books have fallen out of favour for a variety of reasons, such as the high cost of producing translations which led to a slide in sales as younger people went into poverty, and a shift in general interest from the international to the domestic. Although there has been no shortage of discussion and ongoing research, ultimately, it is safe to say that it has been a sluggish 30 years for translated books. In the last five years, there has been a profound sense of crisis among translators, editors and their counterparts. They have banded together across different language families and gradually formed discussions and a movement popularising translated literature from abroad, to the point where The Best Translation Award has been established, and a lot of Japanese publishers have steadily regained interest in translated works.    

     

    From left: Bungei "Korean and Japanese Feminism", "China’s Sci-Fi Revolution", Hon no Zasshi, Gunzō

     

    By chance, the June 2020 issues of the literary magazine Gunzō (published by Kodansha) and the publishing news outlet Hon no Zasshi featured special editions on “Translated Fiction” and “Publishing Translations Today!” respectively. The newly revised quarterly magazine Bungei (meaning “fiction”, published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha) also forged forward on this front, with its Autumn 2019 issue on “Korean and Japanese Feminism” that featured fiction translated from Korean, and its Spring 2020 issue on “China’s Sci-Fi Revolution” covering translated Chinese novels. These issues not only included a lot of newly translated fiction and essays, but also book reviews, discussions and exclusive interviews. In the 86 years since the magazine was first published, this was the first time an issue had been reprinted three times, with a total print-run of more than 10,000 copies, eventually marking a small step forward in the craze for translated works from Asia.

     

    I will combine the topics raised by the literary magazines above with my own observations from the last few years, as well as the current state of publishing in terms of individual books.

    In South Korea, female writers make up over 60% of authors and there is a strong emphasis on the difficulties faced by modern women in a traditional society, whether they be struggles at home, in the workplace or with their partners. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is an early example, and more recent novels like Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 also explore the plight of the individual in society. From writers in Chinese, there has been a lot of fantasy, crime and other genre fiction, with bestsellers such as The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu, and The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei all sparking a lot of discussion. By contrast, while there are also plenty of translated Taiwanese books in Japan, they tend to cover a multitude of diverse subjects (which can also be said to be one of Taiwan’s specialities) and can be divided into three genres: poetry, literary novels and indigenous literature. Among these, there aren’t many titles which are able to be both literary and popular, to achieve the sales numbers and renown that attract widespread attention.

     

    The edition of Gunzō mentioned above interviewed 70 authors, critics, publishers, academics and cartoonists, asking each of these people from across the industry to suggest one book they recommend translating. There was only one title from a Taiwanese author, Wu Ming-yi’s The Illusionist on the Skywalk. 12 people recommended Korean books, while three recommended books from Mainland China. Over the last two years, Tai-tai Books has worked tirelessly to sell Japanese rights to 16 Taiwanese titles which is almost miraculous, especially given that Taiwanese literature is relatively niche in the Japanese mainstream market. However, there is still a lot of room for future expansion.

     

    Considerations about publishing foreign translations are often dragged down by concerns of localisation and transnationalism. Books by famous authors or with strong “local Taiwanese characteristics” are often seen as the first choice for their portrayal of Taiwanese culture, but for overseas readers this emphasis on setting can serve as a barrier, making it difficult for them to empathise with the story and find it interesting to read. Ideally, the book can attract widespread attention while retaining its local characteristics, and achieve that universality which transcends national borders. Translating so-called “untranslatable” local traits can take more time and energy, often depending on the assistance of editors, reviewers and other translators. In The Illusionist on the Skywalk, the Chunghwa Market and crowded housing communities are shared memories for both Taiwanese and Japanese people, and there should be even more opportunities for boundary-crossing contemporary novels like this going forward.

     

    From left: The Tan Ting-pho Code, A Map of Taiwanese Monsters, A Carpenter and His Taiwan Exposition

     

    Since Taiwan and Japan are close both geographically and historically, they have a relatively special relationship compared to that of other countries and languages. A lot of books in the last ten years have explored the culture and history of life in Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). These might initially seem like they would be a good fit to promote in Japan, but Japanese authors have already written a myriad of books on the subject which makes it extremely difficult to make an impact by bringing anything new to the table. Take A Carpenter and His Taiwan Exposition by Chen Ruojin for example, which Tai-tai books was selling the rights to earlier this year. The book is a collection of the three hundred official seals from the Taiwan Exposition which was held in 1935 to commemorate the first forty years of Japanese colonial rule. It is the first time these historic materials have been revealed, attracting historical researchers, collectors and people in design, giving the book a wide range of entry points which has become an important factor for enticing editors. However, we still haven’t signed a contract with a Japanese publisher, the key to making this final sale will be finding a publisher who can produce and sell high-end picture books and hold internal meetings to make accurate print cost calculations.

     

    Elsewhere, A Map of Taiwanese Monsters builds on the existing popularity of Japan’s monster trend, while The Tan Ting-pho Code takes a piece of Taiwan and Japan’s shared art history which is unknown to most Japanese people and captures the atmosphere of Taiwanese society after the war but before martial law was declared. These books have potential in Japan but might not be suitable for other countries, this is what makes the Japanese market relatively unique for Taiwanese publishers. From this, we can see the importance of accurately selecting books based on individual markets.

     

    As someone who promotes Chinese-language books in Japan, I am often asked “which books have the best chance of succeeding in Japan?” Regardless of subject-matter, we must return to each book and decide whether it’s enticing and which points or aspects of it will appeal to local readers. It’s best if there are a lot of key elements that different kinds of readers will find moving, and it’s crucial to base recommendations on the editor’s interests and the publisher’s specific direction. As a rule, it tends to be a case of paying attention to Japanese publishing trends and waiting for opportunities, then making a move when the chance arises.

     

    Members of my team at Tai-tai Books do long stays in Tokyo to maintain a stronghold in Japan. In the last few years of going back and forth, there’s been an increase in outstanding Taiwanese writers and books across all genres, prompting Japanese publishers to pay close attention. According to them, however, progressive thinking on the part of Japanese readers might be what is most lacking at present. For example, Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage last year has prompted discussion of the subject in Japan, just as Japanese LGBTQ fiction exploring gender equality has really started to develop. If we can keep our finger on the pulse, our prospects for the future should look very bright. 

  • Malaysian-Chinese Literature in Taiwan (II)
    Jun 15, 2020 / By Woo Kam-Loon ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    Read Previous Part: Malaysian-Chinese Literature in Taiwan (I)

    Like Lee Yung Ping (李永平), Zhang Guixing (張貴興) is also from Borneo and rose to fame in Taiwan’s literary scene with his novel Capturing the Tiger. He developed his own distinct style, as evident in Herds of Elephants (published in Japanese by Jimbun Shoin) and The Primate Cup, which were both sensations in Taiwanese literary circles and earned him notoriety far and wide. Published in 2018, Wild Boars Cross the River blends history, legend and folklore to tell the story of an agonising period in Sarawak history. In Taiwan, it has been hailed as one of the best novels in recent years and went on to win the Golden Tripod Award, Taiwan Literature Award, China Times Open Book Award, and sell French rights!

    Wild Boars Cross the River

    Wild Boars Cross the River

    Ng Kim Chew (黃錦樹), whose titles include Lightless and Dreams, Pigs, and Dawn (published in Japanese by Jimbun Shoin), has attracted attention for his courage to experiment with style and tackle challenging subject-matters. He has won numerous literary prizes and his works From Island to Island, Memorandums of the South Seas People's Republic, Fish and Rain explore national Malaysian-Chinese political disputes.

    Lightless

    Li Zishu (黎紫書) immediately became a sensation when “Maggot Nightmare” was published, and her short story collections Gateway to Heaven, Wild Buddha, The Years of Remembrance portray Malaysian-Chinese families, ethnicity and nationality using magical realism and collective memory. Her new work Through Customs and Places elegantly tells the story of a city and a blind girl, it contemplates the fates of ethnically Chinese people with low social status in Malaysian society and how they flow like a river through the country’s small towns. 

    Elsewhere, Ho Sok Fong’s (賀淑芳) story “Never Mention It Again” touches on the taboo subject of conflict between religion and Malaysian-Chinese shamans, Maze Carpet and Lake Like a Mirror concisely convey in-depth female perspectives on desire, society and religion. Lake Like a Mirror was translated into English and published by Granta Books in the UK and Two Lines Press in the US.

    After being subjected to colonial rule by the West from Portugal, the Netherlands and Great Britain, as well as three years and eight months under Japanese rule, Malaysia found that the various segregation policies implemented by the colonising forces had caused conflict between each of the main ethnic groups. Clashes had arisen following independence, while at the same time the Malaysian government was facing military challenges from Malay, Islamic and Indian forces, among others.

    Malaysia sits on the equator, with its hot, humid climate and rubber plantations, oil palm fields and tropical rainforest. Although it has gone from being a colony to a post-colonial state, the Malay, Indian, Malaysian-Chinese and indigenous populations each face their own set of conflicts involving social status, class, wealth, politics, religion and language, all caused by deep historical wounds and memories. Their unique stories are theirs alone, and as the visibility of Malaysian-Chinese literature overseas continues to increase we can look forward to seeing how it develops in the future.

  • Malaysian-Chinese Literature in Taiwan (I)
    May 29, 2020 / By Woo Kam-Loon ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    Since the 1960s, many Malaysian-Chinese high school graduates have chosen to do their higher education in Taiwan so they can continue studying in Chinese (they’ve also benefitted from the Kuomintang’s Overseas Chinese Education Policy). The federation of Malaysia was formed on 16 September 1963, although it had achieved independence several years earlier in 1957. 

    The Malaysian-Chinese students who came to Taiwan, such as Shang Wanyun (商晚筠), Lee Yung Ping (李永平), Zhang Guixing (張貴興) and the poet Lin Lü (林綠), devoted themselves to creating literature and went on to win national prizes and publish books as well as literary criticism. The emergence of these authors and the award-winning works that they published, established Taiwan as the first domain of Malaysian-Chinese literature. 

    We cannot forget that first generation of scholars: Zheng Liangshu (鄭良樹), Lim Chooi Kwa (林水檺), and the poet Li Youcheng’s (李有成) Constellation Poetry Society (1964-), whose members included Chen Huihua (陳慧樺), Lin Lü, Dan Ying (淡瑩) and Wang Runhua (王潤華), among others. Or later, the group of literary friends who formed the Divine Land Poetry Society (1976-1980, Woon Swee Oan (溫瑞安), Fang E’zhen (方娥真), Huang Hunxing (黃昏星), Zhou Qingxiao (周清嘯) etc); or Pan Yutong (潘雨桐), who won the third United Daily News Book Prize in the early 1980s; or Ng Kim Chew (黃錦樹), Chen Dawei (陳大為), Zhong Yiwen (鍾怡雯) and Lin Xingqian (林幸謙) who each won major literary awards and brought their combination of creativity and research experience to Taiwan’s education system. At the same time, there were also humanities scholars such as Tee Kim Tong (張錦忠), Lin Jianguo (林建國), Wei Yueping (魏月萍) and Gao Jiaqian (高嘉謙), who wrote from a critical perspective on contemporary art, literature and historical research. 

    By the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when Lee Tian Poh (李天葆) and Ho Sok Fong (賀淑芳) became well-known and Li Zishu (黎紫書) rapidly rose to fame after winning both the United Daily News Book Prize and the China Times Literature Award, Malaysian-Chinese writers had already been living in Taiwan for 50 years (1967-present) and established a strong reputation. 

    Key examples of fiction from this era include the novels of Shang Wanyun (1952-1995), who, following her untimely death, left behind Stupid Ah-Lian and The Seven-Coloured Water Flower, as well as the unfinished works Fleas and Earthly Fireworks.


    Lee Yung Ping

    Lee Yung Ping (1947-2017) became famous following the publication of his story “A La-tzu Woman”, then Retribution: The Jiling Chronicles (published in Japanese by Jimbun Shoin and English by Columbia University Press) shocked the Taiwanese literary scene. More recently, his two-part novel The End of the River (part one: Flowing Upstream, part two: Mountains) and Zhu Ling’s Adventures in Wonderland (Japanese translation in progress) have portrayed the treacherous nature of Borneo’s tropical rainforest. His unfinished work, The Portrait of a Swordswoman, pays tribute to the world of Wuxia, continuing in the spirit of Tang Dynasty legends and chivalric novels.


    The Portrait of a Swordswoman

     

    Read on: Malaysian-Chinese Literature in Taiwan (II)