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WE, THE LABORERS
By Lin Ya-Ching
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
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  • Taiwanese Crime Fiction: Analysing How It’s Read, Written and Published (II)
    Sep 07, 2020 / By Sean Hsu ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    Read Previous Part: Taiwanese Crime Fiction: Analysing How It’s Read, Written and Published (I)

    In 1988, Lin Fo’er, the publisher of Mystery Magazine and founder of Lin Bai Publishing House (as well as a writer and poet in his own right), launched the Lin Fo’er Mystery Award. Even though it only ran for four years, it was still the first ever Taiwanese literature prize specifically for short stories in crime writing. In the same spirit, the Taiwan Detective Club was founded in 2002 (renamed the Mystery Writers of Taiwan in 2008) and in 2003 launched the Mystery Writers of Taiwan Award, which similarly encourages and nurtures potential in up-and-coming short story writers of crime fiction. Authors who have started their careers here include Mr Pets, Wen Han and Chan Ho-Kei, the latter of whom has gone on to sell international rights in many territories, his full-length novel The Borrowed has sold rights in more countries than any other Chinese-language crime novel to date.  

    The Borrowed

    The Soji Shimada Mystery Award was established in 2008 and is awarded to debut crime writers for full-length novels. The most recent winner was Tang Chia-Bang for The Wild Ball Club Incident in 2019. A penetrating portrayal of Taiwan, it blends history, railways and national baseball and has received interest from publishers in Korea and Japan. Publishers are also committed to developing new talent, for example Apex Press published Chopsticks, a short story collection of suspense crime with a supernatural slant, by five authors from Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. Sharp Point Press encourages authors to combine crime and folklore in light novels such as My Sister Is A Teenage Bone Collector 1: Never Say Die, as a reflection of the younger generation’s abundant enthusiasm for diverse works which push boundaries and explore new subject-matters.  

    After absorbing so many creative elements of crime fiction from Japan and the West, Taiwanese authors initially found themselves overemphasising plot twists, or conspicuously playing into detective stereotypes, or over-researching societal issues. This mere imitation of the genre alienated Taiwanese readers. However, during the process of steadily internalising the components of crime fiction, authors began to realise that Taiwan’s distinctive history and geography generated a complexity and inclusivity which resonated with local readers, and gave it a niche in international markets. The latest manifestation of Taiwanese crime fiction today usurps cold-blooded violence with strong emotional ties, it seeks a to portray an honest and original perspective on crime and human nature, thus drawing up its own classification for itself bit by bit.

    In recent years, the Taiwanese government has been collaborating with production studios on developing key cultural projects for film and television, with several crime titles on the list. In addition to these original adaptations (such as the recent Netflix series The Victim’s Game), it will be worth watching to see whether this developmental collaboration between authors, publishers and production studios will bring with it any new impacts or growth for Taiwan’s entire cultural ecosystem.  

  • Taiwanese Crime Fiction: Analysing How It’s Read, Written and Published (I)
    Aug 28, 2020 / By Sean Hsu ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    Taiwanese crime fiction as a genre is still a relatively recent development as local novelists gradually internalised international influences. The genre, which literally translates as “mystery” but correlates more closely with “crime fiction” in English, encompasses crime, mystery, detective, thriller, suspense, and police procedural novels among others. The term may have originated in 1984 with the initial publication of Mystery Magazine (published 1984-2008). The magazine chose the term “mystery” as the Japanese publishing industry was already using it to describe the genre, so readers would relate it to this existing definition. It went on to inspire many authors to write in the style pioneered by Seichō Matsumoto.    

    At this point, there had been two main branches of crime fiction in Taiwan. The first was led by Eastern Publishing Co., who translated the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin, adapting them into children’s stories which became shared childhood memories for anyone who grew up in the 1960s-1980s. The second was during the 1980s when many Western novels were translated into Chinese, regardless of whether they were classics or commercial fiction. All kinds of books were serialised in newspapers and magazines, or compiled into series such as those by Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Seichō Matsumoto etc., which increasingly helped distinguish crime writing as its own genre. 

    The craze became even more popular in the 1990s and crime fiction (in terms of both publishers and readers) gradually divided into two main factions: Western and Japanese. Crown, Doghouse and Wikiwand were the three biggest crime fiction publishers in the early 1990s. The latter two publishers placed substantial emphasis on Japanese works, illustrating that Japan’s similar culture and value system resonated on a greater level with Taiwanese readers. Between the late 1990s and early 2000s there was yet another readjustment phase, led by four exceptional publishers at their respective publishing houses: Hung-Tze Jan at Yuan-Liou Publishing, Tang Nuo at Faces Publishing, Sun Hongfu at Wisdom and Knowledge Publishing, and Chen Huihui at Business Weekly Publications (and the recently founded independent imprint Apex Press). These four publishers systematically worked their way through their expanding Western and Japanese crime fiction networks, inviting literary critics and authors to write introductions and afterwards for their titles, as well as collaborating with bookstores to host events and discount fairs. This, on top of the global popularity of bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code and well-known TV series such as CSI, meant that the sheer enthusiasm for reading and publishing crime fiction began to extend to creating it too.

    Read on: Taiwanese Crime Fiction: Analysing How It’s Read, Written and Published (II)

  • 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.