• Nativist Literature: the Wish to Know Oneself (I)
    Dec 14, 2021 / By Chu Yuhsun ∥ Translated by Joshua Dyer

    Nativist literature (sometimes translated as “native-soil” literature) is one of the most representative schools of Taiwan literature, and one of the most difficult to categorize. In the 100 years since the birth of modern Taiwan literature in the 1920’s there have been at least three different concepts of what constitutes nativist literature:


    1. Literature written in a local Taiwan language. This normally indicates Taiwanese, Hakka, or the language of one of Taiwan’s aboriginal groups. This definition does not include literature written in the languages of the colonizing powers, namely Japanese or Mandarin.

    2. Literature that takes the struggles of the lower classes of society as its subject. This definition carries leftist overtones. Subject matter often focuses on the lives of farmers, fishermen, miners, and urban laborers. Often utilizes the techniques of social realism.

    3. Literature that takes Taiwanese society, environment, and/or customs as its subject. This definition places no limit on language use, nor which classes of society are portrayed, so long as it is local to Taiwan. This is a literature with Taiwanese nationalist overtones, clearly demarcating Taiwan as a separate culture sphere from China.


    There is some overlap between these definitions, but each prioritizes different core concerns and values, and forefronts the viewpoints of different authors. The first view emphasizes language. The second emphasizes a critique of class structure. The third emphasizes Taiwanese national identity. Yet, in the final accounting, all of them share the implicit yearning for Taiwanese people to describe their own reality in their own language.


    Authors and readers from other countries may have difficulty understanding this yearning. An American or Japanese person might not feel the same kind of yearning to use their own language, or to describe their own society, because these are things that already happen quite naturally for them. Whereas, Taiwan has come under outside rule twice in the last century, and during those times it was unimaginable to do things what would seem perfectly natural in other countries.


    From 1895 until 1945, when Taiwan was a colony of the imperial Japan, it was impossible for Taiwanese to write about their own society in their own language. Any literary expression of Taiwanese-ness was viewed as political disloyalty. In 1945, control of Taiwan was passed to the Republic of China. At first, Taiwanese people believed they had been liberated from colonization, and could develop their own literature. They didn’t anticipate that the ruling party, the Kuomintang, would lose the Chinese civil war to the communists and be forced to retreat to Taiwan. As part of their plan to retake the mainland, the Republic of China government initiated a Oppose Communism/Remember the Motherland cultural policy that required authors to primarily write on subjects centered on China and Chinese culture. The government hoped that, through the persuasive power of literature, they could instill in Taiwanese people nationalistic feelings concerning the war effort. If, at this time, Taiwanese writers had “written about their own society in their own language” they would have once again been tagged as disloyal, and criticized for abandoning the goal of a unified China.


    Read On: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=139

  • Taiwan’s Yaoguai Literature (II)
    Nov 29, 2021 / By Hsieh Yi-An ∥ Translated by Joshua Dyer

    Read Previous Part: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=136


    Within yaoguai lies the hope that the younger generation can find their own way to approach their history and culture. Taiwan’s past, as it appears in yaoguai literature, is not conventional history — it is embellished by illusion. This is because the history passed on by this generation was no longer that of the nativist literature authors of the previous generation. There was no need for social realist representations of our native land. Instead we needed to generate interest in our culture, because we had to compete for the attention of Taiwanese readers who were fans of high-quality entertainment from Japan. These readers were already accustomed to viewing entertainment as something from a foreign source, so there was no particular advantage to being a local product. A book that wasn’t a fantastic read was bound to fail.


    Thus, yaoguai literature had to take on two seemingly contradictory objectives: it must simultaneously be aware of the depth of history while also satisfying the demand for entertainment. Yokai Dominate Old Taipei (臺北城裡妖魔跋扈), a series of novels by author Xiao Xiang Shen (瀟湘神) is one outstanding example. Set in a parallel universe version of Taiwan, the series utilizes a struggle between Japanese yokai and Taiwanese folk gods to mirror the dynamics of Taiwan’s colonization by Imperial Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This seminal series perfectly illustrates how Taiwanese yaoguai literature was birthed from the womb of Japanese yokai culture.


    The power of the historical consciousness inherent in yaoguai literature has made Taiwan of past eras the default backdrop for storytelling. Xiao Xiang Shen’s The Deadly Magic of the Golden Fiend (金魅殺人魔術), set in early 20th century Taiwan, replicates the multi-ethnic society of a commercial port town. Deftly blending the genres of yaoguai and detective stories, the novel can be viewed as a descendant of Japanese mystery writers like Kyogoku Natsuhiko (京極夏彥) and Mitsuda Shinzo (三津田信三).


    Yaoguai literature is a curious flower grown in a hothouse of cultural anxiety. When you read these books you will find that Taiwanese writers have a deep understanding of cultural dimensions of illusion, which enables them to address Taiwan’s cultural predicament within the medium of yaoguai, and to push the limits to which serious ideas can be developed within a format that also entertains. For example, Taipei Legend Studio’s series Daemon Tales touches on the relationship between yaoguai and contemporary faith. The series includes Chang An’s (長安) The Snake Lord: Bride of the Scalloped Mirror (蛇郎君:蠔鏡窗的新娘), Tien Yeh-Hsiang’s (天野翔) Water Spirit: Red Eyes Beneath the Bridge (水鬼:橋墩下的紅眼睛), and Xiao Xiang Shen’s Mô-sîn-á: The Mesmerized Giant (魔神仔:被牽走的巨人).[1] Each addresses modern resonances within a historical moment from the past century of Taiwan’s history. Xiao Xiang Shen’s Mô-sîn-á further bridges the gap between Taiwan’s yaoguai and Okinawa’s yokai, excavating deep layers of contemporary Taiwanese identity.


    Daemon Tales


    Visual media have also embraced yaoguai. There are yaoguai picture books from illustrator Chiaos Tseng (角斯), Guardienne (守娘), a graphic novel about a Qing Dynasty ghost by Nownow (小峱峱), and Tiker’s (提克) The Sister of the Bamboo Stool and Other Tales of the Supernatural (婆娑島妖事錄), which combines five yaoguai stories into a single graphic novel. Both of these are conscious responses to Taiwan’s unique history. Yaoguai may sound like a subject of pure fantasy, but in Taiwanese books, it is never separated from the historical past. For this reason, yaoguai is an ideal medium for interpreting Taiwanese history and culture.




    [1] Chang An is the pen name of Hsieh Yi-An, author of this article. –trans.

  • Taiwan’s Yaoguai Literature (I)
    Nov 29, 2021 / By Hsieh Yi-An ∥ Translated by Joshua Dyer

    Yaoguai literature primarily refers to the wave of original writing based on supernatural folk stories that has emerged in Taiwan since 2014. The adaptation of folk legends into fiction, of course, has a long history. Examples from the Japanese colonial period include Kho Peng-teng’s (許丙丁) The Lesser Investiture of the Gods (小封神) and Haruo Sato’s (佐藤春夫) The Legend of the Fan (女誡扇綺譚). More recently there has been Wang Chia-Hsiang’s (王家祥) Mô-sîn-á (魔神仔) and Li Ang’s (李昂) Visible Ghosts (看得見的鬼). It is only in recent years, however, that the trend of repackaging these folk tales has gained steam, with source materials ranging from the scary stories we all heard as children — “The Tiger Aunt”, “Mô-sîn-á,” and stories about water spirits — to more obscure stories from ancient texts such as “The Lantern Monkey,” and “The Sister of the Bamboo Stool.”


    These legends have been around for ages, so why has this new trend of supernatural literature suddenly taken hold?


    The answer can be traced back to the Sunflower Movement. For young people in Taiwan, the Sunflower Movement was not just a political movement — it was a cultural awakening. The generation that grew up after the end of martial law were shocked to discover how little they knew about their own culture. This generation was also anxious about its own lack of cultural impact. They had not yet had any pronounced impact within the cultural sphere, nor did they have any highly successful representatives within mainstream media. As a result, it was a generation that could not recognize its own image in the available media, which compounded the sense of being disconnected from their own culture.


    Traditional tales of the supernatural were a medium that just happened to be suited to resolving both of these problems.


    The term yaoguai was translated directly from the Japanese yokai, which refers to a class supernatural entities that include spirits and monsters. Originally Taiwan did not have a literary framework for these kinds of stories. Adopting the Japanese terminology connects the genre to a thread that runs throughout Japanese culture. Yokai is one of the deepest roots of Japanese folk tradition, and remains one of the most vital subjects in fiction and manga. Born in the 80’s and 90’s, the Sunflower Movement generation were obsessed with yokai, having grown up reading Japanese manga. By the 2010’s they had matured and developed their creative talents while remaining hardcore fans of manga. Before their cultural awakening they had been content to consume Japanese yokai stories. But after their cultural awakening, they couldn’t help but ask: does Taiwan have its own yokai?


    Indeed, Taiwan does have yokai, or, in the Taiwanese context, yaoguai. The current yaoguai craze got started in the area of textual research. Books like Yaoguai-ism by Taipei Legend Studio and Yaoguai Taiwan by Ho Ching-Yao helped to establish that yaoguai not only existed in Taiwan, but that there were quite a lot of them!


    From the moment they were published, these first books of yaoguai research were adopted as reference works by Taiwanese youth. Being familiar with yokai culture in Japan, they knew that after research comes creative work. Demonstrating the existence of yaoguai source material in Taiwan was merely the first step. The critical issue was how to use these sources to create outstanding works of yaoguai fiction, thereby bringing Taiwanese culture and history to the attention of more readers.


    Read On: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=137

  • Publishing Industry in Taiwan 2021 (II)
    Nov 23, 2021 / By Su Shin

    Read Previous Part: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=134

    Another topic of discussion in the ongoing pricing debates is the proposal of a fixed book price, which many independent booksellers see as a healthy long-term solution for dealing with aggressive online retail practices. As it currently stands, the government does offer various grants throughout the year to help ease the financial pressures on independent bookstores and other sectors of the publishing industry. Additionally, Taiwan introduced a Public Lending Right program in 2020, and books were granted VAT-exempt status in 2021 in a bid to help stabilize the industry. 

    Sales of eBooks represented 3.6% of the total book market in 2020. Their rise has been gradual, growing from 0.3% in 2012. Local digital platforms have also seen increases in revenue. Aside from direct-to-consumer sales, institutional digital archives and audiobooks are two important areas of development. Kobo (Japan) and Readmoo (Taiwan) are the dominant eBook devices. By engaging the readers in simple gamification — such as hosting reading marathons and rewarding users for writing reviews — Readmoo has been successful in obtaining and retaining readers’ attentions.  

    Photo: https://cindywume.com

    Photo: https://www.lacifraeditorial.com.mx 

    Despite the challenges posed to the international publishing scene by the pandemic, there have been many recent outstanding achievements by authors and illustrators from Taiwan. Lin Lian-En’s (林廉恩) Home and Animo Chen’s (阿尼默) Love Letter each received the 2021 Bologna Ragazzi award for fiction and poetry, respectively.  Also at Bologna, Cho Pei-Hsin (卓霈欣) was the winner of the International Award for Illustration. This prize, awarded by Grupo SM, comes with a publishing contract and a solo show at next year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair.  Page Tsou (鄒駿昇), who was awarded the same prize back in 2011, has since published two successful large format picture books with Templar and has established a strong career as a visual artist and curator. Illustrators Cindy Wume and Wooli Chen have been working on new picture books with various Canadian and British publishers such as Tundra Books, Macmillan, Otter-Barry Books, and Magic Cat Publishing. Julia Liu and Bei Lynn’s Leilong the Library Bus was published by New Zealand’s Gecko Press in the summer of 2021, and rights have also been sold to France, Korea, and Thailand. La Cifra Editorial, a publisher based in Mexico City, already has a small selection of picture books by Taiwanese authors, including Me has visto by Kuo Nai-Wen (郭乃文) and Zhou Jian-Xin (周見信), Al atardecer by Sun Hsin-Yu (孫心瑜), and Respiro feugo by Lai Ma (賴馬).

    Photo: https://zbfghk.org 

    Photo: https://www.esquire.tw/tab/524/id/36168

    In adult fiction, Wu Ming-Yi’s (吳明益) novels continue to sell foreign rights editions, which in turn increases his appeal to local audiences. Wu’s 2011 novel, The Man with the Compound Eyes, was brought to the stage by the German director Lukas Hemleb in April 2021, and the German edition of the novel will be published at a soon-to-be-determined date. The Illusionist on the Skywalk has been adapted twice, first into a pair of graphic novels by illustrators Ruan Guang-Min (阮光民) & Sean Chuang (小莊), and more recently into an award-winning TV series produced in collaboration with Taiwan Public Television Service. 

    Photo: Ghost Town (鬼地方), Kevin Chen, (Mirror Fiction, 2019)

    Ghost Town, Kevin Chen’s first novel in twelve years, has been successful both at home and abroad. It is told using multiple narrative voices that weave together family secrets, superstitions, the search for identity amid a clashing of cultures.  After having secured numerous literary awards, the book has sold foreign editions in English, Italian, French, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese. 

    Photo: An Island Where Red Spider Lilies Bloom (彼岸花が咲く島), Li Kotomi, (Bungeishunju, 2021)

    Li Kotomi (李琴峰) is a translator and novelist who was born in Taiwan in 1989 and then moved to Japan to study in 2013. She was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in June 2021 (a remarkable achievement considering Li began self-learning Japanese at the age of 15). Her prize-winning novel, An Island Where Red Spider Lilies Bloom, is set on a fictional matriarchal island positioned somewhere between Japan and Taiwan and poses questions about gender equality. She writes about sexual orientation and identity from a place of personal experience,  which has led some critics to name her as a literary successor to the late writer Qiu Miaojin, whom Li sites as an important influence.  

    The steady accumulation of international prize winners, successful foreign rights sales, and the increasingly common media tie-ins are all important steps towards a stronger and more confident collective Taiwanese identity. Although the devaluation of the industry causes lingering concerns, other developments such as eBook and audio-format uptake show good signs of audience expansion. Many of us are curious to see what effects on the industry the recent changes in regulations will bring, and we hope that additional laws will be enacted to cultivate a more stable publishing environment. 

    Many of the books mentioned above are available with English sample translations at the government-funded English-language platform Books from Taiwan (https://booksfromtaiwan.tw). There, you will find information on translation grants alongside regular updates on all aspects of our publishing industry. Finally, Taipei International Book Fair is planning to return in June 2022. For more information, please visit https://www.tibe.org.tw/en/.

  • Publishing Industry in Taiwan 2021 (I)
    Nov 23, 2021 / By Su Shin

    Over the past 18 months, Taiwan has appeared frequently in the global news. Escalating cross-straits tensions, the ongoing computer chip shortage, and Taiwan’s exemplary management of the Covid-19 pandemic all featured prominently in newsrooms around the world. Nevertheless, at the Taiwan pavilion we are often asked questions by those who feel they know little about our country and are curious to learn more about it.


    Photo: iStockphoto

    Taiwan has a population of around 23.5 million people.  As of 2021, the GDP per capita is USD $32,123.  It places 8th on a list of global competitiveness rankings.  The official language is Taiwanese Mandarin. For work written in this language, the Traditional Chinese character set is used (as it is in Hong Kong and Macau). This is distinct from the Simplified Chinese script used in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia. These are important differences to keep in mind when specifying editions and sales territories during the negotiation of rights deals. It is worth noting that conversion between the two writing systems is possible using text-editing software (hence the high rate of licensing exchanges among the Sinophone territories). 

    As with everywhere else, Covid-19 has left its impact on Taiwan; throughout the pandemic, as readers adjusted to various study and work from home routines, there has been a significant rise in booksellers and publishers working with e-commerce platforms . Podcasts, audiobooks, and eBooks have all grown in popularity. The industry more broadly, however, continues to stagnate. The value of the publishing industry in Taiwan in 2020 was around USD 680 million, a figure which represents a 2.79% year-on-year decrease and a 50% contraction since 2010.  

    In a difficult environment, Booksellers strive to build brand presences. Many curate online and offline events (e.g., book clubs, lectures, book launches, story-telling sessions, etc.), and others have further diversified their product range to include non-book items as well as offering food and drink services. Publishers, on the other hand, search for engaging content, develop media tie-ins, and strengthen collaborations with social-media influencers in an effort to expand readerships. 

    Nationwide, there are around 4,700 publishing houses (including government-related institutions and individuals registered to publish).  The industry is made up largely of small and medium size businesses; only 45 publishers have the capacity to publish more than 100 new titles per year. According to the National Central Library — the official body responsible for issuing ISBNs — 35,000 new titles were published in 2020. This number is a twenty-year low, and the pattern of decline observed over the past few years has not changed. A reduction in new titles from the large publishing groups has undoubtedly had a significant impact, although the correlation between those reductions and other publishers’ decreasing margins is not entirely clear. Some in the industry are alarmed by the statistics, but others see the situation as an opportunity to reform publishing practices and to think past long-held conventions that “bigger is better.”

    Foreign translations make up one quarter of all published titles  and are welcomed by readers (as evidenced by their permanent presence on bestseller lists). Acquisitions from Japan remain the most numerous, constituting 55% of 2020’s translated titles. In second and third place are the USA (22%) and the UK (8%). Buy-ins from Korea and China have been trending down slowly; they currently make up around 5% and 3% of the market, respectively. 

    The top five genres (by number of titles published) in 2020 were:

    • Languages/literature: 20.83%
    • Social studies: 15.99%
    • Art/Lifestyle: 15.53%
    • Science: 15.21%
    • Children’s Books: 7.86% 

    There has been a notable (and quite understandable) decrease in the numbers of newly published lifestyle/travel books, as international tourism is for the most part shut down. In their place, categories such as self-help, manga/graphic novels, and textbooks have seen their popularities rise. 

    The children’s book market is highly competitive but steady. Interestingly, although Taiwan is known for its low birth rate, parents are increasingly willing to spend more on resources to foster their children’s early development. 


    Photo: https://www.gvm.com.tw/article/75767

    There are over two-thousand stores across the country that sell books.  Half of these are bookshops; the majority of the other 50% are small vendors who sell stationery and reference books/exam prep tests. Non-traditional outlets such as museums, cafes, and supermarkets are not included in above figures. 


    Photo: https://meet.eslite.com/tw/tc/news/202102050001

    Eslite, one of the few bookstore chains that has been growing in recent years, received significant media attention in 2020 for its decision to permanently close nine branches, including its Dunhua store (famous for maintaining 24/7 opening hours). The business cited the negative effects of the pandemic as a primary reason for the restructuring, and it moved its 24-hr. service to the flagship store located in the Xinyi shopping district near Taipei 101. In the wake of these closures, Eslite has been focusing on opening new types of stores, including pop-up locations and collaborations with art galleries and department stores. Elsewhere, their overseas expansion continues apace: alongside the branch in Suzhou and the franchise branch in Tokyo, additional branches are set to open next year in HK and Malaysia. These new locations will add to the 42 existing Eslite branches in Asia.  


    Photo: Kingstone Tienmu Branch Facebook Page

    Kingstone, another large bookstore chain, likewise announced plans to close branches in 2020. However, the immediate show of support from their fans, which resulted in a dramatic increase in sales at the three chosen stores, meant that the plans were put on hold (although the branches’ futures remain uncertain).    

    Important e-commerce platforms for the publishing industry include Books.com (part of the Uni President Group conglomerate), Momo, and the Singaporean platform Shopee (a relative newcomer to the market). Amazon does not have an active presence in Taiwan. The never-ending aggressive price competition of books on these platforms has long caused concerns. The standard discount for new titles is 21%, but last year Momo organized 34% sales on all books for several of their one-day-only seasonal promotions; many independent bookstores closed for business for one day in an act of protest. As a point of reference, the average retail price per book without discount is NTD 408 (around USD 14.65).  

    Shopee operates an interesting model in that it allows both indie and chain retailers to list their products on the platform. Since 2020, many retailers have opened Shopee stores and seen strong growth, with some noting anecdotally that they had seen an unexpected expansion of their readership in parts of the country that they had previously been unable to reach. 


    Read On: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=135

  • Grant for the Publication of Taiwanese Works in Translation (GPT)
    Oct 01, 2021 / By Books from Taiwan

    GPT is set up by The Ministry of Culture to encourage the publication of Taiwanese works in translation overseas, to raise the international visibility of Taiwanese cultural content, and to help Taiwan's publishing industry expand into non-Chinese international markets.

    Applicant Eligibility: Foreign publishing houses (legal persons) legally registered in accordance with the laws and regulations of their respective countries.


    1. The so-called Taiwanese works must meet the following requirements:

    A. Use traditional characters
    B. Written by a natural person holding an R.O.C. identity card
    C. Has been assigned an ISBN in Taiwan
    i.e., the author is a native of Taiwan, and the first 6 digits of the book's ISBN are 978-957-XXX-XXX-X, 978-986-XXX-XXX-X, or 978-626-XXX-XXX-X.

    2. Applications must include documents certifying that the copyright holder of the Taiwanese works consents to its translation and foreign publication (no restriction on its format).

    3. A translation sample of the Taiwanese work is required (no restriction on its format and length).

    4. The translated work must be published within two years, after the first day of the relevant application period.

    Grant Items:

    1. The maximum grant available for each project is NT$600,000, which covers:

    A. Licensing fees (going to the copyright holder of the Taiwanese works)
    B. Translation fees
    C. Marketing and promotion fees (limited to economy class air tickets for the R.O.C. writer to participate in overseas promotional activities related to the project)
    D. Book production-oriented fees
    E. Tax (20% of the total award amount)
    F. Remittance-related handling fees

    2. Priority consideration is given to books that have received the Golden Tripod Award, the Golden Comic Award, or the Taiwan Literature Award.

    3. The grant will be given all at once after the grant recipients submit the following written documents to the Ministry within one month of publication:

    A. Receipt (format given along with the Ministry's formal announcement);
    B. A detailed list of expenditures;
    C. 10 print copies of the final work published abroad (if the work is published in an e-book format, grant recipients shall instead provide purchase authorizations for 10 persons);
    D. An electronic file with aforementioned documents in PDF.

    Application Period: Twice every year. The MOC reserves the right to change the application periods, and will announce said changes separately.

    Announcement of successful applications: Winners will be announced within three months of the end of the application period.

    Application Method: Please visit the Ministry’s official website (https://grants.moc.gov.tw/Web_ENG/), and use the online application system.

    For full details of the GPT, please visit https://grants.moc.gov.tw/Web_ENG/PointDetail.jsp?__viewstate=oRWyc5VpG+PNII1HENWzEl8qiFfwAwJw7oJCOHz4L408lIe/efs7z+WTtc3mBJBkYvZhpy/Mg9Q=

    Or contact: [email protected]

  • Whence the Clunker? or, Towards Improving the Style of English Translations of Sinophone Fiction (II)
    May 04, 2021 / By Joshua Dyer

    Read Previous Part: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=131


    Fickle friends and rhetorical flow

    The need to sometimes rely on direct translation techniques can also inadvertently detract from clarity. The clunker above, for example, might have suggested an alternate interpretation, i.e. it was the chance to be together in the mountains that made the young couple start singing with joy, not the fact of being there. Fortunately, the context of the passage makes this interpretation impossible — they are clearly in the mountains when they start singing — but what if it hadn’t? What if we encountered a passage in which the meaning of a given sentence was translated correctly, but its intent was still obscure, because its wording didn’t connect to the rhetorical context of the passage as a whole? The sentence would have preserved meaning in the narrowest sense, while having lost the thrust, the narrative logic. It would amount to a clunker on the discourse level, rather than the sentence level.

    An example of this kind of clunker can be found in another Sinophone novel that won prestigious awards based on the English translation. In this passage, a character describes his reaction to words of wisdom imparted by the abbot of a Buddhist monastery:


    The abbot shook his head and said, “No, emptiness is not nothingness. Emptiness is a type of existence. You must use this existential emptiness to fill yourself.”

    His words were very enlightening to me. Later, after I thought about it a bit, I realized that it wasn’t Buddhist philosophy at all, but was more akin to some modern physics theories. The abbot also told me he wasn’t going to discuss Buddhism with me. His reason was the same as my high school teacher’s: with my sort, he’d just be wasting his time.


    The translation is accurate in the particulars, but the reader may struggle a to grasp the mechanics of the discourse. One problem lies in the rhetorical looseness of the phrase: “The abbot also told me…” The phrase suggests two possibilities. Either this is something the abbot said in addition to what came before, or it is something said first by someone else, and then said by the abbot as well. When I first read the passage I assumed the former interpretation, but was bothered by the rhetorical clunkiness of the phrase. What was the intent behind this sentence? Perhaps I had misunderstood, and there was a “someone else,” the high school teacher, perhaps? I went back to read the passages concerning the teacher, but I found that this interpretation made no sense either. Only after reading the Chinese source text did I understand the rhetorical logic: first the narrator concludes that what he was taught was not Buddhism. Then, he reveals that the abbot had said something that also supported that conclusion. In this context, the phrase might best have been rendered, “Indeed, the abbot had told me he wasn’t going to discuss Buddhism with me.” Rhetorically speaking, its function is to confirm the narrator’s assessment that what he was told was not Buddhism.

    The Chinese text was more clear since the word ye (也) (rendered as “also” in the translation) did not so deeply suggest the alternate interpretation, while at the same time it cast a wider net for what sort of action was being repeated. It wasn’t that the abbot told him something that someone else “also” told him, rather that the abbot’s words also reinforced his own conclusions. My rewording of this rhetorical logic shows that “also” is not necessarily the wrong word choice, but how it is interpreted is dependent on the exact phrasing of the current sentence, the general rhetorical flow of the passage, and even earlier events that might be textually far removed  within the novel (which is why I went back to reread passages concerning the narrator’s high school teacher). In short,  the direct translation from Chinese produced a semantically equivalent English phrase that nonetheless failed to maintain rhetorical continuity with the surrounding text The confusion arises from a failure to attend to the dimension of discourse, perhaps because the translator had already determined on the sentence level that a direct translation of the Chinese would be adequate. Again, the biases introduced by the process of triage — selecting what can and cannot be translated directly — can have far reaching consequences that will only become apparent when the English rendering is complete, and can be understood in its own context.

    Naturally, European languages will also lay traps for translators. The problem of “false friends” is well known, where a word in the target language appears to be a close match for a word in the source language, but in fact carries a very different meaning. The problem in Chinese to English translation, however, seems to be one of “fickle friends” that sometimes operate in relatively equivalent ways, and sometimes lead you astray. This may be due to the fact that there is very little genetic relationship between the languages, so similar structures are never true cognates. Their similarity is only skin deep, and is bound to mask vast differences as well — perhaps differences of usage, tone, register, voice, or, as we have just noted, rhetorical function. But, at the same time, the process of triage demands that we leverage whatever similarities are available to avoid being overwhelmed by the depth of the chasm that must be bridged.

    Most translators will be familiar with these fickle friends, because they will sometimes root them out while editing their work for improved readability and stylistic effect. Yet, some clunkers, rhetorical or otherwise, still make it into the final draft. A few reasons for this have already been suggested. The translator may be reluctant to return to the original text and attempt an entirely new approach, instead attempting to massage the existing translation into a better form. It is also possible that there were more prominent issues that demanded the translator’s attention during the most recent pass of editing (essentially the concept of triage applied to editing). Alternatively, after numerous passes, the translator may have simply become accustomed to the offending sentence — the classic case of needing “new eyes” to identify old problems.


    On domesticating the clunker

    Having explored some of the reasons that unintended clunkers may persist in our translations, we are now forced to consider another possibility — that some clunkers weren’t accidents! I’ve done my best to focus on shaky passages that most readers will agree need improvement, but one cannot account for taste, and some translators and readers might argue that they like a translated book to be a little rough around the edges. Most often, this preference is defended as a means to preserve the feel of the original text, and is typically is achieved through a more direct style of translation. This strain of thought has developed into an entire theoretical school that argues for the foreignization of translations, that is, leaving as many traces of the foreign origin of the text as possible, while resisting the urge to domesticate the text for ease of consumption by the target audience. Moreover, thinkers of this school feel that it is an ethical imperative not to allow the target language to dominate the rendering of the foreign text as that would be equivalent to forced assimilation of the text, and the erasure of its cultural roots.

    A thorough critique of this theory would require a separate article. Here we need only focus on how it relates to the problem of clunkers, and see if it changes our view on correcting them. Here is a sample from a translator who advocates the foreignizing approach: “Shen’s question stunned Wang for a moment. He forced himself to be calm so he wouldn’t fall into a trap.” We can begin to reduce some clunk by first removing “for a moment.” It is unnecessary because readers can infer that Wang isn’t stunned for long, as he immediately sets about trying to calm himself. However, I suspect “calm” is not quite the sense of the word meant in the Chinese; “composed” would be a better fit. Also, some rewording to reduce clutter will help maintain the sense of urgency. This yields: “Shen’s question stunned Wang. Wary of a trap, he forcibly composed himself.”

    However, should we be concerned that some of the flavor of the Chinese is lost with these changes? Is there something about the aesthetics of the Chinese language, or the personal style of the author, that is revealed when a suspenseful passage is wordier, or when “for a moment” pops up where English style dictates it shouldn’t? One could ask the same question of our first example. Was something uniquely Chinese conveyed by stacking infinitives and thereby repeating the word “to”? Simply asking these questions forces one to confront their at least one aspect of their absurdity, because we realize it is the English context that dictates how those features are to be interpreted, not the Chinese context from which they originate. The reader of the English translation cannot possibly infer that the Chinese infinitives flowed better when stacked together, or that “for a moment” is not cumbersome in Chinese since it is a single lexical item rather than the three required in English. Lacking these insights, a generous reader might conclude that it must have sounded better in Chinese, but won’t have any idea how that something-better actually sounded. A less generous reader will simply conclude it is a poorly written book, or one that needed more editing, or a better translator. In conclusion, a clunker is still best removed, because for the English reader it can only reflect poorly on the book. Put another way, poor English does not seem well-suited to conveying proper Chinese.

    Again, we are simply addressing the clunkers, and not this approach to translation in general. In places where the English actually works, there is no reason we can’t use word-for-word translations that reveal the structure of the Chinese. Even after cleaning up clunkers, most translations will still exhibit a fair amount of literal translation, because the process of triage demands it. Translators will nearly always opt for direct translation when they feel certain it will work. The intent of this article is only to bring attention to the fact that sometimes when we think it’s working, it’s not.

    In my own translation work I don’t fear losing much by domesticating problematic portions of the text. Other dimensions of the novel — plot structure, character development, social and political context, and so on — will all bear strong marks of the novel’s culture of origin and continue to foreignize the work even as it is presented in a new language. In fact, as long as a translator isn’t rearranging, cutting, or altering the text wholesale, I find it hard to imagine an English translation of  Sinophone fiction that a sensitive reader would mistake for a novel originally written in English. The generally poor sales of translated fiction, particularly those translated from Chinese, should be enough to tell us that readers, for the most part, feel like these books are still too foreign for their tastes. Or, perhaps that simply reminds us of the point that I am making here: we need to be doing a better job. It could be that an English readership would more readily consume translations out of Chinese that maintained a higher standard of clarity, style, and readability.


    Can we clunker-proof a translation?

    Over the years I have altered my work habits to better safeguard against clunkers. Rather than rush through my first translation draft on the assumption I will work out the kinks in editing, I now take the time needed to develop a fairly readable and stylish first draft. In doing this, I hope to avoid falling too deeply into the triage mentality. The more rushed I am, the more likely I am to declare that certain passages probably won’t require much thought. As explained above, these lacuna in our attention are the places where clunkers often take root. It also makes sense to develop a better first draft because I am aware of my own reluctance to rework a passage from scratch. Thus the better it reads in the first draft, the more likely it is that a few more tweaks will be enough to get it into an acceptable final form. What I hope to avoid is a situation where I have convinced myself that those few minor tweaks were good enough, when in fact they only left the sentence in a state of mildly improved clunkiness. Creating a better first draft also means there are fewer clunkers to address in editing. Hopefully they will stand out more, and I can fix them in the first round of editing. That way there is less risk of my becoming accustomed to them over repeated passes.

    Clearly, editors also have a major role to play in this process. However, on the evidence of the clunkers in print, one might suspect that editors are exercising a light touch with translations out of Chinese (as I said before, I doubt these clunkers would have slipped past in a manuscript originally written in English). Or, perhaps the situation faced by the editor is not so different to that of the translator: confronted by a translated text that defies many conventions of English writing, the editor applies a strategy of triage, over-attending to some issues while under-attending to others. Some editors may even be entranced by their own version of the theory of foreignization. Perhaps they assume that within those clunkers lurks something inherently Chinese, or something integral to the voice of the author that they dare not touch for fear of overly domesticating it.

    For these reasons that I am particularly happy to be writing in this forum where I can potentially reach people in book editing and acquisitions. These are professionals who have a say in what makes it into a published translation. Regardless of whether a clunker appeared by intent or neglect, it is worthwhile to point it out to your translator. If it was an oversight, the translator will be grateful. If it was a failed attempt at foreignization, the editor is hopefully now better armed to successfully argue that point. And hopefully translators who read this will be more open to amending their clunkers, even if they are committed to a more foreignizing approach. In the struggle to better represent the voices of Sinophone authors in English, eliminating what is worst in our translations can be an effective means of highlighting their best.

  • Whence the Clunker? or, Towards Improving the Style of English Translations of Sinophone Fiction (I)
    May 04, 2021 / By Joshua Dyer

    Over nearly a decade as a translator, editor, and enthusiast of Sinophone fiction I’ve naturally developed certain expectations for how Chinese books feel when rendered in English. Sadly, not all of those expectations are positive. This impression was recently highlighted to me as I read two translations from European languages, one a French work of non-fiction, the other a German novel. Both displayed a facility and clarity of English style that I rarely, if ever, encounter in books translated from Chinese. Why is this?

    One could argue that Western European languages share an aesthetic and literary heritage that allows many aspects of style to be more directly transferred from one language to another. This is probably true, however, the apparent superiority of these translations is not just a matter of achieving stylistic heights: these works translated from French and German were also remarkably free of stylistic lows — sentences or passages that sounded flat to my English ear. In books translated from Chinese, sadly, I have come to expect a certain proportion of clunkers, phrases that not only lack in style, but which seem to actively undermine it by employing patterns or word choices that are hallmarks of amateurish writing in English — so much so, in fact, that I suspect an editor would have rejected them in a manuscript for an original novel in English.

    So, why does this happen? Even if the aesthetics and style of Sinophone literature are not easily transferable into English, shouldn’t we at least be able to maintain minimum standards for style and readability? How do translators, professionals with a deep love of language, allow shoddy turns of phrase, to slip past their guard? There are a few possible answers I would like to explore in this article. One is that the clunkers are the unintended consequence of the translation strategies we employ to deal with the vast differences between the Chinese and English languages. Another possibility is that the translator has developed a tolerance, or even a preference, for the feel of relatively direct translations out of Chinese, believing that it better preserves the style of the original, or helps convey a more authentic experience of foreign literature, even if it violates stylistic standards imposed by English.


    The inertia of initial assessments

    Setting aside for the moment the possibility of intentionally introduced clunkers, let’s first explore how they might be the side-effect of particular translation strategies. Whether consciously or unconsciously, translators might be adopting a strategy of triage that will help them identify the most problematic parts of the text, and dedicate more resources to their translation. The problem areas are often those that defy direct translation, and thus require creative workarounds. The less problematic areas, then, are those that appear to be amenable to a more direct style of translation, and thus can be handled mechanically, with relatively little time investment. In this scenario, the clunkers could be the result of something that was initially determined to be a good candidate for direct translation, but which, in practice, yields poor results. Having committed to the course of direct translation, the translator may then become blind to other options, or may feel reluctant to conduct a thorough reevaluation, which would amount to deeper investments of time and energy within the overall framework of triage.

    In one highly praised translation from Chinese, a pair of love-struck adolescents from a tribal village go up a mountain to do some work. The character narrating their story tells us: “They felt so happy to have the chance to go into the mountains to do some work together they started taking turns singing songs they made up themselves.” The sentence feels unnecessarily wordy, and the first half of the sentence is made awkward by the repeated “to” sound.

    Looking back at the Chinese I can see how the translator might have ended up with this clunker. Towards the end of the sentence there is a phrase that, directly rendered in English, looks like this: “for a moment you sing, for a moment I sing.” I suspect that in the process of triage, the translator decided to focus his energy on this phrase that defied direct translation, justifiably glossing it as “taking turns singing songs,” while applying the less painstaking methods of direct translation to the first part of the sentence.

    Unfortunately, the first part of the sentence, which structurally doesn’t appear to present any problems for direct translation, becomes a monster when the English words are finally slotted into place. First of all, in English, the infinitive forms of the verbs are required, creating “to have… to go… to do,” while the Chinese verbs have no infinitive form and are thus free of repetition. Purely by chance, the English words for “into” and “together” also repeat the “to,” a problem that’s also not present in the Chinese. Even though the rough grammatical similarities of the English and Chinese make it appear that direct translation is a reasonable option, the overall effect is heavily dependent on the particular lexical items that are used. In this case they create a phrase that is grammatically correct, and conveys the meaning, but does not do good stylistic service to the novel.

    A few more components of this sentence cry out for help. “Songs they made up themselves” follows the Chinese closely, but why not the simpler “made-up songs?” Direct translation might have suggested itself as an efficient approach — English certainly allows the phrase “songs they made up themselves” — but this may have only masked other options. “They felt so happy” is not egregious, but enough writing teachers have spoken about the overuse of the word “feel” in poor writing that we would be wise to avoid it if possible.

    Correcting for all of the above yields: “They were so happy to have some time working together in the mountains they started taking turns singing made-up songs.” Further fixes might be suggested, but I’ll stop there, because I want to stay focused on the relatively simple and objective issue of clunkers, rather than the more refined and subjective issue of what makes good style.

    Note that the changes I suggest all require a shift away from direct translation. “To have the chance,” becomes “to have some time” because the former must be followed by an infinitive, while the latter does not. The verb phrase “to go into” is eliminated entirely, as it didn’t add anything to the sentence, but it did create problems with further repetitions of “to.” With each change we have moved away from the grammatical considerations of the Chinese towards the aesthetic concerns of the English. We know that the translator wasn’t opposed to a more free style of translation, because he came up with the very free “taking turns singing songs.” Clearly, some kind of decision was made that certain phrases required a free approach, and others did not. It seems logical that this decision, which I have been referring to as triage, is made at a stage when the translator is looking exclusively at the source text in Chinese. Thus the decision is probably based on an analysis of the Chinese grammar structures and vocabulary, combined with a mental assessment of whether similar structure and vocabulary are available in English. However, as the example demonstrates, when the two languages differ as greatly as English and Chinese, we can’t really understand the overall stylistic impact of that decision until the English is actually put in place. The availability of those structures and vocabulary in English only confirms that the direct translation will reproduce the something close to the meaning of the original. It doesn’t tell us much about the tone, style, register, or, in this case, the readability of the resulting phrase. There remains the question of why the translator or editor didn’t fix this awkward phrase in later passes through the text. We will address this question more fully later on. For now, suffice to say that in any complex task, initial decisions develop a kind of inertia. We are reluctant to go back and alter them because it feels like it will require greater investment of time and energy within a process that is constrained by the urgency of triage.


    Read On: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=132

  • Taiwan’s Cultural Diversity on Display in Original Picture Books (II)
    Apr 29, 2021 / By Catrina Liu ∥ Translated by Joshua Dyer

    Previous Part: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=127


    Immigration, Interaction, Integration: Taiwan’s Newest Residents in Picture Books

    The most recently arrived residents of Taiwan mostly hail from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries. While Taiwan has an Immigrant Worker’s Literature Prize to encourage native-language writing by immigrants, for practical reasons very few non-Chinese books are commercially published in Taiwan. Thus we find that picture books on the cultures of immigrant groups often adopt a third-person perspective, looking from the outside in.


    Sun Hsin-Yu’s Emma, Mother adopts a child’s point-of-view to observe the life of Emma, a foreign domestic worker who juggles roles from housekeeper to nanny, even as she dearly misses her homeland. Chen Yingfan’s The Sweetness of Apples is written from the perspective of the daughter of a foreign bride from Vietnam who recounts her mother’s story. The daughter’s experiences growing non-native plants from seeds reflect her mother’s life in Taiwan, where she learns to adapt and eventually thrive on foreign soil.


    Malaysian author/illustrator Maniniwei, on the other hand, speaks directly from her own immigrant experience. Her retelling of a Malaysian folk tale, Mat Jenin, published bilingually in Mandarin and Malay, gives readers an authentic taste of Malaysian culture.


    While most of the above books were written and published in Mandarin, in keeping with the societal movement towards local language use, publishers are also beginning to experiment with Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, and aboriginal language children’s books. Animo Chen’s Love Letter is one such book, written and published in Hokkien, while the first Taiwanese Hokkien translation of The Little Prince made a splash upon publication in 2020. Current indications are that we can continue to look forward to children’s books representing a wide variety of languages and cultural backgrounds, granting young readers a larger window on Taiwan’s cultural diversity.


    Animo Chen