• 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 Great, Just Too Low-Key”: Thai, Indonesian, and Singaporean Translators on the Dilemmas and Opportunities of Taiwanese Cultural Exportation
    Apr 19, 2018 / By Amber Sheu ∥ Translated by Canaan Morse

    First published on October 30, 2017 by Openbook: 



    “How do we make Taiwan visible?” is an important question to many Taiwanese. During the Wordwave Festival this past October, a panel of Chinese-language translators from Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand spoke from their experience as translators and cultural ambassadors about the issues and opportunities involved in the exportation of Taiwanese culture.


    If I hadn’t known previously that they had come from far away, I doubt I would have been able to tell immediately that the three guests weren’t themselves Taiwanese. Lee Yew Leong (Singapore), Chi Chi Bernardus (Indonesia), and Anurak Kitpaiboonthawee (Thailand) all speak such excellent Chinese, you have to listen hard to discern any semblance of an accent. Lee Yew Leong explained to us that Chinese is actually his mother tongue, one which he lost contact with after traveling to the United States at age sixteen to attend school. Anurak lived with his family in several countries including Taiwan while he was a child, learning much of his Chinese on the street, and beginning to translate and interpret as young as twelve or thirteen.


    Chi Chi Bernardus’s connection to Chinese is even more unique. After graduating from high school, she began her college experience in Bandung as a student of Russian. One day, however, she got an unexpected call from her father, who said that her strongly precognitive aunt had received a strong premonition that Chi Chi ought to study Chinese. Though Chi Chi found the circumstances puzzling, she listened to her father’s exhortations re-took the college entrance exam and entered the Chinese language department. Perhaps because of her love for Hong Kong martial arts movies, dubbed in Chinese and subtitled in Indonesian, she did continuously well, and eventually received a scholarship to study in Taiwan. As her relationship with Taiwan developed, she began to read Taiwanese literature, including novels like Chung Yao’s My Fair Princess. That story had just been adapted into a TV series, which gained significant popularity in Indonesia. An Indonesian publisher that wanted to translate the book established contact with Chi Chi, and the deal was done.


    Like Chi Chi and My Fair Princess, Lee Yew Leong and Anurak were also drawn to translation by a Taiwanese work. Recalling the time his friend sent him a copy of Hou Wen-Yong’s Stories of a Spoild Brat, Anurak says: “Because there was no one at home to receive the parcel, I had to take a bus to the post office to pick it up. I started reading it on the bus ride home, and some parts were so funny I couldn’t help laughing out loud. The wrapping was covered with stamps, and I was really moved to discover that the postage had cost more than the book itself.” Those were the days before highly developed e-commerce, when one had to travel all the way to Malaysia to buy Chinese-language books. Later, when he began introducing Taiwanese literature to local publishers, Hou Wen-Yong’s collection was among the first to spring to mind. “Ten years later, I still haven’t looked back,” he says with a laugh.


    Lee Yew Leong, who is the founding editor of the international literary journal Asymptote, fell in love with Taiwanese literature while studying in America. “A friend recommended several Taiwanese poets to me, and I began translating some of their work. One of those pieces, by Jing Xiang-Hai, became my first published translation.” Not only has Lee translated the work of several poets (including Jing and Chou Meng-Tieh) himself, he has also curated an issue of Asymptote featuring contemporary Taiwanese literature, thereby introducing the works of writers like Wu Heh, Chu Tien-Wen, Li Ang, and others to international audiences.


    Lee believes that Taiwan’s marginalization by political and economic forces have kept much of the world from seeing the value of Taiwanese literature. “An American student of Chinese would probably look to translate literature from mainland China, since curiosity about China still runs strong, and American publishers are willing to pay for Booker long-listed authors like Han Han or Yan Lianke. Always a true advocate for Taiwanese literature, Lee states: “Why do I step to the plate for Taiwanese literature? Because so many people are paying attention to China….But if it’s quality literature they’re looking for, they ought to turn their attention to Taiwan.”


    Meanwhile Anurak, founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Taiwan-specializing publisher Mangmoom Book, honestly states: “The fact is that the Thai don’t clearly understand Taiwan.” Members of foreign communities frequently have a hard time differentiating between different Sinophone communities, like China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. Though Anurak has done quite well with his published translations of books by Wan Wan and Jimmy Liao, his readers frequently mistake them for Japanese titles. This combined with readers’ hazy understanding of Taiwan has led him to soft-pedal the works’ national background, relying instead on author name recognition and content as selling points.


    Anurak summarizes many years of experience in a single observation: “Taiwan is amazing, but Taiwan is also very low-key.” He agrees with Lee Yew Leong that Taiwan’s “low-key” image has a lot to do with its political situation, which keeps many truly valuable aspects of the nation’s culture from being exhibited abroad.


    By Chi Chi’s account, the situation in Indonesia is not all that different. “If you ask the average man on the street what his impression is of Taiwan, he’ll probably say ‘business,’ or ‘computers.’ But he won’t have seen much Taiwanese culture, literature, or fine art, and that’s truly a shame.” Chi Chi laments that there are so many excellent Taiwanese movies, works of art, and literary titles that one has to come to Taiwan to find, and both Anurak and Lee Yew Leong agree. Yew Leong emphasizes that individual and popular support for this project is nowhere near enough, and continued and greater support needed to come from the government.


    “Books are a rich, complex record. A single piece of dialogue might depict whole cultural transformations across eras, including every aspect of human lifestyles.” Anurak believes that books as media platforms can provide a clear and nuanced answer to the question, “What is Taiwan?” He points to the book The Hospital, a book that captures scenes from every side of Taiwanese life, inspiring in its many fans a desire to visit the island and connect on a deeper level with the images they first found in the text.


    Taiwan’s unique historical background fostered a rich national personality, which expresses itself in a tremendous linguistic diversity in its national literature. This complex of differences stands out as forbidding but beautiful in the eye of the translator. Questions about Hokkien, Hakka, and indigenous dialects, along with the classical poetry of Chung Yao and the classical prose of martial arts novels, and even the street slang of Taiwan’s young people bring wry smiles to the panelists’ faces. Most linguistic questions can be answered through search engines or by asking Taiwanese acquaintances, but what about highly contextual political or historical vocabulary? Chi Chi Bernardus offers Sun Hsin-Yu’s Rice Wine Pudding as an example. “When the book says that a group of ‘immigrants’ came to Taiwan between 1949 and 1965, the translator has to consider the perspective and opinions implied by that word choice.” The translator has to rely on her understanding of Taiwanese history, politics, and culture, as well as the habitual standpoints of native Taiwanese readers, as she selects her own perspective from which to translate that word.


    Translation is certainly no easy task; even lines of black-and-white text often hide seemingly insoluble problems within. For our panelists, it is a bittersweet task – made bitter through their lonely battle with words and language, sweetened by the opportunity to lose themselves in the literature they love. Learning Chinese allowed them to make contact with Taiwanese literature; their love for that literature allows them to introduce it to the world through translation, and thereby share their answer to “What is Taiwan?” with the rest of the world.

  • All the Clichés Apply (II)
    Dec 26, 2016 / by Neil Gudovitz, Founder/President at Gudovitz & Company Literary Agency

    Most American readers have likely NEVER read a single work of nonfiction from a non-English-language author, not including the Greek philosophy he or she might have pretended to read in school.  And except for possibly a Nordic thriller here or there, the same is true for fiction. 


    In light of these realties, Americans can be forgiven for believing that we have all the best ideas in the world, and that everybody wants to be like us.    Many of us simply don’t know any better, and American publishers haven’t frankly felt the need to bring authors and ideas from international markets.   As such, they don’t have the structure, the processes, the expectations or the desire to consider publishing a translated work. I work with many editors at non-English language publishing houses around the world, and if these editors don’t review English-language text themselves, they always have “readers: who do.  It’s a necessity, plain and simple.  Not so in the US, though strangely I’ve heard that several have lately found Japanese-language enabled readers.


    Editors in the US and UK will not agree to publish something they cannot read.  Since they have NO patience for imperfect translations, they will in every instance conclude that the work necessary to prepare the text is too expensive and too time-consuming.    The simple fact is this: most editors answer to their bosses.  The idea that somehow a process can be funded and adopted to ‘perfect’ a translation, one which would require bringing on a translator to review the translation delivered from overseas is not a feasible one.   There are too many English manuscripts submitted daily for a publisher to add one or two new steps to the process in order to publish a translation.    


    Remember those leopards and their spots?   That’s American publishers – they are what they are.


    And here’s more bad news:  American publishers will not pay for the translations of authors who they have not published before.

    “Wait a minute,” you publishers must be saying now, “That’s not fair. We do that all the time.”  Yes you do, and thank you for that.  But as we’ve already agreed, life is not fair.  


    Another obvious obstacle is the unavailability of a given author to do local, long-term promotion.  My favorite cliché is that of the chicken and egg, but here the yolk is on us: a publisher will never bring an author over until his or her book is a success, but that success is almost impossible without the kind of ‘in-market’ presence, in print media, TV and radio that get the book and author known.   There is no replacement for this. 


    In the case of Marie Kondo, Sunmark, Penguin Random House (PRH) in the US and UK made extraordinary commitments in terms of staff and money to make interviews with the author possible.  They paid for interpreters, they dedicated staff to the (seriously) 24/7 job of promoting the book and the author.  And Sunmark and PRH combined to fund an extended, no-holds barred author tour, several of them in fact, in both London and NYC, LA , SF and Boston.    It all started with the Cathy Hirano translation, but take out one of the pieces above and you very likely would have had a book which was a solid performer, perhaps 50,000 sold.


    But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My message to publishers in Asia is this:  you must prepare a native-language translation of an entire book. You can start with (3) chapters if you absolutely must, but you need to commit from the beginning to fund and prepare the entire translation.   Those (3) chapters could – maybe – be enough to keep the publishers interested, but if you want a book to get the chance it deserves, you need to accept that you must prepare a native-language translation of the entire text.      


    I should note that you (or your agent) may get super lucky and find a publisher in the US or UK who agrees to publish a book based on a sample translation. But if you rely on that possibility, you are limiting your field of possible publishers by about 98%?     Go bold or go home.


    You may know of a book that was published in English that didn’t have a full translation, but do you also have stories about the hundreds of thousands of great books that never get published in English because the original publishers didn’t commit to funding a high-quality translation?


    I’m going to tell you a secret.   Marie Kondo’s first book was licensed into 42 languages.   38 of them were outside of Asia.   All of those publishers had full access to the original text in Japanese, as well as the English-language translation.    All but one of those 38 publishers chose to translate from English. The exception was Italy, where there is a cultural tradition of publishing books from Japanese. But if you as an Asian publisher still think that you can have the kind of success with a book you want to have if the text is NOT translated into English, ask yourself why all those publishers around the world chose to translate from English.   Then ask yourself if the money Sunmark spent to fund a quality translation hasn’t been the corporate investment of a lifetime.

    I’ve written a lot about the past, but let me bring us back to the present. I'm working with the amazing Gray Tan and Jade Fu at The Grayhawk Agency, and together we’ve had Taiwanese illustrator Amily Shen (“Wonderland”) published in the US, also by Penguin Random House.


    We are also working together on the terrifically exciting Cats of the Floating World and a unique book that Grayhawk represents from the PRC, titled Room to Breathe. The literary agency world is a small one, with various strong personalities, some sweet, some sour, a few bland and many spicy. But one thing I know we all agree on is that Gray Tan understands this business. He’s among the elite agents in the world, and I don’t think there’s a more respected nor innovative agent working today. The publishers he works with also get it, or at least they do after Gray has counseled them. There are no shortcuts, no relying on “lucky breaks.”  A book can be a masterpiece, but if 99% of the publishers outside the Chinese-speaking world can’t read it (or only read it in a stilted translation), what’s the point?  


    Lately I’ve been having great international success with other exciting Sunmark titles out of Japan, and the Korean superagent Danny Hong (who also gets it) and I have sold several Korean authors into English-speaking markets.  In cooperation with Kenny Okuyama at the Japan UNI Agency, a Japanese book, originally published in Japan by Wani Books, titled now in English “Goodbye, Things” will publish in Spring 2017 from W.W. Norton in the US, and across the world in the next year.  And guess what?  Wani delivered a full, terrific translation too. 


    But turning back to Taiwan, I want to leave you with some good news. Your market is unique, and uniquely positioned to introduce books to the world books that people want to read.   You’re the “newest” nation in a part of the world dominated by ancient cultures, and as such you have a vibrancy and an optimism that I don’t think anybody else in Asia can match.  You have a rich cultural pedigree but aren’t weighed down by the past; and let’s face it, the realities of geography and economics being what they are, you have to work harder and smarter to survive and thrive.   The oppression and suppression of free expression which dominates your neighbor to the West, and the cultural and political conservatism which results, are not elements which weigh you down. Everybody loves an underdog (oh sorry, cliché alert…) and Taiwan is that. In illustrated works as well as non-fiction and fiction, there’s a palpable energy and ‘crackle’ emanating from Taiwan these days, and if your markets’ publishers want to be known as the ‘next Sunmark’ and share the best of what’s publishing in Taiwan with the rest of the world, they’ll capture those qualities in translations that express the original text in its finest essence. 

  • All the Clichés Apply (I)
    Dec 26, 2016 / by Neil Gudovitz, Founder/President at Gudovitz & Company Literary Agency

    All the clichés apply.   Go bold or go home.    You have to spend money to make money.  A leopard can’t change his spots.   And likely 1001 more but I’ll stop there, sparing you the suffering.  Clichés are like dental x-rays or family vacation photos, best kept to oneself.


    I've worked for over 20 years to license English-language books for translation into other language-markets.  During that time I’ve licensed books into more languages than I can remember, including Klingon…almost . (That was for a computer science book in the 1990’s and there’s a lot about that era we’d all like to forget.   The deal never went through because the ‘licensing publisher’ insisted on a bilingual contract. I wish I were joking…)   During my career, I’ve had a few opportunities to work on books written in languages other than English, but it was not until 2013 that I came upon a work that seemed to have the credentials to become a worldwide bestseller. I was having dinner in New York City with friends from the Japanese publisher Sunmark. Wanting to get them out of Manhattan and the tourist belt, I packed us all on the subway and took us to an Uzbeki restaurant in Queens.  We ate whatever the waitstaff put in front of us (most of it was on a stick) and drank Uzbeki beer, which comes in 3 varieties:  weak, medium and strong.  As I had to find our way back into Manhattan, I opted for the ‘weak’ beer but Sunmark was more courageous.   Even weak Uzbeki beer has a way to make its impact felt and after a while, as we discussed the books Sunmark was publishing, it struck me that a book they had recently published about tidying your house not only could be attractive to an American publisher, but it simply HAD to be the next big thing.  To my knowledge there had never been an Asian practical self-help book that sold very well in the USA, but this book seemed to so much going for it.  The assets of the book, combined with the perhaps unnaturally relaxed environment as we drank on, left me absolutely certain that Marie Kondo could be a bestseller.   Sunmark agreed, or at least I remember them agreeing, and we all got pretty excited about what was to come.  Unfortunately it was some special Uzbeki dessert glue-like substance so our celebration was interrupted, and then I proceeded thereafter to take us on the wrong direction on the subway.   At that point I’d only lived in NYC for 21 years so it was of course understandable.  


    Eventually our course was righted and another course took hold, one which eventually led to over 7 million copies of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up being sold worldwide, with more than 5 million of those coming in languages other than Japanese.   Everything about that book was a perfect storm, from the contents to the author herself to the emerging notion that people (particularly) simply have too much stuff and too little idea of what to do about it.   The book takes what is commonly regarded as a rather unpleasant task and makes it not only fun, but life-changing. But when asked, as I have been many times, to identify the ONE key to the book’s success outside of Japan, the element without which none of it could have happened, I always point to the simply flawless translation of the Japanese-language text submitted by Cathy Hirano, a translator born and raised in Canada who studied and now lives in Japan.   What you read in the American or British edition is 98% identical to the copy Sunmark delivered to my inbox some months after that drunken dinner.  


    I don’t frankly recall if they told me they were going to deliver a full English translation, or if I first said that it would be necessary to do so, but it was something we agreed upon without discussion. At that point, Sunmark had enjoyed excellent success in the American market with several other titles in translation, and they well understood what it took to reach that goal.  They didn’t doubt the quality of their work and they wanted the translations to reflect that quality to the greatest extent possible.    


    And this is one of the key points I wish to communicate in this piece: good enough is NOT good enough.  A skilled, University-trained translator, one who perhaps lived or studied for a time in the US or the UK is NOT enough. For a foreign-language book to be published in the US and/or the UK, the requirement is, without exception, is that the translation be prepared by a translator who was raised and educated in an English-speaking country. There is no substitute for this. I know what you’re thinking, “But isn’t something better than nothing”? Why can’t a translation be done by a highly-skilled local translator who has translated English into Chinese?” 


    Because it can’t. I’ve seen hundreds of bad translations and almost all of them have one dominant characteristic: the translator was translating away from his or her mother tongue.   There are also bad ones from native-language translations, but each one NOT from a native-language translator has been bad.


    A skilled native-language translator understands his or her language in ways that other translators cannot, and has a better sense of nuance, slang, and facile use of language that mark the best translations, the books that people clamor to read. 


    Remember that awful cliché that “you have to spend money to make money”?   That’s the idea here.   But why must this be the case? Because -- cliché alert – it turns out that life isn’t fair.    Hundreds of thousands of books published first in English are published in other languages around the world every year, by publishers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.    So this exchange of ideas and information is a two-way stream, right?   Not exactly.   Fewer than 1% of fiction works published in the US every year are from foreign-language authors (classics of literature excepted), and less than 1/10th of 1% of trade nonfiction works published each year come from foreign languages. Recent political events have confirmed what I'm afraid many of us already knew:  the American public is a bit too xenophobic for comfort.  But we shouldn’t think this is a new phenomenon, it simply has a new champion.  One result is that for too many Americans the rest of the world is something to be avoided, to be feared, and from which we must be protected.  “America First” is not just a political rallying cry, for many it’s become a preferred way of life.

  • Genre Fiction in Translation? A Dialogue
    Dec 13, 2015 / by Anna Holmwood, translator and editor-in-chief of Books From Taiwan Issue 1-3

    ‘Translated literature? All that weird French existentialism and German meditations on man and nature. Nah, bit too ‘literary’ for me, that stuff. A bit poncey.’

            Please be introduced to our supposed friend, English Reader. Take a bow, English Reader.

            ‘Hello, yep, that’s me. English Reader. No taste. Not for that foreign stuff anyhow.’

            You mention the word ‘literary,’ dear English Reader. What do you mean?

            ‘Well, you know, it’s just another word for ‘difficult,’ isn’t it?’

            You don’t think it’s a bit like calling an apple appley? Or rain wet?


            What I mean is, what’s literary literature? Sounds like an oxymoron.

            ‘Okay, fancy pants. I just mean, I don’t know, it’s a bit different. This translated literature. Like, I don’t know if it’s going to be good, because I can’t read the original. How do I know the translator hasn’t taken everything that’s good about the original and gone and made it, well you know, rubbish. I can’t judge it. It makes reading it so exhausting.’

            So if you don’t like to read ‘literary’ literature, this difficult stuff, what is it you like? ‘Genre’ literature?

            ‘’Genre’ literature? You mean, popular stuff? Yeah, I like to read things with a good story, what’s your point?’

            If you’re going to decide some things are ‘literary,’ you’re comparing it to something, something not ‘literary.’ I’m just wondering what that is for you.

            ‘I like to read crime fiction, yeah, I guess you’re telling me that’s ‘genre’ fiction. But I also like things that have won awards too. Amazon doesn’t ask me to choose from a selection called ‘genre’ fiction. Sounds like you’re being a bit snobby to me.’

            I’m just trying to understand the words we use for different types of books. It seems to be something that can irritate people.

            ‘If you disparage people for their reading tastes, then yes, it can be irritating.’

            But you just told me you don’t like translated fiction? Aren’t you the one being the snob? Presumably you don’t include Stieg Larsson in your ‘translated fiction is all difficult to understand’ grand sweeping statement?

            ‘No, but that’s probably because you’re the one putting words in my mouth. And anyway, talk about going for the obvious; Scandi crime. I’m not that into it, actually. It might have escaped your notice, but you just created me as your archetypal English Reader a few moments ago, the bogey man to your Literary Translator persona.’

            I hadn’t actually introduced myself.

            ‘Then I think it’s time you did. Everyone, meet Literary Translator.’

            Thank you. Yes, I happen to translate literature from Chinese and Swedish into English. That’s my job, and I’m trying to get to grips with what everyone says the English Reader wants. It’s part of my job. That’s why I’m talking to you.

            ‘Except, you’re not really. You’re making me say what you want to hear. That I don’t like translated fiction.’

            Because you said so, just up there.

            ‘No, you made me say that. I believe you got to me to call it ‘foreign stuff.’ But I wonder if you’re really open to talking to me about translated literature, or you just want to make assumptions about what I really think.’

            Okay, shall we start again? This conversation has turned a little hostile.  

            ‘Damn right it has. Because apparently I have to stand in for all readers in English, like some Everyman that has to defend the fact that apparently we translate so little. Why is this my responsibility all of a sudden? At least I actually buy books, why am I the bad guy now?’

            I guess that is a bit unfair, you’re right. Let me take a quick peek at your shelves. You seem to consume books in a fairly representative way though, you know, of the ‘mainstream.’ A good spattering of the best seller lists. I am Malala, the new Harper Lee (did you like it?), oh, even some adult colouring books!

            ‘Yes, but you’re also ignoring my sci-fi and fantasy collection, which includes… Let me see… Stanislaw Lem, Gert Jonke and wait, you’ll like this one, a bit out of the box, Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes. Cli-fi, they call it.’

            You’ve read Wu Ming-Yi’s book! Wow. Did you like it?

            ‘Yes, it was really lyrical, and quite beautifully detailed. I didn’t really know what to expect, so it was a bit more challenging than a lot of the other stuff I read. I mean, I don’t really know much about Taiwan. But I saw Margaret Atwood tweet about it, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did.’

            That’s brilliant! So, it wasn’t too ‘literary’?

            ‘Like I said, I had to put a bit of effort into it. Usually I like to read on my way to work, I have a forty-five-minute ride on the tube and so it helps me pass the time. But I found it a bit hard to concentrate on this one in the morning rush hour, with everyone’s sweaty armpits in my face. So I ended up finishing it on holiday, when I had a bit more time. This is the thing, you can’t go on at people about how good it is to read more fiction in translation and then get upset with them when they quite legitimately tell you that reading it takes more effort. I haven’t been to every country in the world, so sometimes the local elements in the story are a bit more difficult to grasp. The motivations behind the ways the characters behave, I guess.’

            Yes, I suppose you’re right. Sometimes the way the story is told also takes a bit of getting used to. Not every culture takes the same approach to storytelling. It would be boring if they did.

            ‘Exactly! Sometimes translated books can feel a bit odd and you can’t put your finger on why. I don’t know if it’s because there are different cultural conventions, or, if the translator hasn’t done a good job. If I could read the original and know that, I wouldn’t need it translated!’

            But you have quite a collection of foreign sci-fi by the sounds of it?

            ‘I think it’s interesting to see how different writers from different countries imagine the future, or alternate realities. It says a lot about their view of the world. But at times, I’m not sure I’m totally getting what it is they’re trying to say. It could just be lost in translation.’

            Ah! I hate that phrase. Can you not say that to a literary translator?

            ‘But you can’t stop me from wondering if that’s what’s going on! How do I know if every translator is really skilled enough to bring someone else’s words into English? Not being able to judge because I can’t read the original, well, it leaves me a bit nervous. And yet that seems to offend you translators.’

            It does take a lot of trust…

            ‘Yes, I’ve got to trust you haven’t messed up a really good book. When I’m reading something written in English, I can just say, ‘That was brilliant!’ or ‘That was rubbish!’ all based on my own taste. But I don’t know if something is really rubbish if it’s been translated. Maybe you were the one that was rubbish.’

            The conversation has turned a bit hostile again. I’d just like to point out, translators worry about this more than any reader does, trust me. It’s a heavy weight. And sometimes we can sense that a certain stylistic element will be totally unfamiliar, if not downright weird, to an English reader. I mean you, English Reader. I can tell that you might think it ‘doesn’t work in English,’ but what I am I supposed to do? Should I only suggest translating things that tally completely with your expectations, should we all decide that if it’s challenging, it's not worth it?

            ‘Of course not. Didn’t we start this whole conversation with you making out that I only wanted an easy read, that I was just into ‘genre’ fiction? I think you should admit, that I’m a bit more open minded than you first allowed me to be.’

            That’s true. We are clearly both suspicious of this word ‘genre’ fiction anyway. But what I think it comes down to is, people never pick up a book without having certain expectations about it before they start. If I tell you, ‘This is a sci-fi novel,’ but don’t tell you it’s from Taiwan, you’re going to read it expecting it to have certain features of a sci-fi novel that may or may not be present. This will shape your response.

            ‘It will, but you can tell me it’s both. A sci-fi novel and originally written in Chinese. Maybe that way, I’ll know to be a bit more flexible, or be willing to put in a bit more effort.’

            But will you pick it up if you know it’s translated?

            ‘I already did, didn’t I? My point is, I can’t be expected to read every book published in English, let alone published in every language on the planet and then translated into English. When I go into a bookshop, or download something onto my Kindle, I have to make choices. Sometimes I want something easy, something where I know what I’m getting. And sometimes I want something new. But how I make those choices is a bit random, depends on how I’m feeling. You don’t get angry with me for not picking up the debut of some unknown British author writing in English, do you? So, you have to allow me to make certain personal preferences when it comes to authors I’ve never heard of from the other side of the world too.’

            Hence why you’re into foreign sci-fi, but don’t have a lot of Mexican contemporary fiction on your shelves?

            ‘Precisely. I like science fiction, I read a lot in that genre, so it’s easier for me to branch out a bit into foreign sci-fi too. But just because I didn’t buy the latest Knausgård doesn’t mean I’m not going to buy a book from Taiwan. Despite your disparaging remarks about ‘genre’ fiction, knowing something written in Chinese is considered to belong to a certain genre, say sci-fi, helps me understand it. I’m more likely to pick it up than if you just tell me, ‘Hey, English Reader, this book was written by a Taiwanese author, you should check it out!’ You’ve got to help me out a bit. Throw me a bone.’

            So what you’re saying is, you’re not necessarily going to be interested because it’s been translated…

            ‘No, not me personally, although maybe that appeals to other readers. And that’s probably what makes it difficult if you just tell me it’s translated and its ‘literary fiction,’ that could mean anything.’

            I think that was my point to begin with, it’s an oxymoron. Appley apples, remember?

            ‘Yeah, oxymoronic. So recommend me some more Taiwanese sci-fi already. Or a good Taiwanese spy thriller. Or a Taiwanese colouring book, I need to relax.’

            Okay, I’m working on it.


  • All in a Name
    Jun 29, 2015 / by Eleanor Goodman. Translator.

    Translations seems to occupy uneasy territory, with some believing that it is a mechanical action that can be accomplished with software, and others believing that it is a creative act equal to any other original composition. Of course, translation is neither wholly creative nor wholly derivative, in the sense that a new creative work does not spring from a vacuum but is necessarily made from elements of its antecedents.

    First we should define exactly what we mean by ‘translation.’ Are we talking about translating a car repair manual or banking information? That is to say, a work that did not engage the many rich tools of expression in the original language, and whose object is intended to directly convey straightforward information. Or are we talking about a piece of literature, a work that necessarily engages in a creative conversation with its native language, pushing against linguistic and other boundaries to build a world in and of itself? In the former case, software or a website like Google Translate may someday prove to be sufficient (although they have not yet). But in the latter, more interesting, case, mechanical translation is hopeless against the tools authors employ: rhyme, rhythm, puns, metaphor, irony, implication, humor, tone. These are things that are created by language, not conveyed by it. Not only computers but also unskilled human translators will find themselves unable to mimic these elements in the target language.

    Perhaps it is old hat to say that literary translation involves two primary skills. Given what sometimes passes for translation, however, it bears repeating. One must have not only an accurate understanding of, but also a sensitive feel, for the original language; and one must have a flexible, keen ability in the target language. Only the rare individual can bring both of these skills to the table. In the case of Chinese to English translation, because the languages are so far from each other structurally and expressively, the bold translator is presented with agonies and opportunities in the fertile ground between these two linguistic arenas.

    As T.S. Eliot has it: ‘Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.’ Mature translators adopt what is on offer in the original and adapt it to produce something as forceful, as alive, in the target language. Sometimes this involves abandoning the structure of the original, daunting though that may be. This is a fundamental difference between the two categories I set out above. When a car repair manual presents instructions as to how to change the oil, it would be a mistake to change the specifics or modify the context. Doing so will subvert the intention of the original in a way that makes the translation problematic. But a literary work has more inherent flexibility—it is built out of a material that flexes in many directions. If the text is any good, it is multidimensional. That is not to say that one can take infinite liberties with a literary text. Obviously not. Such ‘translations’, including famous ones like Pound’s Cathay, slip into the territory of imitation, borrowing, or the vague category of works ‘inspired by’ other works. But a translator who is armed with all that the target language has to offer can and must take leaps of faith. In the end, the translator must accept that there are successes and losses in any given moment in a translation. It is very rarely a question of simple equivalents.

    Take a straightforward, but tricky, example. In the Taiwanese novelist Chu Shao-Lin’s book Swallow Dance, one of the main characters is nicknamed Young Dragon. He is a dancer, and the name fits his profession, with its implications of powerful, graceful movements filling the air. The name is also a pun. The dancer is deaf, and the way the name is pronounced—longzi—is a homophone for ‘deaf man.’ It is the kind of correspondence that exists in the scope of one given language and most often cannot be replicated exactly in the target language, especially when those languages are as diverse as Chinese and English. So the translator goes through a painful process of decision-making. The simplest solution is just to use the pinyin, that is to say, to name the character Longzi. But then of course both the pun and the associations are lost. Another solution is to call the character Dragon or Little Dragon. But the name isn’t a name in English: it’s clunky and will stick in the reader’s craw each time she comes across it. Then there is the literal route of naming him Deaf—a move that is sure to turn readers off.

    As with most problems, there is no perfect solution. Whatever the translator chooses—short of naming the character Jim and forgetting about it—will sound a bit strange in the target language. But strangeness, for a serious translator, is not necessarily undesirable. The point, as I take it, is not to produce a translation in which everything has been domesticated to the point that it reads a smoothly and blandly as advertising copy. Literature is challenging and literature from other cultures and languages even more so. Weirdness can only be taken so far—it’s a balancing act—but insecure translators (or inept ones) will aim for a kind of linguistic innocuousness that files down the teeth of the original. This is an injustice to the work in question, as well as to readers.

    In this case, the solution I came to was to call the character Def. That hopefully keeps some of the implication of the original, as according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, def is slang for ‘excellent.’ For some readers, there will also the musical resonance with Def Leopard, appropriate because the character proves to be a bit of a rebel. Regardless of whether the reader picks up on the association (consciously or unconsciously), at least the name maintains the homonym (def/deaf). It is a stab in the right direction that maintains the integrity of the original, which is ultimately the aim of the translator.


  • Tools for Editing Translations
    Jun 29, 2015 / by Canaan Morse. Translator.

    One of the several reasons many American publishers don’t like working with translations is because their editors don’t know how to edit them. With multilingual editors still a significant minority in the industry, it still appears to be common practice for the editor of a translation to position herself either too far from the text or too close—to leave too much of the editing to the translator, possibly out of respect for the foreign source text, or to edit the translation as if it were written in English, without regard for its non-English origin.

    I’d like to offer here three analytical tools in the form of questions for the editor of a translated text. These questions are, of course, founded on certain assumptions about the nature of literary meaning-making. The first is that all appraisals of quality are contextual: the editor decides what ‘works’ by comparing the text to itself and to other texts from his experience. The fact that the translation is related to another text that exists in a foreign linguistic environment makes the editor’s job harder, but not impossible. This leads into the second assumption, which is that the old saw about translation being impossible is at the most untrue, or at the least unimportant. After Derrida argued with great force that all utterances are self-contradictory, literary artists continued to practice their craft. Moreover, as our understanding of translation broadens, we begin to find elements of it embedded in seemingly more ‘original’ practices of creative writing and reading. As outdated understandings of the process are overturned, so too is the conception of the product as an inferior version of an ‘original’ text; we begin to see it as something more than a monolingual work of literature.

    Question 1: Is it justifiable?

    Good translators often represent phenomena from the source text that are considered inseparable from the source language (puns, cadences, assonances and rhyme schemes) by borrowing or creating analogous structures within the target language. Burton Watson imitated the perfect symmetry of five- and seven-character Tang poems (律詩) by regulating numbers of syllables per line. William Lyell translated peasant dialogue in his rendition of The Real Story of Ah Q (Lyell 1990) * into a blue-collar American dialect with a slightly Southern twang. In both cases, the translators’ inventions built new interpretive contexts in order to reproduce similar linguistic effects. Here is a more extreme example, excerpted from Brian Holton’s translation of Bai Hua’s poem ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’**:

    紅,是寂寞紅 red is Lady in Red
    春,是玉堂春 spring is Might as Well Be Spring
    秋,是漢宮秋 autumn is When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall
    魚,是黃花魚 fish is Like a Sturgeon Touched For The Very First Time

    味,是上海味 taste is the taste of Shanghai
    玲,是張愛玲 clang is Eileen Chang

    No literal translation of the classical drama types 《玉堂春》or 《漢宮秋》will replicate—or do anything but destroy—the ironic cadence of the original, which satirizes these hallowed names by associating them with single characters and seemingly trivial things like fish. Similarly, there is no translation of 玲 as a single character that will echo in Zhang Ailing’s (Eileen Chang’s) English name. The translator responds to extreme difficulty with extreme invention, employing playful satire in the construction of the first stanza, and a complex homophony (ling 玲 (delicate, ornate) – ling 鈴 (bell) –clang) in the last line. As Holton’s editor, I allowed these decisions because they were justifiable both within the English text (they established a recognizable interpretive context) and in comparison to the Chinese (they imitated crucial effects created by the source text).

    2. Does it ‘wobble’?

    I borrow this word from Ezra Pound, who suggested that good poetry would not ‘wobble’ when translated, but I use it quite differently. While divergence from a source text is not necessarily a problem (for reasons just discussed), bad translation often creates a kind of ambiguity that can be spotted immediately by an experienced editor. One such editor, reading my translation of He Qifang’s 何其芳 essay Autumn Begonia, left this comment by one sentence: ‘Interesting how I can tell where the translation veers off even before I look at the original.’ He was responding to a stylistic decision I had made in an action-heavy sentence which not only made that sentence stand out, but also created ambiguity where none existed. The text ‘wobbled’ in front of the reader. Good translation editors learn to spot wobbling text on their first read-through, and most of it can be fixed by working with the translator to find more fitting alternatives.

    3. Does it work?

    How much do you love the work you’re reading? Is the text awkward and unnatural—what we call ‘translationese’—or does it stay with you for days? There have been many cases in which bad translation has limited the artistic power of a work; there have also been cases in which a brilliant, inspired translator has created a text that is significantly different or better than the source. Ezra Pound’s translations of Li Bai 李白 in Cathay come immediately to mind, as do Robert Lowell’s translations of Sappho in Imitations. These are fairly far-out examples of translatorial license, but in any such instance, the editor will need to make an ethical decision about whether the translator’s additions have done more good than harm, as well as how she should understand the ownership of the text. If she believes that good art carries its own independent weight, and recognizes the translator as one creator of a hybrid text, then she should afford some leeway to the translator when it is justified (see Steven Bradbury’s translated version of Hsia Yü’s poetry collection Salsa for examples of co-creative translation).

    That being said, the question ‘does it work?’ does not have the kind of authority over the previous two questions when its subject is a translated text as it might when the text is monolingual. Since translations exist in a balance with their respective source texts, the editor must balance his appeals to his own aesthetic sense with consideration for what he doesn’t know, which can be done by comparing his answer to the third question with his answers to the first two—and, of course, by working with a translator who can be trusted with veto power over any change made.

    Translations are not summaries, copies, or references. They are independent works of literature that exist in a special relationship with other works, which makes them unique and different in a positive way from monolingual texts. The three questions I’ve presented above were formulated as tools for practical editing, to help translation editors make decisions that are both objectively defensible and artistically sensitive.

    *Lu Xun 魯迅, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Trans. William Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990.
    **Bai Hua 柏華, ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’ 假兒歌. Trans. Brian Holton. Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, Issue 6, 2013.