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.