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  • Observations on the Current State of Taiwanese Books in Japan
    By Ellie Huang ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
    Jul 17, 2020

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

  • How Japanese Readers Engage with Dystopian Reality: Translating Egoyan Zheng’s Ground Zero
    by Kuramoto Tomoaki. English translation by Canaan Morse.
    Jun 30, 2016

    To what extent can a fictional novel change reality? The question engages the concept of the novel on its most fundamental level of significance. Egoyan Zheng’s Ground Zero provides an answer to that question based on the complex relationship between “reality” and “fiction.” After the March 11th earthquakes visited Japan with the “reality” of nuclear crisis, many authors gravitated toward dystopian settings of terror and despair. By contrast, the anti-nuclear Ground Zero employs a “realism” in its description of space and human events that attempts to change “reality” through “fiction,” and to break through the established models of dystopian narrative.

     

    Maintaining support for anti-proliferation policy and working with readers to change our current “ground zero” is Zheng’s ongoing and uncharted project. The novel describes a futuristic Taiwanese society in which nuclear crisis has already changed daily life irrevocably, and yet established structures of power remain in effect. While the narrative may resemble dystopian science fiction, it narrates our past as much as our future. As a member of that greater “our,” I know that once nuclear non-proliferation laws acquire global legitimacy, international readers will be able to engage fully with this reading space.

     

    An author who can bridge the divide between “reality” and “fantasy” through metafictional narrative tactics can help readers change a society in love with nuclear power (the events and spaces of this novel mirror those of contemporary Taiwan almost exactly). This sort of narrative strategy will continue to call readers to its space and to its cause. I’m confident that the most suitable readers for this unfinished narrative project are “the sons of the atomic bomb” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

     

    I also believe that my responsibility as a translator is to introduce as well as participate in this project. The concrete process of translation revealed several differences in “reality” between Japan and Zheng’s Taiwan. Perhaps Japanese readers will be able to continually engage with the novel’s plot, and thereby engage with this project of reception and creation.

     

    In Ground Zero, Egoyan frequently notes the deeply flawed construction of the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant. The wreckage left by that plant symbolized not only the shadow of Taiwanese martial law, but also the rise of Japanese and American imperialism. After martial law ended, the Taiwan Power Company ignored widespread civilian protest marches, as well as strong opposition from the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union and the Oversight and De-Proliferation Association, and proceeded with construction at Lungmen. In the end, General Electric won the rights to construct the plant, while Toshiba and Hitachi designed the reactors. Both of the Lungmen plant’s reactors were designed and built by Japanese state-owned enterprises, and constituted a rare success in the nation’s new mandate to “develop nuclear power solely for peaceful purposes.” The deeply flawed Lungmen plant was, therefore, the mutant offspring of a hegemon that dictated other nation’s nuclear policy (America) and a country that had once felt the effects of nuclear development before transforming into a nuclear provider itself (Japan).

     

    Japanese readers will not fail to sense that the exposure of government power structures following the nuclear crisis in Ground Zero invokes comparisons to Japan after the March 11th disasters; Egoyan’s satirical portrayal of the government that carries on with old nuclear policy after a disaster like nothing has happened obviously bears directly on Japan’s case. Hochen Duanfang, chairman of the previous Executive Yuan’s Nuclear Safety Committee, leads a team of commandos to the disaster site knowing full well that radioactive wastewater has made it into drinking water reservoirs. Yet he fakes a sudden discovery, ensuring his mission is a success, and he rides the subsequent wave of national fame into a candidacy for president of the ruling party. Similarly, the Japanese government claimed that its crises had been “totally unpredictable,” and protected executives in the Tokyo Power Company from legal liability, all while strongly pushing the commercial benefits of nuclear power. Perhaps the nuclear policies implemented by Japan then were even more damaging than those described in Egoyan’s novel. The fifteen “commandos” who ventured into the disaster site will also stir memories among Japanese readers of the “Fukushima Fifty,” the employees who remained at the Fukushima disaster site who supposedly volunteered to remain in the disaster area and contain radiation. As the number of victims rose to thirty thousand, most of those who were working in radioactive areas turned out to be temporary employees, not “heroes” from the Tokyo Power Company. Takahashi Tetsuya, a professor of philosophy at Tokyo University who researched how the Fukushima Fifty became so-called “great martyrs of the Japanese nation,” pointed out that Japanese nuclear policy was a predatory institution that required the sacrifice of others in order to operate. It was only after the truth could no longer be hidden that the government began trumpeting the “great martyrdom” of the Fukushima Fifty through mainstream media, in order to keep themselves and the Tokyo Power Company from assuming responsibility. On some level, Egoyan’s “commandos” present the post-crisis Japanese government in cameo, thereby effecting a bitter satire of an institution ripe with contradiction.

     

    The Japanese version of Ground Zero is forthcoming this March from Hakusuisya Press. As the translator, I hope Japanese readers find in it an entry point through which to engage with with Egoyan’s unfinished project to influence reality through fiction, and end Japan’s fateful marriage with nuclear power.