Translating Indigenous Taiwan into English: Some Observations (I)
By Chen Rong-Bin
Jun 26, 2023

The Beginning

In December 1996, two English translations of Indigenous literary works were published in the quarterly The Chinese PEN (now renamed as Florescence—A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Chinese Literature from Taiwan). One was a poem by the Atayal author Walis Nokan, translated by the American sinologist John Balcom, titled “He Makes Another Survey” 伊能再踏查; the other was the Bunun novelist Topas Tamapima’s short story “The Last Hunter” 最後的獵人, translated by Carlos Tee 鄭永康. This marks the earliest English translation of Indigenous Taiwanese literature. In June 1998, Taiwan Literature: English Translation Series, a journal published by UC Santa Barbara and headed by Professor Tu Kuo-ch’ing 杜國清, released a special issue on “Aboriginal Literature in Taiwan” (volume 3). In this special issue, what can be found are the second English translation of Topas Tamapima’s “The Last Hunter” (this time by another American scholar, Linda G. Wang) and the first of Syaman Rapongan’s work translated into English, “The Call of the Flying Fish” 飛魚的呼喚 (translated by Cathy Chiu 邱冬銀, a librarian of UC Santa Barbara), a story from his canonical collection Cold Sea, Deep Feeling 冷海情深. Taiwan Literature continued to dedicate its efforts to translating works by Indigenous Taiwan writers into English, with more works of this genre being translated and collected in its ensuing special issues on “Taiwan Literature, Nature, and Environment” (vol. 8, 2000), “Taiwan Literature and the Ocean” (vol. 17, 2005), “Mountains, Forests, and Taiwan Literature” (vol. 18, 2006), “The Mythology and Oral Literature of Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples” (vol. 24, 2009), and “Animal Writing in Taiwan Literature” (vol. 41, in which ten animal stories of the Bunun tribe are translated and collected). Syaman Rapongan’s three other works from Cold Sea, Deep Feeling are collected in “Taiwan Literature and the Ocean” (all translated by Terrence Russell), including the namesake autobiographical essay, “Cold Sea, Deep Feeling.”


Translating Syaman Rapongan

Speaking of Syaman Rapongan, one of the most prestigious writers of Taiwan’s “Ocean Literature” and a native of the Orchid Island (Lanyu, also known as Botel Tobago in the West), some issues about the difficulty of translating Indigenous Taiwan writers should be raised. Indigenous writers, either Taiwanese or from other places in the world, are known to write with a “hybrid style,” which integrates phrases, or even sentences, from their mother tongues into the languages which they write in. In Syaman’s case, for example, he uses terms such as nanrenyu 男人魚 and nurenyu 女人魚, a pair of ethnozoological terms meaning “bad fish” (rahet) and “good (or real) fish” (oyod) in the Tao language respectively. Translators without this linguistic knowledge tend to translate these two terms into “men’s fish” and “women’s fish,” despite the fact that oyod can be consumed by all members of the Tao ethnic community, regardless of their gender and age. Also, his pinbanzhou 拼板舟 is not a “dugout canoe,” as the term is sometimes mis-translated, but a wooden plank boat built without using nails, which is named tatala (or tatara) in the Tao language. The work of translating any Indigenous Taiwan writer requires not only linguistic knowledge but also the work ethic of an ethnographer, who usually digs deep into the society and culture that they study. For example, translator Cheryl Robbins has shown her laudable ingenuity by translating the title 黑潮の親子舟 (also from Cold Sea, Deep Feeling) into “Father and Son Build a Boat to Travel Kuroshio Current,” because, unlike two other more literal translations, her rendering of the title shows the Tao tradition of boat building done by family members together.


Representative Anthologies

It’s not until the recent years that the book-length works by Indigenous Taiwan writers were translated fully into English. For about two decades, their translated works into English could only be found in anthologies. One good example is Indigenous Writers of Taiwan: An Anthology of Stories, Essays, and Poems, a volume edited and translated by John Balcom and published in 2005 as a part of Columbia University Press’s Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series. Another representative case is The Anthology of Taiwan Indigenous Literature. This three-volume anthology contains 31 short stories, 39 poems, and 29 prose essays by 49 Indigenous Taiwan authors and the works have been selected on the basis of considerations of tribe, age, gender, and geographic distribution. Though it’s published in 2015 by Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, this large-scale translation project had been made possible via the signing of the Agreement between New Zealand and Taiwan on Economic Cooperation (ANZTEC) in June 2013, because the agreement’s Chapter 19 stipulates that Taiwan and New Zealand must both promote the exchange of research about, translation of, and publication of Indigenous literature. A quintessential byproduct of this translation was the publication of Chronicle of Significant Events for Taiwan Indigenous Literature: 1951–2014, which carefully divides the development of Taiwan Indigenous literature into four stages: 1951-1990, the 1990s, the 2000s, and the 2010s.

Read on: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/latest_info.php?id=223