Five Years and a Day: The Translation of Private Eyes
by Gray Tan. English translation by Canaan Morse.
Dec 13, 2015

The 3rd Annual Taipei Rights Workshop has just come and gone in the blink of an eye. After seeing off the last of our guest lecturers, I went back to my now-unfamiliar office to begin dealing with the mountain of work that had begun piling up. While there, I was contacted by Francesca Varotto of the Italian publisher Marsilio, with an offer to buy Chi Wei-Jan’s novel Private Eyes. I discussed it with my co-agent and we closed the deal that same evening. Francesca is Marsilio’s editor-in-chief and the guiding hand behind the press’s rise to its current position as the premier publisher of Scandinavian crime fiction (Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson are both their authors).

Francesca signed Mai Jia’s Decoded from us last year, but it wasn’t until this year’s London Book Fair that we finally had a chance to meet. Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture invited her to participate in this year’s Rights Workshop, along with the Spanish-language scout Carmen Pinilla and Frank Wegner from Suhrkamp in Germany. Francesca had never been to Asia before, and was amazed by Taipei. After returning home, she looked at Private Eyes once more with new eyes and decided to make an offer.

This was exactly the catalyst we were waiting for. Marsilio is known as a trend-setter in Europe, and their decision might provide impetus for other publishers on the continent to make offers.

This one critical moment had been preceded by five long years of waiting. I first read the book first in 2011, signing Chi Wei-Jan shortly afterwards. I commissioned a sample translation in English, which I recommended to the Chinese readers’ group at And Other Stories Press, and which was later published in the Asia Literary Review. The following year saw the beginning of the Taipei Book Fair Foundation’s fellowship program; we arranged for Chi Wei-Jan to introduce Private Eyes to guests at the Fair, and the book was awarded English translation funding by the Book Fair Foundation. In 2013, Chi Wei-Jan participated in the Frankfurt Book Fair as a Featured Author in the Taiwan pavilion, and had the chance to meet with his American agent, Markus Hoffmann. The next year, in 2014, Markus came to lecture at the Taipei Rights Workshop, and the two met once more.

Yet we still couldn’t quite get a foot in the door. An American editor read the English sample and said it was pretty good, but was there any more? Most of the other international editors who got the sample put it aside, as there was no hook motivating them to sign it. Last year, the book won more translation funding from the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, so we doubled down on our investment and invited Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang to translate the whole work. Finally, we had the perfect counter to any editorial excuse: a completed English translation.

During this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, I met with Carmen and Francesca at the Hessischer Hof in Frankfurt. Francesca, upon hearing me describe the plot of Private Eyes, said she’d like to read it, and I sent her the English translation that evening. By the time she arrived in Taiwan, she had read most of the book. While this year’s activities did not include a visit to Liuzhangli, the most important locale in the novel, we did visit some important locations near Dadaocheng, like the Ri Xing Type Foundry, 324 Print Studio, and Murder Ink. It rained that day, and as our group snaked its way through narrow alleys, past old houses and rust-speckled iron gates, it did seem like every passageway concealed mysteries, and every door concealed another world. I said to Francesca that the setting felt close to what was described in the book. When she wrote to me later, she said, “While we were at Ri Xing and Murder Ink, I kept thinking of Wu Cheng, the protagonist in Private Eyes.”

Looking back, it is clear that government support has allowed us to build mechanisms to introduce Taiwanese literature to the mainstream book market, including bringing authors to book fairs abroad, preparing translation samples, inviting foreign publishers to Taiwan to meet authors, offering translation subsidies, and founding the Books From Taiwan journal. We always hope that foreign publishers visiting Taiwan will find books they like and acquire them, yet the fact is such opportunities don’t appear frequently, and creating them requires endless preparation. It takes good books, good English translations and introductory materials, rights sellers who know how to pitch books, and – of course – a fair amount of luck.
Five years is not an overly long time, nor is it instant. Yet the final result makes the wait worthwhile, and I’m quite sure that our next foreign-language sale will not take anywhere near that long to accomplish.