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How Taiwan Literature Can Make Its Breakout: Writer Li Ang Discusses 40 Years of Experience

  • PublishTime:2024-01-24

By Li Ang (李昂)

Translated by Gregory Laslo

The translation of novels from Taiwan into foreign languages is the result of hard work by many different people, among them early pioneers such as Nancy Ing (殷張蘭熙). Of course, national-level institutions have also provided essential support. I only had an opportunity to get involved in the translation of Taiwan literature after The Butcher’s Wife was published in 1983. Forty years later, I have made some small achievements. In the early days, this was mostly the result of cooperation with overseas translators and publishers, and hard work on my own part. Now, I am glad to see government agencies getting involved and helping in the development of other aspects.

Looking back at my own earlier experiences, some believed that my works were controversial. Although many translations were produced, they were  done without any official support or endorsement from government institutions. There were even those who openly advocated against translating and publishing my works, despite willingness on the part of translators and publishers.

To this day, I have never been invited by a government agency to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. The only time I have ever attended was for the release of Visible Ghosts in German (Sichtbare Geister), and that was only after I offered to pay for my own airfare. That was where I sold the publication rights for the Italian version of The Butcher’s Wife. But as the politics of Taiwan became more and more democratic, and resources were no longer held in the grip of a single political party or a select group of literary figures, assistance from government quarters began to grow its effectiveness. For instance, when I was invited to speak at the University of Edinburgh, the Taipei Representative Office in the U.K. later helped me organize an event in London to give a speech in English. As a result, I ended up on the front page of the BBC’s Mandarin website. These sorts of opportunities are obviously a blending of academia and politics. In other words, they are only feasible due to the efforts of Taiwan’s overseas representative offices. It is worth noting that around the time of the publication of The Butcher’s Wife in Poland, I was able to attend a TV interview thanks to Professor Malgorzata Religa at the University of Warsaw and Ms. Chen Mei-fen of the Taipei Representative Office in Poland. I very seldom have the chance to give TV interviews at book fairs - literature is still a niche field, and TV interviews are hard to come by. The recent publishing of Le Banquet aphrodisiaque in France was led by Professor Gwennaël Gaffric of Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University, but the Taiwan Cultural Center in Paris and Director Hu Ching-fang also put much effort into bringing about an important interview with La Libération

First, I want to say that there are two historical reasons why my novels, especially The Butcher’s Wife, have managed to be published in sixteen countries – including an Arabic edition in Kuwait, which is probably a special case. In the 1980s, China had just opened the floodgates to outside influences, and the trauma literature of the Cultural Revolution was being translated and received a great deal of attention. 

But the other factor was the globalization of feminism, which brought novels like The Butcher’s Wife into the spotlight. My experience of the past forty years has impressed upon me that being as small as it is, Taiwan gets basically no international recognition, and if its literature wants to be translated and conveyed to the outside world, that literature must align itself with international trends. It was because feminists recommended and introduced The Butcher’s Wife to others that it was quickly translated into many languages. 

Of course, my meeting four famous translators - Howard Goldblatt in the US, Fujī Shozō in Japan, Helmut Martin in Germany, and Alain Peyraube in France - was also critical. What is interesting is that these four people who helped translate The Butcher’s Wife are all professors of literature, and they became aware of the novel due to their interest in Taiwan literature. Unfortunately, because English is the world’s literary lingua franca, novels must be translated and published in English, if they are  to receive international attention. Publishing houses and scholars in other countries treat the English edition as the definitive one, and if they like it, they recommend it to be translated into their own native languages.

The New York Times’ review of The Butcher’s Wife, as well as the following reviews by other newspapers and magazines, helped give the novel an opportunity to be translated. I’m sure that Le Monde’s full-length news report also had a hand in moving the French Ministry of Culture to grant me the rank of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

But in the 1990s, I hit a wall. That was when Chinese literature, as the literature of a powerful country, put forth its strength and elbowed Taiwan literature out of a chance to be noticed. Many people said that if one wanted to research Chinese literature, or literature written in Chinese languages, then China was the main place to do it. What cut the deepest was a sentence from Helmut Martin – on one of his visits to Taiwan, he told me that for some reason, the option of translating Taiwan literature was simply gone, and there would no longer be any publishing opportunities.

The situation in Japan is somewhat better. Thanks to our geographical proximity, my novels have always been able to be published in Japan.

The situation has also taken a major turn for the better over the last few years. Due to geopolitical factors and the myriad censorship policies of the Chinese government, Taiwan literature has garnered more attention for itself. But the great focus given to the geopolitical situation does not mean that our literary works have received the same level of attention. Altogether, only seven of my novels and one collection of short stories have been translated – a total of eight books, and they are published as paperback and hardcover editions. They come to a total of forty translated and published works only if they are counted separately.

When it comes to translations, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether writers of Taiwan have produced enough good works, but rather that very few works ever get this opportunity to begin with. Taiwan literature has never produced a bestseller. After many years of hard work, simply maintaining a small yet consistent readership is a challenge. Achieving the lofty goal of winning a Nobel Prize in Literature, like Mo Yan, is simply impossible. Based on my forty years of experience, I think that besides writers writing quality pieces, getting the attention of foreign scholars interested in Taiwan literature, recommendations from the publishing industry, and if possible, government support, will undoubtedly lead to better results in the translation of Taiwan literature.

Furthermore, the global trend we see before us is that of visual media overtaking letters and text. For literary works to make waves in this world, foreign translation may be merely the first step. Next, perhaps, we can turn to TV series or movies, or graphic novel adaptations, just as I previously attempted with Beigang Incense Burner of Lust (which was adapted into a graphic novel titled The Incense Burner of Lust). Taking advantage of the power of visual media is another way we can better promote Taiwan literature to a broader audience around the world.

The world has already taken notice of Taiwan’s achievements in creating a free, democratic society. But Taiwan literature nonetheless remains a niche interest, and if we want to show our progress and potential on the global literary stage, we will need to muster all our efforts on many different fronts. Broadening our horizons from the textual sphere into the visual industry through approaches such as film adaptations will certainly aid in drawing more attention to our novels. This is one way forward that is worth the combined effort of everyone involved.

About the Author:

Over the course of a creative career spanning almost half a century, Shih Shu-tuan(施淑端), pen name Li Ang, has stayed at the cutting edge of social development in Taiwan, continually challenging societal taboos and traditional literary convention. Many of her works have been translated into a number of different languages and published in many different countries. Her most noteworthy work, The Butcher’s Wife, has been translated into a huge variety of languages, setting the standard for Taiwan’s literature on the world stage. Li Ang’s latest work to be translated and published abroad is the Le Banquet aphrodisiaque, the French edition of 2003’s An Erotic Feast for Lovebirds (鴛鴦春膳), reported in a full-page introduction by the newspaper La Libération.

臺灣文學外譯如何突破重圍 作家李昂40年國際文壇經驗談

臺灣小說的外譯經由許多人的努力,早期像殷張蘭熙(Nancy Ing),國家單位當然也給予一定的幫助。1983年《殺夫》出版之後,我才有機會觸及到臺灣文學外譯領域,四十年之後,有一點小成績,前期多半是由我個人自己的努力,和海外的翻譯家以及出版社共同經營。到了最近,很高興有國家部門的介入與協助,開展了另外的面向。


我至今仍然不曾被政府單位邀請到法蘭克福書展,唯一一次出席是因應德文《看得見的鬼》(Sichtbare Geister)出版,我向書展的策劃人提出我自己出機票,然後才到了書展。我也因此賣掉了「殺夫」的義大利版權。隨著臺灣的政黨輪替越來越民主化,資源不再掌握在某個政黨、某些文人手中,政府方面的幫助對我開始有了明確的效果,比如我應邀到愛丁堡大學演講,接下來倫敦的臺灣辦事處幫我在倫敦辦了活動,我用英文演講,上了BBC中文網頁的頭版,像這樣子的機會當然是結合了學界跟政治,也就是臺灣的海外辦事處才能夠做到。值得一提的有在波蘭出版《殺夫》,因為華沙大學的李周教授和波蘭辦事處的陳美芬女士,我極少有機會的在書展接受電視的採訪,文學仍然是小眾,電視採訪當然極不容易。最近我在法國出版的《鴛鴦春膳》(Le Banquet aphrodisiaque)是由里昂第三大學的關首奇老師主導,但是駐法國臺灣文化中心(巴文中心),和胡晴舫主任在巴黎也出了很多力,促成了《解放報》(La Libération)的重要採訪。

首先要說的是,我所處的時代有兩個理由,使得我的小說,特別是《殺夫》,能夠累積到目前為止共計十六個國家的出版,當中還包括在科威特出版的阿拉伯文版,大概算得上特例。在上個世紀八零年代,中國剛打開對外的大門,文革的傷痕文學正大量被譯介出來,得到了主要的注目;但是另一個面向是女性主義全球化的影響,讓像《殺夫》這樣的小說在這個潮流中得到注意。這四十年的經驗,我深刻的感覺到,臺灣土地小而且基本上在國際間得不到什麼重視,要能夠被譯介,真的要跟世界的潮流相關才有可能。《殺夫》因為女性主義者的推薦和介紹,很快的有了多國的翻譯,當然很重要的是我碰到三個著名的翻譯學者,分別是美國的葛浩文(Howard Goldblatt)、日本的藤井省三,還有歐洲德國的馬漢茂(Helmut Martin),法國的貝羅貝先生。有趣的是,這四個幫我翻譯小說的人都是文學教授,因為對臺灣文學的愛好注意到了《殺夫》。翻譯小說要得到世界性的注目,英文翻譯出版恐怕是最重要的,因為英文作為通行世界的語文,其他國家的出版商或者是學者就會以此為文本進行閱讀,如果喜歡的話,可以推薦給他們在地國家來翻譯。