Despite seemingly immense cultural barriers, there is an enormous interest in Western literature in Asia - namely, in Taiwan. And translations of German bestsellers are particularly en vouge.
Everyone loves a good book - but especially in Taiwan. The ratio between the number of inhabitants and the number of book stores is bigger in Taiwan than anywhere else in the world - and has been that way ever since the time of the Berlin Wall.
In particular, there island has a hunger for imported tomes. One quarter of the approximately 40,000 new publications produced every year are translations - so far, most of them from English, but books translated from German are on the rise.
This trend can be observed at almost every bookstore in Taiwan, but also at the presentations of publishers at the annual book fair in Taipei. Translator Wei Tang considers this degree of openness toward foreign cultures and languages as self evident: "We are living on a small island, that's why we are interested in what's happening in the whole world. There is a yearning for everything that's foreign."
Spreading the word
Tang Wei is one of the most significant mediators of German literature in Taiwan. Among the German authors whose works she has adapted into Chinese are Juli Zeh, Cornelia Funke and Charlotte Roche. She spends most of her time traveling from Berlin to Taipei, and from Taipei back to Berlin. In Germany, she tries to raise interest in Taiwanese literature which, so far, is being somewhat overlooked. In March, she accompanied Taiwanese writers to the Literary Colloquium Berlin, and the Leipzig Book Fair.
And, vice versa, she tries to call attention to German literature in her native country - which seems to be a lot easier. Numerous publishing houses in Taiwan offer German literature, and their efforts are crowned with success. German author Frank Schätzing's suspenseful novel "The Swarm" (‘Der Schwarm'), or the short story collection "Crimes" (‘Verbrechen') by Ferdinand von Schirach are among the bestsellers in Taiwan. And also Schätzing's latest novel "Limit" has found its way to many bookstores this summer.
"In most countries, books written by native authors sell better than those translated from foreign languages. But in Taiwan, the reverse holds true." That's how Rex How sums up the peculiarities of the book business in Taiwan. The editor of Locus Publishing, who is one of the most influential figures in the Taiwanese publishing scene, has witnessed a lot of changes.
Not lost in translation
Most translations from German are published by Business Weekly. Among the German authors distributed by the publisher are Niklas Luhmann, Elfriede Jelinek, Daniel Kehlmann and Arno Geiger. According to chief editor Feng Yi Cheng, growing linguistic competence in the publishing houses is responsible for the increase of published translations. "When I started out at Business Weekly 15 years ago, we published a translation from German only once every two years. By now, we publish three to five such works every year. Whereas we had only two German speaking editors before, we now have four. "
The crowd at the booth of Business Weekly seems to be growing every year. But not only there. Year after year, the Book Fair in the Taiwanese capital turns into the country's largest and most interesting bookstore. And that does say a lot, as the bookstores of Taipei tend to overwhelm visitors by the sheer abundance and variety of books. The large bookstore chain Eslite with branches throughout the city area also attracts readers with round-the-clock opening times.
The great wall of China
Interest in the Book Fair is by no means limited to the Taiwanese alone. Experts from China flock to the fair every year searching for information on international authors and trends. "Publishers and editors from mainland China come to the Book Fair to look at what has been published in Taiwan. The Taipei Book Fair is a window to the world to Chinese publishers and editors," says Linden Lin, of the publisher Linking.
And he should know what he is talking about, as he is not only one of the most well known publishers in Taiwan, but has also been head of the Taipei Book Fair. Other publishers confirm his assessment: A novel that has made it from Europe to Taiwan has also come a decisive step closer to the potentially huge readership of China.
Chinese writing in Taiwan differs from that in China: Whereas the long traditional Chinese signs dominate the script in Taiwan, simplified abbreviations are standard in mainland China. However, the transmission from one style to the other does not pose great problems and can be accomplished with a mouse click on the computer. What is far more problematic, however, is the restrictive publication policy of the People's Republic.
Censorship in the 21st century
The literature agency Bardon Chinese in Taipei sells, among other things, the book rights from publishers like Diogenes and Kiepenheuer & Witsch to Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Yu-Shiuan Chen of Bardon Chinese has had to deal with various restrictions: "In China, censorship is still widely in force. Books focusing on specific political and religious issues, or books in which sexuality plays an important role, may be published only in a limited way, or not at all. That entails that individual passages must be deleted or rewritten. Should the authors reject such interference, the books may not be published."
As long as the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing is in a position to determine what citizens in this huge country are permitted to read, the bookstores and the book fair in Taipei are likely to remain the only large window into the West for the Chinese-speaking world. Fortunately, that window is wide open.