You think being a small indie publisher is challenging? Then trying being a small indie publisher who focuses on translations from Chinese! Today, Nicky Harman interviews Roh-Suan Tung, of Balestier Press, about what propelled him into publishing, his favourite books and his hopes for the future.
Founded in 2013, Balestier Press is an independent publisher of Asian literature and books related to Asia, including novels, essays and picture books, for children, young adults and adults. Balestier aims to provide a diverse platform for the different voices in Asia by publishing the best and most innovative Asian literature. Director Roh-Suan Tung says: “We hope to promote a greater cultural understanding and awareness of Asia, to tell the story of an evolving Asia through its people, culture, literature and artistic expressions."
NH Can you tell me how and why you got into publishing? I understand you came from a science background.
I started by publishing newsletters on media freedom in Taiwan in the 80s. I then became a theoretical physicist and served as editor for international journals and academic publishing for a few years. I enjoyed exploring the frontiers of physics and our understanding of the cosmos, and I appreciate the value of science, but I’ve always felt the need for more English-language publications in literary arts and humanities. Partly because I’ve lived in quite a few major cities in the east and the west.
NH What was the first book you published? And your favourite book?
The first book we published was The Bear Whispers to Me (by Chang Ying-tai, translated by Darryl Sterk), a children’s novel and Darryl’s first translation for us. The Bear went on to receive the 2015 Lennox Robinson Literary Award at Cork. It’s about a story of Taiwanese aboriginal boy who finds an album belonging to his father and retraces his father’s childhood in the forest. And Darryl is now one of our regular translators: Horace Ho’s The Tree Fort on Carnation Lane and Shih Chiung-Yu’s Wedding in Autumn were both translated by him.
I like all the books we published. If I need to highlight a few, I like your translations of Crystal Wedding (Xu Xiaobin) and The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (by Yan Ge), both of which gained an English PEN Translates award, and also Masked Dolls (by Shih Chiung-Yu, translated by XL Wang and P Toland), The Ventriloquist’s Daughter (by Lin Man-Chiu, translated by Helen Wang), Liv (by Roger Pulvers) and Costume (by Yeng Pway Ngon, translated by Jeremy Tiang). They have some elements that resonate with me, and take us deep into the human spirit and experience, and human strengths and weaknesses.
NH When I first got to know Balestier, the first thing I noticed was that you had some very good and famous translators on board. How did you build up your relationships with translators? And do you rely on their collaboration to promote your books?
We aim to select the best work by very good writers that haven’t yet been represented in English, and get them translated by very good translators. Sometimes we select the work first then contact translators, sometimes a work comes recommended by a translator. A book is an art form created by writers and translators together.
Yes, as an indie publisher, we rely on close collaboration with writers and translators to promote the books. Starting from publishing excerpts, social media, to book launches and literary festivals, translators have played a very important role in the promotion. I would especially like to thank you for your advice and brilliant promotion ideas from the start of Balestier Press. In addition to help from translators, the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing has helped us by inviting our authors and reviewing our books.
NH What kinds of help exist to support indie publishers. And what are the difficulties they face?
There are translation grants from English PEN and Arts Councils of various countries to support publication for their writers, but these grants are limited and competition is fierce, so most of our books do not receive any support. Ideally, we want to get more readers to know about our wonderful books but in practice, it’s actually getting harder for titles published by indie publishers to reach major bookstores. There have been some good ideas which aim to overcome this problem. For instance, we recently teamed up with nine other indie publishers and went on the Bookblast 10 x 10 Tour in England organised by BookBlast’s Georgia de Chamberet. There’s also the possibility of crowdsourcing to get more titles translated. Things have changed slightly over the last few years. There are more and more people who like to read translated literature, and there is a growing interest in these writings from Asia. I’m optimistic about the future.
NH What of future plans?
We plan to explore more ways, including crowdsourcing, to get more good titles translated.
And we plan to develop our new non-fiction book series called Hearing Others’ Voices, a transcultural and transdisciplinary series on new ways of thinking, areas of the world that have not attracted much attention in the past, and key issues of the day, aimed particularly at young adults.