Terry Pratchett in the Chinese world


I am ashamed to say that the first time I heard about Terry Pratchett was in December 2011, when his tele-movie Going Postal was broadcast in Australia. Two weeks later, in January 2012, Hogfather was shown, and it was Death and his serious funniness (or funny seriousness) in this later work that truly grabbed my attention. I then purchased the book, and was surprised to find it very different from its film adaptation. As one who has read Douglas Adams only in Chinese, I find the “British English” and its curious sense of humor in this book absolutely fascinating.

Hogfather is the only book of Pratchett’s that I have. Of course, my lack of understanding (and a lack of intention to understand more) about this internationally renowned writer does not at all affect his status in the fantasy world. He is a great writer who is able to create a whole universe and to make it both entertaining and informative. Not many people can do so — to enrich and inspire readers in a fun way, to make them burst out laughing while reflecting on the rights and wrongs of their own world.

The New York Times recently reported that Pratchett signed a 10-book deal with Doubleday and Anchor Books. 10 books! How does he even have time to write them? And how will these books further impact on the fantasy world, in which other brilliant stars such as Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin have long been shining? This is a world, I am afraid, that I will never have enough time to explore and understand.

But I am intrigued enough to find out how Pratchett has been doing in the Chinese world. Fantasy as a literary genre only became popular in Taiwan after the arrival of Harry Potter in 1997 and The Lord of the Rings in 2002. Take The Lord of the Rings for example. Taiwan’s Linking Publishing Company purchased its Chinese translation rights in as early as 1997, but it took them three whole years to sell 3,000 copies of the book.

A refreshed Chinese version of The Lord of the Rings was issued in four volumes (including The Hobbit) in 2001. It took Taiwanese translator Lucifer Chu nine months of time and 20 kilograms of weight to complete the translation, which earned him NT$500,000 as royalties, an unheard-of amount back then (approximately US$16,458 today). This money was later used to launch the Fantasy Foundation in December 2002 — the first organization in Taiwan to widely promote fantasy literature and arts.

The arrival of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations considerably enhanced the sales of The Lord of the Rings. Within a year, 110,000 sets (therefore, 440,000 copies) were published and sold. This achievement also helped the promotion of fantasy as a literary genre in Taiwan, which led to the introduction of a great diversity of fantasy books to the island nation.

In May 2004, Taiwan’s Commonwealth Publishing Co., Ltd published Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Man, and his A Hat Full of Sky in April 2005, in Chinese. These are the first three Discworld books specifically written for young adult readers, but the fact that no other YA novel in this series was published in Chinese hints at a lack of sales. After all, Taiwanese readers already have Hermione Granger. Who needs Tiffany Aching?

Then Neil Gaiman arrived in Taiwan in May 2008, reviving Pratchett’s fame as Pratchett’s Good Omens and Gaiman’s American Gods were published together by Muses Publishing House. (Gaiman appeared in Taiwan in as early as 2005, but did not gain any fame until the arrival of the film adaptation of Stardust in 2007. This, together with many other examples, fully demonstrate how film adaptations can help selling the books in the Chinese world. Still, we should dedicate a seperate article to Gaiman some time in the future.)

It was not until October 2012 that the Discworld finally and formally arrived in Taiwan, hence to the whole Chinese world. As of August 2013, the first four novels in the series — Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, and Jingo — have been published, selling at NT$320-354 (approximately US$10.53-11.65) per copy. Compared to their English counterparts, these four Chinese versions unanimously have rather plain cover designs. Starting from Men at Arms, however, the publisher, part of Booklife.com.tw., had to declare on the book covers how hilarious Pratchett really is. A recommendation from Brandon Sanderson was also used to promote these books in Taiwan. (This is the publisher that has also promoted Stieg Larrson and S.J. Watson in Chinese.)

In all, eight of Prachette’s Discworld novels are expected to be published in Taiwan, with The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud! and Snuff to come in the near future. Will there be more? It is hard to say. Perhaps a popular Hollywood movie on Discworld will help.

Image: This is the Chinese cover of Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, published in Taiwan in August 2013. The Chinese characters on the middle-left are Brandon Sanderson’s praise for the Discworld series: “Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might be the highest form of literature on the planet.”

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