Spreading the words
A Taiwanese publishing group is on the lookout for Reformed books to translate into Chinese
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TAIPEI, Taiwan—Tucked in a nondescript Taipei alleyway crowded with parked cars and scooters, the White Horse Inn coffee shop sits under a weatherworn apartment building next to a hardware store. Inside is typical fare: cappuccinos, milk tea, free Wi-Fi, and curry chicken lunch combos. But the shelves lining the walls contain Chinese translations of books familiar to many American Christians, particularly those in Reformed circles: John Piper’s The Pleasures of God, Charles Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons, and even Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.
Beyond the overflow room of the café is the office of Reformation Translation Fellowship Press (RTF), a publishing group that has translated famous works into Chinese since 1949. RTF began publishing works in 1949 from a small office in southern China, but Communist troops forced a move to Hong Kong. RTF in 1968 found a home in Taipei and eventually published 80 titles, but nearly floundered in 2004 after the sudden death of its director. Now it’s publishing 12 books per year with a staff that’s entirely Taiwanese.
Taiwanese interest in Reformed theology has increased thanks to the influence of 75-year-old Indonesian megachurch pastor Stephen Tong, whose sermons, DVDs, rallies, and books have a wide reach all over Southeast Asia. Still, Taiwan’s population is less than 5 percent Protestant or Catholic, and only 35 small churches claim to be distinctly Reformed.
RTF now focuses on China as both an evangelical opportunity and an untapped market to keep the organization afloat. Every type of Christianity is growing in China—the “local” church movement, charismatic churches, and even cults claiming the name of Christ—and some churches in urban cities have turned to Reformed theology. While customers in Taiwan might buy two books, some customers in China buy 200 and resell most at a higher price. For such bulk orders, RTF offers a 50 percent discount to encourage legal purchases, as some Chinese will buy one copy of an RTF book, copy it illegally, and sell it for a fifth of the price online.
RTF also works with publishers within China to secure Chinese ISBN numbers to sell the books inside of China. Sending religious books—or any foreign books—into China has not always been easy, as the government will at times stop shipments from entering the mainland. Still, in the storage room workers carefully wrap stacks of books in bubble wrap and pack them into cardboard boxes headed to China.
The press’s newest translation project also has China’s needs in mind. Laid out on a display table at the coffee shop are colorful craft cut-outs, a children’s worship CD, and Sunday school teacher’s manuals. Called Bible Building Blocks, the curriculum will teach through the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the course of eight years. Translators have finished only part of the catechism so far, but local churches of many theological leanings are interested because the material is more gospel-focused than the other curriculum available.
RTF’s seven staff members meet to decide which books to translate. They ask whether books are well-known and influential, whether they have stood the test of time, and whether they touch on topics relevant to Chinese-speaking readers. “Relevance” pushed Butterfield’s book to the front of the list, as homosexuality is currently a hot topic in Taiwan as well. Once RTF has chosen a book, it buys the exclusive copyrights from the author and hires translators. Because the books often contain specialized theological terminology, three editors scour over each line, making sure the translated copy is as close to the original as possible.
‘Selling a lifestyle’
Specialized bookstores like White Horse Inn are common in Taiwan, which has a large reading culture even as young people walk down the sidewalks and sit on the subway with their heads craned over their glowing screens.
One Taipei tourist spot, the 24-hour Eslite bookworm haven, is withstanding the relentless digitization of the publishing industry that has crippled American bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble: As the clock ticked toward midnight one evening, customers strolled around the display tables, casually flipping through books.
Eslite Group, which has more than 40 bookstores in Taiwan, also runs artsy department stores, wine cellars, galleries, movie theaters, and even a hotel: Its revenue in 2013 was $428 million. Even in the bookstore the products weren’t just books, as glossy cookbooks sat on display next to pork jerky, apple chips, and bottles of soy sauce. On every step, every chair, and even on the mahogany floors by the bookshelves, readers crouched over the paper-and-ink books in their hands.
Eslite had at least one often dog-eared copy of each book available for patrons to read. The rest stayed wrapped in plastic so as to remain pristine for potential buyers. A constant line at the checkout counter meant the bookstore must be making some money, yet the customers I spoke with were not intent on purchasing books. One college student reading an art design book at 2 a.m. said she’d come to take a break from studying, and if she found a book she liked, she’d go online to buy it cheaper.
After the in-store café closed at 1:30 a.m. the bookstore quieted, yet readers still filled every nook and cranny—I almost stumbled over a few who sat between bookshelves. Earlier it was difficult to hear over the chatter, but now the soft classical music seemed to be on full blast and the floorboards squeaked with every footfall. Penny Yong, a tourist from Malaysia I spoke to at 3 a.m., held a book in one hand and her suitcase in the other. She had just landed in Taipei and camped out in the bookstore for a few hours before planning to board a train at 4 a.m.
“[Eslite] creates the feeling that you’re part of the literary class,” said Yong, who works for a Malaysian publishing house and hopes to open her own bookstore one day: “It’s selling a lifestyle.” She noted that unlike reading e-books or buying books online, physical bookstores can create a sense of community—even if that just means sitting 10 feet away from another human quietly reading books past midnight.
By 4:30 a.m. all had left except for the nocturnal, students, travelers without places to stay, and perhaps a stray journalist trying to figure out the secrets of Eslite. Yet bibliophiles should breathe easy knowing the future of physical books seems to be in good hands. At 5 a.m. two preteen girls sat with their dad reading a stack of novels. At one point the dad rested his head in his arms, pleading with his daughters to leave, but one of the girls in pigtails whispered back: “Not yet, I still haven’t finished this book yet!” —A.L.
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