Liu Wan-lai (劉萬來), a well-known translator of numerous Japanese-language books for young adults during the Martial Law era and retired teacher at Dalin Elementary School in Chiayi County, died on Wednesday last week at the age of 89.
An influential Japanese-to-Chinese translator, who worked under strict ideological censorship — but lax copyright laws — Liu translated materials that were as diverse as they were voluminous.
Books Liu translated included space operas, horror, folklore, illustrated guides to electric trains, aviation and warships, and the then-popular manga series Galaxy Train 999 and Space Battleship Yamato, which are now considered classics of the genre.
“To a generation of readers born in the 1960s, or even earlier, Liu Wan-lai was a mystery and a literary demigod. During the age of information lockdown, his translations brought joy to countless fans and touched many lives,” National Taiwan University history professor Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈) said in a social media post marking Liu’s passing.
“The man is a legend,” said Hung Chih-wen (洪致文), a geography professor at the National Taiwan Normal University, who is also a prolific author on matters related to trains and railways.
Chinese-language extracurricular reading material was rare during the 1960s and Liu was responsible for introducing numerous Japanese books to Taiwanese readers by taking advantage of a lack of copyright protections at the time, Hung said.
Hung said his life-long passion for trains and railways was inspired by two books he bought as an elementary-school student that were translated by Liu — An Illustrated Guide to Trains and Railways and An Illustrated Guide to Electric Trains.
Liu’s made many translations of hobbyist literature and nourished many budding interests, Hung said.
“I started a club for train buffs in college and found out that everybody in the club grew up reading books Liu Wan-lai had translated,” he added.
Liu last year published an autobiography entitled Memoirs of An Old Kano: Liu Wan-lai, A Son of Dalin Tells His Story, with a preface written by Chou, the daughter of a colleague of Liu Wan-Lai’s at Dalin Elementary School.
The title of the book refers to the nickname of Liu’s alma mater, the Chiayi Agricultural and Forestry Vocational High School, the baseball team of which was the subject of the 2014 film Kano directed by Umin Boya.
According to Chou’s preface, Liu was younger than 16 when World War II ended and he had to transition from speaking Japanese to Chinese.
Later, Liu began Japanese-to-Chinese translation to supplement his income, with commissions coming mostly from Dashan Bookstore, a Tainan-based publishing company active during that time, which gave him a variety of titles to work on.
Liu and his publisher were often obliged by Martial Law-era censorship and anti-Japanese xenophobia to make strategic alterations to the material, for example changing book titles originally containing references to “Japanese trains” to “Asian trains,” and rechristening the titular Space Battleship Yamato to Space Battleship Yellow Emperor, Chou said.
Liu’s life and times bore witness to the “confusion and disorientation” that people of his era experienced as a result of Taiwan’s transformation from a pre-war society to a post-war society, Chou added.
Lin Chun-heng (林群恆), a historian who previously worked for Chiayi County Government’s committee to manage its archives, said Liu’s mastery of the Japanese language and personal knowledge of the Japanese colonial period made him a fountain of knowledge to historians of Taiwan.
Liu’s daughters, Liu Pi-chen (劉碧真) and Liu Pi-yu (劉碧玉), said that although he eventually earned enough money from his translations to live comfortably, he continued to tutor people in Japanese and translate books out of a sense of obligation, donating his commission to charitable causes and managing a charitable foundation operating out of Dalin.
Liu Pi-chen said her father battled diabetes and lung cancer for the last three years of his life, but on the day of his death, he merely complained of slight discomfort before reclining to rest, passing away peacefully.
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