Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
Part Two: Publishing in a Foreign Market
9/15/2009 6:38:42 AM
(Or How Not to Get Lost in Translation)
Thank you for joining us again as author Christopher Belton returns to share in his wisdom, as well as the joys and angst, plus some of the unique challenges associated in translating literary works for a foreign market.
First of all, being such a talented writer, why did you choose to publish in Japan instead of an English-speaking country like the UK, the USA or even Canada, for that matter?
CB: Location is the biggest factor. Living in Japan myself, it is just so much easier for me to deal with publishers in the same time zone and drop in for meetings when necessary. I also had a pretty bad experience with my U.S. agent, who disappeared off the face of the earth with the advances and a substantial proportion of the royalties for two of my books. On top of that, she didn’t even send me my complimentary copies, so the only copies I’ve ever seen are the ones that I bought myself from amazon.com at full market price.
LS: I can relate to your sentiments about the unreliable literary agent. I had one based in New York and he fell off the face of the earth, too. Eventually, I discovered he quit the business to pursue another career, but found out after the fact! Based on your experience, do you have any advice or words of caution for those authors seeking representation in the US and Canada?
CB: Given my track record, I’m definitely not the sort of person you want giving advice about that. All I can say really say is; be careful. Make sure you stick with reputable agencies.
LS: Currently, you are working on some novels to be published as Japanese originals and you have translated over 70 books. Of the 70, are these books from Japanese to English or vice-versa? Are any of them titles we in North America will recognize?
CB: Actually, that’s not strictly true. I have translated more than 70 books in the past, but over the course of the past few years I have concentrated mostly on my own work, and I am not currently working on a translation project. Also, apart from a few, most of the works were non-fiction books dealing with art, design, architecture, culture and other subjects of that ilk, so I very much doubt if they will be recognizable to the general public. I only translate from Japanese to English, by the way.
LS: Thank you for the clarification! Now, with the Japanese originals I had mentioned, are these books your personal works? If so, can you share with our readers what they are?
CB: This is difficult to answer from the point of view that every book I have ever published—and my 49th book comes out on the September 17 (50th at the end of November)—is available in both English and Japanese. But, none of them have ever been translated into English. The fact of the matter is, I write all of my books in English and then get them translated into Japanese. The reason for this is that although I am fluent in Japanese and carry out all of my daily work and business correspondence in Japanese, I don’t think it is possible for somebody who has learned a language later in life to be as good as a professional native. My philosophy has always been to leave every job up to the professionals, so I have my own translator—a very talented lady named Junko Watanabe—who translates all of my books. They are almost exclusively non-fiction books dealing with the study of English as a second language, European culture, history and literature.
LS: I understand the publishing industry is vastly different in Japan from the west. Care to explain how this is so?
CB: The most significant difference is the fact that the agency system is not in operation over here. All writers deal directly with their editors. The other difference is that no publisher includes a “first rejection” clause in book contracts. This means that it is possible for a writer to work simultaneously with multiple publishers, so full-time fiction writers are able to publish anything up to ten books per year if they have the stamina. I, myself, usually publish between five and eight books per year.
LS: If there is a no agent system in Japan, how do writers approach the publishing houses? Is it done typically via a query letter?
CB: Everything starts with the query letter, I’m afraid. Getting one’s foot in the door is probably as difficult here as it is in any country, but the good news is that once you are safely riding the conveyor belt, the offers from other publishers tend to come flowing in. Japanese readers are extremely loyal, and if they have enjoyed a book, the chances are that they will purchase every book that particular author ever brings out. Publishers therefore prefer to go with established names because they automatically bring their loyal readership with them, which dramatically lowers the risk of publication. And, the more books you publish the bigger your following becomes, which brings even more publishers to your doorstep.
LS: Without manuscripts being pitched and sold by literary agents, is it fair to assume mile-high slush piles of unsolicited works await authors interested in venturing into the realm of publication in this country?
CB: To tell the truth, I’ve never even heard anyone mention slush piles over here. Any unsolicited manuscript arriving at a publisher’s door probably does not even get opened. The protocol is to send a short query letter and await a response. If the editor assigned to opening that letter is sufficiently impressed, he will contact the author, request a couple of sample chapters and ask a whole bunch of questions. If he is then convinced that he has something worthwhile, he will make up his own proposal and present it at the monthly (maybe weekly, depending on the company) editorial meeting. If the general consensus is favorable, he will ask for the remainder of the book and then re-present his proposal again after he has read it. The final decision is made during this second editorial meeting by consensus.
LS: Aside from the language barrier, what are some of the obstacles a foreign author might encounter if they wish to be published in Japan?
CB: I have found that Japanese readers need to be specifically targeted in order to maintain their interest. Although we are convinced in the West that everybody has a full understanding of our culture and daily lifestyles, even the simplest of actions, customs and choice of vocabulary can have people scratching their heads in confusion. This, naturally, detracts from the enjoyment of a book. For example, ‘popping a Bud’ is a familiar expression to most English speakers, but the verb ‘pop’ to open a can does not work in Japanese, and the abbreviation ‘Bud’ has no meaning for Japanese people. Other examples include kissing under the mistletoe, knocking on wood, leaving a few bucks on a plate in a restaurant (no tipping over here,) whistling for a cab, sitting cross-legged, shrugging one’s shoulder; the list goes on and on. In other words, nearly every paragraph is going to include something that does not get the message across to Japanese readers, and this makes the books seem alien and unfamiliar. The translator’s job is, naturally, to get the essence of the author’s intentions across to the reader, but there is literally no possible way to explain the nuance behind kissing beneath the mistletoe, for example, unless a lengthy explanation is added, which not only exceeds the authority of the job, it also detracts even more from the enjoyment of the book. This is a huge and probably insurmountable obstacle.
LS: I know international bestsellers like Tom Clancy, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and Stephen King, especially when their books are tied to big-budget movies, are well received. But is my assessment unfair when I say I get the sense that the Japanese book buyers are reluctant to read the works of an obscure foreign author, no matter how talented, choosing to read those that have already built a reputation as a bestseller in other countries?
CB: Unfortunately, that is a perfectly accurate assessment. Japanese readers are curious and want to know why such-and-such a book is popular. They will reach into their pockets without hesitation for a book that is in the news, but for the reasons outlined in the previous question, they are wary about attempting an unknown writer. I hope I don’t come across as racist when I say that the reason why Japanese people don’t read translations of unknown English language authors is the same reason why Americans don’t read translations of unknown Japanese authors.
LS: What are some of the most interesting challenges you’ve encountered as a book translator?
CB: Japanese is an incredibly subtle language in which the main point that the author is trying to get across is not always stated directly. Trying to filter through to the veiled nuance hidden behind the actual words and then reconstruct it in viable English is probably the biggest challenge I face. It is also the most enjoyable, I might add.
LS: I imagine a great deal of trust is involved between the author and the translator in terms of maintaining the book’s integrity. Has there ever been a time when you’ve suggested editorial changes because the original version just did not translate well or the words and/or actions may have a different, even an offensive connotation in another language/culture?
CB: There are two ways to approach the translation of a given work: formal equivalence (direct translation) and dynamic equivalence (translation of the essence.) It is necessary to decide at the outset exactly which style needs to be used, and in fictional work the latter is invariably chosen. Dynamic equivalence gives the translator the freedom to interpret the overall meaning of the text and then rewrite it in the style of the target language, and this is the way I get over the potential problems you suggest. Unfortunately, not all translators have a full grasp of the concept of dynamic equivalence, and it is for this reason that translated books rarely match up to the quality of the original works.
LS: What was the most exciting translation project you’ve worked on to date?
CB: Strangely enough, it was not literature-, but business-related. In the latter part of the ‘90s, Bill Clinton visited Japan to forge a deal with the Japanese government that would allow U.S. companies to operate non-life insurance over here, and I was his official translator. For several days before his arrival and during his stay, I had to translate every single newspaper, magazine and web-based article relating to this issue within minutes of it being issued. I’d receive a stack of clippings every morning, and more would arrive throughout the day. I had to work around the clock and it was totally exhausting, but it certainly was exciting. And, another exciting project was translating the manuals for a well-known bank’s cash reconciliation software system. Because the information I was dealing with could conceivably be used for illegal purposes, the entire project was shrouded in top-secrecy. A certain amount of the original text was delivered to my house daily by armored truck, and I had to work on an isolated computer. My end product was then transferred onto disc and collected by armored truck in the evening, and my hard drive erased by beefy guards. Scary, but exciting.
LS: What was the most difficult project, either fiction or non-fiction, you’ve had to translate? And what made it so difficult?
CB: That’s very difficult to answer. Translation is not difficult as long as you have a firm grasp of both languages, so from that point of view, no project is any more difficult than another. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I’d probably say the traditional legends of Japan. I translated a book of children’s stories a few years ago that could be equated to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, and getting the hidden morals to match up in a believable manner to morals that would be considered convincing in English was extremely difficult. Even now I really don’t think I managed it perfectly, although I have seen other translations that I think fared even worse. I could be biased, though…:-)
LS: Is there any chance that one day we’ll see one of your original works written for the Japanese book-buying public translated into English and sold to a western market?
CB: I very much doubt it with my non-fiction work, as that specifically targets a Japanese readership (although quite a few have been translated into Korean and Chinese for sale in other Asian countries,) but I certainly hope so for my fiction work. I’ll let you know when the time comes…:-)
LS: So many questions! So little time! Thank you for taking part in this fascinating interview, Christopher. If our readers would like to contact you or read more about your works where can they go?
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