The Japanese Literature Publishing Project recently updated their website to include a RSS feed, which, to me, is absolutely fantastic and essential. I live through my Google Reader, rarely checking in on sites that I don’t subscribe to. Now, it’s much, much easier to keep up with the JLPP folks, who are constantly added new content to their site, such as this interview with Michael Stein a Japanese-to-German translator, who recently translated Ichiyo Higuchi’s The Thirteenth Night and Other Stories (Jusan’ya) into German.
Stein’s interview is pretty interesting, including his bit about The Changelings, the first book he ever translated. In his words, it’s “a court novel by an unidentified author of the late Heian period. The protagonists are two siblings—the brother is raised to be a woman, and the sister a man.”
But what really caught my attention was this bit about what German readers like. By no means is this desire for strong plots restricted to Germany, but it does explain (in a partial way) why it seems like a lot of contemporary German literature has moved away from the experimental writings of people like Uwe Johnson:
What were some of the difficulties of trying to convey Meiji-period Japan to a German readership?
German readers tend to prefer stories with strong plots. Of Ichiyo’s works that have been translated into German, the most popular are “Trübe Wasser” (Troubled Waters/Nigorie), translated by Jürgen Berndt, and “Growing Up”/Takekurabe, which has been translated into German as “Die Liebe der kleinen Midori” by Oscar Benl and by me as “So lange sie ein Kind war.” Both these Ichiyo stories have clear storylines. In the same way, Germans most like those of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s works that are plot-driven and have significant events happening in them. The same holds for Haruki Murakami. Germans are quite big on adventure. But I personally also like works without strong narratives.
It’s always nice to return to the office (last week I was in NY for a New York State Council on the Arts panel) to a copy of Contemporary Japanese Writers Vol. 2 from the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center (a.k.a. J-Lit).
J-Lit is an organization in Japan dedicated to publishing and promoting Japanese literature throughout the world. The mainstay of their program is the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, through which, on an annual basis, ten-plus Japanese books are translated into English and placed with publishers. Not only does the JLPP identify top-notch translators to work on these projects, but they also facilitate the sale of rights to American/British publishers and then, when the book finally comes out, they purchase 2,000 copies and distribute them to libraries throughout the world. Overall, a very admirable project that greatly benefits publishers.
(I do have my questions about the way the publishers of these books take advantage of this program, but in relation to this post that’s neither here nor there.)
Recently the JLPP announced it’s fourth list, which is centered around the theme of “travel.”
The connections between travel and literature are profound. People go to places removed from their daily experience, make new discoveries, and imagine new things. From the time of early works like the Man’yoshu poetry anthology and the chronicles of the Kojiki, there has been a wealth of travel literature – not only travel accounts per se, but also novels, dramas, and essays that depend on the experience of travel. Some works, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, have described fictive travel, of journeys to impossible places. Travel may further encompass not just actual, physical journeying from one place to another, but also travel through time, or the viewpoint of human life itself as a journey. Some travel might consist mainly of subtle shifts in consciousness. Literature itself could be thought of as intellectual travel.
I’m personally not familiar with any of the authors on this new list, but based on past experience with the JLPP, I’m sure there are one or two real gems that are included.
In addition to this fourth list, the JLPP recently released Contemporary Japanese Writers Vol. 2. This is a beautiful book providing overviews of 50 contemporary Japanese writers, ranging from Ryu Murakami to Yasutaka Tsutsui to Hideo Furukawa. (Just to clarify, a lot of the authors in here were born in the 1930s, so “contemporary” includes anyone working in the latter-half of the last century.)
There are also three special reports in the book: one on the Morning International Manga Competition, one on retranslations of world classics (such as The Brothers Karamazov, which sold 500,000 copies last year), and the “top ten mysteries” of 2007.
(Unfortunately the website hasn’t been updated to include info about this book, but there is some stuff on Vol. 1.)
For anyone interested in contemporary Japanese literature, these books are invaluable. The Japanese literary scene is so expansive, and turns over so fast (it’s unbelievable how many books are published there on a monthly basis), that overviews such as these are truly the best way to get a sense of what’s going on there. As I go through this volume, I’ll definitely write about any authors that really stand out. And I really hope the J-Lit Center keeps publishing these on an annual basis. And maybe someday there will be online samples to accompany these author overviews . . .
This past weekend, I was able to attend the AAS conference in Atlanta and speak on a roundtable about “The Translation and Publication of Contemporary Japanese Literature: Strategies and Resources” put together by the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center.
I’ve written about J-Lit a few times in the past, mainly because this is such a cool organization that produces really beautiful promotions . . . The basic thrust of the J-Lit Center is to get more works of Japanese literature translated and published throughout the world. To accomplish this goal, they started the JLPP (Japanese Literature Publishing Project) through which a committee identifies approx. 9 titles a year that the J-Lit Center has translated into English, Russian, and French. After the books are translated, J-Lit serves as the foreign agent, finding publishers in the respective countries to publish these titles. The publisher has to acquire rights to the book and translation from the J-Lit Center, but to further support these titles, the J-Lit Center purchases 2,000 copies upon publication (at a discount) from the publisher.
So from the publisher’s perspective, this is a really sweet deal. Preselected works of high quality literature, already translated by very good translators, pre-edited by people at the J-Lit Center, one-stop shopping for the rights, and guaranteed sales of 2,000 copies . . .
I did a few of the books from this program during my time at Dalkey (aside from Voices from Chernobyl, these are the only books in recent memory that Dalkey’s done in hardcover editions), and there are a number of books from the recent lists that I’m really interested in reading once they’re translated.
Overall, this is a great way of promoting Japanese literature and has led to the publication of 26 titles in English over the past 4-5 years. Not bad . . .
This panel was a follow-up to the one on publishing that took place last year when the AAS was in Boston, which was very, very well-attended. (This year the panel was from 5-7—during the first Final Four game—and still attracted a decent crowd of interesting academics and translators.)
All of the people on the panel were wonderful, and Prof. Stephen Snyder was an excellent moderator. (And provided a lot of useful information, since he’s on the committee that selects the books for the JLPP list.) Ako Sahara gave an interesting overview of J-Lit, its programs, and its goal of partnering with a U.S. institution to start a translation seminar here in the States to train Japanese translators.
Miho Walsh talked about the Donald Keene Center Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, which is given out annually to a classical and modern translation of Japanese literature.
Wayne Lammers talked about the difficulties of being an independent scholar, and Doug Kibbee (who is referenced again on Literary Saloon today) talked about the University of Illinois’s translation center.
What I found most interesting was the speech by Isao Tsujimoto from the Japan Foundation about the need to create something that will help American readers to approach and understand foreign works. He was very concerned with the fact that a lot of translations come out with no surrounding context, and there’s not a lot of resources available for general readers to orient themselves to a particular book/author/country/culture, etc.
To me, this reflected both what I wanted to talk about (the coming transformation of our translation database) and Larry Venuti’s recent comments about the need for “translation culture.” Contrary to the normal “culture of complaint” that has infested every aspect of book culture (no one reads, no one makes money, no one reviews books, no one buys books, etc., etc.) there seems to be a growing trend of trying to find new ways of engaging with an audience that is more active and innovative than the usual we-publish-you-buy sort of set up.
There’s still a lack of specific activities, but the fact that people are at least thing in a positive way looking for things that could be done is very encouraging to me and a nice shift from the old view of having to find someone to subsidize all translations since they were destined money losers. Not that translations aren’t tough sells—rarely do they breakeven, and nonprofit presses such as Open Letter, Archipelago, Graywolf, ete. need donations to stay afloat—but it’s healthier for the book culture in the long run if time and resources are invested in developing a translation culture than in ensuring that a publisher can breakeven after selling only 500 copies of a book.
One of the off-hand comments that caught my ear was the fact that the people on the JLPP selection committee had access to the sales data for all previously published titles, and that aside from a few exceptions (such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories) none of the books sold very well. I haven’t seen many reviews of the recent JLPP books, and suspect that publishers have come to rely on the 2,000 copies being bought by the J-Lit Center to account for the majority of sales. Which kind of sucks. This guaranteed sale should free up the publisher to take a few more risks and do something special for these books. (These would be prime candidates for some sort of free e-book promotion.) Hopefully the JLPP will focus on placing their forthcoming titles with presses that are savvy promoters—a few breakthroughs would do wonders for the J-Lit profile.
(As a sidenote, anyone interested in contemporary Japanese writers should get a copy of this book that the JLPP put out a year ago. It’s incredibly comprehensive and useful, and supposedly volume two will be out shortly . . .)
I just received Contemporary Japanese Writers Vol. 1 from the J-Lit Center and realized that Three Percent has been totally lacking in love for this amazing cultural organization.
First off, their website has recently gone through a number of changes, and is quickly becoming an incredibly valuable resource for info on Japanese writing. The Emerging Writers in Translation section is great for introducing young authors, and the featured stories and articles are great.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Contemporary Japanese Writers book that arrived today is astounding. Featuring biographical and bibliographical information on 50 contemporary Japanese writers, this is a great way to find out about the contemporary lit landscape in Japan. (And the design is beautiful.)
I guess this is one of my typical cheerleader posts, but I think J-Lit is one of the most impressive cultural organizations out there and deserves more recognition.
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