Translation Diary, Part One

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I want to publish a translation of feminist sci-fi author Kurahashi Yumiko’s 1984 short story collection Cruel Fairy Tales for Adults (Otona no tame no zankoku dōwa). I want a physical edition of the book to be in my hands or on its way to my hands by January 1, 2017. If I can’t get a publisher to pick up the project by that date, I will consider self-publishing.

In early 2013, I completed a translation of Kawakami Hiromi’s short story collection The God of Bears (Kamisama), and I spent the latter half of 2013 and the first half of 2014 trying to find a publisher. I encountered many difficulties, and the status of the translation is still uncertain. To make a long story short, I had no idea what I was doing, and I made a lot of mistakes.

I turned to many people for advice about publishing Japanese translations. The sole response I received, over and over again, was “Have you emailed the author?” This is a sensible suggestion, but unfortunately not as easy – or as useful – as it seems.

My main obstacle to publishing translations is that, because of my profession, I have no choice but to be an amateur translator. I am paid to do two things: to teach and to publish research. Translation is almost universally disdained in academia; and, in fact, “Have you emailed the author?” was often accompanied by the caveat that “You shouldn’t publish translations.” My point is that the majority of my time and emotional energy is directed elsewhere, and thus far I have encountered no institutional support for translation as a component of my professional work.

A secondary obstacle is that, as I mentioned above, I have no idea what I’m doing. Despite having a fairly solid education in translation theory, I don’t know a great deal about how one actually goes through the process of submission. This has led many people whom I’ve encountered during this process to be dismissive, if not openly hostile. As you might imagine, this type of attitude is disheartening.

In order to motivate myself, I’m going to blog the process of creating and submitting a project proposal, with a new entry appearing on the first of each month. By the end of 2016, I hope not only to have secured a publication date for the book but also to have put together a short, specific, and step-by-step guide for aspiring translators.

* * * * *

Goals for January

(1) Hire an English copy editor.

(2) Hire a Japanese copy editor.

(3) Hire an illustrator for the blog post header / project proposal cover page.

(4) Write a short “Translator History” section for the proposal.

(5) Create a first draft translation of the first story in the collection, “The Mermaid’s Tears” (Ningyo no Namida).

* * * * *

Banner illustration by maruti-bitamin.

12 thoughts on “Translation Diary, Part One

  1. To be fair, I did get some extremely good advice concerning the Kawakami translation.

    The most useful suggestion came from Michael Emmerich, who said, essentially, “You need to contact Kawakami’s agent at the Wylie Agency. Here is her email address.”

    In addition, an editor at an established North American publisher of Japanese fiction kindly explained that it makes far more sense to send out a project proposal before completing the translation itself. I took her advice to heart, which is why I have not yet finished translating all of the stories in the Cruel Fairy Tales for Adults collection.


    I am looking for volunteers to read over my first draft translations. Each of the stories is fairly short (less than five pages in an MS Word document), and no serious feedback is expected.

    I have a few friends in mind, but I wouldn’t mind making more friends. If you’d like monthly email updates, please send me a note with your email address through the “Contact” section of this blog:

  2. I’m surprised there wasn’t more interest in the Kawakami – ‘The Briefcase’/’Strange Weather in Tokyo’ was a fair success, and having just finished ‘manazuru’, I’d like to see more of her work in English (‘Manazuru’ is actually one of my readalong choices for my ‘January in Japan’ blogging event).

    Re: the translation industry, I’m not sure where you are, but I’ve heard that in both the UK and the US, there are semi-structured organisations popping up specifically to advise starting translators. I’m sure that there are people out there who could give you advice on the right way to go about it 🙂

    1. I’m intrigued by these “semi-structured organisations” you mentioned. Do you know anything more specific?

      I know that, both in the US and the UK, there are MA programs in translation, as well as scattered workshops (such as the Translation Workshop in Japanese Studies at SOAS) and lecture series (such as the Translation Seminar at Boston University), but they all require money and/or geographical proximity.

      It would be cool to submit an application to the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, which might provide support services in addition to funding, but there’s no way I could make the deadline, alas.

      Anyway, if you happen to come across more concrete information, please do let me know!

  3. Good luck on your translation journey. I have the feeling it’s a bit of a closed shop in the UK and US, that they are quite keen to professionalise it and therefore demand a translation degree etc. This has put me off the idea. But if you do have good contacts with publishers and if they are interested in your proposal (I’d say most certainly get a contract first before you finish the translation), then it should be possible to break through. Hope you have a wonderful 2015!

    1. Thank for the encouragement!

      In terms of the major translators of Japanese fiction, most of them have PhDs. I’ve also heard stories about people pestering publishers over and over to be allowed to translate something, but in those cases there seems to have been an element of geographical proximity or contact through special events, such as at literary release parties, convention after parties, and so on).

      On thing I’d like to do starting in the summer is to interview various active translators to try to get a sense of how they managed to break into the industry. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

  4. Hi Kathryn,

    About Kawakami: I wonder if there might be two problems with that collection. 1) The title story having already been published (well, in its updated 2011 form) and 2) I’m aware of another translator who has been working on Kawakami’s short stories for quite some time for Wylie, which might include that collection.

    But yes, the best way to pitch is to find out who holds the rights, get a statement saying that the translation rights are available, translate a sample, then send out project proposals. Not to dishearten you, but this approach is a bit like a lottery, in that I don’t know anyone personally who’s won this way.

    Best of luck though, and I hope we do get to see Kurahashi’s “Cruel Fairy Tales” in English sooner rather than later.

    1. Since I myself have actually published two of the stories in the collection, I’m thinking that #2 is the main “problem.” I’m nervous about getting back in touch with the agency for fear that they’ll tell me that they assigned another translator to the text. Still, I should probably get over myself and email them to ask for an update. The worst thing that could happen is that Kawakami’s remarkable short story collection will *finally* appear in translation, albeit without my name on it. That’s not such a bad consolation prize, all things considered.

  5. I’m also in academia and interested in translating on the side, so I’ll follow your diary with interest. I live in Brazil, and most of my Japanese Studies professors have published translations of Japanese literature – it doesn’t seem to be disdained around here, but rather to be the normal way of things. I think I’ll ask them about the process, and report back later 🙂

    I know it’s not much, but I’ll certainly grab a copy of your book when it’s published, self– or no-self.

    1. Ok so I asked a professor (and published translator), and she said that they ~don’t~ usually approach the authors or copyright holders. Rather, they pitch the translation project to local publishers. Often this is hard, and involves a lot of rejections; but when they find a willing publisher, it’s the company that takes care of negotiating with the Japanese side. Or at least this is how São Paulo academics do it.

      Also: she said that the Japan Foundation has a list of books they want to see translated, and if the book’s on the list, they offer financial support and such for the publishers, which facilitates the process. However, my prof thinks that, sadly, Kurahashi isn’t likely to be on that list.

      1. it’s the company that takes care of negotiating with the Japanese side

        This is the impression I got. The procedure is probably different for translators who live in Japan, as well as for translators working with someone whose work hasn’t yet been translated. For me, personally, there’s also a huge ontological gap between a writer whom I have met in person and a writer who exists as a public or semi-public figure.

        Anyway, thank you so much for checking!

        Judging from the wording of the Japan Foundation’s Support Program for Translation and Publication on Japan, I get the feeling that the application is primarily targeted at publishers, not at individual translations. If I end up self-publishing, however…

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