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.

Japanese-to-English Translation Basics

Old Books

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a translation seminar with one of the finest translators of Japanese literature into English. The course texts she selected for the seminar presented all manner of interesting translation challenges, and she brought in a number of fantastic speakers from the Kyoto-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators to discuss these challenges with our class. Unfortunately, I was not able to take full advantage of this seminar; it was as if these professional translators were teaching us translation calculus, and I still didn’t grasp basic translation algebra.

I just finished a tertiary round of edits for two major translation projects, and I’ve noticed a number of patterns in the areas I’ve repeatedly needed to adjust. Once I became aware of the currents my editing was following, I started to imagine that I was getting at some of the basic and fundamental issues of Japanese-to-English translation. If I could go back in time and give my fledgling translator self some advice, this is what I might say…

(1) Japanese sentences tend to begin with prepositional phrases and other subordinate clauses that separate the subject from the verb. Although sentence variety is important in English, simple subject-verb-object sentences are the foundation of muscular and fluent English prose. Consider splitting a sentence into two sentences if the sheer number and frequency of subordinate clauses render a literal translation of that sentence into a hermeneutic puzzle in English. Also, never be afraid to switch the order of words in a sentence if it sounds better to your ear, such as in the case of placing adverbs after verbs instead of in front of them.

(2) Letting the reader know that information is hypothetical or coming from a secondhand source is a common feature of Japanese, but an overuse of expressions such as “it seems,” “I heard that,” “someone said,” “it’s often said,” “perhaps,” and “maybe” tend to weaken English prose. If the information being presented is obviously a subjective impression or something that the narrator/speaker would have no way of knowing on a firsthand basis, it’s usually safe to omit the attribution markers.

(3) Adverbs, especially temporal adverbs, are much more tolerated in Japanese writing than they are in English writing. If adverbs or adverbial phrases such as “suddenly” or “after a while” are clear from the context, the translator should feel free to omit them. Also, if the meaning of an adverbial phrase can be transferred to a verb, such as in the case of “said in a loud voice” becoming “shouted,” then the translator should consider doing so. This is not diluting the author’s language but rather transforming strong writing in Japanese into strong writing in English.

(4) Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. If the subject of a passive sentence can be inferred, insert it into the sentence and change the verb to the active voice. The implications of the passive voice are interesting and valuable but can usually be deduced in other ways, and passive sentence structures are much more common and natural in Japanese than they are in English, where they can quickly become jarring to the reader.

(5) The literal translation of the triple and quadruple negatives of Japanese rhetoric sounds ridiculous in English, a language in which a single negative or positive statement is usually considered infinitely more articulate.

(6) Think twice about retaining honorific titles such as “san,” “kun,” “chan,” “buchō,” “kachō,” and “sensei” in your English translation. Such Japanese-isms can feel gimmicky, and often they are not necessary to convey the relationships between characters. Moreover, if honorifics are maintained in translation, it may still be difficult to make the reader aware of what it means when a name is used without honorifics. Japanese is well known for being able to express multiple levels of formality, but English is no slouch at conveying degrees of distance and friendliness, and the manner in which two characters speak to each other can mean much more to the reader than which honorifics they use.

(7) The written approximation of dialect is common in Japanese, but don’t try to “translate” dialect into an English equivalent unless you feel absolutely comfortable doing so. The written approximation of dialect in English will almost always appear goofy and corny to the reader. Different grammatical patterns, tonal registers, and word choices will usually help to convey dialect better than means such as replaced, duplicated, or truncated vowels.

(8) When faced with the task of translating untranslatable words, consider not translating them. You have a smartphone, your grandmother has a smartphone, your four-year-old daughter has a smartphone, and it’s not difficult to run a quick Google search for something like “kotatsu” or “umeshu.” Even without outside sources, your reader will generally be smart enough to get an approximate impression from the context. When it comes to brand names, it’s especially easy for the reader to figure out what’s being referred to from the context, and it’s generally best to leave them be without any footnoting or inserted explanation. In some cases, however, leaving a word untranslated can feel silly and pretentious to the reader, so it’s helpful to have an ideal reader in mind and cater to the presumed knowledge, tastes, and expectations of that reader.

(9) When it comes to puns, jokes, proverbs, idiomatic expressions, and made-up words, crowdsourcing translation solutions is always an option. This is why Al Gore invented the internet back in the eighties, so feel free to use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as your own personal dictionaries of creative genius. Some of the problems you face in translating certain words may also be an issue of relative expertise, so there’s no shame in relying on other people for help if you need to know more about how to refer to certain foods, colors, meteorological phenomena, or American sci-fi stories from the seventies. Translation is just as much of a research project as it is an art, but there’s no need for research to be a solitary task in a lonely room full of dusty books (unless of course you’d like it to be).

(10) Make sure you do at least one read-through of your translation while completely separated from the original Japanese text. Even if you have a crystal clear translation of a certain word, expression, or passage, it’s all but worthless if it doesn’t gel with the rest of the English on the page. Also, if you can exchange favors for translation checking, proofreading, and copyediting, do so and count yourself fortunate. If your ideal reader is an actual person, then let her actually read your drafts. Translation is difficult and complicated work, and you might be surprised by the things you miss as you juggle multiple documents and languages.

Finally, don’t let anyone get you down with analogies about how a translation is like a woman that can’t be pretty and faithful at the same time, or about how reading a translation is like having sex while wearing a condom, or about how the translator does damage to a text by forcibly penetrating it with a phallus-pen. Such analogies are not only gross but also inane and banal. Translation is awesome, and being able to read things originally written in a different language is an amazing privilege for those of us who benefit from translation, and some of the best English prose I’ve ever read has come in the form of translated literature. For what it’s worth, the word games and creative challenges of translation are also a lot of fun.

If you’ve just started translating from Japanese into English, good luck! And check out the Kyoto Journal‘s wonderful piece They Who Render Anew for inspiration.

Fujisan

Fujisan

Title: Fujisan
Japanese Title: 富士山 (Fujisan)
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口 ランディ)
Translator: Raj Mahtani
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 191

In her Foreword, Taguchi states that she “wrote this anthology of stories as an expression of my veneration and appreciation for this life-affirming mountain; it is my personal tribute to Fujisan.”

Although Mount Fuji is in the background of each of the four stories collected in this volume, the main theme of these stories is an affirmation of life in the face of fairly extreme social maladjustment and malaise. “The Blue Summit” is about a convenience store worker who begins reflecting on his past experiences as a member of a religious cult after he survives an attempted robbery. “The Sea of Trees” is about three high school students with an interest in the occult who go hiking in the Aokigahara forest and come across a failed suicide. “Jamila” is about a public servant who is tasked with dealing with an old woman who lives in a house overflowing with garbage. “Child of Light” is about a nurse at a small gynecological clinic who ponders a teenage abortion patient she recently cared for as she climbs Mount Fuji with a group of older women. The characters of these stories all face death and the more unpleasant aspects of continuing to live and somehow manage to come out okay on the other side.

I liked the opening story, “Blue Summit,” for its description of the appeal of sanitized and familiar spaces like convenience stores and family restaurants to the broken people who seek refuge there in the small hours of the night. As the narrator says of the convenience store where he works as a night shift manager:

I like it here. This convenience store is my sanctuary. There’s a stillness here that’s like the stillness you find in the snowy, bleak plains of Siberia. […] The store’s open twenty-four hours and it’s menacingly bright. There’s no darkness. It’s all so gloriously digital. While intimacy and a sense of reality are effectively absent in the store, a minimum degree of comfort is always guaranteed. The convenience store is stabilized on a low-energy wavelength: it never betrays you. In a convenience store, you can silently snuggle up to the void. (3, 13)

In this story, the convenience store as a comforting space is juxtaposed against the nightmarish interior spaces of the people who enter it. The narrator is haunted by the memories of a friend he made when he was a member of a religious cult headquartered at the base of Mount Fuji who may have been killed by the group when he tried to defect. Kozue, one of the employees who works under the narrator, suffers from a fascination with dissection and enjoys watching herself bleed. As for the anonymous assailant who unsuccessfully attempts to rob the convenience store at the beginning of the story and later shows up with a baseball bat looking for revenge, the narrator suspects that what he’s ultimately after is a validation of his own existence, a concern that the narrator sympathizes with even as he is attacked.

My favorite story in Fujisan has to be “Jamila,” if only for its colorful descriptions of a gomi yashiki, or “garbage mansion,” in Susono City, a small municipality in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The narrator of the story, a native son who has left a corporate job in Tokyo to take a post at Susono’s Office of Environmental Quality, is tasked with dealing with a local hoarder’s residence. He hasn’t made much progress, partly because he is fascinated by the structure:

When I went to investigate the house of trash for the first time, a part of me was genuinely thrilled. I wanted to see for myself who the old garbage lady was, the one reputed to be a goblin, but when I arrived, the horror of it all simply defied imagination. It was a slice of nightmare lying exposed in the heart of a residential area lined with middle-class houses. What bothered me the most was the drabness of all the visible junk, especially in light of the fact that each and every one of the objects was at one time or another brand new. […] The trash, estimated to be sixty tons’ worth, was spilling over from the premises into the public road, where it bore an uncanny resemblance to the entrails of a road-killed cat. (108)

I really don’t find all this trash-hoarding that objectionable. I find it more interesting than, say, staying inside city hall. As I stood there, gazing vacantly, my eyes registered an entire universe of things: wire hangers, torn umbrellas, broken TVs, antennas, vacuum cleaners, plastic bags, tattered clothes, tricycles, flowerpots, bedpans, bamboo blinds, futons… The trash went beyond trash to become works of fantastic, sculptural art. (100)

As in “Blue Summit,” physical spaces have a close relationship with psychic spaces, and the narrator’s meditation on an old woman’s gomi yashiki reveals the disorganization of his own (possibly deranged) mind and the sociological state of a nation that produces and throws away so much physical, cultural, and human garbage.

If I had to describe these stories in one word, it would be “intense.” There’s a bit of navel gazing going on in Fujisan, but it’s never too cumbersome, and the collection’s four stories move quickly and capitalize on topical issues for emotional impact.

If you’re wondering about the publication quality of Amazon’s new translation publisher, AmazonCrossing, it’s actually fairly decent. The front and back covers of the physical version of Fujisan look like printouts of a mid-resolution PDF document, but the inside text is crisp and clear, and the page layout is clean and uncluttered. During the short promotional period when Amazon was offering the book for about as much money as a cup of tea at Starbucks, I also downloaded the digital version of the book from the Kindle store, and it looked great as well.

Several reviewers on Amazon have complained about the translation, but I didn’t mind it so much. There were a few sentences that were awkward (they mostly involved slang), but overall I think Raj Mahtani did a great job conveying the voices of Taguchi’s characters. I have read (and produced) a great deal of clunky awkward translatorese, and I know just how terrible it is, but nothing of the sort appears in Mahtani’s translation of Fujisan. The vast majority of the translated prose in the collection is clear and serviceable. It’s never going to win any literary awards, but Taguchi herself isn’t exactly a “literary” writer; she writes popular fiction, and her writing reads like popular fiction.

In any case, the translated narrative voices of Fujisan are similar to the translated narrative voice of Taguchi’s previously translated work, Outlet, and readers who appreciated the exploration of hidden spaces and raunchiness of Outlet will definitely enjoy Fujisan.

By the way, the author has her own website, which includes an interview translated into English. If you can read Japanese, her blog is also well worth browsing.

The Briefcase

Title: The Briefcase
Japanese Title: センセイの鞄 (Sensei no kaban)
Author: Kawami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 176

Kawakami Hiromi’s novel Manazuru, translated by Michael Emmerich and published in 2010 by Counterpoint, is a strange, dreamlike story told from the perspective of an otherworldly and unreliable narrator. Manazuru is about pain and bitterness, and broken hearts and broken families.

Kawakami’s newest novel in translation, The Briefcase, is a far cry from the atmospheric surrealism of Manazuru. Its narrator, Ōmachi Tsukiko, is a single woman in her late thirties who is firmly grounded in reality. The Briefcase is about her daily life and centers around her encounters with her former Classics teacher, Matsumoto Harutsuna, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Two decades after graduating from high school, Tsukiko meets Sensei by chance at a neighborhood bar, and the two strike up an easy friendship. Each of the ten-page chapters in The Briefcase details an episode in this friendship, such as a trip to an outdoor market or a mushroom hunting excursion with the owner of the bar Tsukiko and Sensei frequent. Seasons change, but not much else does. Nothing particularly dramatic or unexpected happens throughout the large majority of The Briefcase, and the novel’s close attention to detail provides much of its charm.

Although it doesn’t become apparent until a little more than halfway through the novel, Tsukiko gradually develops romantic feelings for Sensei. I would love to say something along the lines of “despite the significant age difference, the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei blossoms beautifully;” but, in reality, it’s quite awkward. Not only is the situation itself awkward, but both Tsukiko and Sensei are awkward people. They’re not charmingly awkward, or amusingly awkward, or so awkward that want to hug them – they’re just awkward. Still, the gentle progression of their relationship is entertaining in its earnestness, and Kawakami describes it from Tsukiko’s perspective with commensurate delicacy:

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a holf on this sense – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.

The quiet normalcy of The Briefcase is satisfying in and of itself, yet there are some disturbing undercurrents running through the novel. Why is Tsukiko alone? Why is Sensei alone? What happened to him? Why does he always carry around his briefcase? These uncertainties serve to make the story more intriguing, however, and don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis until the very end of the novel, when Tsukiko undergoes a startlingly surreal experience. During two of the final chapters of the novel, Tsukiko’s feelings for Sensei, as well as her fear of his rejection, are explored in a strange sequence titled “The Tidal Flat – Dream,” which may or may not have actually happen. This chapter is a unexpected break from the regular mundane atmosphere of The Briefcase, but it pulls the novel together thematically in a creative and unexpected way.

Allison Markin Powell, who also translated Dazai Osamu’s Schoolgirl, deftly conveys the lightness and humor occasional strangeness of Kawakami’s prose. Although Powell’s English is flawless (with the possible exception of a few out-of-place Britishisms), her style of translation leaves the reader with no doubt as to the Japanese setting of the novel. Passages like…

“Yes, today is a tomobiki day. But tomorrow is a red-letter day, a konoe-tora!”

…and…

Daikon, tsumire, and beef tendons, please, Sensei ordered. Not to be outdone, I followed with Chikuwabu, konnyaku noodles, and I’ll also have some daikon. The young man next to us asked for kombu and hanpen.

…are not uncommon. It’s an interesting style of translation that emphasizes the novel’s focus on peaceful daily life in a richly detailed environment, and it’s fun to read. The culturally specific words scattered throughout the text can be largely ignored if you’re not feeling up for a hyperlinked adventure on Google, though, so they shouldn’t be distracting for the reader.

The Briefcase is a gentle and quiet novel that’s enjoyable both for its story and for its atmosphere, and it’s much more accessible than Manazuru (which is not to say that Manazuru is bad, just very weird). It’s literature that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness

Title: Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness
Japanese Title: キーリ ― 死者たちは荒野に眠る
(Kiiri: Shishatachi wa kōya ni nemuru)
Author: Kabei Yukako (壁井 ゆかこ)
Illustrator: Taue Shunsuke (田上 俊介)
Translator: Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 228

Kieli is one of those hauntingly pretty girls whose special blood and pure heart allow her to see things unnoticed by others. Harvey is one of those chiseled copper-haired boys who is seventeen and has been seventeen for a long time. When their paths cross seemingly at random, Harvey finds himself charmed by Kieli, and Kieli finds herself dazzled by Harvey… Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

What’s special about this novel isn’t its love story, however, but rather its setting. In her “Afterword,” the author says, “Wasted planets, steampunk, old-fashioned radios, rusty machines, old oil. It would make me as happy as I could be if all of you who like dilapidated things and react to that kind of vocabulary like this book.” I hope the author is indeed as happy as she can be, since her book is perfect for anyone who enjoys the atmosphere conjured by such words. Kieli is set on a dying planet where society still functions to a certain degree as life crumbles to dust in stages. This decay pervades every corner of the novel:

The next morning, when Kieli opened her eyes she was lying on a sofa with broken springs in the waiting room, wrapped in her coat and a dusty old blanket.

The clinic had completely fallen to ruin. Yellow sand and dust had settled below the crisp, clear, cold morning air, and the once clean, white paint on the walls had faded to yellow and peeled off in places, showing the concrete wall underneath.

Kieli spent a while walking through the deserted house, looking for Harvey, the floor creaking with every step she made. When she went up to the second floor, the plants that decorated the balcony had withered to nothing, and only the cracked pots remained under the nebulous morning light.

Everything in Kieli’s world is slowly falling apart. Isolated cities are separated by vast stretches of desert, small villages that serve as way stations along the side of railway lines are slowly shrinking in population, and the wasteland outside habited areas is still littered with the detritus for a war over natural resources that petered out a hundred years ago. Kieli is strangely suited to life in this world, as she possess the unusual ability to see and interact with the ghosts of the dead, who are seemingly more numerous than actual living people. Through the mischief of her dead roommate, Kieli encounters Harvey, who used to be a soldier in the war. Harvey is a creation known an as Undying, a class of artificial beings powered by mechanical cores of pure energy. Aside from his bad attitude, Harvey seems mostly harmless until he unwittingly drags Kieli into a conspiracy concerning the Church that governs Kieli’s world. The two are accompanied by the ghost of an older man known as the Corporal, who resides in the shell of an old radio and provides both insight and comic relief. In an environment where everything is dead or dying, Kieli and Harvey shine brightly as they find adventure and new life in each other’s company.

Since Kieli is a light novel, it receives the full graphic treatment, with eight full-color anime-style illustrations at the front of the book and a number of black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the book’s chapters. The tropes of the novel are not specific to Japanese popular media, and they should appeal to a wider audience for young adult fiction. Kieli is an orphan who lives in a boarding school, where she is misunderstood and unappreciated by her peers. Harvey is an angsty, brooding badass who has a soft side that he keeps hidden in order to survive in a harsh world. The spirit of the Corporal residing in Harvey’s radio is a grumpy old man who cheerfully dispenses humorous complaints. The Church is mysterious and sinister, and its agents are genuinely frightening.

A shortcoming of many light novels published in translation is that their language is more manga-like than literature-like, by which I mean that its primary purpose is to shoot the reader forward as quickly as possible through a series of increasingly improbable events. Kieli occasionally suffers from this style of narration, but it usually allows the reader time to linger over events and absorb the story’s atmosphere. The translation of Kabei’s prose is lucid and engaging, inviting the reader to enter Kieli’s world without fussing over translation notes and awkwardly translated dialog. Occasionally a character will bow to another character, but the novel otherwise has very little “cultural odor.” Because of the quality of the translation, I found myself reading not just for the story but also for the pleasure of reading such straightforward and well edited language. I also feel the same way about the translation of the Spice and Wolf light novels, and I can’t help but offer my most profound thanks to the editorial staff at Yen Press for doing such an excellent job with their releases.

Kieli ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, but its sequels have already been published by Yen Press, which seems to be keeping up a steady release schedule. I don’t know why I waited so long to start reading this series, because it’s really quite good. I can’t wait to read the next volume!

Reading Japanese Literature in Japanese

I started taking Japanese language classes as a college freshman in 2002, and I will begrudgingly admit that, almost ten years later, I’m still not entirely fluent in the language. True linguistic fluency is almost infinitely multifaceted and difficult to attain in any foreign language, especially when that foreign language is not regularly spoken in one’s everyday environment. The best way to attain a high proficiency in Japanese is to move to Japan and live there for an extended period of time. Nothing that I can suggest here can serve as a substitute for actually going abroad and living one’s life in Japanese, so the best advice I can possibly give is – go! Figure out how your school or employer can help fund your sojourn, apply for a passport, and go!

In the meantime, however, you don’t even need to leave your bedroom in order to start reading Japanese. Most Japanese language curricula focus on giving students the tools they need in order to read nonfiction texts such as newspapers, essays, and academic articles. Of course this type of instruction is useful, but a sentence like “the economy suffered a sudden downturn in the fourth quarter” requires a different set of linguistic skills than a sentence like “the stars shone brightly in the sky,” especially in Japanese. It’s therefore up to many language learners to figure out how to read Japanese fiction on their own.

What follows is a guide for students of the Japanese language who want to start reading literature – whatever their definition of “literature” may be – in Japanese. In this essay I will detail the necessary linguistic foundations before discussing useful tools and entry points for getting started. Beginning to read in Japanese may seem like a huge hurtle to clear for anyone who’s ever held an entire Japanese novel in her hands, and I’m not going to promise that it won’t be difficult, especially at first. It’s not impossible, however, and it can even be enjoyable.

Foundations

I think that, at an absolute minimum, one needs two full years of college-level Japanese before it makes sense to start reading Japanese language texts. There are two primary reasons for this. The first reason is that it takes about two years to become comfortable reading the Japanese scripts as they appear on a page. Basic reading skills, such as figuring out where words begin and end, figuring out who is speaking, and figuring out how to look up unknown words, will be unavailable to a student who doesn’t have two years’ worth of knowledge of kana usage, kanji, and grammar patterns. Without these skills, the characters printed on the page are just so much linguistic slurry. The second reason one needs two years of Japanese is that it takes about that long to develop a familiarity with the way the Japanese language works outside of an artificial environment (such as a classroom or a textbook). In Japanese, as in English, writers abbreviate words, leave out words, make up words, use words in strange ways, bend the rules of grammar, and do fun things with dialog and dialect. These are not the sorts of things one can look up in a dictionary, so one needs to know the rules well enough to identify which rule has been broken. Both reasons I have given are really the same reason – literature is high level writing, and one needs to accumulate experience with the language in order to understand it.

There are obvious benefits to enrolling in college level Japanese language classes, but I realize that not everyone has the necessary resources to do so. Thankfully, there are some excellent textbooks on the market that make self study easy. My absolute favorite is the Genki series, which comes with a matching set of workbooks. The main benefits of the Genki series are that it is ergonomically formatted, it teaches vocabulary and grammar in a well organized and easily digestible manner, and it contains reading passages and practice drills that help you use what you’re supposed to be learning in the most efficient way possible. I also think the Genki series tackles the challenge of learning to read written Japanese in a superlatively intelligent and user-friendly manner. The Genki series neither gives you too much information (like an expensive hardcover textbook such as Yokoso! does) or too little information (like a popular study guide such as Adventures in Japanese does), and it also integrates grammar and vocabulary seamlessly into speech patterns and the written language, unlike mass market texts such as those created by companies like Berlitz and Rosetta Stone. The two Genki books will teach you the rules of Japanese; and then, once you’ve mastered these rules, you can go on to the next book in the series, An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese, which will teach you how to apply the rules to real conversations and reading material.

In whatever way you choose to study, it’s good to have those two years of Japanese language experience under your belt before you start trying to read real texts. Of course language learning ability differs from one person to the next; but, if you have less than two years of experience, attempting to read Japanese is more than likely going to be an exercise in frustration. I think the problem most people have, however, is not diving headfirst into real Japanese, but rather waiting too long to get their feet wet. I don’t think there’s any real need to wait until you’ve learned all the grammar points or all the kanji before you start reading – all you need is the right set of tools.

Useful Tools

As with many realms of study in the twenty-first century, the most useful tools available to you are digital, and the foremost of these digital tools is the internet. As wireless internet access is not available in all times and all places (especially in Japan), however, it’s always good to be in the possession of more concrete tools as well.

The single most useful tool available to someone moving past the initial stages of Japanese language study is a denshi jisho, or electronic dictionary. A denshi jisho will include a wide range of dictionaries, including the Genius series of English/Japanese and Japanese/English dictionaries. (Models with dictionaries for other languages, such as French and Chinese, are available as well.) Denshi jisho will also, without fail, include a Japanese dictionary, which is like a combination of a Japanese-language OED and an illustrated encyclopedia that may include sound (just in case you need to know the difference between the calls of two species of crickets, for example). Electronic Japanese dictionaries come equipped with a feature called gyaku-jibiki, which allows the user to search for a word by its last character instead of by its first, as well as many other search tools that accommodate the difficulties involved in figuring out how any given kanji is read.

If you don’t know a word in any of the entries you’re reading, most denshi jisho have a “jump” feature that allows you to highlight a word on the screen and then go to that word’s entry in any other dictionary available on your machine (including the Japanese/English one) before returning to the original entry. This is useful if, for example, you’re using one of the more specialized dictionaries available on your denshi jisho. Depending on the model you choose, these specialized dictionaries may include a Classical Japanese dictionary, an encyclopedia of Japanese history, an index of Japanese poetry, a dictionary for katakana words and onomatopoeia, a dictionary for four-character phrases, a botanical reference guide, and so on.

One of the most useful features of any denshi jisho is its kanji dictionary. Learning to use one of these things is a cultural and linguistic experience in and of itself. If your model has a stylus and a trackpad, all you need to do is to write the character – these pieces of equipment have better handwriting recognition software than iPhones and Wacom tablets. If your model doesn’t have a trackpad (and many of them don’t), there are still plenty of plenty of ways to look up kanji, the most useful of which is by a combination of radical and stroke count. Once you find the character in the dictionary, you will turn up a wealth of information, including how it pronounced, a list of words beginning with and including the character, a brief etymology and a Chinese pronunciation guide. Once you get used to your denshi jisho, searching for kanji becomes quick, easy, and painless. No paper source in existence can compete with a digital kanji dictionary.

Denshi jisho can be purchased at any electronics store (and many large bookstores) in Japan, but they’re harder to come by abroad. If you live near a major urban center, Japanese bookstores (such as Kinokuniya) will generally have a selection of denshi jisho on display. You can also order one through Amazon.co.jp, whose restrictions on shipping electronics overseas doesn’t apply to these devices. The two most common brands are Sharp and Canon. There is a greater difference between individual models than there is between the two brands as a whole, but lower price range Sharp models tend to be more technologically sophisticated (with trackpads, color screens, auditory pronunciation guides, and embedded video), while most Canon models have an English language menu setting and touchscreens (which is great for highlighting words and “jumping” between dictionary entries).

If you don’t want to invest in a denshi jisho, there are many excellent resources on the internet, one of which is a site called Denshi Jisho, which features a great kanji lookup system. My personal favorite online Japanese dictionary is Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC, which will return tons of entries and example sentences for any search, including searches for internet slang, English-derived portmanteaus and other neologisms, and onomatopoeia so obscure that they don’t appear in Japanese dictionaries. If you’re in the habit of reading Japanese online, a popup browser plug-in called Rikaichan can define any text you highlight in your web browser (although it doesn’t always work so well with Flash-embedded text).

I am given to understand that there are also many types of tools available on the iPhone and the iPad. I don’t have enough experience with either of these devices to make recommendations, but a quick search on Google will turn up dozens of lists and reviews.

Getting Started

Speaking from an almost complete lack of training in linguistics, I can confidently say that some types of language are more difficult to read than others. As it just so happens, however, the types of language that you’re interested in are going to be much easier for you to learn to read than the types of language you’re not interested in. What this means is that, once you’re ready to read, it’s not necessary use “training wheels.” If you’re interested in reading mystery novels, read mystery novels. If you’re interested in reading manga, read manga. If you’re interested in reading novels by Kawabata Yasunari, read novels by Kawabata Yasunari (they’re actually not that difficult).

I don’t mean to suggest that one can simply pick up a book and read it. What I am trying to suggest is that there’s no need to slowly work your way up through material of increasing levels of difficulty until you’re finally able to read what you actually want to read. You don’t need to slog through fourth grade level readers or collections of fairy tales written for children if you think stuff like that is stupid and boring. You don’t have to muddle your way through the confusing layouts and endless notes and vocabulary lists of “Japanese-English parallel text” books like Reading Real Japanese or Breaking into Japanese Literature if you don’t want to. You shouldn’t feel the need to start with something “easy” like the Japanese translations of the Harry Potter books (which aren’t actually that easy, as it turns out). These sorts of preparatory exercises really aren’t necessary.

That being said, some books are easier to read than others. Even among manga titles by the same artist that all use simple vocabulary and furigana, some are going to be easier to understand by virtue of good editing and solid storytelling. For example, Ōkubo Atsushi’s popular shōnen series Soul Eater is much easier to read in Japanese than his debut series B. Ichi. The same goes with literature. To offer an example from my own experience, the first writer I tried to read in Japanese was a nightmare until I figured out that what she wrote in the sixties is infinitely easier to read than what she wrote in the eighties. Before I was able to arrive at this conclusion, however, I gave up on her altogether in order to read another writer writing at the same time on roughly similar themes using much simpler vocabulary and sentence structures. The point I’d like to illustrate with these examples is that there’s no shame in giving up on something difficult in order to search out something easier. Reading in Japanese is not about punishing yourself or training yourself through hardship; it’s about experiencing the pleasure of becoming immersed in something you enjoy. You shouldn’t be hunched over a desk with a dictionary and a notebook; you should be chilling out in the bath or in a hammock in your backyard.

Unless you’re preternaturally brilliant, you’re going to go through an awkward stage in which you make embarrassing mistakes in interpretation and can’t read more than two or three pages at a time. The progress you’ll be able to make during this awkward stage shouldn’t be underestimated, however. You’ll learn things about the Japanese language that you never would have learned in a textbook, such as how to appreciate the nuances of word choice and the subtle differences in writing styles. Reading a page at a time will turn into reading two pages at a time, and two pages will turn into three pages, and three pages will eventually turn into just one more chapter, which will eventually turn into I am not sleeping until I finish this.

In other words, reading Japanese is hard…

…but it gets better!

Good luck!

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis

Title: Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade
Author: Jonathan Clements
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Titan Books
Pages: 272

Do you love anime? Do you really love anime? Have you lived long enough to catch references to anime titles more than five to ten years old? Do you appreciate dry humor? Do you want to hear some great gossip about the anime industry? If so, you should seriously consider grabbing a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis – or downloading one to your Kindle, which is what I did.

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis has been out for more than two years now, but I had put off reading it because I didn’t think I wanted to read a book “mixing reviews, cultural commentary, insights into classic manga and anime titles, interviews and profiles of Japan’s top creators, and hilarious insider stories from the anime trade.” I assumed such a description was advertising code for “short, unrelated blips of a journalistic nature crammed haphazardly together within an appealing bright yellow cover that will attract potential teenage buyers in the wake of the success of Japanamerica.” In other words, I thought it would be rubbish.

It’s not. Jonathan Clements is a fantastic writer, and the editing and organization of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis is equally well done. The result of this excellent writing and editing is a product that is intelligent and eminently readable. I downloaded the book on a whim during a short train ride yesterday afternoon and ended up doing several loads of laundry just so I would have an excuse to sit on my kitchen floor all night and continue reading it.

The essays in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis can be divided into three main categories. The first and foremost category is insider industry information and gossip. The gossip includes tidbits such as how fan-run conventions fail to respect their guests from Japan and how a famous director with a name suspiciously close to “Ōtomo Katsuhiro” was almost physically kicked out of the company that distributes his films in Britain. The insider industry information contains all the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts that fans often aren’t aware of, such as how property rights are acquired, how difficult it is to get a show on television, and how people end up becoming voice actors (apparently, voice acting is not a job anyone actually wants). The second category concerns information on foreign markets for anime in countries like China, Korea, the United States, and Britain – and also places like Finland and Estonia. I imagine that this category might be genuinely interesting for anime fans (especially those in the States) who see anime as existing only in their own country and Japan (and who aren’t freaks like me who read anime magazines in three different languages). The third category involves extended analytical essays that were originally delivered as public lectures. “Five Girls Named Moe: The Anime Erotic,” for example, is about the porn industry in Japan, and “Highbrow Skills in a Lowbrow Medium” concerns the issue of “translation” versus “localization.” In my opinion, these longer essays in particular make the book worth reading and are well worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, there were several sections that I found myself quickly clicking through after the first four or five pages. One was the chapter on Chinese animation, which begins with a brief overview and then launches into extended plot summaries of all of the titles mentioned in said overview (none of which could be found on Google). Another was the essay included as the liner notes in the re-release of the 1961 film Mothra, which lists name after name after name of a cast and crew I knew nothing about. Name dropping and plot summaries are rarely interesting, especially when the names are relatively unknown and the plots belong to films that are almost impossible to actually get one’s hands on. Speaking of which, even reviews that were interesting and fun to read could become frustrating, as the anime industry in the West moves quickly (and older titles have a tendency to become rare). For example, I was especially impressed by Clements’s liner notes for the anime series Saikano (released in 2002 in Japan, 2004 in America) but soon found that I couldn’t rent it from Netflix or Tsutaya or watch it on legally streaming sites like Hulu or Crunchyroll. What’s the point of reading about how great an anime is if you can never watch it?

In any case, what keeps the reader going through sometimes tedious and occasionally disjointed material is Clements’s wry and amusing narrative voice and common sense approach to the topic at hand. To illustrate this, I’d like to quote a paragraph from an essay titled “The Measure of Tape: The Lost World of VHS,” in which Clements describes a fantasy he had after witnessing a distributor throw out all the old review copies of VHS tapes he had gone through the trouble of returning:

So I decided that was it. I was going to liberate VHS. I was going to hoard my review copies until my office burst at the seams, and one day a grateful university library would come along and open the Jonathan Clements Wing, packed to the rafters with PAL copies of obscure titles like Ambassador Magma, and errant NTSC dubs of Fatal Fury. Researchers would then come from far and wide to leaf through my collection of ancient Japanese-language Newtypes and make notes for their dissertations. And once every few years, when I needed to check a scene in episode #8 of Ushio and Tora, I would pop back and visit my old tapes, just for the day. That was the plan.

I think this serves as a fitting analogy for Schoolgirl Milky Crisis itself. Sure, some of the titles Clements discusses may be old and obscure, and sure, maybe nobody cares about foreign markets and industry information besides the people actually involved in the process, but the essays in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, when read as a whole, succinctly track the history of anime in Asia and the West, bit by tantalizing bit. The writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader invested in the process all the way until the end. If you’re not an anime fan, you probably won’t have much use for the book; but, if you are a fan and haven’t checked out Schoolgirl Milky Crisis yet, I highly encourage you to do so.