From the Sketchpad: A Cultivated Readership

With the funding I received courtesy of the Japan Foundation IPS grant and CAPS, I was able to spend all of June and part of July in Tokyo attending readings and forums, speaking with translators, and furthering my own understanding of the sharp divides between the Japanese translation publishing market and the American translation market. I spoke with people who work in all aspects of literature, including the practical—editors, translation agents, and marketing people. I started my journey by attending a talk by Sawako Nakayasu, who spoke on how social media has allowed for a new style of translating, a kind of applied crowd-sourcing via translator/writer networks. Nakayasu introduced me to others in the industry: fellow translators who in turn connected me further to other translators, scholars, and industry insiders.

In addition, I was able to attend several readings at B&B bookstore in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo, featuring poets, writers, and translators like Kanie Naha, Asabuki Mariko, and Kotake Yumiko. I was able to speak briefly with some of these literati regarding their own takes on translation. The dividing forces in Japan’s literary scene—gender, genre, and generation— were sharply apparent to me. Take for instance, the separation of women’s literature and men’s literature, a genrefication that itself may seem baffling to the American reader—for all that we too have the oft-derided “chick-lit” section—remains steadfast. Similarly, there seems to be a sharp division between those who read contemporary literature in translation and those who read domestic Japanese literature.

At a reading given by Saeki Kazumi, a traditional Japanese novelist, and Kotake, translator of Alice Munro, Ian McEwan, and John Irving, among others, Kotake discussed her experiences translating Alexander MacLeod. I was shocked to find that the majority of the largely female audience was there not because they were fans of MacLeod’s work, but rather because they were fans of Kotake’s translations and of foreign books in general. Indeed, during the Q&A, one woman stood and said plainly that she could not remember the last time she had read a book by a Japanese author. In the United States, translation creates the backbone of our canon—Plato, Chekhov, Kafka, the Bible, and more—yet most readers could not name even one translator of any of these works. In Japan, however, translation has a cultivated and devoted readership. Observing this, I had to ask myself why translation is recognized and acknowledged in Japan, while it is often derided and erased in American publishing, and furthermore, what I can do in my own practice and in academia to bring awareness to this gap and bring translation to light.

Perhaps one of the most obvious reasons for Japanese awareness of translation is that the name of the translator is featured on the cover of the book; it is not a side-note filed in the pages of the copyright information. The readership is aware that they are reading a book in translation, and that awareness leads to differences in translation standards that may seem a dream for proponents of what is frequently referred to as “foreignization.” I spoke to Nobuta Minako, a former literary translator, on audience expectations of books in translation. According to her, because the audience is aware of translation, those who seek it out areactively pursuing a hint of the foreign. What they are after is not a book that is necessarily easy to read, but rather a book that contains something they cannot find in native Japanese literature. Indeed, when I spoke to Kotake, she said that with literary fiction, it is the translator’s duty to give the reader a taste of the original, even if that taste induces a kind of “discomfort” in the reader. That discomfort itself may become part of the joy of reading literature in translation.

Furthermore, translation is a well-supported endeavor in Japan, so much so that professional translators can make a full-time living translating four to six novels a year. Thirty percent of the market is prose in translation, and while a majority of this is non-fiction, the fact remains that literary fiction has a devoted following in its own right. Publishing companies actively seek translation contracts, and they do so with the help of translation agencies who hire and support translators. As a result, translation’s influence, especially on the younger generation, is acknowledged and even problematized in academia. In a talk on children’s literature in translation at the International Library of Children’s Literature in Tokyo, Kawabata Ariko, a professor at Japan Women’s University, actually expressed concern that too much of Japan’s market is devoted to literature in translation, and as a result, it is more difficult for Japanese authors, particularly of children’s literature and young adult literature, to break into the market. This influence certainly extends to young writers, who are quick to point out that they were influenced just as much by Proust or Angela Davis as they were by Soseki Natsume or Mishima Yukio. Matsuda Aoko, a novelist and translator, told me it was because she grew up reading novels in translation that she first decided to pursue English, and that her own work is influenced just as much by foreign authors as it is by Japanese writers. When a readership is aware of translation, and when translation is lauded by the industry, better support and more translation naturally follow.

Contrast this with the United States, where translators often remain unacknowledged, underpaid, and underrepresented. They must act not only as translators, but also as agents, contractual arbiters, and often major editors as well. Mariko Nagai, a translator and professor at Temple University, told me that Japanese to English translation is is a labor of love: “Often, you’re the only champion in that language. And I think when you become a translator, you’re the deepest reader, the most intimate reader…. Inevitably you do become that champion—the agent, I guess, if you want to call it an agent—but really more of a champion.” Without institutional support from publishers and editors, American translators must take on the work that in Japan is often handled elsewhere, and rarely can translators here make a full-time living working only on prose.

In speaking with all these translators and industry professionals, I drew the conclusion that one of the ways that we might facilitate more respect for translation, is by creating a cultivated readership, one that is aware of translation and the role it has played in the literature it consumes. The recent movement to have translator’s names placed prominently on book jackets is a small gesture, but one that I believe will create the first ripples in moving toward this cultivated reading public. Similarly, teachers and professors of literature should make an effort to acknowledge that works they assign their classes—Ovid, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Borges,Rilke, Dante, Cervantes, Murakami—are all in translation and to ask their students to consider how translation might transform a text. With even small gestures, we can develop readers who are aware not only that they are reading a translation, but also that by doing so they are openly welcoming a little bit of that “discomfort” in order to glimpse something English literature alone cannot offer them.

I would like to thank the Japan Foundation IPS Grant and the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies for the opportunity to travel to Tokyo to study the state of translation between Japan and the United States. I would also like to thank Kendall Heitzman, Sawako Nakayasu, and the many other translators, editors, and writers who spoke with me. Their aid was sincerely appreciated.


Laurel Taylor is currently a second year MFA Candidate in the Iowa Translation Workshop. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Middlebury College with a BA's in Japanese Studies. Her honor's thesis there focused on masculine representation in the post-war era pop culture. Following her graduation, she spent four years living and working in Japan as a teacher and international coordinator. She is primarily interested in post-war Japanese literature and classical Japanese poetry.