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Sunday, May 9, 2004


Bridging cultures with books

Staff writer

Whether their parents read them fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, or even encouraged them to explore Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, most Japanese have been exposed to overseas literature from an early age, and many go on to discover the likes of Tolkien, L.M. Montgomery, Michael Ende and J.K. Rowling for themselves -- mostly in Japanese.

News photo
Some Japanese titles in English from Kodansha International Ltd.

In fact, reading translated foreign books has been quite a national passion since the first rush to Westernize after the 1868 Meiji Restoration -- but there have never been a comparable number of Japanese books available in foreign languages.

Is this partly because, globally, the number of English-language titles far exceeds the number of Japanese-language ones? Others might attribute it to a low demand for Japanese books among overseas readers.

Or is it simply because it's so, well . . . difficult to translate Japanese literature accurately into English or other languages? This is a view of the Japan Foundation, an organization for international cultural exchange. Noboru Futako of the foundation's media department publishing division points to the shortage of people qualified to produce such translations.

"Also, some foreign publishers don't know much about Japanese literature, and so they are sometimes unable to evaluate Japanese works," Futako said.

As a result, according to industry sources the overseas sales success of translated Japanese books is closely linked to whether titles are selected to be taught in Japanese courses in schools or colleges, rather than their appeal to a general readership.

In Japan, translation projects -- as a Cultural Affairs Agency project launched in 2002 has shown -- have often tended to be oriented toward cultural exchange rather than toward business or general readers. In its 328 million yen Japanese Literature Publishing Project, the agency has picked 27 titles from the post-Meiji Era that "Japanese people want to see published abroad." Although some question whether the books on the list have much overseas appeal, an agency official said the ultimate goal of the project is for the books to be on the shelves of schools and libraries abroad.

Recently, though, there have been signs of growth in the market for translated Japanese literature of varied genres.

This is nowhere better illustrated than by the recent popularity of the mystery-suspense novel "Out" by Natsuo Kirino, which was this year nominated for the prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Award in the United States.

Published by Tokyo-based Kodansha International Ltd., the English version of Kirino's book was launched in the United States last summer. At first, Kodansha printed 5,500 copies for the first edition, but demand was such that five reprintings have followed so far, and hard-cover sales have now topped 20,000.

According to Stephen Shaw, executive editorial director at Kodansha International, for a relatively unknown writer like Kirino to sell more than 10,000 copies overseas is "extremely good," and may point to a significant change in the market for translated Japanese literature.

Converts to 'cool'

The people traditionally interested in Japanese culture were often the same ones who love kabuki and noh, or collect ukiyo-e and netsuke, said Shaw, a 30-year publishing veteran. He said these people tended to be highly educated and few in number. But they are now being supplemented by "a younger generation who see Japanese culture as cool" though they may not have read Japanese books before.

"Kirino's nomination for the Edgar Allen Poe prize for 'Out' is part of that trend. I don't think it's a very deep trend, but still it hasn't happened before."

"Out" is the story of four women working part-time on the night shift at a bento factory in the suburbs of Tokyo who conspire to kill the husband of one of them and dispose of the body. In the unsentimental, realistic, tightly constructed way Kirino tells her story, Shaw believes she has crafted a work fit to compete with any Western mystery writer.

"If there is a search in 'Out,' [like the usual mystery formula], it's a search for an exit, a way out, for women living desperate lives. That is what 'Out' is about. All that makes it highly original," he said.

Such praise for "Out" was echoed in a different way by a reviewer in The Washington Post Book World, who wrote that it "offers an intriguing look at the darker sides of Japanese society while smashing stereotypes about Japanese women."

The high regard in which contemporary writers such as Haruki Murakami and Kirino are held overseas may hold out hope that a wider overseas reading public may fuel an increase in exports of Japanese literary works.

This theory finds favor with Stephen Snyder, an associate professor of Japanese and comparative literature at the University of Colorado -- and the translator of "Out" into English. He says that Japanese literature has recently been generating more interest in the American book market, which is generally more difficult for translated works to penetrate than the European one.

"When a Japanese book is published, it is generally well received, but by a very narrow range [of readers]," he says. "Thus, the success of 'Out' with a more general readership may prove a useful entree for other works seeking to find a general readership in a country traditionally resistant to foreign literature," he says.

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