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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001


Book translations breaking language barriers

While the book publishing industry is feeling the pinch of Japan's economic recession, shelves in major bookstores that sell foreign publications are still filled with best-selling titles.

The latest hot items are the "Harry Potter" volumes by J.K. Rowling. The series has become popular with both foreigners and locals in Japan following its success overseas.

According to Michio Watanabe, a foreign-book section floor manager at the Maruzen bookstore in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, some books start out popular among English-speaking readers and eventually attract the interest of Japanese readers.

Typically, original English versions of books previously translated into Japanese are the most sought-after by Japanese customers, he said.

"Some customers will go to a bookstore in search of a foreign book after they read the translated version to read or study the original work," he said.

Examples of books that have sold well as both originals and translations include: "Who Moved My Cheese?," by Spencer Johnson, M.D.; "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," by Robert Kiyosaki; "The Goal," by Eliyahu M. Goldratt; "Why Men Don't Listen: And Women Can't Read Maps," by Barbara Peace and Allan Peace; and "Tuesday with Morrie," by Mitch Albom.

"Who Moved My Cheese?" was so popular that Kinokuniya Co., a major bookstore chain, decided to sell the original book and a translated version as a set -- the first time such a set has been marketed in a bookstore in Japan.

"Because the original book is thin and written in simple English, Japanese customers find it is easy to read," said Tsuyoshi Sonoda, assistant general manager of Kinokuniya's book import department.

Other current best-selling authors in English are Sidney Sheldon, Dick Francis, Tom Clancy and Steven King, bookstore clerks said, adding that the writers have attracted a solid fan base.

Being a best seller in the United States, however, doesn't guarantee a readership here, said Sonoda. Books dealing with dietary habits or Hollywood scandals don't seem to appeal to Japanese readers, he said.

Paperbacks with relatively long shelf lives vary from Shakespeare's classics and Agatha Christie's mysteries to "Catcher in the Rye," by J.D. Salinger, "The Little Prince," by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "Gone with the Wind," by Margaret Mitchell and "Anne of Green Gables," by L.M. Montgomery, according to bookstore staff.

Audio versions of many titles are also available.

"An increasing number of Japanese readers are listening to recorded versions of books after reading them," Sonoda said.

Books on Japan continue to be top-selling items. Two books on the subject were recently awarded Pulitzer Prizes and have been selling well in Japan. "Embracing Defeat," by John W. Dower, and "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan," by Herbert P. Bix, are proving popular among Japanese and international readers, said Masahiko Kondo of Maruzen's foreign books department. These books review postwar Japanese history from the viewpoint of the general public.

Books analyzing the problems and failures of Japanese business and corporate culture have sprouted up since the bursting of the bubble economy of the late 1980s. Such titles seem to sell well, Kondo said.

"The fact that Japan has lost some of its economic strength does not mean that the country has totally disappeared from book titles," he said.

In the Japanese literature genre, the interest of international readers appears to be moving from older to contemporary works.

Extensive translation has been done in literature since the 1970s, but the majority of books translated into other languages were works of fiction by Showa Era authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe, Shusaku Endo, Junichiro Tanizaki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, however, that list has been slowly growing with the addition contemporary writers, including Kenzaburo Oe, Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami.

"Works that portray today's popular culture and society are gradually becoming more available," said Kinokuniya's Sonoda. "Now that the works of contemporary writers have been translated, the foreign readership of Japanese literature is growing."

Japan's literary heritage dates back to the 11th century novel "The Tale of Genji," by Murasaki Shikibu. The novel depicts the lives of Heian nobility, centering around the romances of Prince Hikaru of the Genji clan with various ladies of the court.

The novel was revived when novelist and Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi recently translated the book into contemporary Japanese. Her 10-volume edition is said to have triggered the current popularity of the "The Tale of Genji." A play version of the book was recently staged by the Kabukiza Theater group and by the Takarazuka Kagekidan opera company.

The novel is gaining a readership overseas also, with the release of a new English version translated by Royall Tyler.

Major Japanese bookstores, book agents and online booksellers have launched aggressive sales strategies for the title.

Also popular in foreign markets are books covering current affairs, such as "Partnership: The United States and Japan," by Robert A. Wampler, published in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Peace Treaty signing. "One Hundred Sacks of Rice," a late 19th-century true account published by the Nagaoka Municipal Government in Niigata Prefecture, has also been a strong seller. It received much public attraction after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi mentioned the story in a recent speech.

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