How corporate publishing often ruins the Japanese classics


Have you ever read a translated classic of Japanese, Chinese, Arabic or perhaps Persian literature and found it to be, well, boring and insipid? In the bad old days, many in the English-speaking world would have concluded from their stifled yawns that the literature of these non-Western cultures was not perhaps as sophisticated as the great literature of Europe and America.

But we live in enlightened times; so the conclusion today might be that the fault lies on our side and that something has been "lost in translation."

What hardly anyone dares to think is that the problem actually lies with the corporate culture of the company publishing the book. This is a little odd as in every other facet of life, if a company sold you a duff product, you would hold them to task. If the book in your hand is a world classic, why doesn't it read like a world classic?

But publishers are pretty much given a free pass, as if their every publication is part of some noble, altruistic endeavor to increase the sum of world understanding. Yet in too many cases, laziness, ignorance and a little cynicism on the side of corporate publishers combine to make the project flawed from the start.

Just consider: Suppose you wish to commission a new translation of a Japanese classic to augment your "world classics" series. Who are you going to get to translate the masterpiece?

A classic book is a classic for precisely the reason that its meaning is complex and multi-layered. It often has profound philosophical ideas underpinning it, is full of subtle symbolism and allusion, is written in unspoken dialogue with other works and with a grand architecture at work. Without knowing any of this, it's completely impossible to produce a translation that will in any way do justice to the original work.

You can be sure that there is a Western scholar out there who knows the work inside out and has the requisite literary skills to render a brilliant translation.

But can you, as an editor in a boardroom in New York or London, be bothered finding out who the best translator for the classic is? Especially when there is a much easier route at hand. Why not go to a professor of Japanese Literature at Harvard or Princeton or ANU and ask them to do it? They're a professor, right? And they read Japanese.

And on their part, the professor, despite often knowing little about the "classic," is only too happy to accept the commission from the big-shot publishing house. They know that once they are in, the commissions will just keep coming.

Take a look at some of those "lost-in-translation" classics produced by the big publishing houses and note how often the same name appears as translator, regardless of whether the classic belongs to the 10th century or the 20th century. In the world of English Literature, it's hard to think that someone who, for example, produced a book on Saul Bellow would next be commissioned to write a book on "Beowulf," but when it comes to the world classics, this type of thing happens all the time.

For the editorial executive in New York, anyone who has decent Japanese (or Chinese or Arabic) is thought suitable to translate anything from the 8th century to the present day, utterly regardless of the complexity of the material.

Does it really matter if major publishers put out formulaic translations simply to augment their world classics list and make them seem more international? Yes, it really does. What most readers don't appreciate is just how difficult it is to persuade a publisher to release a translation of a Japanese classic which is likely to achieve only a very limited readership. A few years ago, Julian Barnes calculated that there have already been over 15 English translations published of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." But for little-read Japanese classics, the presence of even two published English translations, particularly if one is backed by a major publisher, is likely to put off other publishers bringing out a third.

What I see, then, when I look at corporate publishing's disappointing editions of Japanese masterpieces is not just the tragedy of missed opportunity, but rather books that actively block the translations which should exist from ever appearing.

Corporate publishers are actually turning down translations of masterpieces by truly informed, passionate translators in favor of one-translator-fits-all commissions. And you wonder why your Classic reads dull and lifeless?

World classics are too often a disappointment and it's long since time corporate publishers woke up to the fact that it's their own publishing culture which is at the very heart of the problem.

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An excellent article and one that rings true in all areas of publishing.

35 years ago, when I first became involved in publishing, there were numerous publishing houses, some big, some small, but no few dominated the market to the detriment of the market, Over the last 25 years, with mergers and acquisitions, worldwide publishing is down to the big four or five publishing houses. Not only does this stifle opportunity for writers, it limits the choice on offer for the consumer.

Publishing has always been glorified clientelism. Who is to judge that an editor's validation is of any more merit than an end reader's opinion and the general conditions applied in most of the big publishing houses now - we will tell you your next project, rather than the other way around - just stifles any creativity.

I am sure that if the present structural and working conditions of the publishing industry existed in the 19th and early 20th Century, Flaubert's Bovary and Joyce's Ulysses would have never seen the light of day.

Thank God for the internet.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

By the same token anyone who is a "native" English speaker is judged to be good enough to teach English in Japan... sigh same problem, different face.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

This article might merit a response from an actual translator or publisher if it contained even a single concrete example of the supposed phenomenon being described as characteristic of translations of "Japanese, Chinese, Arabic or perhaps Persian literature." As it stands, it is mere shadow-boxing.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I agree with the main gist of the article.

But the translation of Voltaire's, Candide (The Optimist) from German into English is pretty darn powerful.

Who is to judge that an editor's validation is of any more merit than an end reader's opinion

Spot on-

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Have to agree with Easthammer that the article would be a lot more persuasive with some actual examples. What are these lost-in-translations and who are these incompetent translators with which you take such issue?

Its also hard not to notice what seems to be a heavy dose of personal axe-grinding, perhaps the author feels he is the best person to be doing some of these translations but, lacking the position at Yale, Harvard, etc he is overlooked?

I`m not sure why I should care about this.

The lack of any solutions to the perceived problem is also a shortcoming. If there is an extremely limited market for these works in the first place (and I assume that like most print publishers that market is shrinking) then going to recognized names in the field with some institutional pedigree makes sense. Its not really corporate culture that is the problem so much as it is the nature of the market determining the business model that makes sense. Going out of their way to try to track down some unknown but passionate writers and plow through thousands of pages of text trying to sort out the good from the bad just sounds time consuming and a massive headache for a publisher trying to churn these things out at as low a cost as possible.

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What annoys me with translated Japanese novels is that they all end up with American dialogue... I mean 'dude'? Really?

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and found it to be, well, boring and insipid

That needs some explanation. I've found myself reading a lot of English-translated novels recently. Not classical masterpieces - more like Murakami novels or all those Norwegian thrillers. I've no idea how well the translations reflect the original, but I enjoy what I would describe as the plain prose of the translations. More than with direct English novels, I feel I'm getting the story laid bare.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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