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The Future of Southeast Asian Literature: Connecting Authors and Readers (Part 2)

Roundtable talk / Asian Literature Project "YOMU"

The new role of translators: Connecting authors and editors

FUKUTOMI Sho (hereinafter Fukutomi): Mr. Chikatani, are there trends on the international literary market in terms of which foreign works are selected to acquire copyright? Not limited to Asian literature alone. Like, this genre will definitely sell, or forget about that genre... Does that happen?

CHIKATANI Koji (hereinafter Chikatani): I think this happened more clearly in the past. Science fiction, thrillers, etc., used to be considered genre fiction (popular literature). But lately, I feel like the line between literary and genre fiction has become blurred. An interesting example is that Akutagawa Prize winners, considered authors of literary fiction in Japan, are often grouped with genre fiction authors when their works are published abroad. I mentioned NAKAMURA Fuminori earlier—as far as he is concerned, he's writing literary fiction, but his novels are sold as full-on detective fiction in the United States. Nevertheless, the state of the publishing market is different in every country, and that may also be a strategy. There is an unforgiving side to commercialism, where if you can't get back what you put in, your product is not viable. There's not a lot that authors can do. Mr. Nakamura likewise says that even if his work is first introduced as genre fiction, he hopes to be recognized as an author of literary fiction someday.

This problem is hard to solve. Foreign agents handle a large number of titles, so they may not even consider works that are not immediately classifiable as science fiction, detective fiction, thrillers, etc. However, I believe this system is beginning to change, with more attention being paid to the circumstances of various countries. Foreign agents and editors are familiar with the Japanese literary scene, and more and more translators and readers abroad are becoming interested in Japanese literature and getting information online. Translators from English-speaking countries follow Japanese authors on Twitter and contact them directly to discuss their works. The translators then work up samples and pitch them to local publishing companies. The translator serves as an intermediary, explaining the work's charm to the editor—for instance, "a London publisher might market it this way, but this is what's really good about it" and so on. I've heard that this is quite common.

In short, we have now moved from the era of what genres might sell to one in which translators take on the role of mediators, expertly pitching Japanese authors and works. Foreign editors' reliance on information from translators is gradually becoming more common. This has even resulted in [translated works winning] prominent literary awards. Tokyo Ueno Station (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2014) by YU Miri, translated by Morgan Giles, is one example. I expect this trend to become ever more prominent.

According to British translator Deborah Smith—who founded the non-profit publisher Tilted Axis Press, which you mentioned earlier, and has also translated Han Kang's The Vegetarian into English—the translation process is changing. For example, consider translating Vietnamese; in the past, a British translator familiar with Vietnamese would have done the work, but these days she prefers to have a Vietnamese translator fluent in English take it on. The British perspective is inevitably biased, so this publisher wants to try out translations by people from the source-language country who can handle English.

Fukutomi: European and North American publishing companies are becoming more conscious of their own perception of Asia, I gather. This trend seems to be in keeping with the times in today's world. Mr. Chikatani, when you promote Japanese authors abroad as their agent, do you introduce them by clearly establishing their genre to some extent?

Chikatani: Until about 10 years ago I would have, yes, but now I no longer bother with that. What editors and agents everywhere care about is as follows, regardless of whether they fit within a particular genre: What is the author's voice? How do they get through to the reader? What makes them worth the trouble? Furthermore, they want to hear about these things in about three minutes. They are looking for works that are original and unique, and they are not so concerned about genre.

Fukutomi: Oh, I hate three-minute pitches. That sent shivers down my spine [laughs]. Ms. Kim, how does the selection process work at CUON for translators and works?

Building connections leads to business

KIM Seungbok (hereinafter Kim): We mostly choose the books we want to publish and sell by reading the original work ourselves. Additionally, we work as copyright mediators; therefore, when we find something we like, we write a proposal and send it directly to a specific editor of a particular publishing company.

For example, the essay collection I Decided To Live As Me (Wani Books, 2019), now a bestseller in Japan, sold 700,000 copies when it was published in South Korea, so the publisher suggested that it might be successful in Japan as well. When I ordered it and read it, I had a hunch that it might be a good fit for Wani Books, so I created a proposal and pitched it to a Wani Books editor, saying "I think this will sell." It was not a 3-minute pitch, maybe 10 minutes [laughs]. A week later, they replied saying that they wanted to publish it. And here we are, 500,000 copies later.

I can read Korean, and I have connections with Japanese editors—that is why I can handle sales this way. However, I can't do everything by myself, so I founded the K-BOOK Shinkokai group. I set up this system for fellow translators to get in touch with Japanese publishers, providing proposals and pitches for works they liked. We used to have a guidebook called South Korean Books Worth Reading in Japanese, which we used as an introduction for publishers. However, things are moving fast in translation publishing, so now it's online. As Mr. Chikatani said, the system where translators and aspiring translators write proposals and send them directly to editors is very likely to lead to translations.

CUON also enables travel to South Korea for 10–15 Japanese editors interested in South Korean literature. They may have lists of works that they personally want to publish, and not just because they will sell. We take them to the Seoul International Book Fair and have them interact with local editors and publishers, while South Korean publishing companies pitch works directly to the Japanese editors. When we go, we bring two or three translators as well. This way, editors and translators can interact, and sometimes deals get made. This is the kind of work we do.

We often hold events at CHEKCCORI, where events with translators draw a huge number of people. Aspiring translators and publishing editors come to hear the translators speak. From next spring, we will hold events on how to write an effective proposal, hosted by veteran editors. You know, what kind of phrasing will catch the editor's attention and so on. We've also previously held events for staff writing proposals for South Korean Books Worth Reading in Japanese; however, this time we would like to make it a more complete program with three sessions. A proposal that cannot convince the editor who reads it to translate and publish the work is of no use at all, and translating is meaningless if the work does not get published, whether in print or online. Thus, I am putting systems in place to get as many works published as I can. I think it's a win–win situation for everyone. Translators get work, the publishing company gets good translators... I enjoy setting up this kind of a system.

A photo of round table talk

Cultivating future translators

Chikatani: Ms. Kim, I believe that, for example, there were not many translations of South Korean literature published in Japan up until about 10 years ago. Have the translators developed rapidly in the past 5–6 years? How many translators are there today, and how did everyone master translation skills in such a short amount of time?

Kim: The number of translators has been increasing at a tremendous pace. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Osaka University, and Kanda University of International Studies have Korean language programs, and some editors initially visited South Korea as international students. The people who become translators may have studied Korean in Japan or during a study-abroad program. There are also translators who are native speakers of Korean. It's been 15–20 years since the peak of the Korean wave, so people who went to South Korea as international students at the time have come back and got jobs in Japan. Their Korean is better than mine at this point.

CUON offers translation courses as well. Our students are mostly women, aged anywhere between 20 and 60. We also hold an annual translation competition, and we always publish the winning work. We can do that because CUON is a publishing company. For the translation competition, we ask participants to submit their translations of two short stories. We had 212 entries for the first competition, with an average of about 120 after that. Translating two short stories in 6 months is a really high goal, but we've been lucky to get enthusiastic participation. I think the work of discovering and training new translators in this way is extremely important. We can continue doing that because it's part of our business model. South Korean literature is entering a phase where we can publish books regardless of subsidies, sell them on the market, and use the money to publish more books. My goal is to bring us there.

Fukutomi: So you are really taking care of the basics. But as you carefully lay the foundation, you discover new talent and expand your network. This may be the secret behind the success of South Korean literature in the past 10 years. I've had the pleasure of speaking at a CHEKCCORI event once. It was an event on Thai literature, and I was surprised by how many people were in the audience. I was absolutely floored to learn that there was a bookstore selling only Korean books in Tokyo because of its size and location in Jimbo-cho. I think it's a wonderful space. In short, the very existence of a store like CHEKCCORI is a testament to just how many people are interested in South Korean books and want to read them. It is surely thanks to the effort you all put in to promote the study and translation of Korean. TranNet also holds translation contests, is that right, Mr. Chikatani?

Chikatani: Yes, we do hundreds of translation contests, and quite a few people have grown from there and become independent. It is very difficult for individual translators to establish connections with publishers and editors, and on top of that, many of them live abroad, so opportunities to meet are limited. I started this venture in 2000 to open up the publishing industry system by matching companies with talent and to change the world of translation from the apprenticeship system it used to be.

For each contest, we provide successful translations and sample translations to let participants know how their standing at a given time. We have a system where, having signed up for membership, people can participate as many contests as they want while visualizing their progress. As Ms. Kim said, the overwhelming majority are women. Most of them are very serious and hardworking.

Fukutomi: Listening to Ms. Kim and Mr. Chikatani, I feel that the momentum is calling on us to quit waiting for young translators to come out of universities and just open a private school [laughs]. Of course, translators must bring works to publishers or write proposals—I do that as well. I would love to attend the proposal writing workshop Ms. Kim was talking about [laughs].

Do translators come from universities?

Fukutomi: I am not affiliated with a university at the moment, and the place where I used to teach was not a foreign language college, so it offered no Thai language classes. Further, I had no opportunities to cultivate students' interest in Thai literature. How about you, Professor Oikawa? You teach in a department of Chinese language. Have you met students who want to become literary translators?

OIKAWA Akane (hereinafter Oikawa): If memory serves, only two of my students have expressed an interest in translation so far. I'm not sure what happened with them after graduation, but I think they may be practicing translation as a hobby. In the case of Chinese, a major motivation for studying the language is, of course, job hunting. Considering China-related business, speaking the language is always a plus. This is likely why many students choose to study Chinese compared to other languages. I suppose that few are motivated to learn Chinese based on an interest in Chinese novels, literature, dramas, films, and so on. Moreover, this may be my own fault, but I choose the works to read in class based on my taste. Thus, I'm not always able to tell if students will enjoy these works or explain it to them in order to make them enjoyable. Students find it hard to decipher grammar and often end up feeling that it was difficult and that they didn't understand very well. Therefore, when I'm in charge of literature classes, it feels like a task to encourage students to try and read other works.

On a brighter note, there have been many students of Chinese descent lately, or with a background in Chinese, who chose to major in Chinese, including some with a strong proficiency in both Japanese and Chinese and an equal command of both languages. If these students were to pursue a translation career, that might help resolve the issue of bias on the Japanese side as well. However, there are very few students who go on to graduate school to acquire the language proficiency needed for translation. In other words, there are very few students who have Japanese as a first language among those who pursue higher education in Chinese literature. That is to say, international students are the majority, and these students do not have the target language as their first language. Considering this situation, I think future translations may involve the collaboration of translators with Chinese and Japanese as their first languages.

Fukutomi: I graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies with a Thai language major. Things might have changed since then, but I remember that when I enrolled in university around 2005, many students chose to major in Thai with job hunting in mind. Others actually wanted to study "major languages" such as English but had not scored high enough on the Center Test; therefore, they took the entrance exam for the Thai language major because of its relatively low competitiveness. There were also students who had previously lived in Thailand, of course, but it felt like few people had a positive motivation to be there overall. This probably applied to not only Thai but also most Southeast Asian and South Asian language majors.

Ms. Kim, the people who attend your translation courses are actually interested in translating from Korean, not just communicating in Korean, aren't they? Could you tell us about the motivations that bring people to your courses, and their age and gender ratio?

Kim: Our attendees are 90% women. Those in their 20s have increased recently, but many are in their 50s and 60s. They have day jobs and may be motivated by a desire to work as translators after retirement. When we ask attendees about what motivated or inspired them to translate from Korean, many say that they became interested in Korea out of a passion for South Korean dramas. They then learned Korean, and because they went to the trouble of learning it, they want to put it to use. So it looks like literature alone is not enough. There are many different subcultures that serve as a gateway to literature.

Fukutomi: Even in my own case, it's not like I got here by thinking, "I want to make a living translating Thai literature someday." It just so happened that when I was a university student, various Thai films and art were circulating in Japan. Thus, I realized that I wanted to learn Thai and introduce that culture to others. Somewhere in there, I began to devote myself to literature.

Indirect translation: Yes or no?

Chikatani: Translators from Southeast Asian languages are still scarce, and information is also very limited. It's like a few decades ago, when Japanese works were first introduced to Europe and the United States. There weren't many translators back then, so in the case of authors like MISHIMA, KAWABATA, and TANIZAKI, the Italian, French, and Spanish editions were often indirect translations of the English version.

In A Casual Talk on Translation (Bungei Shunju, 2020), MURAKAMI Haruki writes that he agreed to indirect translations of his works in the past. Market dynamics gave him no alternative, and it was a way to get his works out there in the first place. In response, translator SHIBATA Motoyuki points out that indirect translation lowers the accuracy of the end result. As a copy of the original is made, and then a copy of the copy, the text becomes progressively less accurate. This may be unavoidable, and not everyone will agree. Even so, people should be aware that indirect translations exist.

Actually, even the "Read Asia" Asian Literature Series that I developed featured an indirect translation. It was Independence Day by Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Pramoedya was an author of national importance in Indonesia. When I read the English-language collection of short stories that his Indonesian publisher had brought to the London Book Fair as promotional material, I found it so wonderful that I asked them to let me translate it. After talks with the copyright holder, they agreed to an indirect translation. Of course, some passages were difficult to understand without consulting the original text, so I asked a Bahasa Indonesia speaker to work with me, and we tackled the translation together. Today, when Southeast Asian content is still so rare in Japan, some believe that indirect translation is acceptable, while others disagree. I'm curious to know what you all think.

A photo of Read Asia Asian Literature Series
"Read Asia" Asian Literature Series

Fukutomi: I'm sure there are different opinions on this point.

Kim: Today, there are many Korean translators, so indirect translation is not really done anymore. However, I think it depends on the linguistic aspects. Before the 1960s and 70s, there were many indirect translations in South Korea, as American and European literary works were often translated from Japanese. Now many works are being retranslated from the original text and published as revised editions.

Fukutomi: That makes sense from a business perspective though calling it a necessary evil may be an overstatement. Ms. Oikawa, what do you think?

Oikawa: From the reader's standpoint, I think it depends on whether you read the work while using the translation to imagine the original text or simply take the translated version as it is. Although this is not about Southeast Asian literature, in the case of literature from Chinese-speaking countries, particularly science fiction, the Japanese versions published these days are often indirect translations from English. Chinese-American author Ken Liu has worked on many English translations of Chinese science fiction, and more than a few works have been translated into Japanese based on his English version. Because he is from China, Chinese is probably very close to a first language for him. However, in the translations he has worked on, there are always some discrepancies between the original Chinese version and the English version. A comparison finds that the order of chapters may be different, or a paragraph may not be where it should. Possibly, passages that could not be made public in China have been restored in the English translation. I assume that the translator and author discuss this at the translation stage and adjust the text for political correctness or other aspects that might make it more palatable to an English-speaking audience. Moreover, since a few years pass between the time of writing and the translation, the author may change their mind about something or would want to make a correction. Personally, I find it extremely interesting to see this kind of collaborative work reflected in Japanese translations. However, it is also true that the names of objects and expressions requiring local cultural knowledge inevitably betray the fact that the translation was done from English. But I find that interesting as well.

Fukutomi: In the case of Thai literature, there are virtually no indirect translations published in Japan. That is surely because Japan is the place in the world where Thai literature is most translated—as of today, more works have been translated into Japanese than into English. As for Pramoedya, the author Mr. Chikatani mentioned that Mekong Publishing has issued an extensive collection in seven volumes, translated by Indonesian literature Professor OSHIKAWA Noriaki. I think indirect translation without a supervising editor is very difficult to do well, especially for this sort of a local, political work. But as a reader, of course, I will read indirect translations if that's all I can get.

In terms of the reception of Japanese literature in Thailand, up to the early 2000s, Murakami Haruki's works were all published as indirect translations. Most of them were translated from English by a single translator. However, as more younger people learned to read the original Japanese, it turned out that the indirect Thai translation did not quite reflect the nuances of the original story, and criticism arose regarding the translator's writing tics. Thereafter, it became standard practice to translate directly from Japanese and use a supervising editor. I myself edited the Thai edition of Underground. These problems are always around the corner.

Chikatani: I think it's a matter of phases. If the absolute number of translators is insufficient, there are cases where you can only resort to indirect translation. That sets the process in motion so that translations become established in the publishing market, and new translators emerge. Of course, translating directly from the original language into the target language is always the best choice. However, indirect translation may be a necessary phase in terms of creating an inflow of literature or building a market.

Will the Thai boys' love (BL) boom produce new translators?

Fukutomi: Since last year, Japan has seen a huge boom of Thai BL. This was prompted by the success of 2gether, a BL drama about two Thai university students. The novel on which the drama is based, also titled 2gether (2020), has recently been published in Japanese by Wani Books. However, this was an indirect translation from English. Contrary to expectations, the novel that inspired the hit drama did not receive a warm welcome. Many fans had been learning Thai while they watched the drama, and were quick to point out the problems in the indirect translation.

The Thai used in BL works is often not that difficult to begin with. The sentences are short, with many paragraph breaks. Even if the reader is not so well versed in the language, it is quite easy to read. In the case of 2gether, some people read the Thai original as well as the Japanese edition and found some puzzling passages. More and more fans studied Thai as they were watching the drama and felt that there were glaring discrepancies in the nuance of lines between the drama and the Japanese novel. That in itself gives me hope. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but I feel that things are changing gradually.

There is also the fact that Kadokawa Shoten has started publishing translations of Thai BL series. Many of the published translations are not very polished, but I hope that they will lead more people to learning and translating Thai.

This kind of Thai soft power is expanding in a different form than contemporary art and cinema, and as translators, we must think about how to grasp its scope. I often think that it would be great if we could realize projects like those of Ms. Kim. I mean, the process of "working together/in tandem" is absolutely necessary, one way or another.

Kim: These days, many people find Thai dramas even more interesting than South Korean dramas. And before long, they may go from Thai dramas to Thai literature.

Literature and subculture

Chikatani: Speaking of dramas, a Thai suspense series has been distributed worldwide on Netflix. Girl from Nowhere, I think.

Fukutomi: Girl from Nowhere, right.

Chikatani: And also the Malaysian horror film Roh. I think it is incredibly powerful for locally produced, authentic footage like this to reach a worldwide audience. Distinct from literature and translation, more and more of this video content is being distributed worldwide. As people gain an interest in these countries and cultures, I think the barriers will reduce gradually. As in the case of Amazon Crossing, which came up before, technology companies have made some big moves toward Asia. For example, the recently established Penguin Random House SEA is targeting the Southeast Asian market as a treasure trove of 650 million people. Therefore, I think more young people will develop an interest in not only the literature of Southeast Asia but also its video content. It would be great if this inspired them to try their hand at translation.

Fukutomi: Exactly. The trend where a subculture breaks into the international market first and comes to Japan through that route is likely to gain momentum in the future. This is precisely why translators and educators should think about preparing for this kind of an event. Ms. Oikawa, what do you think? What kind of people should we bring in while there's time? With whom should we create networks? Or can university researchers keep working on their own?

Oikawa: I think it would be difficult for university researchers to go on alone at this point. The position of literature, its very image, is much different today than it was in the past. As far as Chinese-language literature is concerned, genre novels are on a roll these days. The translators of these works, whether science fiction or mystery, were often trained in environments that have no connection to academia. I think we could collaborate with them.

Meanwhile, I think there is still a need for translations based in the academic world. There are parts of translation that are inextricably based in area studies. Therefore, we should probably think about lighter, more palatable works while ensuring that the academic foundation remains intact. Scholarly translations are often said to be dull, so for my own part, I aim not to translate the original text with absolute precision but to create a translation that conveys the pleasure of literature.

The literary situation in Southeast Asia

Chikatani: Perhaps because ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries are economically linked, publishing and literature seem to circulate within the region. As touched upon earlier, Southeast Asian works have come to be translated even in the United States, so I think the time has come when Southeast Asia has a chance to gradually reach the world at large.

Fukutomi: "Circulating in the region" may be an overstatement. Actually, in Southeast Asia, there is a literary award called the "Southeast Asian Writers Award." This award, which originated in Thailand in 1976, basically consists today of the 10 countries in the ASEAN region that select a winner every year. However, it is very rare for the winning work to get translated in the other languages. It is mostly an award for Thai literati to get excited about in their own country. Thailand is bigger than the neighboring countries and more economically developed, so there is a strong sense of pride there. It could definitely use more interchange with other countries.

In contrast, I've heard that Thai authors who go to English-speaking countries or take part in foreign book fairs happen to meet Southeast Asian authors there. Additionally, within Thailand itself, authors from the northeast write in a mix of standard Thai and a dialect similar to Lao, while authors from the Malay-speaking south write Malay words in Thai characters. The existence of this multi-language literature within the country challenges the norm of strict adherence to standard Thai.

Oikawa: In terms of how much of Malaysian literature written in the language of each ethnicity is read by people with other native languages, everyone should learn Malay as the national language, and school education presents at least some opportunities to access Malay literature. However, beyond that, when reading outside school, most people probably read in the language that is most accessible to them. People of Chinese ethnicity read in either Chinese or English. Some ethnic Chinese researchers who write in both Malay and Chinese call Malaysian National Laureate Usman Awang their literary inspiration. Thus, people at this level may very well read anything. But average readers are divided along language lines to some extent. Of course, there are also people who are not satisfied with this situation and long for a shared literature. A few years ago, there was an anthology of works by Chinese–Malaysian authors written in English, Malay, and Chinese compiled by translating all the works into Chinese and collecting them in a single volume.

As to how many works from other Southeast Asian countries are read in Malaysia, that of course depends on translations. I think literature enthusiasts may read English translations, but I've never heard of a Thai book becoming a best seller or a Philippine thriller being a big hit in Malaysia.

Chikatani: As ethnic Chinese are a minority in Malaysia, do Sinophone Malaysian authors seek a platform for expression in Singapore, where Chinese is one of the official languages? Do they reach across borders like that?

Oikawa: There are authors from Malaysia who work in Singapore, but in terms of whether the Sinophone literature market is bigger in Singapore than in Malaysia, it is limited by the fact that Singapore's population is very small. Moreover, in Singapore, an overwhelming majority of publications are in English. Chinese-language bookstores and publishers... Well, many of their stores are closing down. In that sense, I think it's a pretty tough situation. Whether it's publishing or selling, even in English, Singapore is a very difficult environment.

In terms of language, English is prevalent, and as for population, the vast majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, while Malay residents are a minority. The recently translated Malay Sketches (Kankanbou, 2021) by Alfian Sa'at shows Singapore through the eyes of one such Malaysian–Singaporean. When compared to Sinophone Malaysian literature, there are unexpected and fascinating contrasts. By the way, Singapore-educated Malaysian researchers also worked on the Chinese translations published in Taiwan in 2020.

Fukutomi: I get it. In the linguistically divided multi-language society of Malaysia, there are some attempts to bring different groups together in addition to creating other networks beyond the framework of the nation-state. It is different from Thailand, where most people within the country speak standard Thai compared to outside the country. It really makes me realize how difficult and arrogant it is to lump all of "Southeast Asia" together.

We had a great talk today. Thank you.