March 20, 2014

A lot of Japanese literature gets translated, but not into English


japanbookA good book can overcome many barriers in its quest to find an audience, but the Pacific Ocean apparently isn’t one of them. This is the case for Japanese literature, which defies differences in language, culture, and politics to attain readership throughout Asia, but has yet to find a foothold in the U.S.

Animosity between Japan and China is deeply entrenched in both of their histories and their people today. The results of one Japan-China public opinion poll—conducted amidst disputes over ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands last year—show that over 90% of the population in each country express “unfavorable impressions” of the other. Yet, the cross-cultural demand for literature remains strong.

The Nikkei Asian Review reports that requests from China for translation of Japanese novels come quickly and in large numbers, with translated books often reaching stores in less than six months from their original publication date. The same is true in South Korea—another country with historical enmity for Japan—where demands for recent work by authors such as Keigo Higashino, Shuichi Yoshida, and especially prize-winning authors like Hiroko Oyamada, necessitate that publishers “actively seek out translation rights for popular Japanese writers.”

Experts point to the open-mindedness of youth as a factor in this demand. “Young South Koreans who understand Japanese lifestyles and culture constitute the fan base,” states translator Akira Tateno. “Literature is separate from the political wrangling between Japan and South Korea.” Chinese literature professor Shozo Fujii agrees: “Younger Chinese identify with the underbelly of Japanese society these authors depict.”

Thanks to this fan base, 781 Japanese novels were published last year in South Korea, and over 200 more in China. With this, the notion that art transcends difference rings assuredly true.

However, as most people know, the United States and Europe also have many young people, and yet readership of Japanese authors severely lags. This raises a question: if Chinese and Korean citizens can look past their differences enough to read Japanese novels, then what’s stopping western countries?

This is the wrong question. Clearly American readers can enjoy a book containing Japanese culture. Examples include A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell—both critical and commercial successes. Less recently was Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, which everyone and their mother happily read. The problem here, of course, is that these books were written by western authors. Why are readers relying on western authors for stories of Japan?

The notoriously insular reading habits of English language speakers are well-documented and often shamed as the “3% problem,” but it’s not entirely the reader’s fault. People do read foreign literature when it’s available—Haruki Murakami, the torchbearer for Japanese authors in the west, comes to mind—and it’s not like people see Banana Yoshimoto’s name on a book cover and freak out. The reality is that there is a severe dearth in options for those looking to read literature in translation.

The difficulties that publishers face in publishing foreign literature are also well-documented (this article by Emily Williams is a decent place to start), and certainly aren’t getting easier. However, it’s a shame to miss out on so many amazing books that are written elsewhere in the world. Even more so, it’s embarrassing that South Korea—a country whose tense relations with Japan have prevented them from having a summit meeting for over a year—is reading so much Japanese literature and we’re not.