October 25, 2012

Japanese translation funding cut for no good reason


In June of this year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (inexplicably known as MEXT) in Japan decided to cut off money to the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP), a program which helps fund translations of Japanese literature, particularly into English, French, German, and Russian. It would be one thing if the Ministry had decided that the program wasn’t effective, or they just didn’t have enough money this year. Though of course it would still be bad news, because the JLPP has selected and supported many books in its ten-year lifespan.

But the decision to bring the JLPP to a halt was based on a budget screening report that has two major errors, as Japanese publishing news website Junbungaku points out: 1) they don’t know how to count, and 2) the budget screeners they sent knew nothing about the subject.

The people chosen to compile the report come from the fields of education, accounting, banking, management, and interpreting. So none of them were knowledgeable about the issue being examined, namely the translation and publishing of modern Japanese literature. (And it’s not as if there aren’t individuals around who know this area well — there are translators, professors, and literary agents, in Japan and the US, who’ve been involved in the field for years.)

This degree of ignorance proved to be a problem, because they completely overestimated the number of books being translated from Japanese into English, and because they didn’t know much about the subject, there was no common-sense check on the conclusion. Norihiro Kato, a professor and literary critic, who has been writing about this matter in Yomiuri Shimbun and elsewhere describes exactly where the bean-counting went awry:

The evaluator went on to insist that governmental promotion of translation itself is unnecessary, quoting data that 470 book translations of modern Japanese literature are published overseas on average every year. This figure is far removed from the real number, which is an annual average of 30 books. And the reasons for these errors are truly pathetic. The evaluator concerned, Shinichi Ichikawa, when researching stocks of popular authors, confused the search system unique to that American university library with a worldwide search system. He also mistakenly took the number of hits from the Japanese Literature in Translation Search operated by the Japan Foundation to be the average number of books translated per year. By doing this, one collection of 35 short stories would be counted as 35 books, and three anthologies would be counted as 66 books.

A far more accurate, if more laborious, way to do this count, at least for English, would have been to contact the publishers who regularly publish translations of contemporary Japanese literature and ask them how many books they’ve published recently. They will probably know. There aren’t that many books. The evaluators could even have tested their findings this way. But, instead, no more The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P. or Akutagawa Ryunosuke for you! This seems misguided, to say the least.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.