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Archive for April, 2013

Q/A with a translator: Terry Gallagher

Here at Haikasoru, we are thrilled with Self-Reference ENGINE, one of the most innovative works of science fiction, in any language, published in recent memory. We’ve already interviewed the physics consultant and gave the world a sample by publishing A to Z TheoryM with our friends at Strange Horizons, and now we’re pleased to offer you this brief Q/A with translator Terry Gallagher!

A bit about Terry: after a fifteen-year career as a foreign correspondent and financial editor in Tokyo, Bonn, and New York, Terry Gallagher returned to a road not taken: translation. For over a decade now, from his home on Cape Cod, he has been working mainly for financial institutions. He first met Toh EnJoe in January 2012, and joined the celebration when the author won the Akutagawa Prize. That night, Toh EnJoe told him that of all his published works, it was Self-Reference ENGINE, his very first full-length work, that he was most anxious to see published first in English.

While still a journalist, Gallagher translated two stories for the ground-breaking anthology Monkey Brain Sushi, one of which was republished in the Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women. His first translation of a novel for Viz Media was Be With You, by Ichikawa Takuji, which was followed by its manga version. Then came many short stories, in two single-author volumes – The Stationmaster (Poppoya) by Asada Jiro, and ZOO by Otsuichi – as well as other anthologies. As an editor/researcher, he assisted author Martha Sherrill with Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, the tale of the man who rescued the Akita breed from all-but-certain extinction. His personal heroes are Han Shan and Marcus Aurelius.


Q. Do you read much science fiction? What novels or stories would you compare SELF-REFERENCE ENGINE to?

A. At different times in my life, I have read a fair amount of science fiction. As I translated Self-Reference ENGINE, I was very impressed by the breadth and depth of Toh EnJoe’s reading, and general knowledge, but I have to say it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I think the works it is closest to are those of the Japanese writers like Kunihiko Kaneko and Project Itoh, not yet household names in the West, that Toh EnJoe is closest to. The Japanese edition of the book closes with a commentary by editor Atsushi Sasaki, who compares SRE to works by Greg Egan, Ted Chiang, Chohei Kanbayashi and Tobi Hirotaka, but I have not yet had a chance to read those writers.

SRE is truly post-modern, in that it seems to subsume much of Western and Japanese literature. It is science fiction, but it’s also bigger than that. The text makes allusions, some explicit, some deeply hidden, to writers from Arthur Conan Doyle and Freud, to Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft. The construction of the narrative plays tricks that remind me of authors such as Italo Calvino or John Barth. Several of the stories are reminiscent of Kafka, and Flatland, and even The Little Prince. In a way, I think the book that SRE most closely resembles is not science fiction at all, it is straight-up science writing: Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. But EnJoe, a PhD physicist himself, has chosen to use the language of fiction rather than expository science writing. Something I’ve heard about, but haven’t read, is the Change series, by S.M. Stirling. Those books deal with a world-altering Event that seems comparable to some of the things that go on in SRE.


Q. Around the office, we often hear that some text makes more sense in Japanese. Sometimes though, as in the case of Toh EnJoe’s story “Endoastronomy” in THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE, we heard that it made more sense to bilingual readers in English! In which language is SRE best understood, and can you give us an example of a tricky part of translation?

A. Well, one of the key phrases of the book is one that neither Japanese nor English readers are likely to have encountered before: in Japanese, 巨大知性体, which I have rendered in English as “giant corpora of knowledge.” I’m fairly sure Toh EnJoe is the originator of this term, which seems appropriate to the age of Google.

The names of various giant corpora of knowledge reflect the profound breadth of Toh EnJoe’s imagination. One is Yggdrasil, whom I learned from this book was the Tree of Life in Old Norse mythology, connecting the nine universes. Others are Sarutahiko – a name from ancient Japanese mythology – Hildegard von Bingen, and Pentecoste II. I think you get the idea. I spent a lot of time poring through Wikipedia as I was working on this.

My Japanese friends who have read his work in Japanese tell me they find the language of the book quite strange, not normal Japanese. Classic postwar Japanese writers like Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata are said to be easier to read in English translation because some things that can be left ambiguous or diaphanous must be made clearer in English, for reasons that have to do with the pure mechanics of the language. For example, English sentences must have subjects, but Japanese sentences do not suffer that limitation. So the translator working from Japanese into English sometimes has to make compromises that, for better or worse, end up “adding clarity.” It’s a terrible thing, as my grandmother used to say. People say that Haruki Murakami’s work in Japanese reads as if it were translated from some other language. In an interview earlier this year, Toh EnJoe himself said that his own work, in Japanese, also reads as if it were translated.

We all bring our own subjective experience to reading, and I cannot really tell you whether other bilingual readers will enjoy this book better in Japanese or in English. That’s kind of a hypothetical question for most people, who really have no choice. The value of translation is not that it says “A=B.” The value of translation is that it says, “Let me give you something that is something like this other thing that you can never have.” Much as I strove to make the translation a “carbon copy” of the original, just in a different language, there is no disputing the fact that the two are different.

In the Japanese original, the chapter headings, the table of contents, even the title of the book itself, are all in English. I can’t really address how that makes a “normal” Japanese reader feel. Maybe they think it’s cool, maybe they think it’s pretentious, maybe they think it’s just normal. My friends are perhaps more accustomed than most Japanese to dealing with things foreign, but even they find that a bit unusual. But Japan is all about inside/outside, uchi/soto, domestic/foreign. And this whole book seems to be very attuned to things that are going on outside Japan, in both form and content.

In the first few pages of the translation, there is a passage that reads:

“Once upon a time, somewhere, there lived a boy and a girl.”
“Once upon a time, somewhere, there lived boys and girls.”
“Once upon a time, somewhere, there lived no boy and no girl.”
“Once upon a time…lived.”
“Lived.”
“Once upon a time.”

The Japanese is:

「昔々あるところに、男の子と女の子が住んでいました」
「昔々あるところに、男の子や女の子が住んでいました」
「昔々あるところに、男の子と女の子が住んでいませんでした」
「昔々住んでいました」
「住んでいました」
「昔々」

Even if you don’t read Japanese, you can see the repetition of the patterns. I think it is fair to say that in the original Japanese, this passage is pure word play, and as a translator I can barely begin to convey, in English, what is really going in here in Japanese. All I can tell you is what it says, and even that, less than perfectly. The author is messing with the conventions of storytelling, and the conventions of grammar, to mess with his readers’ heads, to shake them and say, “This book is going to be like nothing else you’ve ever read.”

Another example would be Chapter 15, entitled “Yedo”, which I hope at least some readers recognize is the old name for Tokyo. A smaller number, however, are likely to realize that the name of the protagonist, Hatchobori, is a section of Tokyo even today, redolent with historical and sociological associations. Yedo is the fifteenth story in the book, and its plot actually revolves around the factorization of the number 15, and mind games that play on 15 in both mathematical and linguistic ways that I fear I may have utterly failed to convey in English. But what can a poor translator do? Just try to give a glimpse through a smudgy window at what lies on the other side.

In the story “Freuds”, it is no coincidence that there are 22 dead Freuds under the floorboards: that is the number of chapters in the book. Mathematics is Toh EnJoe’s second language. English is his third.


Editorial note: you must read the “stories” in this book in order, because the book is disordered.

Q. SRE is a non-linear story about a non-linear, shattered, time-space continuum. Did that provide any special translation challenges?

A. Well, the non-linear nature of the story in SRE was not really a problem. As a translator, I just try to break it down, sentence by sentence, and tell the reader what it says. But the non-linear nature of the time-space continuum within the stories qualifies as a huge challenge. The story Traveling is the one that deals most explicitly with forward/reverse travel in time, in the form of a joystick that controls the movement of spaceships in dogfight hijinks that that traverse time as well as space. The human pilots may be shooting themselves in the tail. And they only think they are controlling the spacecraft. Really they are the pawns of the giant corpora of knowledge that are masterminding wars where the various sides locked in conflict are citizens, not of neighboring territories, but of parallel universes. This was quite confusing to me the first several times I read it. As I translated each chapter, I sent the drafts to the author, who read them and gave me his feedback. I then did a rewrite and sent this to you (Nick Mamatas at Viz), and did another rewrite incorporating your comments.

The story “Coming Soon” is written like a screenplay for a pastiche of surrealist films by different directors. Names and ideas may carry over from one section of this story to the next, or refer to other stories in the book. But does that mean they point to the “same” characters? Maybe, maybe not. I think that is the point that Toh EnJoe is making about story-telling. The perennial narrative that is our consciousness is not linear. It loops back, repeats itself, varies, and shoots off in different directions. Then it may loop back again and explore another avenue. This book may be like that.

Late in the process of drafting the translation, I made a decision to give the book a “narrative present” tense, aligning it with the “present” of the reader, and at the same time making the story in a way ideal, or abstract, like Plato’s Cave. I had done the same thing with “Endoastronomy”. We usually use the past tense to tell stories in English when we are relating something meant to be understood as “actual experiences.” But the present tense has an immediacy, a vibrancy, an excitement.

Q. The chapters can be fruitfully read as independent short stories, to a greater or lesser extent. Do you have a favorite chapter? Tell us a bit about it.

A. There are several chapters that I like “best,” for different reasons. I like the framing story involving the innocent love triangle between Rita, James and Richard. It pops up in several chapters in the book, sometimes in disguise. It may be the closest thing to a conventional “story” in the whole book, and it reminds me vaguely of the Back to the Future movies, but on a whole different level of discourse. Perhaps because I myself live near the beach I like Echo, which is the story of a neglected slab of metal corroding on a beach that is actually an old computer to which a Nobel-prize-winning scientist transferred her consciousness, and then disappeared into the depths of cyber-silence. And I like “Infinity”, in which Rita and her dying grandfather play a game of weekly riddles, ultimately revealing that we are each at one with the universe. I like “Ground 256” because this tale of mayhem in the form of persistently intrusive objects that spring up spontaneously overnight from other dimensions reminds me of what seems to be happening on my hard drive. I also like “Sacra”, which has an ending that’s kind of like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the astronaut ends up in a lonely but comfortably appointed place to die. Perhaps not apparent at first glance, the title of this chapter is a pun on the Japanese word sakura, for cherry trees, cherry blossoms, which were dear in samurai culture as a symbol of the transient nature of life.

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Noble V: Greylancer

Greylancer’s right arm traced a wicked arc.

It was easy enough to call it a sudden flash of steel. But the tip of the lance exceeded three meters and its grip easily five meters in length.

The blade stopped not on Lanok, who’d scrambled to his feet, but at the throat of his companion, who was left twitching helplessly on the ground.

The Noble cast a smile that might rightly be called benevolent.

With his eyes trained on the boy before him, Greylancer addressed the rebel leader. “Lanok, was it? As overseer, I have governed over this land by example. My regard for you humans is no different than that of other Nobles. But I will not promise your safety and leave you to fend for yourselves in a wasteland not even beasts or monsters dare inhabit. Nor will you be laid to slaughter for my gain. And in return my demand is this—absolute loyalty. It is easily given. Do not cross me, do not talk back in anger, and do not lie. And never raise a sword against me. They are the commandments I have passed down to you at my appointment and have repeated time and again. You have been allowed to live in peace ever since. A peaceful life. Is that not what you humans desire?”

“Ruled by the Nobility, surviving on what rations you toss our way—peaceful? Even if that were true, it’s no way to live. We live and breathe! As long as we are subjugated by your rule, we might as well be dead. What good is living in death? There are enough living dead already! Cursed vampires, cold-blooded bastards! This planet was born for us warm-blooded humans!”

Lanok shouted, “You will die proudly, Hendry!”

(more…)

Q/A With Ken Liu (and the return of Intern Kathleen)

We are all very excited that prolific author Ken Liu received a prestigious Hugo Award nomination for his short story “Mono No Aware” in The Future Is Japanese. We decided to ask him a few questions about the story and life as an award-nominated author!

Q. Congrats: what was the genesis of the story “Mono No Aware”?
A. This story began as an experiment. Claims are often made about the universalism of certain narrative conventions: the hero must be active; there must be conflict; the individual must strive and overcome obstacles and define the self against the larger society. I get annoyed with these kinds of “rules” because they are not universal at all. Storytelling conventions in non-Western traditions often are very different.

In particular, I was intrigued by works like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō that try to pursue an aesthetic primarily oriented towards creating in the reader an empathy towards the inevitable passing of all things: a sentiment known as mono no aware in Japanese.

So I wanted to write a story in which that was the dominant ideal, and to redefine heroism along those lines.

Q. You’re a prolific writer of short stories. What attracts you to the form?
A. The main reason is one of time. With two young children, it’s hard for me to sustain the prolonged period of focus and attention necessary to produce a novel. But short stories allow me to work through an idea quickly and see immediate results, which encourages me to write more.

Q. Speaking of your rate of production, were you surprised that this story, out of all you published in 2012, was nominated for the Hugo? Why do you think it appeals to Worldcon members and supporting members specifically?
A. I am indeed surprised. However, I’m generally not very good at predicting how well my stories will resonate with readers, so I’m not surprised by my surprise, if that makes sense. Right now, I’m just grateful that enough voters liked this story to nominate it, which is a great honor.

Q. What research did you do on Japan and Japanese cultural mores for the story?
A. Well, I did the usual: lots of reading, lots of watching, and lots of talking to people who know something about Japan. My wife majored in Japanese and lived and worked for years in Japan, so she was an invaluable source as well.

However, and this is a point I want to emphasize, I do not presume in any way, shape, or form, to have “gotten” the Japanese concepts right. No matter how much research is done, an outsider’s perspective will never have the same quality as an insider’s. Reading about a culture is not the same as growing up in a culture.

To be sure that I’m respectful to the material, I employed a narrative trick: the story is told from the perspective of a Japanese child whose experience of his homeland ended at the age of eight. His knowledge of Japan is thus a combination of hazy memories, what outsiders have told him about home, and his own fierce desire to protect the memories of the people he loved. It is necessarily an idealized, filtered, distorted, incomplete image. He is constructing a Japan in his mind.

The choice thus provides the reader with an explanation for the gaps and errors in his construction. And the story, in a sense, is really an immigration story. Every immigrant constructs an image of home that may not be very close to the original.


Q. Nostalgia is a recurring motif in your work. What drives you to integrate nostalgia into science fiction settings?

A. Some of the science fiction I’ve read evinces a deliberate contempt for the past, as if history doesn’t matter, as if we have to only decide to look forward and the task is done. But our lots are inextricably linked to the fates of those who came before us, and their choices determined the choices available to us. I wanted to bring some empathy with the past into the science fiction I write, to acknowledge the importance of memory and continuity with the past.


Q. If you win the Hugo this year, what will you do with the tin rocket trophy?

A. Probably put it on a very high shelf so that my daughters don’t hurt themselves by playing with it—that tip is sharp.

Q. When are you going to publish a novel anyway?
A. Working on it… working on it…

The hope is to be done with my first novel later this summer. Wish me luck!

Good luck, Ken!

Also, as mentioned the other day, the ebook editions of The Future is Japanese is on sale for a mere $3.99 for the month of April. And that’s not all! As it turns out, ebooks are made out of electrons, and can be kept in slim little boxes. I mean, look at poor Intern Kathleen struggling under the weight of the mighty paperback:


So…many…stories…all excellent…must…read

And now here she is with her ebook reader!


Heavy reading is totally lightweight with this ebook reader!

So remember, not only does The Future is Japanese contain Ken’s award nominated story as well as work by Toj EnJoe, Bruce Sterling, Catherynne Valente, and Hideyuki Kikuchi, for the month of April the ebook version will be as light on your pocketbook as it is on your back!

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“Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu gets a Hugo nomination!

We are thrilled to report this morning that “Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu, the lead story in our anthology The Future Is Japanese has been nominated for the most prestigious award in science fiction, The Hugo Award.

The Hugo Award is voted on by the fans, specifically the fans who are members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention—and of course virtually everyone in SF publishing also attends the convention and nominates and votes each year. So it’s really an honor, and it is our second Hugo nomination. Two years ago editor Nick Mamatas was nominated for Best Editor, Long Form.

It’s also very nice to see that our book has gained some attention—these days thanks to ease of reading online, stories that are available for free on the Web often have an advantage, if only because they’re easier for the fans to read and consider and pass around. Anthology stories often do less well come award season, so clearly very positive word of mouth carried the day with “Mono No Aware.”


We also feature the Upside-Down Japanese Girl Seal of Approval

Naturally, there’s also the issue that Ken himself is a very prolific writer of short stories, so people do seek his work out, and people like voting for him. So that it was our Ken Liu story and not the other dozen or so he published this year that was so honored is a special thrill.

To celebrate, we have lowered the price of the ebook edition to $3.99 for the rest of the month. Whether you like Kindle or Apple, SONY or NOOK, go check out The Future Is Japanese, cheap!

Aaand, if you’re so moved by your reading, remember that you can vote for Ken’s story, and stories by Bruce Sterling, Rachel Swirsky, David Moles, and Catherynne M. Valente, or the anthology itself (the Hugos lack an Anthology category) for the almost-as-prestigious LOCUS Awards until April 15th. So get to reading! We like prizes!

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