We’re counting down to the release of our first Haikasoru titles and to celebrate, have decided to give you all a few sneak peeks behind the curtain. Today, we’re talking with translator Joseph Reeder.
Joseph Reeder isn’t the name on the cover page, but he is responsible for the heavy lifting on Haikasoru’s translation of All You Need Is KILL. Now thirty-three, Joseph’s interest in Japanese was sparked through videogames. “I would muddle through imported RPGs in the early ’90s using an old dictionary my dad had picked up god-knows-where.” he says. He took courses in Japanese at UT Austin alongside his studies and business and accounting and in 2000 moved to Tokyo to work in an investment bank. Pretty dry stuff, sure, “but at the time being in Japan was its own reward.”
In Japan, Joseph hooked up with Square Soft and there translated the games Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XII. He also met business partner and long-time VIZ translator Alexander O. Smith at Square Soft. Having freelanced on video games, manga, and other material for years, Joseph was handed the reins on All You Need Is KILL. We decided to chat with Joseph about science fiction, translation, and how to best kill alien invaders.
All You Need is KILL was your first novel. How was it a different sort of job than your previous work?
It was immediately clear that the demands of a novel were entirely different from video games, manga, and anime. Translating these other media focuses almost exclusively on dialogue, whereas dialogue is simply the icing on the top of a novel. And getting prose on the page is a lot harder than dialogue. That’s not to say writing good dialogue is easy, far from it, but just about anyone, writer or not, has experience with dialogue; we talk for hours every day. Writing descriptions of grotesque aliens, not so much.
What was the biggest challenge in translating KILL?
Adjusting to writing prose. The order in which Japanese presents things is often at odds with what you would consider natural in English. And I’m not talking minor things like subject/verb or preposition placement, but entire paragraphs. Getting comfortable enough to move things around all over the page to get something that felt natural took some time and a healthy leap of faith.
So, there’s a different cultural logic even to ordering of sentences and detailing events. How does it work? (Feel free to give us the kiddie version; we’re not linguists.)
Linguistically the rules for what can pass as a sentence are much, much looser in Japanese than English. For example, you might have a series of fragments bookending a longer explanatory passage, and that back and forth is very at home in the Japanese. The same section in English might come across as lacking focus. So simple things like grouping the fragments together to get a rhythm going, then switching to the longer explanatory passage can make the whole much more cohesive to the English reader without unduly disrupting the intent of the original.
What’s it like working with Alex? How do you split labor? Are you an apprentice or a full partner or a subcontractor or what? How does this thing work?
One of the great things about working with Alex is his humility. He never changes something for change’s sake or just to leave his mark. If he thinks something is good, he leaves it alone. But he’s not afraid to tell you when something needs work. At the same time, he’s very receptive to suggestions. These might sound like simple things, but it’s actually harder to come by than you’d think.
Our work division depends largely on what we’re translating. For a mega-RPG, we might each translate half, and then check and brush up each other’s translation. Novels and manga lend themselves to having one person translate, and the other read through with a fresh pair of eyes. For example, on All You Need Is KILL I did the initial translation and final rewrite of the novel, while Alex helped polish up the text by suggesting turns of phrase and pointing out places that would be better served by getting more distance from the original Japanese and others that would best stay closer. He also served as a sounding board throughout the entire process.
Six years ago when I started translating “apprentice” would probably have been an apt description of our professional relationship. Now it wanders somewhere between full partner and subcontractor, again depending on the nature of the project. Whatever form the logistics may take, the end result is hopefully a more highly polished translation than either one of us would be able to achieve alone.
Do you read English-language science fiction? How do you think Japanese material compares?
I do read a fair bit of English-language science fiction. My favorite SF author is Gene Wolfe, who falls rather far toward the literary fiction category, but I also enjoy more mainstream authors such as William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Frank Herbert, and of course the classics like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I’m not as widely read in Japanese SF, so I’ll avoid making any general comparisons, but Sakurazaka certainly holds his own in the genre.
Would you prefer a shoulder-mounted harpoon gun or a giant axe when outfitting your battle armor for a sortie against alien invaders?
I’m pretty sure I’d end up equally dead either way. But ignoring reality for a moment and assuming I could actually figure out which end of the axe was the pointy end, I’d take the axe. I hate worrying about conserving ammo, and I’d think feeling the blade bite through exoskeleton and flesh would have to be pretty satisfying. Give me a good FPS with a wrench or a crowbar and I’ll use those over a gun every time.
Outside of the technical issues, there is also the question of voice. How do you keep Sakurazaka’s voice intact? How do you make sure that it doesn’t sound like your last project or a generic translation?
In any writing there’s an inherent pacing that supersedes the structural details. Once you find a cognate in English to whatever style the author is using, I feel you can piece together the structure and maintain much of the original. But in the end, translation is always a compromise between being faithful to the original and creating something that’s going to feel natural in the target language. Poetry is going to require much more dramatic compromise between style and content than, say, dialogue, which can often be a much more straight translation. Prose can run the whole gamut between the two. So it’s an art, not a science. Do it right, and ensuring the translation is unique will take care of itself, and as much as possible of the author’s original voice will shine through.