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The Countdown continues or, Old Man’s War

When people here at work started asking me about the audience for Haikasoru books, I learned very quickly that shrugging and saying, “People who like science fiction, and adventure, and Japan” was not a satisfactory answer. Marketing people like demographic information. Well, they like demographic hunches at least. Nobody was outfitting me with the means to engage in large-scale consumer preference studies, after all. I mean, we’re talking about books here, not video games or movies. It’s the difference between selling to the tens of thousands instead of the tens of millions.

My hunch was that our primary audience would be those people in their late teens and early twenties I started calling “manga graduates.” That had a sort of buzzy, hip appeal. It made salespeople, even vice presidents, nod and point their chins in glee. “Yes, yes, manga graduates. That’s right. That sounds good.” But my secret hunch, indeed my secret dream, was that the old guard of fandom would like Japanese SF too. It’s more optimistic and fun than the sometimes dour stuff coming from the West. But it is also organically fun and wild and high-concept, instead of being so in a self-conscious retrograde opposition to the New Bleak.

Looks like I’m a genius! To wit, The Crotchety Old Fan (self-proclaimed) writes that All You Need Is KILL:

is destined to become a classic, at least in its English language translation. …

This story will find a place amongst the seminal military science fiction works pantheon – Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Ender’s Game (the latter I’ve only read in original magazine form; I don’t believe it belongs in the pantheon, but that’s probably colored by my distaste for the (fairly recent) political screeds of its author – many others do include it); it even manages to draw in elements of Gerrold’s War with the Chtorr series (which is itself somewhat of an homage to RAH’s Starship Troopers).

Seriously, he likes the book better than I do! Read the balance of Crotchety’s comments here at his recent blogpost.

Aside: I almost typed “Crotchy” rather than “Crotchety” up there. Looks like this post will earn a coveted “it was a monkey!” tag.

Anyhow, I’m excited and in less than a week you too will have the chance to see what got some Old Fan to drop his cane and dance around the room. This calls for an enormous number six!

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All You Need Is SPILL: An Interview With Translator Joseph Reeder

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.

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The Future is Japanese. Really.

io9.com, edited by my pals Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz, is one of my daily stops for science fiction news, and for keep closing tabs on whether or not Dollhouse is canceled yet. Yesterday’s feature essay When Did Japan Stop Being the Future? was especially interesting because, well, Japan is too the future, and we’ve got the novels to prove it.

It’s an interesting essay, even if Charlie should have to eat one of these

squid snack!

for every time she typed “Japanophile” when she meant Nipponophile. Geez, Louise!

Charlie is right, of course, that your basic speculative impulse in the 1980s was a future dominated by Japan. However, the Japan of American futures has about as little to do with Japan as-it-is as the color-coded velour blouses of Starfleet have to do with naval uniforms. Japan’s long recession did ease some of the anxiety many Americans experienced about the possibility of being outcompeted by the burgeoning Japanese economy and its ever-so-efficient workforce; today anxiety is about being outcompeted not on quality but on sheer price. TV and automotive production are long gone; today even “brain worker” jobs in US—coding, support desk, even some *gulp* publishing jobs—are being globalized to India, China, and elsewhere where wages are low and the labor movement weak. That a lot of these brain workers scoffed at the “stupid” and “uneducated” auto plant and steel mill workers who were displaced a generation prior is just a bit of delicious irony.

But I don’t think that Japan was eclipsed as the setting for science fictional futures because of stagflation and the rise of developing economies, but rather because Japan has simply been able to successfully compete in the cultural sphere. Japanese futures are coming from Japan. Pokemon was a cultural sensation in the US and internationally, and manga went from a small cult consumption item to a major sales center of the bookstore chains. Imagine twenty years ago walking into one of the giant bookstores and saying, “Hey, we want to sell these comics. No superheroes, and they’re in black and white and in a paperback format you’re not used to. Plus, a lot of them are for girls, who don’t read comics. Oh, and we’re gonna print them backwards so you have to read right-to-left.” That would have been sufficient cause for a seventy-two hour stay in a mental hospital. Now, you walk into a bookstore and you’ll see kids and teens in the manga section, coats and bookbags littering the floor, reading volume after volume. (That’s what the SF/Fantasy section looked like when I was a kid. Today, the SF section of the bookstores I patronize rarely have anyone under the age of thirty checking out the selections…)

That’s where the Japanese futures (and presents, and pasts) are. Outside of SF, it’s easy enough to point to programs like Iron Chef that have been imported to the US and that helped spark the recent interest in TV programs that combine formal dining and game show antics. And there’s Pocky and those photo booths that take those tiny pictures and US automakers on the verge of melting into air and and and…

and if Japan isn’t the look of America’s future anymore, it’s because we’re already living in that future. Japanese futures, well, they’re a lot like American futures. Check out our launch titles next month, and you’ll see what I mean.

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Japanese SF and English-language original SF

Since coming to California to edit the Haikasoru line, I’ve been asked one question more often than any other: What is the difference between Japanese science fiction and the American stuff? (Which, oddly, is often assumed to include material by Canadian and UK authors too.) It’s a good question, one that I am usually limited to a sentence or two in answering. That short answer is, “Oh, there’s not that big a difference.” Now, for the long answer.

Like most long answers, this one starts with a caveat. I am no expert on Japanese SF. I’ve read what’s been previously made available in English, and of course I read what we acquire here, the related manga when available, and at least sample chapters of a whole bunch of the books we contemplate acquiring. I do read a fair amount of American SF, but with hundreds of new titles being published each year, I certainly don’t have a definitive overview of that genre either.

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However, as this is both a blog post and about science fiction, I will now give a definitive answer despite my lack of expertise (yay Internet!)—Japanese SF is fresher and more enthusiastic than American SF. One of the great concerns of the US science fiction community is attracting new readers, and “new readers” almost always means young people. Most current SF readers started as kids, after all, but what is the new generation reading? (Manga, as it turns out!) There is an unspoken assumption in a lot of the concern over the graying of SF’s readership—there is no reason for an adult to start reading SF. There are obstacles to picking up one’s first science fiction novel as an adult. Science fiction as a genre is definitely a “grand conversation” of sorts; if you haven’t been steeped in the stuff, you can very easily get lost in the sea of references, terminology, traditional tropes and conventions, etc.

Naturally, some authors try to recapture their own personal golden ages of science fiction by writing the stuff they liked when they were twelve. These books are certainly more accessible to the lay reader, but in my own reading, I can often sense the huffing and puffing of someone trying to fit into the clothes worn in junior high. A lot of the accessible stuff feel a bit reactionary, a bit too in-your-face with its attempt to appeal to the kiddies. “We’re gonna have a fun adventure in space,” I hear the author saying, with teeth gritted and face red, “and you’re gonna like it!”

Japanese SF, and Japanese popular fiction generally, is heavily influenced by Western material. Rampo Edogawa is one of the Japanese mystery writers to make it over the ocean—his pseudonym is a Nipponization of Edgar Allan Poe. In SF proper there is Asakura Hisashi, whose pen name was a riff on Arthur C. Clarke. I might start writing under the name Murray K. Amy! This is not to say that authors and critics haven’t problematized the issue of influence, and that Japanese authors don’t have their own themes and concerns. But, for what is coming into the office, at least, I get the sense that Japanese SF is as fun and accessible as the stuff we all read as kids, without the embarrassing bulges and split seams of the sometimes poor fits of the new-old SF. Haikasoru SF is similar to the American SF of my youth, without the baggage of trying to be self-consciously fun. It just is fun. My goal with Haikasoru is to acquire books that SF fans will like, and that will also appeal to the younger readers who grew up on manga—the “manga graduates” as I call them.

Of course, like American SF, there is plenty of excellent SF that might be called more literary. Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe has written SF, and Japanese SF authors are beginning to win some of the more prominent Japanese literary awards—as in the US there traditionally has been a split between awards for literary product and awards for genre product, and as in the US slowly but surely that split is being healed. Haikasoru is looking forward to bringing over some of the more “literary” SF—the sort of thing that appears in hardcover original in Japan—as well in 2010.

Japanese SF (and other popular fiction) is also heavily influenced by manga, even down to the level of the sentence. The single image is often the predominant method of propelling the action. In one non-Haikasoru book I recently saw, the translator had produced these two sentences: “A dark something sprang out and attacked the gunman. It was a monkey!” Sounds silly, eh? (Well, that’s why we have editors. I fixed it up.) But those sentences presented as two panels in a comic would work very well. And US popular fiction is, of course, isn’t some set of pure and artful constructions of the written word— American authors have simply integrated the camera angle rather than a comic panel. Check out these lines from The da Vinci Code:

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

A close voice from someone fifteen feet away? A silhouette and we can see his pink irises? What’s going on? A movie is what is going on—clearly the dialogue would be presented as a voice over, we’d cut to the silhouette, and then cut again to a close-up. Personally, I’d rather have a dark something revealed to be a crazy attack monkey! But I am sure Dan Brown will weep over my criticism all the way to the bank…

Finally, there are some other, more minor, differences. Japanese SF, especially the near-future material, is somewhat more interested in expressing hopes for international cooperation than is American SF. Short fiction continues to predominate in Japan, and thus even many of the novels are shorter. Of course, both countries produce enough science fiction each year that any vague generality about each will be just that—a vague generality.

Japanese SF is definitely fiction in the popular mode, the way American SF was in the days of zap-guns and slide rules. Much of it is published as bunkobon originals, analogous to the mass market paperbacks that kids used to have to hide from their parents and teachers. It’s the sort of fun pulp excitement that lends itself to the visual imagination while also engaging the brain and the adrenal gland. It’s high-concept, action-packed, and often offers more romantic subplots than its notoriously nerdy American counterpart. And some of it is literature of the highest quality, created by some of the most acclaimed authors on the planet.

It’s good stuff, and I can’t wait to share some with you.

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