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Report from Japan: Meeting Otsuichi!

Our friend and translator Nate Collins was in Japan last month, and wrote this little essay for us…no, for you! about meeting Otsuichi in the flesh. Translators often feel a special responsibility for the authors whose work they bring into a new language, so Nate, the translator of Summer, Fireworks, And My Corpse, was very thrilled at the opportunity to meet our own “strange one.” Let’s check out what he has to say!

Last last month, during a trip to Japan and with the gracious help of Nick and Masumi, I was able to meet Otsuichi-san.

I was to meet him in the headquarters of his publisher, Shueisha, in Jimbou, Tokyo. The walk from the train station to my meeting took me through several glorious blocks of back-street used book stores — the area reminded me most of London’s Charing Cross Road, although what sets Jimbou apart from London, or anywhere else that I’m aware of, is that not only is it the used and new bookstore center of Japan, it’s the home to many major Japanese publishing houses — including the two associated with VIZ Media, Shogakukan and Shueisha.

The result is an entire neighborhood that lives and breathes the printed word from conception to consumption. I had boarded the train excited to meet Otsuichi-san, but as I hurried past the rows of bookstores and their sidewalk displays, this now wasn’t just a meeting — it was a pilgrimage.

The streets of Jimbou, or one of them at least.

I made my way into the spacious and modern lobby of the Shueisha building, registered at the desk, sat on the long, comfortable couch, and fought the urge to grab the latest issue of Shonen Jump from the magazine rack. I was here on business. I was wearing a sportcoat. Must remain professional. A small gallery of rare Naruto goods and artwork sat in an open room adjacent to the foyer, mocking me.

After what might have been a few hours, but was probably just a few minutes, I was met by Hakui-san, Otsuichi-san’s editor. She looked not much older than me (I’m 28), wore dark-rimmed glasses and a subdued flower-print blouse. She greeted me warmly, and we exchanged bows and handshakes, and she ushered me to a meeting room on the mezzanine.

The room was large, with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows giving full view of the Tokyo skyline, and a long wooden conference table that could comfortably seat forty, although today there were only three of us. Otsuichi-san was already waiting. He was slender, but not small. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved gray and black striped shirt, and stood unassumingly with his hands clasped behind his back. We sat, and Hakui-san ordered us coffees and clicked on her tape recorder, insisting that this was, above all else, an informal meeting.

Shueisha HQ, home of many “informal meetings.”

We started to talk, with Hakui-san guiding the conversation, and we talked for nearly two hours. My speaking abilities are nowhere near my reading comprehension, and both Otsuichi-san and his editor were patient and attentive. Otsuichi-san himself was genuine, modest, and mild-mannered. For much of the meeting, he was taciturn — his personality seemed to be more that of an observer than a participator — but he was friendly, and seemed truly interested in what I had to say. It was hard to believe some of the darker scenes in SUMMER/BLACK FAIRY TALE came from such a good-natured person.

Hakui-san asked me about my process of translation, and I did my best to instill confidence in my work. She then asked me what I liked best about SUMMER and BLACK FAIRY TALE, and I said, to an increasingly self-conscious Otsuichi-san, that I enjoyed his use of narrative point-of-view — in particular, the use of certain characters’ viewpoints and the false assumptions they make to lead the reader to the same wrong conclusions, but all without being dishonest to the reader, and never tricking the reader. Even the more fantastical elements are grounded in logic and are internally consistent. Keeping the misdirection intact without losing its integrity was one of my biggest challenges.

I also said that I admired his ability, in just a few short sentences, to vividly paint the image of a scene in the reader’s head, and how much of a boon that was to me as a translator. Providing the literal translation of every word results in stilted prose devoid of its original feeling and intent, so it is most important for me to be able to see what the writer was envisioning as he wrote each scene. Sometimes it can be difficult to do so, but with Otsuichi-san’s prose, it was easy.

I felt the three of us hit it off right away. I got the impression, although it might be impertinent to say, that I found a kindred spirit in Otsuichi-san. We have a lot in common — he’s from a small rural town in Fukuoka Prefecture, located in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands, and I’m from a town of 25,000 in Iowa. He told me that the town in SUMMER, FIREWORKS, AND MY CORPSE, was heavily based upon the village where he grew up.

We both seem to have the same inexplicable embarrassment about our published work. Otsuichi-san admitted that not only does he never read his own published books, he feels ashamed to see them on the shelves in a bookstore. I told him I was the same way, and although I’m always glad to see my translations out in the wild, so to speak, I’ll never pick them up and flip through the pages. It’s irrational, since both he and I will read the finished product several times during the editing process, and I know that I’m extremely proud of the work I submit, but as soon as our work becomes published and exists in reality, we can’t read it. His attitude toward his own success seems a mixture of both heartfelt gratitude and utter bewilderment at its existence.

Nate and Otsuichi, trying not to look too embarrassed.

Also, we both enjoy video games — Japanese role-playing games in particular — and he perked up when I mentioned growing up on Super Nintendo games like Final Fantasy 4 and 6 and Chrono Trigger. We both lamented the current state of the Japanese game market, and how it’s been surpassed by the West. In his free time, Otsuichi-san likes to watch video game “jikkyou douga” (“live recordings” — game playthroughs with the player’s real-time comments and reactions recorded onto the audio track, known as “Let’s Play” videos in the states), and he recommended me an obscure Japanese role playing game that has seen a recent surge in popularity through Japan’s “NicoNico” streaming video site. (A PlayStation game that, sadly, has never been translated into English: “Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke” [literally “Cross Over My Corpse and Go”]. And yes, it’s really good!)

After what felt like no time at all, it was time for Otsuichi-san to go. We took photos and exchanged books — I gave him a copy of one of my father’s novels (Stolen Away) translated into Japanese, and he gave me a copy of one of his most recent books. Now fully in fanboy mode, I got him to sign a few books for me — including my copy of SUMMER, which will sit on my bookshelf, where it will be treasured by me, if never read.

Oh man, is it October already?

I’m still writing 2008 on my checks! Yeah, not even 2009…

Anyway, here’s a neat interview with me on the subject of Japanese science fiction in translation, and specifically all our neato books. It’s pretty in-depth.

JR: What attracted you to the ad – apart from, I assume, the idea of loads and loads of cash, like all editors get?

NM: There aren’t many opportunities to run one’s own science fiction imprint available. For the most part, that’s not the kind of position filled by an external search—people work their way up from fan to intern to assistant latté fetcher to slush reader to editor to senior editor…and then basically your boss has to DIE to get that final job running the show.

Read the rest here!

Loups-Garous anime is out!

In Japan, this past Saturday, the anime of the novel Loups-Garous was released in theaters! I’m sure it’ll take, uh, minutes for it to be pirated, but if you want to play fair, why not check out the book first? Then when you do see the anime legally one of these days, you can sniff and act all superior and say, “Oh, the book was better.”

Please enjoy the trailer:

Incidentally, I just found a review of Loups-Garous in, of all places, that internal bulletin of the international ruling class, The Financial Times. It’s actually a very interesting look at several works of SF in translation available in the UK, as all our titles are. It reads, in part:

Kyogoku meditates on a society so fixated on homogeneity and surveillance that there is scant room for freedom of self-expression any more. In a sterile, anodyne urban landscape, the generation gap yawns wider than ever; old and young seethe with mutual mistrust and antagonism. The loups-garous of the title – French for “werewolves” – are wayward youths, shapeshifting from respectful obedience to untamed, psychotic ferality, breaking free from societal constraints. As such, they reflect Kyogoku’s fascination with yokai, traditional Japanese fables. In this novel and his earlier The Summer of the Ubume, he’s exploring how folkloric monsters such as ghosts and werewolves might manifest in a rational, superstition-free era.

Now that’s some reviewin’!

“Literal Translation”

It’s the first of the month, and like many people who live in college towns, I took advantage of the summertime to find a new and better apartment. I also got the chance to look through my books while packing and unpacking, and remembered something I wanted to share with you all.

The subject is dear to our heart—translating Japanese into English. Jay Rubin is probably one of the most important translators of Japanese in the United States. He’s well-known as the translator of much of Haruki Murakami’s work, and he also wrote a wonderful literary biography of the author called Haruki Murakmi and the Music of Words, which I highly recommend.

In one of the appendices, he talks about the challenge of translating Japanese, and offers up two sample translations of a paragraph in the Murakami short story “The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema.” He notes that while one version is awkward and the other smooth, both are linguistically equidistant from the original Japanese. The awkward version just has an “illusion of literalness” simply because it isn’t as good.

Then Rubin offers up a real literal translation of the same paragraph. English loan words are in italics. I’m keying this in from the UK edition, thus the alternative spellings of the words “color” and “meter.”


High school’s corridor say-if, combination salad think-up. Lettuce and tomato and cucumber and green pepper and asparagus, ring-cut bulb onion, and pink-colour’s Thousand Island dressing. No argument high school corridor’s hit-end in salad specialty shop exists meaning is-not. High school corridor’s hit-end in, door existing, door’s outside in, too-much flash-do-not 25 metre pool exists only is.

Can you manage to come up with a coherent paragraph from that raw material? I sure couldn’t. Here’s one of the translations Rubin offers—the more literary one.

When I think of my high school’s corridor, I think of combination salads: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, asparagus, onion rings, and pink Thousand Islands dressing. Not that there was a salad shop at the end of the corridor. No, there was just a door, and beyond the door a drab 25-metre pool.

Translation is hard work, folks. Don’t try it at home!

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