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Interview: Nick Mamatas on Japanese Speculative Fiction and SF Translation

Last month, I had the chance to talk to Nick Mamatas, author, editor, and the guy in charge of Viz Media’s SF publishing imprint Haikasoru. If you aren’t aware, Haikasoru is pretty much the biggest source of Japanese speculative fiction in English translation, and its ever-growing catalog features a really wide cross-sample of authors and genres.  If you’re at all interested in Japanese speculative fiction, Haikasoru’s offerings would be an excellent place to start.

I wanted to talk to Nick about some of the work behind bringing Japanese fiction to an English speaking audience, and some of the challenges and opportunities it brings.  I’m personally very deeply interested in the act of translation; it’s not only a difficult task, but one with some very important philosophical underpinnings and I was glad to be able to talk to someone with a vested professional interest in good translation. We also got into some specifics about the books Haikasoru’s bringing out.

Jim Rion:  Hi Nick! Thanks for this. Ok, let’s start with a little bit of background. How did you get involved with Haikasoru? Was it something you were thinking about, or did VIZ approach you with it out of the blue?

Nick Mamatas: I actually got the job the way almost nobody gets a publishing job these days: I answered an ad! I’d been a freelancer for years, and did writing, editorial work for various independent presses, and had some translation experience, so they called me in.

And I wasn’t an anime/manga fanboy, which also helped. I was pretty surprised to get the job, actually!

VIZ had been contemplating a science fiction imprint for a couple of years, and had a bit of success with Battle Royale, so they figured it was time to roll the dice.

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.

JR:  So it was a nice short cut, cool.  So you mentioned you had translation experience. Can I ask, what language(s)?

NM: With my friend Kap Su Seol, I translated a work from Korean about the Kwangju Uprising of 1980 and the attendant massacre of the rebels.

JR:  I’m guessing it was a matter of him/her translating the word-for-word stuff, then you helping make it a readable English book?

NM: Yes, exactly. And this sort of rewriting is an important part of translating manga and science fiction as well.

So the issues are the same—how do you translate culturally specific terms or idiomatic expressions? How do you capture something that might be subcultural or regional within the language you’re translating?

JR:  Oh yes.  I’ve done some translation myself (German to English) and it’s such a complex process…Japanese is a beast, too. The levels of meaning are so immense. I’ve actually heard kind of 3rd hand that your editing process was pretty hands-off (it’s a small country).  How do you approach these translations from that standpoint?  Are you involved from the beginning or do you get a mostly finished product and polish it?

NM: Depends on the book. Sometimes the editing is severe, sometimes quite light. Some translators have a novelist’s ear; others, well, do not.

Also, I edit translations less than I would an original text—after all, they’ve already been published in Japan. It’s not like I can go to an author and say, “This is a great book, but please add another fifty thousand words or so.”

JR: Speaking of authors, do you have or have you had much contact with any of them?

NM: Some more than others. I usually communicate near the end of the translation, to ask a few questions. One of our authors, Hiroshi Sakurazaka, even wrote an original novelette for us, to fill out the pages of his latest book, which would have come in a little short for an English-speaking audience. It hardly took any begging either; he was happy to write “Bonus Road” for the book Slum Online . [Amazon]

JR:  Nice! I notice a lot of Japanese books tend toward the short side. The Lord of the Sands of Time [Amazon] isn’t the longest novel around…

NM: Yup; Japanese readers tend to buy by the installment or volume; English-speaking readers buy by the pound. So our version of The Next Continent [Amazon] (The Sixth Continent in Japan) combines both volumes into a single novel.

JR:  I’m glad of that.

NM: We’re also doing Mardock Scramble—the three volumes as a single title.

JR:  I just picked up the latest Project Itoh book, Genocidal Organ.  Any plans to bring it over to English? [Note: I was wrong about this–Genocidal Organ was NOT the last book from Project Itoh, but it was selected as “The top Japanese SF novel of the 00’s”, so it recently got a re-release, causing my confusion.  Sorry about that.–JR]

NM: We just put our Harmony last month, which I thought was excellent. So we’re definitely looking at the rest of Itoh’s list, which is only two other books, sadly.

The other being a Metal Gear Solid novel.

JR: Yeah, I noticed the Metal Gear thing.  Kind of a different take on stuff like that over here. Hayakawa’s S-F Magazine did an entire Metal Gear issue…But this brings me to another thing I wanted to ask. How do you select books?Do you commission them, or do translators approach you?

NM: My boss Masumi Washington reads S-F Magazine and Japanese books regularly. She’ll commission quickie translations of sample chapters of eight or ten books and then I’ll read them and together we’ll choose three or four. So it can be tricky; I often don’t even learn the ending of the book until eight months later when the translation is done.

I have a small pool of translators I work with regularly, and generally parcel out assignments based on my impressions of their skills and of the book.

JR: Would it be offsides to ask if there’s ever been a title that, once you got to the ending, you felt was maybe not the best choice?

NM: Actually, I liked them all. I think Masumi’s pre-vetting keeps the real stinkers out of the pool in the first place. The good thing about a small annual list of ten to twelve books a year is that one never has to hold one’s nose and publish something just for the sake of filling a slot.

JR: On a related note, have you ever had any ideas/lines/points in books that were a little wince-inducing? This goes back to that idea of cultural translation, as much as word. (The reason I ask is this line from The Lord of the Sands of Time that has stuck with me, something like “Women in the 26th century are still demure and quiet.”  Very old-school Japanese idea…)

NM: Sure—though of course there’s plenty that makes me cringe in US SF as well. It’s not my job to make everything match my politics exactly, but I’ve had to send a note or two to Japan about some stuff that would just be too distracting to US/UK readers.

On the other hand, I do get a bit of perverse glee out of, say, something like The Next Continent [Amazon] which is very much a Japanese version of the traditional US-based rah rah technological nationalism.

Though in the end people of the two countries work together to save the day—a typical theme.

JR:  Indeed: cooperation, peace, “Harmony”, Japanese cultural watchwords. I’m strongly resisting the urge to start a conversation about observations on Japanese culture here…one of my less rewarding hobbies. So you mentioned a couple of upcoming titles, Mardock Scramble and The Next Continent, are there any other particularly exciting titles coming soon? Or not so soon?

NM: I’m excited about Rocket Girls [Amazon]and Rocket Girls: The Last Planet [Amazon]. The anime has some fans in the US, and there aren’t a lot of science fiction novels that are based around hard science and have female protagonists…well, not ones that don’t have a boyfriend swooping in to save the day. And the books are hilarious, so I hope they take off.

I’m also excited about Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse by Otsuichi. His horror collection ZOO was nominated for the Shirley Jackson award this year, and I’m hoping that the horror community embraces Summer too.

JR:  I’m reading ZOO right now (I’ve got the Japanese and using the Haikasoru to help me through the rough parts.) I think it’s pretty funny, too…I’m impressed that the translators have been able to deal with the humor well. It’s maybe the hardest thing of all…Did it surprise you to see how funny some of these stories and books are?

NM: Yes, a pleasant surprise. Sadly, in the Western world, funny fantasy and SF is often actually deadly tedious. I blame the nerdy obsessions with puns in the US and the UK.

JR: My God, I’m not the only one…

In regards to translation, which do you find better/closer to ideal: a finished translation that reads just like a novel written in the target language, or one that maintains a certain amount of “otherness”, reminding the reader that the text is NOT a product of the target culture? (Sorry, that looks way longer than it sounded in my head…)

NM: That’s an especially tricky question, because so much of Japanese SF wears its US/UK influences on its sleeve. What’s most interesting to me is how, say, manga and specifically the comic panel itself influences point of view and pacing in Japanese SF, while English-language SF is more like cinema in its use of point of view.

A book like The Stories of IBIS is aaall about both types of SF—it’s sort of a master class in the history of SF and includes everything from magical schoolgirls to Asimov’s laws of robotics.

So I suppose what I like best is the book that expresses an emergent “world” culture.

And has plenty of both.

Another thing to keep in mind is that our line is science fiction and fantasy—our narrators have been dead girls, people who literally think in HTML code, robots new to their physical bodies, individuals from the other side of black holes, and various assorted weirdos. Haikasoru books are sufficiently “othered” already, but SF and fantasy works best when the alienation the characters experience from the world we know is carefully juxtaposed with our ideas of everyday life, consciousness, ethics, etc. To add or highlight another layer of alienation from the text would actually dilute the tones and themes the original authors are trying to express.

After all, we are dealing with commercial fiction here—communication for the masses by the masses.

JR: Exactly. I always hear from academics about the need for “otherness” in translation…Did you find that in general the translators felt the same as you, or were there some who wanted to preserve as much of the non-English pacing/viewpoint as possible? To the detriment of balance, I mean.

NM: The translators are generally keen for direction from me, honestly. I’ve struggled with it, myself. At first, my thought was to edit the translations significantly—moving scenes around so they’d make more sense to the Western reader, etc. As time has gone on though, I’ve learned to appreciate the Japanese narrative idiom a lot and have calmed down accordingly.

I still slice out adverbs on speech tags ruthlessly.

JR: hehehe. I have to admit, I still haven’t gotten very used to the Japanese narrative idiom. You’re a better man than I…but I’m getting there. So would you say that the audience feedback has shown an awareness of the difference you mentioned? Was your initial worry justified by any of the reactions you’ve seen?

NM: Not really! Most of the feedback deals with whether they liked the story, or thought the science was too hard (hard SF is a big part of Japanese science fiction), etc.

The responses to Loups-Garous [Amazon] has been interesting.

That was a challenging title because Kyogoku is an avant-garde writer even in Japan; his books are epics and he lays them out himself to achieve visual effects with the characters that cannot be easily replicated in English.

He even makes sure to end every page with the end of a sentence—when I mentioned this to my designer, and suggested that we might try the same, she laughed for an hour.

Loups-Garous is pretty much a 500-page haiku, that is wrapped around the expression of a single image. Challenging stuff.

JR: I’m not even sure I can imagine that.

NM: One of the reader reviews noticed, saying, “Loups-Garous is much closer to Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf than Universal Studio’s Werewolf. It’s an existential nightmare with the trappings of the occult set in a near future where human nature, rather than humanity, is struggling to survive. ”

That’s about right.

JR: I wish I’d seen that review when I was book shopping.

NM: Then there was the Financial Times, on the same book; “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.”

So I was glad to see some readers saluting the freak flag I ran up the pole.

JR: It sounds very timely–there’s a very big growth in youth crime now, and Japanese society is in a state of huge flux. Darn you, Mamatas, I have to go book shopping.

NM: The perfect crime!

JR: You can’t see it, but my fist is shaking. Oh yes, it is. Thanks very much, Nick. I really appreciate you indulging my translation obsession.

NM: No worries!