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Culture and Education

Against the Tide in the Japanese Literature Translation Project
- The Folly of Budget Screening Based on Factual Errors

Norihiro Kato
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

On June 20 this year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) decided in its budget screening for next year to discontinue the Modern Japanese Literature Translation promotion service run by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. After hearing this news, I had a chance to write an article in the literary magazine Shincho (September edition, The Decline of Modern Japanese Literature Overseas). I was pleased with the response I received from various quarters, and here I would like to explain the background that led to my writing such an article and the subsequent feedback.

The project that MEXT has decided to abolish in this budget screening is called the JLPP, or Japanese Literature Publishing Project, a service launched in 2002 by the Agency for Cultural Affairs to promote the translation of modern Japanese literature into four languages, English, French, German and Russian. The three mainstays of the project are translating, increasing cultural interaction, and nurturing translators, and over the past ten years a committee of experts has screened works mainly from the post-war period and selected 123 of them for translation into 229 books in English, French, German or Russian.

I pointed out two problems with the decision to abolish this project. One is that the released data contained fundamental errors, and the other is that the six evaluators did not include even one expert capable of noticing such basic mistakes.

There are two obvious errors. Firstly, based on data from a small university library in the US, one of the evaluators indicated that the library owned 19 translated books by five popular writers of Japanese literature published in the private sector, and that Japanese government projects for increasing cultural interaction to purchase translated material and donate books to libraries are wasteful. This is wrong, however, because the number of such books owned by that library is in fact zero. The same evaluator even went on to insist that governmental promotion of translation itself is unnecessary, quoting data that 470 book translations of modern Japanese literature are published overseas on average every year. This figure is far removed from the real number, which is an annual average of 30 books. And the reasons for these errors are truly pathetic. The evaluator concerned, Shinichi Ichikawa, when researching stocks of popular authors, confused the search system unique to that American university library with a worldwide search system. He also mistakenly took the number of hits from the Japanese Literature in Translation Search operated by the Japan Foundation to be the average number of books translated per year. By doing this, one collection of 35 short stories would be counted as 35 books, and three anthologies would be counted as 66 books.

Anyone who has got onto this issue even just a little, however briefly, should have instantly realized that the library of an obscure American university would never stock 19 translated books of Japanese popular writers, and that 470 translated books of Japanese literature would never be published worldwide every year. And yet not one of the evaluators noticed anything strange, which brings me to the second problem.

Of the six budget screening evaluators, four are experts in education, accounting, banking, and management and the remaining two are experts in interpreting (not translating), Japanese and communication (not Japanese literature). Not one of the six evaluators was a learned individual with knowledge and insight into translation of modern Japanese literature. At the very least, this is an oversight by MEXT as the promoter of budget screening. That is what I wrote in my article requesting that MEXT would go back and repeat their screening.

But even I didn't know about this problem until the middle of July. It was my friend Michael Emmerich, the distinguished translator, who brought it up when he visited our university and spoke in my class. That was the first I knew of it. It isn't something that would be widely reported in the media. And this is a clear indication of the severity of the problem.

My main work is as a literary critic. I also teach at Waseda University, but originally I had no connection to English at all. Seven years ago, I decided to start learning English by myself, and now I teach modern Japanese literature in English, using English translations of Japanese literature, in the university's Faculty of International Research and Education. Although about a third of the people on my course are foreign international students unable to read Japanese, my exchanges with them can sometimes be thrilling. Last year I published some of these approaches in a 600-page book titled Haruki Murakami Short Stories 1979 ~ 2011. The book also has the curious subheading, But Writing About Them in Japanese. We had a class in English, read in English, and discussed in English. And I wrote about that in Japanese, which is my excuse.

Sometimes I wonder what on earth I'm doing, but by standing between two languages we sometimes gain a perspective that we didn't have before. Nowadays I understand the situation a bit better regarding the English translation of Japanese literature. Being a literary critic, I know a lot of editors and novelists. I am also somewhat acquainted with the work of the JLPP. I know exactly what would happen if the project were scrapped. Firstly, it would cause the foreign translators who prop up the current situation of translation to lose heart. It would also be sure to cause foreign publishers, who are already losing interest in a declining Japan, to turn their backs once and for all. And the various networks that were only set up with great difficulty thanks to the effort and cooperation from all quarters, including the support of the JLPP, would also collapse, and so on and so forth.

For these reasons, I wrote the above-mentioned article, ensuring the accuracy of my facts by talking with the current head of the JLPP secretariat, Mr. O, meeting with Alfred Birnbaum, the well-known translator of Haruki Murakami, receiving help from my editorial staff in obtaining all kinds of documents, and seeking help from my translator friends.

As a result, several newspapers have published the story, a number of critics have taken up the issue in their columns, and many translators who read my article have conveyed their support through Mr. O. But then there is the view of well-informed insiders that "government officials are stubborn, and such criticism could instead make them stick to their original decision." Well, what will happen? But the subject of this question is too vague: that's what my students would tell me. What we will do in our affairs for the people across the oceans who are interested in Japan is now under close attention.

Norihiro Kato
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

[Profile]
Born in Yamagata Prefecture in 1948. He graduated from the Division of French Literature, the Faculty of Letters, the University of Tokyo. He worked as a librarian at the National Diet Library and Professor at Meiji Gakuin University before taking up his current position in 2005 (in charge of Modern Japanese Literature and Postwar Intellectual and Cultural History).
Literary critic. Major publications include Lectures on Linguistic Expression [Gengo Hyougenhou Kougi] (10th Shincho Literary Prize), A Discourse on Post-Defeat in War [Haisengoron] (9th Sei Ito Literature Prize), Far Away from the Text [Tekusuto kara Touku Hanarete],The Future of the Novel [Shosetsu no Mirai] (both 7th Kuwabara Takeo Prize), America's Shadow [Amerika no Kage], The Non-thought of Japan [Nihon no Mushiso], Haruki Murakami Short Stories 1979 ~ 2011.