Bringing the World Books from Japan

Bringing Japanese Literature to the World: The Need for Good Translation

Translation is absolutely vital to making works of contemporary Japanese literature accessible to readers around the world. In collaboration with educational institutes and individuals in the publishing industry, the Nippon Foundation is working to support the training of talented translators and helping to create the framework for bringing works of Japanese literature to a wider audience.


Helping to Train Translators in Britain

The Nippon Foundation provides support for a number of universities with literary translation programs, including the University of London and the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The British Centre for Literary Translation, based in the University of East Anglia, has been organizing programs for 25 years. With cooperation from the Nippon Foundation, since 2010 the Centre has offered a summer workshop program on translation of Japanese literary works into English.


Although translation is generally a solitary endeavor, the summer program is deliberately structured so that participants work in groups. This allows them to give and receive feedback, share information, and build up a network of contacts with other translators working in the same language.

In 2011, the program was devoted to a translation of Mieko Kawakami’s novel Chichi to ran (Breasts and Egg). Kawakami herself took part in the program. She recounted: “I expected it would be difficult to render the Osaka dialect into another language, so I was really surprised when we found a way to convey the nuances of the original by using a regional English dialect.”

Publication in Words Without Borders


The culmination of the 2012 summer program was the publication of the participants’ translations in a double issue of the online journal Words Without Borders (New Writing from Japan and New Writing from Japan, Part II). Michael Emmerich, a scholar of Japanese literature who taught at the summer school and supervised the editing, commented, “The translations were so good I couldn’t help wondering why the participants hadn’t published any translations before.”

He added, “It’s extraordinarily difficult for translators to establish contact with editors and publishers. That makes it important not only to provide translators with training and support, but also to ensure that publishing translations is viable as a business.”

International Literary Festival in Tokyo

Providing support for Japanese writers to take part in international literary events is another part of the Nippon Foundation’s efforts to encourage the introduction of Japanese literature abroad.

The Worlds Literature Festival is held in Norwich, England every June. One of the highlights of the event is a salon featuring discussions by 30 or 40 well-known literary figures from around the world. With assistance from the Nippon Foundation, many prominent Japanese writers and their translators have taken part, including Natsuki Ikezawa and Yoko Tawada. This highly successful event provides a golden opportunity for readers to encounter literary works from other cultures.


In March 2013, Japan’s first international literary festival took place across several venues in Tokyo. The festival was sponsored by the Nippon Foundation. The BCLT international program director, Kate Griffin, traveled to Japan for the event. Griffin welcomed the festival as way of opening up new possibilities for getting more Japanese books translated.

Photo“The writers from abroad who took part in the festival may talk to their publishers about Japanese writers and their works after returning home,” Griffin said. “Publishers are likely to listen to what they have to say, so there’s a better chance Japanese works will be published in English. The decision on what to publish lies with the publisher. The foreign participants’ encounter with Japanese literature and their experiences in Japan are sure to get the network-building process in motion.”

Support from the Nippon Foundation is used to train English-language translators and publish English-language translations of Japanese literature. The foundation’s priority now is on making Japanese works accessible to readers in English translation. The hope is that this will lead to translations into further languages in due course. The training and exchange programs are now in their fourth year. The Nippon Foundation will continue to provide support for translators and the crucial role they play in enhancing understanding of Japanese culture around the world.

Tokyo International Literary Festival
What We Talk about When We Talk about Translation

Participants: Masatsugu Ono (novelist and scholar of comparative cultures), Michael Emmerich (scholar and translator of Japanese literature), Lexy Bloom (senior editor at Vintage and Anchor Books, imprints of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group at Random House)
Moderator: Motoyuki Shibata (University of Tokyo professor and translator of American literature)

On March 2, 2013, the second day of the Tokyo International Literary Festival, a session about translation was held at the International House of Japan in Roppongi under the title “What We Talk about When We Talk about Translation.” The panelists, who included authors, translators, and scholars exchanged views about translation from their respective vantage points.

There was general agreement that a good translation should make a work read as if it were originally written in the target language. Lexy Bloom, who worked on the English version of March Was Made of Yarn, an anthology of Japanese writing related to the Tohoku tsunami disaster of March 2011, used the term “the voice of the work” to describe the essence of what the translation should seek to capture.


“The ‘voice’ of the work is what makes a given work distinctive. If the tone is translated accurately and the work is properly edited, the ‘voice’ will make itself heard in the target language.”

Masatsugu Ono, who is a translator in his own right as well as a novelist, touched on the different ways in which writers and translators work to convey this voice.


“Every story or novel has its own unique voice. It’s very difficult to write if you don’t hear this voice. Just as readers react to the same work in different ways, translators too have their own perception of the timbre of “voice.” Writers are trying to express something new. The job of the translator is to give expression to that something in another language. In that respect, what they’re trying to do is not that different.”

The session provided a valuable glimpse into the thinking of writers, editors, and translators on what makes a good translation: a rendering that captures the spirit of the original and lifts it out of the original source language.

Photo of a scene from a session about translation held during the festival, titled “What We Talk about When We Talk about Translation”.