Bringing the World Books from Japan

The International Potential of Literary Journals

Literary journals are a vital part of literary cultures around the world. As well as introducing readers to new writers and ideas, they also play an important role in inter-cultural dialogue by introducing Japanese writers to the world and bringing international writers to the attention of readers in Japan. In October 2010, a Read Japan symposium, titled “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Other Worlds,” brought together leading editors from Britain, the United States, and Japan to discuss the issues involved in introducing literature across borders of language and culture.


Read Japan symposium “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Other Worlds”

October 25, 2010 at the Nippon Foundation, Tokyo


Motoyuki Shibata, professor of American literature at the University of Tokyo, translator, and editor-in-chief of the literary journal Monkey Business (published in English and Japanese).


Deborah Treisman, fiction editor, The New Yorker
John Freeman, editor-in-chief, Granta
Yutaka Yano, editor-in-chief, Shincho

Keeping Literary Journals Alive

MOTOYUKI SHIBATA The New Yorker and Granta have managed to thrive despite the challenging conditions for publishers of literary fiction around the world. What’s the secret?

DEBORAH TREISMAN The New Yorker has been able to go on publishing fiction, I think, simply because it’s part of the identity of the magazine. The issue of marketing very rarely enters into what I personally do. The beauty of it is that an enormous percentage, something like 95%, of our sales are through subscription. Sometimes, there is an issue that does very well in the newsstand. But even so, it’s only making a very small dent in the actual number of copies that are sold.

JOHN FREEMAN There is a non-profit model. Paris Review became non-profit and I believe A Public Space is non-profit too. A couple of years ago, Granta was purchased by a Swedish philanthropist from Rea Hederman. The magazine is heavily underwritten by her generosity, without which we probably have to find much smaller offices, pay writers much less, and maybe stop publishing. To some degree when magazines go under or become less relevant, I think it’s because they have become more about the past and about themselves than about the writers in them. I think The New Yorker has managed to avoid this problem by continuously building these debut issues, the ‘20 under 40’ and that kind of thing. It makes it fresh, and I think that’s what we also do at Granta.

SHIBATA One of the things that strikes me as different from the situation here in Japan is the high proportion of subscribers you have. That and the sense of determination in both Britain and the United States to provide literature with the backing it needs, including financial support.

Photo of panelists from the symposium “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Other Worlds”

The Role of the Editor

SHIBATA What is the role of the editor of a literary magazine? How important is the editor in terms of collaborating with the author on a piece, or as a kind of mentor figure?

TREISMAN There is a huge range of how much editing happens on short stories that run in the magazine. Some stories come in, and we read them, and we think they are really very close to perfect. In those cases, some copyediting is done and some minor line editing. So there are some stories that end up running in quite a radically different form than the way they first came in. Usually, it does feel, as you said, like a collaboration. You start to learn which writers want to collaborate and which don’t. There are some that you know will simply not change anything. With those stories, I have to like it as it is or else we are not going to go anywhere with it. There are other writers who I know will work with something, which means I can take a story knowing that we will be able to perfect it.

FREEMAN I have actually had fewer experiences of what Deborah just described, where you take something that isn’t working and re-stitch it or restructure. I generally feel that only non-fiction can be molded in that way. I find fiction is much more difficult to mold because I begin to see my own handiwork on it if we get too aggressive. But our next issue of Granta [No. 113], The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, is entirely in translation from Spanish, and Spanish has a much greater tolerance for digression and internal monologue than English. There are lots of reveries, where characters will sort of have a thought and then walk away from the thought, come back, and look at the thought and then sort of talk to the thought and close their eyes and thought is still there. And these can go on for two pages. It’s very atypical for English language writing. English is a very direct, sort of straightforward language, “un-noble” perhaps in some ways. And so we find ourselves editing quite heavily. In some ways it feels like a betrayal. But translation is obviously not meant to create a literal duplication of piece of work. It’s about trying to convey the essence and spirit of it. It’s an approximation. But I am curious to know whether Deborah has had the same experience in editing and translation. I find that it is often when a piece is coming from another language that we edit the heaviest. That sometimes makes me uncomfortable, but it feels like the best way for us to bridge the gap between a reader and that work.

TREISMAN One of the awkwardnesses for me with editing translations is that you don’t know if you are editing the writer or the translator. Unless you speak the original language, you have no real way of knowing. Often when you are working with a translation, the writer doesn’t speak English and so you are really only communicating with the translator. Editing fiction requires the ability to recognize the author’s voice and to do everything you can to pull that voice out rather than imposing a different voice on a piece.

The Challenges of Translation

SHIBATA As an editor, do you think you bring different expectations to a piece that has been translated? Or is language not such a concern if the story itself is good?

FREEMAN I think readers expect translated fiction to feel different. Sometimes, I think, the writers who are successful from other languages, like Roberto Bolaño and Orhan Pamuk, translate well into English because they write in a direct style. I mean, first of all, they are great writers too. But it’s the high stylists, I think, that have a harder time. So in some ways the fact that people like Borges and Proust have made it through shows what great writers they are. They alter our sense of how a story operates. It’s very difficult for young writers who write in different styles to get published. It’s unfamiliar to the readers, but also it’s harder for the publishers to convince their sales teams and marketing teams that this is worth getting behind. Basically, we all read for the same reasons. We read for pleasure and enlightenment. But sometimes those things feel different when they come from another language.

TREISMAN When you get a story in translation, you will get not only the writer but the translator. For instance, with Haruki Murakami, I’ve worked on pieces that have been translated by three different translators. When I first read the story, I don’t necessarily look at who translated it, but I know right away which of these three translators it is because they have different styles. So I know that I am not only getting a Murakami story. I am also getting a story that is partly authored by Jay Rubin or Philip Gabriel or Alfred Birnbaum. And there is perhaps something wrong with that! But what I feel is that each of these people pulls out or emphasizes a slightly different aspect of the original. That’s really all we can do with translation. You can’t expect to get something completely faithful to the original. I have translated myself, so I know that you have to pick what you are going to go with. You can’t get everything across. I am sure you know better than I.

SHIBATA My next question is for Yutaka Yano. In Japan, I think, editors have generally had much more awareness of the translated nature of a piece than the English-speaking countries. Is this something that’s changing in recent years?

YUTAKA YANO First of all, the cultural and political significance of translation into English is quite different from when something is translated into Japanese or Korean. Publishing something in Japanese translation is quite different from what happens when a story is translated into English, which has that kind of platform as a world language. In terms of why we publish translations in Shincho, we’re looking to bring something new into Japanese: something that’s been produced by a kind of imagination that cannot be created in Japanese. The hope is to produce a kind of shock or friction. We want to import that creativity into the Japanese literary space. That’s probably one of the differences between a major international language like English and a Japanese translation.

Photo of a scene from the symposium “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Other Worlds”

International Collaboration

SHIBATA In the past you’ve worked to introduce Japanese readers to fiction from other languages. With your recent link-up with Granta, you are taking the lead in doing things the other way around, and introducing Japanese works to readers overseas.

YANO Some of the Murakami stories that have been published in The New Yorker originally appeared in our magazine. Tokyo Island, by Natsuo Kirino, was published in Granta. So there has been this kind of natural output in the past. But a major part of what we’re working on right now is Asia.

We’re running a collaborative project with writers and editors in China and South Korea. Three literary journals hold joint editorial meetings together. We have two writers from Japan, two from Korea, and two from Shanghai. The editors pick a theme—“Sex,” for example, and then the writers go away and write. The most important thing is that all three versions appear at the same time. The project runs for two years, in which time we will publish four issues. This is the Korean version of the first volume. It’s a Korean quarterly called Consonants and Vowels. The content is half fiction and half criticism.

One thing that makes Japanese literary journals different from publications like Granta is that around half the magazine is taken up by criticism and other kinds of non-fiction. The project is a kind of literary experiment, I suppose. The idea is to have Japanese and Korean and Chinese writers create content that can be read simultaneously by people in Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. We want people to have a shared literary experience in three countries, united under the same Asian sky.

SHIBATA I think cultural back-and-forth between Japan and other countries is one of the things that has changed from 20 or 30 years ago. Japan is no longer simply a country that absorbs things from the outside world. It has become a more collaborative and two-way process. And this is no bad thing.