Bringing the World Books from Japan

British Literary Journal Granta Releases its First “Japan” Issue

The preeminent British literary journal Granta, with a history spanning more than a century and 12 foreign-language editions, published its first issue dedicated to Japan on April 24, 2014. The Nippon Foundation’s Read Japan program, which aims to promote a better understanding of contemporary Japan, was a driving force behind the initiative. The events organized in London to mark the release of the Granta issue on Japan, attended by the novelists Hiromi Kawakami,Yukiko Motoya and Nadifa Mohamed were a step toward the forging of new bonds between Japanese literature and literary communities overseas.


Japanese Novelists Attend Launch Event in London

Events marking the publication of Granta 127: Japan were held at the Free Word Centre and other venues in London in May 2014. Hiromi Kawakami, winner of the Akutagawa Prize, and Yukiko Motoya, recipient of the Mishima Prize, traveled to Britain to attend the event.

Photo of Yuka Igarashi, who is Granta's managing editor“The events were a huge success,” notes Yuka Igarashi, who is Granta's managing editor and the editor of the Japan issue. “It was exciting to see bonds forming between Japanese writers and their readers overseas. So far the Japan issue has been receiving a lot of favorable coverage in online and print publications. And I've been receiving a steady stream of e-mail from interested writers, editors, and journalists, so I expect the impact of the issue to grow even further.”

Contributors to the special Japan issue include Kawakami and Motoya, as well as up-and-coming Japanese writers and photographers including Kyoko Nakajima, Sayaka Murata, Hiroko Oyamada, and Toh EnJoe, and distinguished non-Japanese writers with close ties to Japan including Ruth Ozeki, David Mitchell, David Peace, and Pico Iyer.


“Read Japan” Helps Bring About the Japan Issue of Granta

PhotoGranta was established in 1889 by a group of students at Cambridge University. Since then, the journal has introduced a huge number of talented writers to the reading public and published many compelling works, becoming one of Britain’s most celebrated literary magazines. Along with its continued influence in English-speaking literary circles, Granta is also produced in 12 foreign-language editions. The combined circulation of the various editions is more than 50,000 —an exceptional number for a literary publication—and special issues raise this number even higher.  

Having Granta publish a special Japan issue is a noteworthy achievement. In the English-speaking world, relatively few foreign literary works, including works of Japanese literature, are read in translation. One problem is the limited range of translations available. In the United States, for example, translations of works by authors from non-English-speaking countries account for less than 2% of all published titles. As a result, very few editors, publishers, agents, and others are willing to search out Japanese works and have them translated and published.

Igarashi points out that the dearth of translations does not reflect the quality of Japanese literature. "Interest in Japanese literature is extremely high in Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world, and there are actually quite a few people who have an insatiable appetite for these books. Many of the works in the special issue are experimental and were thought provoking, even for me. I think readers have a desire to be on top of the latest coming out of Japan."

Despite the high regard in which Japanese literature is held and strong demand for these works by literary experts as well as general readers, opportunities for translation and publication have been limited.

PhotoIn seeking to make Japanese literature more widely available in translation, the Nippon Foundation in 2007 launched Read Japan, a program designed to use books as a tool for promoting a better understanding of Japan overseas. The program initially donated books to foreign libraries, and later compiled a list of books recommended for translation. Today the main pillars of the program are support for translators and building networks to link the Japanese literary world to overseas authors and publishers.

The Nippon Foundation has teamed up with the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT), based in the University of East Anglia in Norwich, to organize a summer workshop program on the translation of Japanese literary works into English. The foundation also supports the Tokyo International Literary Festival, which was first held in 2013 in part to strengthen the new networks in the making. The event, Japan’s first major literary festival, draws writers, publishers, translators, and fans of Japanese literature from around the world, helping to foster new connections between these individuals.

Igarashi notes that the Granta Japan issue is an outgrowth of these efforts. “We’ve gotten tremendous support from the Nippon Foundation. Without Read Japan, the special issue would not have been possible. The idea for the publication took shape as a result of the Tokyo International Literary Festival, which generated interest in deepening the bonds between Japan and Granta and Britain as a whole.”

She also points out that the Nippon Foundation’s assistance to translators has been vital. “Talented individuals like Asa Yoneda, who translated a work by Motoya, produce works of merit in their own right. Without a good translation, the original work won’t get the attention it deserves. Support for the education and training of translators is indispensable if we are to make Japanese works of literature available to a wider audience overseas.”


Building Ties with Literary Communities Overseas

Read Japan serves as a hub for steadily expanding the links between Japanese literature and overseas literary circles.

The editorial work for the Japan issue of Grantaincluding the selection of authors and titles, the translation, and other parts of the production process—was undertaken jointly by the journal’s editorial department in London, editors in New York, and the Japan-based Waseda Bungaku editorial department, which publishes the Japanese-language Granta Japan with Waseda Bungaku, while support for the translations was provided by the Nippon Foundation.

Makoto Ichikawa, who is editor-in-chief of Waseda Bungaku and an associate professor at Waseda University, and also served on the Tokyo International Literary Festival organizing committee, describes some of the challenges and rewards of this collaboration.

“To be honest, the editorial work was grueling, not only because of the time differences involved but also because a group of people with different ideas about literature, language, and culture had to work together. However, looking back after we had finished, it’s clear that all of the differences gave the work a complexity and potency it otherwise would have lacked. The issue of Granta was truly a collaborative work. Teaming up with Granta was a wonderful experience for Waseda Bungaku, and in the future we also hope to pursue similar projects in French- and Spanish-speaking countries and other Asian nations.”

In addition to speaking at the launch events in London, Kawakami and Motoya took part in a variety of exchanges during their stay in Britain, including participation in a translation workshop and other literary events and a visit to the editorial offices of Granta

PhotoAt both the translation workshop and other events, Kawakami quoted Motoyuki Shibata, a Japanese translator, who said that all translations are “mistranslations,” while reassuring the young translators present that “writers know there is no such thing as a perfect translation” and that “it’s fine for translators to freely compose sentences based on their own word choices.”

Motoya said that meeting translators for the first time gave her a better appreciation for and trust in those who are active in the field. “I felt humbled by their deep reading of Japanese literature and the amount of thought they give to what was written, which is all reflected in the final translations.”

Morgan Giles, one of the young Japanese-English translators who took part in the BCLT program, says that her encounters and exchanges in London are thought-provoking. “I think translators, even more than the writers themselves, have a strong desire to understand the world of a literary work right down to the sentence level. A good translation is only possible if the translator can imagine and feel the world that a writer has created unconsciously. That’s why I want to know as much as possible about Japan and get clues on even the tiniest details of the work. Being able to meet and talk with Kawakami, a writer whose works I’ve read and respect, was an incredibly valuable experience for me.”

These exchanges are creating new possibilities for introducing Japanese literature overseas. Igarashi stresses, however, that the publication of the Japan issue of Granta is only a first step. “Creating opportunities for readers, translators, and publishers to meet writers in person is important because it allows them to gain an understanding of the writers in a way that is not possible through simply reading their works. The Tokyo International Literary Festival and events organized to launch Granta 127: Japan attest to the value of these exchanges. And the support we received from the Nippon Foundation made these events possible. I believe the publication of the Granta issue on Japan has brought us to the starting line and given us a sense of what we can do from now on.”


Photographs by Tony McNicol and Kei Kodera