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Translated Fiction: Immensely Popular in the U.S.!

By Yani Mentzas

In his first post for our Graphic Novels blog line-up, Yani Mentzas, Editorial Director of Vertical, Inc., the publisher of—among other great work—Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack series, talks about contemporary Japanese literature, video games and one way to get U.S. readers to consume mass quantities of Japanese in translation.—Editors

At translation conferences and such, I often hear folks complain that Americans are too incurious about foreign stuff. Stats seem to bear out the sentiment; prose from overseas is a tiny sliver of the publishing pie (though the size of the wedge in many other nations would be considerably smaller if the U.S. exports were discounted, suggesting that the non-Americans' appetite is not so much for foreign literature but for American culture). While the foreign stuff that's "at least written in English" does well on occasion, anything that needs to be translated rarely seems to be commercially viable.

I'm the editorial director of a company that mostly publishes contemporary fiction from Japan and have to agree that the business of translation is tougher in the land of immigrants than one might be led to induce.

Yet, this picture changes rather drastically if one defines "translated fiction" to include narratives that have visual as well as verbal components. I am thinking about manga or Japanese comics, of course, and the emerging market for "light novels," but also (please don't laugh) video games.

In the case of the last, a fair share of hits—in particular ones that feature extensive plots and a lot of text—are of Japanese origin and require a substantial amount of what that industry prefers to term "localization." The playing experience is sufficiently affected by the quality of localization for the games' manufacturers to have commissioned, in recent years, new translations for some classic series.

The aforementioned "light novels" (raito noberu) are doing wonders in their country of origin to entice teens and young adults, much-berated lately for their attention deficits over there too, to avidly read for pleasure, and are now making their way to the States. These illustrated SF, fantasy, mystery, and romance stories, adapted to just as frequently as from manga, anime, and games, tend to feature wordplay, cross-referencing, meta-fictional asides, and other elements that make them more sophisticated as texts than, say, the Harry Potter series. But we're also talking about dear old prose, with dear old illustrations, capturing the attention of jaded youths—and even more miraculously, being translated en masse into English.

Last but not least, manga or Japanese comics are one of the few fields in American publishing in the twenty-first century that has actually grown. While the years of double-digit expansion seem to be behind us, the import has proven to be more than a fad. The U.S. market for manga has entered a mature phase of steady growth and diversification, with more and more publishers taking their chances on graphic novel-grade works that well withstand the scrutiny of discerning readers.

The upshot of all the above is that right now, in the Japanese-to-English field, it is possible for more than just a handful of translators to actually make a living translating fiction. I didn't say "literature," though I would grant that status to the best manga, because my point is that however you judge the quality of the narratives we're discussing, they are not computer manuals, shareholder reports, or government communiqués. In the terms of the industry, we are talking about "literary translation" as opposed to "technical translation." That there's so much demand for the former should be a surprise given what's routinely said about Americans' parochial tastes in fiction.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the demand for able J-to-E non-technical translation currently exceeds the supply. Manga can survive bad translations thanks to the visual component. Yet, doing justice to the original and good by the reader is, I believe, going to be crucial for the medium's further success in the U.S. In my next post, I'll go into the specific challenges of translating, editing, and publishing manga.

Yani Mentzas is the Editorial Director and Executive Vice President of Vertical, Inc., publisher of Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel masterpiece Black Jack

Published Feb 3, 2009   Copyright 2009 Yani Mentzas

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