The literary arts are mainly solitary activities. Wordsmiths are, however, social animals and — the odd Pynchon aside — seek out the company of the rest of the species.
This is one of the motivating factors behind the formation of a new collective, Strong Women, Soft Power, which launched its first Tokyo event on Nov. 18 with a symposium exploring “best practice” for Japanese-to-English translators. Allison Markin Powell, Lucy North and Ginny Tapley Takemori — responsible for some of the best translations of Japanese literature in recent years — have banded together with the aim of creating a network of support and strength for each other, and for other literary translators working within the Japanese arena.
Safety in numbers is perhaps the oldest concept in human evolution. Artists are discovering that, in an age where “content” is expected to be provided in exchange for “exposure,” going it alone can leave you open to exploitation.
Individually, “some people are treated better than others, some people are treated worse,” says Powell, translator of Fuminori Nakamura and Osamu Dazai among others. “But a rising tide lifts all ships. By working together we can create a more effective community and have more influence with publishers and, ultimately, with booksellers and general readers.”
“It gives us a platform,” says North, who has translated writers such as Hiromi Kawakami and Kono Taeko, adding that each member brings a unique set of skills and connections for tackling issues such as rights, contracts or dealing with the realities of an often fragmented and somewhat opaque publishing industry.
At the moment the collective is just the three translators and the idea is to lead by example.
“We’re showing that it’s a model that’s working,” says Takemori, whose works include translations of Ryu Murakami and the forthcoming Sayaka Murata. “While there are some communities already in existence, such as SWET (The Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators), JAT (Japan Association of Translators) and SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) who are doing very good work here in Japan, they are all large organizations with a rather broad focus. Being small enables us to narrow the focus on what is important to us specifically as literary translators. Having said that, we are very willing to collaborate with other communities. We are stronger together.”
Addressing the many translators gathered for the symposium, Powell says, “We have the common goal of getting more Japanese books translated.” Although some competition is inevitable, working together diminishes the sense of rivalry and, she says, “actually creates more work all round.” Their collective launched with an event in London in 2016, followed by collaboration on an article for LitHub.com listing 10 books by Japanese women writers they’d love to see translated.
“There is a thirst for Japanese literature in the U.K. and the U.S.,” says North. “But all too often it is simply quenched by what is known — Mishima or Murakami. We need to enrich people’s knowledge of what is out there. And by people, I mean general readers, but booksellers, too.”
The focus is largely on the huge inequality between the success of women writers in Japan and the gender imbalance in translation. By crunching numbers freely available online, Markin Powell unearthed the following facts: the winners of literary prizes since 2012 in Japan are more-or-less evenly divided by gender (7-6 in favor of women for the Akutagawa Prize, 7-6 for men in the Naoki Prize) and more bestselling novels in Japan in 2016 were written by women (26-24 according to Da Vinci magazine) and it was pretty balanced in the years prior.
Despite this, the number of books by women being translated into English is miniscule. It is well-known that only 3 percent of books published in English each year are translations from other languages. What is less well-known is that of that 3 percent, only about 26 percent are written by women (source: Three Percent Translation Database). It is one of Strong Women, Soft Power’s stated aims to reverse this disparity.
They are optimistic that it can be done.
“There is a lot of soft power in literature,” says Powell. “There has been a groundswell since 2014. The U.K. and U.S. have been devoting more attention to increasing the visibility of women writers in translation in general. Women in Translation Month, held every August, founded by Meytal Radzinski, and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation are raising awareness. We’re part of that groundswell.”
By holding public events such as this symposium, Powell, Takemori and North hope to boost the profile of writers and translators with readers: As one panelist pointed out, the only encouragement publishers need is good sales. Bringing writers and readers together is key. North points out that “despite a huge variety of work by writers in Japan, their presence in book festivals and book fairs in the U.K. and U.S. is sparse. More needs to be done to get across the thrilling unpredictability of Japanese writing, and particularly writing by women.”
On Nov. 18, it was the jam-packed session with novelist Minae Mizumura and translator Juliet Winters Carpenter that gave the clearest illustration of what North, Powell and Takemori are trying to achieve. With passionate writers, translators and industry professionals working together, readers of Japanese literature in translation have a lot to look forward to.