Letters to the Editors

The first 56 pages of Calque 4--out of 246 total--were devoted to the work of translator Michael Emmerich. The issue began with a lengthy conversation between Michael Emmerich and Jeff Edmunds on topics ranging from the origins of the Japanese writing system to the process of collaboration between authors and their translators. Following the interview are three texts and an Introduction authored by Michael Emmerich. The three texts, in the order they were published, are: the Prologue to Oyayubi P no shugyo jidai, forthcoming in translation from Seven Stories Press as The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P) in the original Japanese, the original version of Emmerich's translation of this text, and the text as it circulated to publishers, edited by Elmer Luke. At the end of his Introduction to this trio, Emmerich writes, "I decided to print my first draft of the translation alongside the final, edited version, and alongside the original, because readers so seldom have a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes, before a novel is published; but also because I would like readers who care about this work, Big Toe P, in particular, to see how far we went, and in what direction, and why. I suppose I may be exposing myself to criticism. I knew when I started translating this novel that I might make choices, here and there, disappointing to readers who approach the work with a specialist’s concern for certain details. I tried not to, and I certainly hope that I haven’t. But if I have, it’s still worth it, to me, to have taken that risk."

And some criticism did in fact arrive, in the form of a Letter to the Editors by poet and translator Daniela Hurezanu, a letter she kindly asked us to publish. The editorial practices (and broader literary and cultural implications) that she saw manifested in the prologues and interview published in Calque did not sit well and she let us know it. Fair enough, we thought, as long as Emmerich is allowed a response. And he did respond. Published below are Daniela Hurezanu's letter and Michael Emmerich's response. In the interest of open dialogue, the post comment feature will be activated for the first time on this website in order to allow the conversation to continue of its own accord. If readers of this discussion would like to read a PDF extract from the Prologue texts published in Calque 4, which includes Michael Emmerich's full introduction, or the interview itself, contact the editors--or buy a copy of the magazine, cheapskate.

Often when we tell someone that we are the editors of a "journal of literature in translation" they say, oh that's cool, and then, what is that exactly? Well, this is it.

• • •

Dear Calque editors,

The interview with Michael Emmerich, translator from the Japanese, published in
Calque 4, is one of the most sophisticated and intelligent interviews about literary translation I have ever read. However, after reading it, I was left with an ambiguous feeling I couldn’t quite explain until I read his Introduction to his featured translation (The Prologue to The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P by Matsuura Rieko), as well as its two versions—the unedited and the edited one. Emmerich explains the decision to publish both versions by differentiating between “a text” and “a book.” Translating and publishing are two different things, he says, and, alas, as a translator, I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that, in giving us the reasons behind this difference, Emmerich mixes what he calls “political” reasons (and what I would call reasons dictated by the market) with reasons that have to do with translating per se. He thanks his “brilliant editor” without whom he may not have been able to publish the book, and who apparently is responsible—at least morally—for the edited version, but he adds that it was “hard” to accept the significant “trimming” of the text.

In comparing the unedited translation with the edited version, one can see that the changes have been made according to a certain pattern, which obviously reflects the esthetic view of the editor(s). The first two long sentences have been chopped into much shorter sentences, and what is conveyed indirectly in the first version is expressed telegraphically in the second one, as if the narrator was answering a police questionnaire and was summoned to give the most unambiguous, direct answers possible. But the narrator is not answering a police questionnaire. She is telling a story about a woman whom she doesn’t recall very well. The first version has two paragraphs about the narrator’s difficulty in remembering who this woman who showed up at her door was, and the style parallels her mental hesitations. The sentences in these paragraphs have the oral feeling of an inner monologue, and contain words expressing hesitation that have been deleted in the edited version. All the nuances, the words that don’t convey specific information have been deleted, and only the bare bones of the text—its “message” has been kept. Why? Do the editors believe that we read fiction in order to get some “information,” and the shorter and more clearly it’s conveyed, the better? Do we really read in order to find out that the narrator didn’t remember Mazo Kazumi? So what? I can’t speak for all readers, but when I read a book it is to be transported not only into another physical universe—which, in the case of Japan, some might equate with a desire for exoticism (and I understand Emmerich’s frustration regarding such expectations)—but to be transported into another universe of thinking. It is not a book’s “message”—whether the narrator remembers or not Mazo Kazumi—that represents another view of the world, but the way a writer’s thinking is articulated through the flow of the words, that is, his/her structure of thinking. When a paragraph begins, as some do in Emmerich’s unedited version, with a subordinate clause or a sentence that draws us slowly into the story’s atmosphere, the text has an entirely different rhythm than when these sentences are either deleted or replaced by short sentences starting with “I.” There is a huge difference between a structure of thinking that places the I and its “actions” at the center of the world and a structure of thinking in which the I is less important than the background on which it is placed. If one alters a text’s syntax, it is this very structure that is altered.

Compare the difference in rhythm between “This was just what happened when Kazumi called about a month ago” and “About a month ago Kazumi rang;” or between “Thinking it would be nice to have some idea what she looked like, however vague, before her arrival an hour later, I strove to call up an image, any image” and “Groggily I tried to call up an image of her, but none came […]” The edited version has an abrasiveness that is inexistent in the first version. Since I don’t read Japanese, I can only wonder: does the author intend to sound abrasive? It seems that the translation has been edited as if the editor(s) intended to answer the questions “Who? When? What?” and everything that didn’t answer these questions has been disposed of. More then that: there are sentences that have been reduced to a summary.

There is certainly a reason for all these changes. The editor(s) obviously believe that, rather than being a whole in which what we call “form” and “content” function together in an inseparable way, fiction is a channel for transmitting a message. Since their changes must express the esthetic values they hold, apparently, their supreme esthetic value is: shorter is better. The editor(s) assume(s) not only that American readers shouldn’t be bothered by trying to make sense of any sentence longer than two lines, but that a shorter sentence is esthetically superior to a longer one. This belief in “shorter is better” is, in fact, the esthetic value one can find directly or indirectly in most magazines and books published these days in this country. Have you read any review lately that praises an author for his “baroque, complex sentences”? I haven’t. But I read all the time reviews praising writers for their “economical, spare” style. “Economical” is good! It is as if Joyce, Proust, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Henry James, Saramago—basically, most of the greatest novelists of the 20th century and late 19th century—never existed!

That the multiplicity of styles is being reduced to one “good” style is bad enough; but to change another writer’s style according to your ideas of “good writing” is another thing! Anticipating some readers’ reaction to the changes in the edited version, Emmerich compares these readers to people who believe that a translation should be handled “as gently as archeological artifacts are dusted.” This comparison deserves to be analyzed. “Archeological artifacts” suggests something old and original. Emmerich’s implication is that he is not one of those “naive” translators who believe that the “original” is something untouchable, a precious artifact that should be kept as such. I am not a supporter of undusted artifacts either, and I think a translator should dust his translation as he pleases. But may I ask: why does Emmerich choose to dust it in the direction of the “economical” and “spare” rather than in the opposite direction? Why doesn’t he add more words and make the sentences longer, rather than delete half a sentence and summarize a paragraph? For a very simple reason: because in the contemporary American publishing market, as well as in all the public spaces in which writing is “taught,” “good writing” is defined as “economical.” In other words, he applies a contemporary American esthetic ideology to a text from a different culture, which, judging from the unedited version, hasn’t been written at all according to this ideology! If this is not imperialist thinking, I don’t know what is!

Which brings us to the question of editing, and of its policies and politics in this country. Mentioning the differences in the publication and distribution of literature in the States and Japan, Emmerich notes that in Japan, unlike the States, editing is minimal. He also explains the existence of many long, unedited books because, he says, Japanese people, unlike the Americans, spend a lot of time commuting and don’t have to worry whether “there isn’t a wasted word” in the books they are reading. Now, I think sociological explanations are sometimes relevant, but in this case, this is a rather disingenuous explanation. Emmerich must know, as I do, that the practice of heavy editing is typically American and that, far from being a Japanese specificity, unedited books with many “wasted words” are a common reality in pretty much the rest of the world.

It isn’t the other countries (Japan or any other country) that are “different;” rather, it is the United States that—in this respect too—is different from the rest of the world. I have lived in both Eastern and Western Europe, I translate from French and Romanian, and what Emmerich says about the “literary environment” in Japan could be easily applied to these European countries, which are otherwise so different from Japan. And from what I hear from other translators and writers, it can probably be applied to the rest of the world. I have heard stories from British, Korean, South American, French, and other writers and translators who all complain that American publishers mutilate their works. Nowhere else in the world do editors presume to change the author’s style (and sometimes even content) according to their own esthetic and ideological preferences. There are some differences between Western and Eastern European countries in the sense that the latter don’t do almost any editing—indeed in countries from the former Soviet block this would be perceived as censorship—while the former practice some kind of editing, though not nearly as radical as that done in the United States.

An example I read recently: in an interview with a translator of Japanese literature published in the latest issue of The Chattahoochee Review, the translator mentions that the American editor wasn’t “convinced” by the ending of the author’s novel and changed it in a way he thought more “convincing.” This is a practice that is quite common in this country, but rather uncommon in the rest of the world. How can someone who is not the book’s author presume to rewrite a book? (Yes, I know, I am one of those naïve readers who still believe in “the Author”) If the editor thinks he is so convincing, why doesn’t he write his own books? I know, I must sound very “unconvincing,” so I will phrase this in legal terms: How can one put the Author’s name on a book that has been rewritten by someone else? We live in a world in which so much fuss is made about “intellectual property,” yet no one seems to think that it is an infringement of intellectual property to change someone’s work.

I realize that Emmerich could answer that a translation is a changed work by definition, since we read the author’s words mediated by the translator. We never “read” the author, we only read the translator. Of course. But I am sure Emmerich knows the difference between the two kinds of “changes:” one dictated by the economy of the work, and the other dictated by the economy of the market. If he accepted to have his translation butchered—and I am not using this word lightly—simply because he wanted to publish it, it is somewhat understandable. Translating is hard work (especially when you translate 800 pages), and rather than keep a translation in a drawer, most of us would accept some kind of compromise to publish it. But to justify this “political” (his word) choice by using arguments that have to do with the act of writing and translating as such is disingenuous and not worthy of someone of Emmerich’s intelligence and talent. Is it not enough that we translators work almost for free, and that, after spending years to find a publisher, when we do find one, our work is butchered? Do we also have to kiss the hand that destroys our work? And besides, doesn’t his “brilliant editor” know that readers who prefer “reader friendly” sentences don’t even bother to read works in translation? Doesn’t he realize that the few readers fiction has these days might actually prefer works that make them think? The “brilliant editor” that “trimmed” Emmerich’s work needs to know that rather than help get more readers, his brilliant editing has lost at least one.

---Daniela Hurezanu

• • •

Uncomfortable Correspondences: A Reply to Daniela Hurezanu

First, I would like to thank Ms. Hurezanu for taking the time to write her very thoughtful response to the two versions, unedited and edited, of my translation of the prologue to松浦理英子 Matsuura Rieko’s『親指Pの修業時代』Oyayubi P no shugyō jidai (The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P), published in Calque’s most recent issue, and to some of my observations about how the novel was edited. When I proposed printing the two texts together, I assumed that this might make some readers uncomfortable—indeed, that was the point. I decided to present the most drastically edited section of the entire book, the opening paragraphs, because I have the sense that few readers are conscious of what goes on behind the scenes before a translated novel, or any novel, is published in the United States, and I hoped that putting these two texts on display might give Calque’s readers some insight into this process. At the same time, I expected that translators who believe, as I do, that it is important to consider the political, ethical, and economic choices we make when we engage, not only in the nearly impossible task of translation, but also in the all-too-frequently flat-out-one-hundred-percent impossible task of finding publishers willing to assume the daunting financial risks involved in paying for and publishing our work, might also be made uncomfortable by some of the points I made. My aim was not, after all, to repeat comfortable truths: it is true that editors often do things to translations that many of us find deeply objectionable, not infrequently without allowing translators the option of undoing their edits; it is true that English prose in the United States has been deeply influenced by the “shorter is better” aesthetic, and this has had an effect on the editing of translations, even in cases where strong arguments might be made in favor of preserving the prolixity and complexity of the original text; it is true that this imposition of a local aesthetic on translated foreign writing seems contrary to the purposes of translation as they are understood by many translators active in the United States today. While fully aware of these truths, I wanted instead to consider in discomfiting detail the fact that practical, real-world benefits can accrue from compromises that we might, in an ideal world, prefer not to make. I was attempting to analyze the unfamiliar and uneasy situation in which I found myself as the translator of『親指の修業時代』—no previous translation of mine had ever been taken as seriously by an editor, or given as much time, as this sprawling work was—and, above all, to explain to myself why, in the case of this particular novel, I had come to view substantial editing as a political necessity, as a sacrifice (a whole series of sacrifices) made so that something larger and more valuable and very, very difficult could be accomplished: the publication of an enormously long novel, by a writer completely unknown in English, that had the potential to alter the image readers in the United States have of Japanese literature, society, culture, gender relations, &ct. &ct., while at the same time provoking, challenging, and entertaining them on its own terms as a work in English, published in the United States. Ms. Hurezanu was generous enough to turn the discomfort she felt at my attempt to figure out why editing seemed necessary or unavoidable in this case into a letter; this was far more than I had hoped for, far more than I could have expected. As someone who cares deeply about these issues, and enjoys thinking about and discussing them, I am very grateful to her. There are, however, some statements in Ms. Hurezanu’s letter with which I disagree, and others that seem based on incorrect assumptions.

Early on, Ms. Hurezanu assumes that the editor I worked with “is responsible—at least morally—for the edited version.” In fact, the responsibility is entirely mine. Generally, of course, editors work for publishers, and publishers ask translators to sign contracts stipulating that when push comes to shove, the editors will make the final call about when and how the text of the translation will be altered. Elmer Luke, the editor with whom I had the honor of working, is not affiliated with a publisher; he has worked independently for decades as an editor specializing in translations from Japanese, is extremely knowledgeable and cares deeply about Japanese literature, and was hired to work with me on by the Japanese Literature Publishing Project—the organization, established in 2002 by the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, that funded the translation. JLPP asks its editors to do what they can to make the translations it funds publishable and, ideally, successful both commercially and in literary terms. (Already this complicates the issue of the “imperialist” nature of the editing process: the point in editing is not to suppress the difference of the foreign, but to help Japan expand its “soft power.”) Elmer made it explicit from the beginning, though, that while he would endeavor to suggest only changes he firmly believed ought to be made, the translation was my own work and I was entirely free to accept or decline them as I saw fit. The criticisms that Ms. Hurezanu directs at Elmer should, then, be directed at me. I am the one who decided, after being told by a number of relatives and friends—all avid readers of translations—that my first version was so wordy that eventually they got annoyed and stopped wanting to read it, that I ought to take Elmer’s advice and make the prose more concise, particularly in places where I, being myself not at all adverse to long and even convoluted sentences, tended to highlight its verbosity. I decided that my passion for the novel, and my belief that if only we could, against all odds, manage to see it published, it might have a considerable impact on the canon of Japanese literature in English translation, required that I allow the translation to be altered, in a few places somewhat radically—though by no means as radically as when the editors of Knopf requested that Murakami Haruki cut The Apprenticeship of Big Toe PThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by 25,000 words (most of the editing was done by Jay Rubin, the translator, and most of his cuts were subsequently incorporated by Murakami himself into the Japanese text when the book came out in paperback), or when the author Kirino Natsuo was apparently asked to change the ending of Grotesque “because it did not satisfy—or convince—the Knopf editor or”—and these italics are mine—“her translator” (Mariko Nagai, “A Preface,” in The Chattahoochee Review, Winter 2008,). (Personally I prefer not to put too much weight on this account of what happened with Grotesque, since the people who were involved don’t seem to have written about it yet, and there are all sorts of rumors flying around on the web.)

I know that in many cases translators end up having their translations changed substantially by editors, and that in even more cases translators end up serving as unacknowledged (and unpaid) editors of the works they translate simply so that they can try to keep the damage to a minimum. Here, for instance, is Rubin on his work on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:

"I did virtually all the cutting on WIND-UP, but I would have done none at all if Knopf hadn't told Haruki that the book was too long and would have to be cut by some number of words (I think it was around 25,000 words). Afraid that they would hire some freelancer who could wreak havoc on the novel, and filled with a megalomaniac certainty that I knew every word in the book—maybe better than the author himself—after having translated all three hefty volumes, I decided to forestall the horror by submitting my manuscript in two versions: complete, and cut. Knopf took my cut version pretty much as is (which no doubt saved them a lot of work and expense; like Phil [Gabriel], I was not recognized as an editor in anything other than the notice in the front of the book)." [from http://www.randomhouse.com/ knopf/authors/murakami/desktop_4.html]

In my case, I had an editor to work with, and I was also able to accept or reject the edits. It was, in a sense, an ideal situation—assuming, of course, that some sort of editing really was necessary. And I think this is the important point. For me, the question is not whether we “have to kiss the hand that destroys our work.” It is, instead, how do we decide when it is necessary to edit a translation? How do we decide when editing might help a work to live a new life in a new context, and help its readers experience a new kind of literature, in a way that might not otherwise be possible?

And this is where I would ask that Ms. Hurezanu and any other readers who may have come away from my interview with the impression that “Emmerich mixes what he calls ‘political’ reasons (and what I would call reasons dictated by the market) with reasons that have to do with translating per se” go back and read my statements about the editing of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P (pp. 20-24) once more, noticing how much attention I gave to the crucial matter of the relationship between novels (original and translated) and their readers, and to “literary systems.” Ms. Hurezanu wasn’t convinced by the long (but much too short) “sociological explanation” I gave of “the existence of many long, unedited books” in Japan (see pages 21-22), which she described as “disingenuous.” But not only was I not being disingenuous—I don’t pretend to know anything at all about editing practices in “the rest of the world”—I also wasn’t trying to explain “the existence of many long, unedited books.” I was trying to begin to explain “why Big Toe P fits the environment of the Japanese literary system” and why “something had to give” in order that the work could “successfully be transplanted into the vastly different system of the United States.” I was trying to explain why I had the sense that if the book hadn’t been trimmed in a few places and the prose tightened throughout “it wouldn’t have found a publisher, and it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many readers to take it as seriously as it deserves to be taken, and thus for the book to deliver the punch it’s aiming at them” (all of this is on page 22). I was extremely careful, throughout the entire interview, not to mix what I call “political” reasons—Ms. Hurezanu is equally correct to describe these as reasons dictated by the market, but I prefer to emphasize the political nature of the pragmatic strategies translators like me adopt in trying to play the market, to game the system, making relatively small (but still, of course, very important) sacrifices in order to try, little by little, to change the rules of the game—with what Ms. Hurezanu describes as “translating per se.” This is hard to do, since “translating per se” is in some sense always political and inevitably bound up in the market (this is true even of the unsold, evidently unsaleable translations languishing almost forgotten on our hard drives), but I tried my best, proposing a highly schematic distinction between “text” and “book” in which the creation of the “text” would correspond to “translation per se” and everything involved in publication of the “book” would be a political matter of markets, marketing, literary systems, and the intricate relationships of books to readers, readerly conventions, horizons of expectation, reading habits, &ct. &ct. Undoubtedly some of what I wrote was difficult to follow, but I was careful to maintain the distinction, because the distinction is the whole point. I certainly had no intention of justifying my decision to accept most (but not all) of the edits Elmer made “by using arguments that have to do with the act of writing and translating as such.” As I see it, there is no textual justification for editing translations. The justification is, in my terms, a bookish one.

I’ve gone on far too long already, but in closing I would like to touch on two statements that Ms. Hurezanu made in her letter. The first is her suggestion that “nowhere else in the world do editors presume to change the author’s style (and sometimes even content) according to their own esthetic and ideological preferences.” While I sympathize with the critical sentiment that seems to animate this claim, I think it would be more accurate to say that, for reasons that are related in part to what I believe is known in the field of psychology as “the availability heuristic” and in part to geopolitical dynamics and the role that English plays in the contemporary world, in most cases it matters very little to translators active in the United States how much editors change books translated from English into other languages or between two other languages, but it matters very much what editors do to books translated into English. In Japan there is a whole genre of translations, usually of works by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and other popular American writers, known as 超訳 chōyaku (“translations that are even better than the originals,” an invention and registered trademark of the Academy Press). Some years ago I read an editorial in the New York Times about a bootleg translation into Chinese of Bill Clinton’s My Life. “Who knew,” the editorial begins, “that back in Bill Clinton's early days in Arkansas, the future president and his Uncle Buddy sat around and chewed the fat, ham fat to be precise, and talked about how China was one of the world's most ancient cultures and had produced Four Great Inventions, one of which was gunpowder?”

Finally, I would like to respond to the very last lines of Ms. Hurezanu’s letter; “doesn’t his ‘brilliant editor’ know that readers who prefer ‘reader friendly’ sentences don’t even bother to read works in translation?” she writes. “Doesn’t he realize that the few readers fiction has these days might actually prefer works that make them think? The ‘brilliant editor’ that ‘trimmed’ Emmerich’s work needs to know that rather than help get more readers, his brilliant editing has lost at least one.” Again, I sympathize completely with the desire to see more translations published in a form that the translators themselves consider ideal, and I agree that in many cases editors interfere more than they need to—I suspect that Knopf could have done quite well with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Grotesque even if it hadn’t had them redone to the extent that it did. I would like to emphasize, however, that I don’t believe a categorical refusal of all editing is the answer. The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P did find a publisher (though I believe it only got two bids, despite the fact that JLPP paid for the translation and editing and will buy 2,000 copies of the book when it comes out), and I’m really not at all sure that it would have done so if it hadn’t been edited. The first paragraphs of the book were especially heavily edited precisely because they needed to draw the acquisition editors in fast, not slowly, and acquisition editors tend not to be as interested and passionate and willing to go with the flow as we translators might wish, when it comes time to place the bets. I’m honestly pleased and gratified that Ms. Hurezanu preferred the original version to the edited one; but I believe the sacrifice was necessary to see this book to publication.

I won’t be receiving any royalties, so I have no financial stake in the sales of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, but I really hope that a large readership, including those who would have preferred to read the first, unedited draft, will allow themselves to be drawn in and along by this book, because I know that if they do, it will make them think.

• • •

Daniela Hurezanu’s translation (with Stephen Kessler) from the French of Raymond Queneau’s Les Ziaux/Eyeseas has just been published by Black Widow Press, and her translation (with Adam Sorkin) from the Romanian of Mariana Marin’s is forthcoming from Toad Press. She has also translated W. S. Merwin’s The Factory of the PastThe Miner’s Pale Children into French, and Lorand Gaspar’s Patmos into English. Her essay, “Craft Talk: Some Thoughts on the Idea of Literature in Contemporary American Culture,” is forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review.

Michael Emmerich is a translator and scholar of premodern, early modern, modern, and contemporary Japanese literature. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows at Princeton University. His translation of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P by Matsuura Rieko, is forthcoming from Seven Stories Press.


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