Interview with Novelist and Translator Eli K.P. William (author of “Cash Crash Jubilee” and “The Naked World”)

By | October 14, 2019


Recently I posted a review of the science fiction novel “Cash Crash Jubilee” by Eli K.P. William, one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in a while. It is the first book in a dystopian trilogy called the Jubilee Cycle set in a future Tokyo where companies own all actions and you have to pay for everything you do.

Why interview a non-Japanese author on a blog about learning Japanese? Well, around page 40 of this novel I was so surprised by how elements of real-world Japan were authentically portrayed that I checked the author’s profile; I discovered not only was he living in Japan, but was working there as a translator. At that moment the idea came to me of interviewing him, although I had to first finish reading the book.

I tried to contact Eli shortly after posting my review of his book, and later that day he was kind enough to respond to my query, saying he would be glad to participate.

While “Cash Crash Jubilee” is a great novel, since I’ve already written a long review about it I’ve decided to focus this interview more on Eli himself.

Q: Eli, first I’d like to thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Let’s begin with a topic I think we have a shared interest in: Japan. I noticed how your website bio describes how you “suddenly” moved to Tokyo after finishing school, where you have been working as a translator ever since. Would you mind talking about what initially attracted you to Japan, what made you decide to move there, and what has kept you in Japan?

Thank you for reaching out to do the interview. It’s nice to see that people are still interested in a novel that came out more than four years ago. With any luck, it will live on even longer.

I guess that word “suddenly” in my bio does sort of beg for an explanation, doesn’t it…

What attracted me to visiting Japan originally was the language. In university, my interest in East Asian philosophy led me to take first year Japanese. I then quickly grew fascinated (or should I say obsessed?) with kanji and was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to study in Tokyo the following summer.

It was during that first visit of about 3 months that I decided I wanted to move to Japan. So I can clearly isolate when I made the decision. But as to why, my answer is constantly in flux. Partly this is because I’ve been asked so many times over the years that I keep second-guessing my reason. Partly it’s because people are extremely complicated and getting to the bottom of our motivations can be really hard, if not impossible. I actually wrote a whole essay about why I came to Japan for the Japanese literary journal, Subaru, but I had to simplify my answer considerably to fit within the word count and looking back I’m not really satisfied that I managed to nail the truth.

So rather than make a (probably futile) attempt to give you a definitive answer, let me list just three of the factors that brought me here:

1)    The host family I stayed with when I was a student was awesome!

In addition to being kind, welcoming people with a deep respect for nature, the grandmother served delicious home-cooked meals, not skimping at all on fresh ingredients (as I’ve heard some host families do to make your stay more profitable for them). One meal that sticks in my memory was the temakizushi, basically sushi that you roll yourself at the table with vinegared rice, strips of nori, and whatever ingredients you like. I had always thought of sushi as something kind of fancy, where presentation is important, but this was really casual homestyle eating. And that tuna sashimi—wow!

They also lived in a beautiful green area near a temple complex in the west of Tokyo called Jindaiji. There were lots of little farm fields mixed in between houses. The farmers left their produce at unmanned outdoor booths with the price written on a strip of cardboard and you were expected to leave the correct amount in a basket on the honor system. Only in Japan…

2)    I believed in tales of easy riches teaching English.

In the novel Generation X, the author Douglas Coupland writes about a man in Japan who “coasts along on his foreignness.” That perfectly describes the English teacher I met as a student in Japan who told me I could rake it in here, no sweat. He bounced rapidly from job to job, doing as little work as possible and disappearing as soon as the situation at work got troublesome or he found something with better pay. The Japan he described to 22 year old me sounded like the Yukon in the days of the Gold Rush. Yen signs made of pure gold literally protruded from my eyeballs.

When I actually moved here in 2009, Japan was still reeling from the Great Recession and the English-teaching chain, Nova, had just gone bankrupt, disgorging thousands of English teachers into an already saturated job market. I managed to string together enough part time English conversation gigs to pay for the 20 meter square cave I called home and feed on discounted supermarket bento boxes. 

On the bright side, this miserable employment situation motivated me to study Japanese even harder and I managed to pass the JLPT N1 and shift into translation in a little under 2 years.

3)    My fascination with the Japanese language and literature.

Before I moved here, I was doing kanji drills in my dreams. What better place to have such dreams than the land of kanji? (No, China is not the land of kanji. It’s the land of hanzi.)

As for my reasons for staying in this crazy country, I think they’re pretty standard: love, work, friendship, art, and the amazing train system! (I have never owned a car and hope I never have to.)

Q: Having lived in Japan for so long I imagine you are quite fluent in Japanese. How long did it take before you could use the language comfortably on a daily basis? Also, I’m curious how you studied Japanese before going to Japan, and how your study routine changed after moving there. Do you have any hints or techniques that helped accelerate your Japanese studies?

By the time I finished first year Japanese and arrived here as a student that first summer I mentioned, I was able to have very basic conversations. This sadly deprived me of the Lost in Translation experience; I never got to roam Japan as an incomprehensible wonderland the way many Western tourists and residents do in the beginning (or in some cases for decades).

But it wasn’t until the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of 2011 that I finally became relatively fluent. Spending day after day listening to the news and reading articles for information about radiation levels as though my life depended on it (and maybe it did) was what finally helped me break through the language barrier.

I studied Japanese for two and a half years in university. This included that three month stint as a student in Japan plus another three months as a tourist the following summer. I then moved here and studied intensively for another two years on my own. I went on acquiring vocabulary for years after that, mostly through reading. I continue to learn new words and phrases to this day, in both Japanese and my native language English. No matter how long and hard you study, it never really ends…

My first tip to anyone who wants to learn Japanese is to study kanji using one of the parts methods as early as possible. While there are tens of thousands of kanji, there are only a few hundred parts. If you learn all of the parts, learning new kanji becomes a simple matter of building new combinations and you have drastically simplified the task. I discovered (or rather developed my own) parts method after about three years of study but wish I had learned it in the beginning. It would have saved me hours and hours of rote memorization exercises.

Also, once you’ve thoroughly learned the grammar and other basic linguistic elements through textbooks, study Japanese (or any language for that matter) through the aspect of it that interests you. For example, if you like movies, watch lots of movies. If you’re into manga, read heaps. Eventually you will have to branch out to other media if you want to become more broadly proficient, but you’re more likely to stick it out to advanced levels if you practice in the most enjoyable way possible. (In my case, I learned how to read by working through all of Haruki Murakami’s novels in order of publication, electronic dictionary in hand.)

Q: In recent years I’ve become more and more interested in translation, and always enjoy talking with experienced translators. Can you tell me what first got you into translation, and what kind of jobs you typically do nowadays?

What made me originally want to be a translator was a thread I found on the old Honyaku mailing list where a large group of veteran JE translators all told the stories of how they got into the profession. Very few of them had gone to translation schools and more than half of them had fallen into their jobs in one way or another. So I thought, if all you have to do is fall into it, well, I can do that. So that’s what I did, I fell into translation.

My first translation job was volunteer. I helped a professor prepare some slides. My first paying gig was the subtitles for a few NHK documentaries. After that, I got into pharmaceutical translation. Nowadays, I mostly do clinical trial related documents and literature. If those sound like polar opposites, that’s because they are. With technical translation, I tend to focus on a word-for-word precise rendering. With literature, I try to recreate the aesthetic, emotional and intellectual effect of the original. I could go on, but I see that your next question is about literature, so I’ll hold off for now.

Q: Continuing on the topic of translation, as research for this interview I read your translation of Kenji Miyazawa’s “Feline Office No. 6: A Fantasy About a Tiny Government Agency” (猫の事務所), and out of curiosity even compared a few paragraphs against the original Japanese text. I found your translation to be very natural, yet faithful to the source text without being fettered by Japanese words or sentence structure. For example, near the beginning you translated the simple phrase “どれもどれも” (referring to cats) as “big and small, fat and skinny”. Similarly, you translated “白猫” (in the context of cat secretary names) as “Meowster White Puss”. Can you tell us a little about your translation process, for example do you begin with an initial literal translation step and then gradually refine the language to be more natural, but less literal? Do you have any suggestions to tamago translators who are looking to achieve your level of proficiency?

Thank you for the kind words about my translation. That was a challenging but really fun story to translate.

With literature, my translation process tends to vary with the text; different texts demand different approaches.

With all texts, I start with a fairly direct translation. I need to get some text on to the page first before I can start doing the dirty work of making it sound natural; you’ve got to have clay before you can start molding anything. Generally my translation is tentative at this stage. I look up lots of words and phrases but don’t spend too much time mulling over the vague ones, instead highlighting them to deal with later.

In the next pass, I look up every phrase until I’m fairly confident I understand everything and rewrite the first draft into half-natural English. At this stage, I’m reorganizing clauses so that each sentence transitions smoothly to the next, being flexible with wording, and groping towards the right rhythm for the prose.

I find that as I translate more literature and become more experienced, the first pass begins to blend into the second. I develop an eye for identifying translation problems early and learn to anticipate where I’m going to need to be more playful. This reduces overall labor and speeds up the task because I’m able to do some of the work of stage two in stage one.

In the third stage, I focus entirely on the English without looking at the original at all. Not a peek! The goal here is natural writing in English. The syntax of the original becomes irrelevant. I move sentences and sometimes paragraphs around freely. The word listed as the English equivalent in a JE dictionary also becomes irrelevant as context turns into the sole determinant of word choice.

The third stage continues for a while. I’m pretty obsessive about editing. This is where, for me, the magic happens and the story begins to feel as though it could have been written in English all along, as though it is not a translation at all. Or at least that’s what I’m going for.

Once my deadline arrives, the story goes to the editor and further editing ensues.

Q: If you don’t mind one more question about translation, for some time I’ve been doubtful about making translation a career since it seems to take so much time to make natural renderings of literary fiction (at least for me). To put it more directly, literary translation doesn’t seem to be able to pay the bills as a primary occupation. I feel this is exacerbated by the so-called “three-percent problem”, which alludes to how only a very small fraction of books published for the US market are translated works. How do you feel about literary translation as a full-time job for the long term, and do you see any industry trends pointing to changes in the next few years? Finally, do you have any suggestions to improve output of fiction translation without sacrificing quality, or have you found that translation speed can only be increased through years of experience?

If you would like to make a decent living, I don’t recommend literary translation as your sole profession, especially not from Japanese to English. Nearly all the literary translators I know have other jobs. The few I know who have been doing it full time for more than a few years have gainfully employed spouses or other assets to keep them afloat.

I see no reason to believe that this will change any time soon unless there is a permanent, non-trend-driven explosion in demand for Japanese fiction, or unless everyone miraculously quits the internet and goes back to reading books (or we all work together to build a new economic system that fairly rewards creators).

Some academics are able to use translations to satisfy the requirements of their departments. Otherwise, you either do literary translation so that you can have your name on a book, or you do it for the love of it, or both. In my case, as an author/translator, I find that translation helps me develop skills as a writer. Of course you get paid and sometimes reasonably well, but no one in our racket does it for the money or expects to be financially stable with literary translation alone.

Q: Now that I’ve addressed the three topics that are central to this blog––Japan, Japanese language, and translation––I want to shift gears to talk a little about you as a novelist. How long have you wanted to be a novelist, and in the long term do you foresee yourself focusing on novel writing over translation? Also, would you mind telling us how many years it took “Cash Crash Jubilee” from conception to reality?

I never wanted to be an author. My father is an author and I wanted to do anything, absolutely anything, but follow in his footsteps. But I always enjoyed writing poetry and fanciful scenes in my school journals when I was a kid. And I was encouraged to try my hand at writing more seriously when I took a creative writing course around the end of high school and got a really positive response from both the teachers and the students.

In my gap year, I wrote a few short stories, all of which were failures. I came up with the idea that would become the Jubilee Cycle: a future in which all actions are owned by corporations and you have to pay for everything that you do. I tried writing that story too but couldn’t make it work any better than the others.

I don’t know if this was because I was too young and lacking in experience or what, but I remember feeling that I needed more knowledge to write this novel and that was the main reason I decided to go to university. So you can see I had my priorities straight. I didn’t go to university to one day get a good paying job or even for the parties. I did it for fiction.

But once I enrolled, I soon encountered philosophy and the Japanese language and got so seriously into studying that I basically gave up on writing. Though I did take a couple of creative writing courses and wrote articles for my school paper, the idea that would become Cash Crash Jubilee languished half-forgotten on my hard drive for about 7 years. It wasn’t until I moved to Tokyo after graduation and found work as a translator that I finally decided to revive it, though of course it had silently and secretly morphed into something very different by then.

Once I started writing Cash Crash Jubilee seriously in 2011, it took me three and a half years, not including the several additional months I spent polishing it up with my editor, so maybe four years is more accurate.

In the long term, I will continue to do literary translation, but I foresee myself always prioritizing writing from now on. I used to idealize Haruki Murakami’s daily schedule, where he writes in the morning and translates in the afternoon. But after translating a few novels, two of which are set to come out next year, I realized that my creative process is different. I need more time to read and to just live my life in order to be the best writer I can be. 

Q: While it is not uncommon for a long list of names to appear in the acknowledgment section of a novel, for some reason I felt a complex mix of emotions when reading the acknowledgment section of “Cash Crash Jubilee”. One of the reasons was the appearance of Ginny Tapley-Takemori, a translator I had heard of due to her work on the English version of “Convenience Store Woman”. But all those people you acknowledged got me thinking about how it can take many people to make a literary work like this come to fruition, and this somehow led me to thinking that maybe even someone like myself could publish a novel like this someday (assuming a massive amount of time and effort, and perhaps luck as well). But enough of the personal sidebar––Do you have any hints for budding writers on how to find the “right” people to help make a book succeed? I’ve participated in some online writing groups, but I find I tend to get conflicting feedback from people, leading me down a rabbit hole of figuring out whose advice I should trust.

I know exactly what you mean about writing groups. Everyone has a different opinion. I think that sort of disagreement is on full display on a site like Good Reads. One person thinks a novel is too sensational. Another too boring. One hates the plot holes. Another digs the excitement.

All writers need advice and people to help us along the way. Often we need the perspective of others to show us something about our writing that we are too close to it to see ourselves. The best readers are those who appreciate what you’re trying to achieve with your work and know how to articulate their honest impression constructively.

But ultimately, I think finishing a novel comes down to having trust in yourself. You are the one creating each character, deciding between the different events, building the world, and finding the words to express it all. There are an infinite number of possible characters, events, worlds, and combinations of words, but you must narrow them all down. So in writing a novel, you have to make literally millions of decisions. You can’t rely on other people for 99.9% of those. And even for the remaining 0.1%, readers may disagree and you will have to decide which direction to take.

That has to come from you and it’s hard. I agonize over whether I’m making the right choices almost every day. But there’s no way around it.

I’m not sure what to say about finding people who can help you. The forces that draw people together are mysterious. I try to cultivate gratitude for the strange coincidences that lead to my meeting a friend or a kindred spirit. If you’ve done some honest soul searching, you’ve done enough writing to know that you love it, you’ve determined that you really are the sort of person who might hack it as a writer, and you keep on writing, I believe there’s a good chance you’ll meet them eventually.

Ginny has always been supportive of me. We originally met when I had no literary publications of any kind, but she recognized right away that I was serious about becoming a novelist and literary translator. I will be eternally grateful to her and the other people mentioned in the acknowledgments who believed in me back then.

Q: “Cash Crash Jubilee” leverages various cool technologies, not just to help paint a vivid picture of a dystopian Tokyo but also to help propel the story along. I was particularly impressed by how you integrated what seems to be a form of augmented reality (though I don’t believe this term actually appears in the book). We have seen some recent advancements in real-world AR, for example this year Lego introduced “Hidden Side”, an AR-enhanced game about ghost hunting that just came to shelves just last month. How do you feel about the direction AR is taking, and do you see any hints of this technology being used in “unpleasant” ways? On a related note, was giving a cautionary message to readers one of the reasons you chose a cyber-dystopian setting?

I intentionally avoided the term “augmented reality” in Cash Crash Jubilee and the rest of the Jubilee Cycle because I think it is a misnomer. It came into use by analogy with the term “virtual reality.” The term “virtual reality” makes sense. You create a sort of separate reality that is not quite our everyday reality but is “virtually” reality.

But so called “AR” doesn’t augment reality, it augments perception. That is, it changes our sight and hearing (and possibly in the future taste, feel, and smell). It doesn’t actually change what we are seeing and hearing.

The word “augmented” is likewise misleading. It suggests that reality (or perception) is always improved by these technologies. But as the wearable-computing pioneer Steve Mann has pointed out, they could also be used to diminish perception. For example, we could edit out features of what we see, such as advertisements we don’t like. Or we could apply an effect that turns everything black and white. That’s why I think his proposed term of art “mediated reality” is more accurate, (though “mediated perception” would be even better IMHO). The technology mediates our sensory experience and it is up to us (or whoever controls the technology) to decide whether and how we diminish, augment, distort or otherwise alter the input.

Getting to your second question, I think some people would call the Jubilee Cycle trilogy a cautionary tale about the possible future of capitalism. But I never intended it to have a message. Rather, I wanted to use the story to ask questions and make readers think in new ways. The central question of the series is “what is freedom?” I try to ask this question in as many different forms as possible. I don’t pretend to have the answer.

Q: I noticed the third and final book in your Jubilee Cycle series (beginning with “Cash Crash Jubilee” and continuing with “Naked World”) is titled “A Diamond Dream”. I really like this title! I guess you aren’t at liberty to say much, but could you give us any hints about what to expect or when it might be released?

Thanks!

I submitted the manuscript for A Diamond Dream to my publisher (Skyhorse) in June so the release date is dependent on when they edit it. My guess would be some time next year but I haven’t been given any specific timeframe.

A Diamond Dream is the final book in the Jubilee Cycle trilogy. Based on the comments of a number of readers, I think that everyone who reads to the end of book two, The Naked World, is expecting Amon to fix or destroy the action-transaction system somehow.

In A Diamond Dream, Amon will finally meet with Rashana Birla and get many of the answers he has been seeking. He will reunite with some of his friends and enemies, like the PhisherKing and Sekido. Ultimately, he has to decide whether to go to the forest from his dreams or go head to head with the system. If I told you any more, I’d be ruining it.

===

Eli, thank you again for participating in this interview. It’s been great talking with you. I hope this endeavor didn’t unnecessarily clutter up your AT readout, as a leash was a bit over my budget.

(Note: the terms “AT readout” and “leash” above are references to elements from “Cash Crash Jubilee”.

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