An eclectic interview with Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press, publisher of Japanese literature

By | April 7, 2021

As frequent readers to this blog know, besides writing articles about learning Japanese and related topics, a few years ago I also started publishing my own translations of Japanese literature. While perhaps a bit shorter than your average print book, I’ve managed to publish 14 ebooks so far.

Translating and publishing Japanese literature is not exactly a typical hobby, and while there are some resources available online to help, a good deal of trial-and-error is required (especially in terms of achieving high quality on a limited time/money budget).

Some years ago I discovered Kurodahan Press (KHP), founded by American-born Edward Lipsett and a few others almost two decades ago. Over the course of my projects I have asked Edward a few questions over email, to which he has always shared helpful information with me. With Kurodahan he has achieved (albeit at a much bigger scale and a presumably bigger budget) what I am gradually trying to achieve with my books, so I can’t help thinking of him as a role model of sorts. While I am sure there are a bunch of other publishers out there putting out translations of Japanese literature, I don’t know anyone quite like Edward.

For some months now I had been debating the idea of asking him to do a formal interview with me that I could post here, but for various reasons I kept putting it off. Finally, when I heard the unfortunate news that KHP’s yearly translation contest was being permanently canceled, I decided to finally try contacting Edward and see if he would be interested in answering a few questions. Fortunately he was cooperative and gave me a lot of great responses to ponder over for days to come. There were a variety of areas that I wanted to cover with him (translation, publishing, Japan’s country and its language, etc.), and I elected to try and touch a little on everything instead of focusing too much on one area.

Without further ado, here is the interview in full:


First of all, I really wanted to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to answer a few of my questions.

Kurodahan Press’s website mentions how one of its goals is to close some gaps with respect to Japanese translated literature. Would you mind expounding on these gaps and tell me a little about the goals of Kurodahan? In roughly the last two decades since Kurodahan Press was founded, have there been any significant changes in the direction of KHP?

There was a lot of interest in ninja and samurai and kewl Japan, and obviously there’s a lot more to Japan than that. I personally love F&SF and wanted to publish Japanese books in those genres (including ninja and samurai, among other things), but at the same time I wanted to publish quality mainstream JLIT that showed how Japan can simultaneously be different and yet exactly the same. People are people everywhere, but may reveal themselves in different ways depending on how their society works. In other words, try to show that Japan is a real country with real people, not some anime experiment in the flesh.

I think the reception given to translated literature in the US has changed considerably in the last few decades, but not only for JLIT. The reader is now much more aware of other cultures, of what translation is, and that there is more to Japan than what they see in Godzilla flicks.

As someone with an interest in publishing Japanese literature (and a little experience publishing ebooks myself), I’m curious about the day-to-day business of KHP. What sorts of activities are involved in taking a project from conception to completion at KHP, and what areas typically take up the bulk of your time?

Briefly:

1. Pick a good book: However long it takes. Read until I find one, or wait for someone to wave one at me.

2. Show the book to a few people and see what they think. Talk to a few translators I think appropriate, and see if they’d be interested in translating it, and if so, on what terms and timeline.

3. Find out who owns the rights and see if they’re interested. Generally only a few days to locate the rights owner, and between a week (very fast cases) and six months (slow cases) to get a response. In many cases there never is a response. Once there’s a response it usually only takes a week or so to either hammer out an agreement or decide we can’t come to one.

4. Sign stuff and pay people.

5. Wait a year or so, usually, for the rough ms. During this time locate a cover artist and get them started. If the artist doesn’t read Japanese, they usually wait until the rough English ms is ready.

6. Read the ms and flag strange places; check against the source. Takes a few days. Check a few likely spots throughout the ms for translation errors. If necessary (and it’s rarely necessary, because I don’t ask unknowns to do books) check the whole thing, which can take a month.

7. Bounce any problems off the translator, ask author questions if necessary.

8. Send revised ms to editor, which takes 2-3 months.

9. Work with translator to check and fix problems cited by editor. 2-3 weeks.

10. Book layout 1-2 weeks. Bounce off translator, author, cover artist. Finalize.

11. Ebook conversion. 1 day.

12. Upload data to printer, check PDF proof. Order print proof.

13. After verifying PDF proof, get ARCs off to reviewers.

14. Verify print proof, then release book to distribution. Usually 2 weeks after PDF proof.

What are your thoughts on using CAT tools (SDL Trados, etc.) for translating Japanese literature? Have you found any of them to be helpful, or seen frequent use of CAT tools by any translators KHP has worked with?

I find them pretty useless for JLIT. Many of the books I have done do not have electronic editions, and files are rarely available.

A glossary to keep track of names and such is necessary, but not CAT.

I’ve seen you active on places like the “Japanese Literature” Facebook group, and I was wondering what else you do to drum up interest. How much time do you spend on marketing your books, and are there any special marketing outlets you have found to be especially effective? Have you found much success with advertising on Amazon?

I started KHP to publish JLIT, not to make money (fortunately), and while I’ve experimented with various forms of advertising over the years by far the most effective one has been reviews, which is why I send copies to a lot of reviewers. I have offered advance copies on GoodReads, etc for reviews, but in general the reviews I get that way are short and useless.

One person on GoodReads won a free book and discovered it wasn’t by the author she thought it was (same last name), so she left a one-star review on Amazon saying it wasn’t what she expected… duh, well yeah, if you are looking for one author and request a book by a totally different author in a totally different genre, I guess it wouldn’t be what you expected, would it? But that’s no reason to one-star it…

Professional reviewers, whether independent websites or in print, are the best.

I imagine there are a huge number of projects you have in mind, and only a small fraction of those make it to the light of day. What sort of criteria do you use in selecting projects? In terms of content selection, do you mostly rely on your own personal preferences for what you find interesting (or enlightening), or do you also factor in what sorts of books are currently selling well in the market?

As I said, I’m not in it for the money, so I select books that move me, plus a few that I think are worthy for other reasons. In general, if it doesn’t make me feel something (not necessarily a warm and fuzzy feeling, either), I won’t be interested.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the statistic that only around three percent of books published in the US are works in translation. What do you think are some of the reasons behind this, and do you feel there has been a significant uptick in translated book sales in the US and elsewhere in the last two decades, compared to non-translated literature?

I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer this, since I’m not in the US and am only even marginally knowledgeable about JLIT. It’s clear that translated books cost more, but that would have little effect on the major publishers. My suspicion is that while reasons like cost and publisher fear of putting “translated by” on the cover used to be important, the biggest obstacle these days is simply that publishers want to read it in English before deciding, and translators want to sign the contract before translating.

On KHP’s website I saw a reference or two to translation checking. Does someone at KHP perform translation checks or all works that are published, and if so is this more of a spot check or a thorough line-by-line verification? While I understand the desire for accuracy, doing a thorough check of each book seems like a pretty herculean effort. Does the process depend on the experience level of the translator in question?

I usually check short stories completely. For novels I read and check the first chapter, and a random number of “likely to fail” spots throughout the book. The more experience I have with a translator, the fewer the checks. There are times when my interpretation and the translator’s interpretation vary, but if their interpretation is also valid, I’m happy to let the translator make the final choice, as long as they consider my interpretation before making a final decision.

In one of the blog entries on the KHP website I saw mention of a project that was canceled due to the discovery of another translation of the same work in progress that would complete before yours. This is one reason I have generally been pretty tight-lipped around my translation projects until I actually release them, and now I see that this is a real concern even for publishers like KHP. When working with stories whose copyrights have expired, how do you mitigate the risk of such conflicts that can result in significant wasted effort? Also, on a related topic, what are your feelings about publishing retranslation in general? For example, do you generally consider retranslation of works as one option, and how do you view alternate translations being published for something you already published?

That was a very special case. Hirai-san had a very clear policy of not offering non-exclusive licenses, and both U.Hawaii and myself entered into contracts with him on that basis. The contract he signed with U.Hawaii for Panorama was about a decade earlier than mine, and he believed that they had decided not to proceed with the translation after all. Things happen.

Rampo’s work are all public domain now, and until KHP publications were halted I was planning on publishing Panorama (somebody very good finished the translation years ago, and it’s molding away in a desk drawer now).

Resources are limited, and I would prefer to publish translations of books that have never been translated before. OTOH, a number of very good books are now out of print, and while they will never make much money, they are also usually inexpensive to reprint because everyone involved knows they’ll never make much money. A lot of old translations are not very good by today’s standards, but there are a lot that are, and deserve to be available again.

The “Guidelines for translators” section on your website says “We are not accepting new proposals at this time.” Can I take this to mean translators interested in working with you should not contact KHP for the time being?

Yes.

The main page of your site mentions “innovative printing and distribution techniques.” Can you let me know what sorts of techniques you have tried and succeeded with over the years in this area? What are the biggest challenges you see to publishing literature in the modern age?

I think simple brick-and-mortar bookstores are doomed, to be honest. More and more people use computers and other electronic devices daily, and resistance to ebooks is dropping fast. And, for people who like paper books, it’s very hard to beat Amazon’s combination of selection, price, and delivery speed.

I use print-on-demand (POD) for paper books, and also publish ebook editions of most of my titles. I selected POD originally because it requires no capital investment into advance printing, warehousing, or fulfillment: you pay for printing when a copy is sold, there is no warehouse, and fulfillment is handled by somebody else. Print quality is essentially identical to mass market publishers, with the exception of interior art, which is pretty miserable. Fortunately, I rarely use interior art.

When we started using POD it was innovative; it isn’t any longer; almost every publisher, including the industry majors, uses it now for backlist titles at least.   

Having lived in Japan for nearly 40 years, you must be integrated quite deeply into Japan’s culture and society. Can you tell us some perks of living in Japan, and is there anything that you still miss from where you were brought up?

Japan is different from Bethesda, Maryland where I grew up. It has some things I like, and lacks others, but I think the whole question is pretty subjective and I’ll skip answering it seriously. I do miss the Sunday edition of the Washington Post, which was thick enough to keep the whole family busy half the day.

Perhaps when you started KHP there was a strong need to have a physical presence in Japan in order to effectively run a publisher dealing in translations of Japanese works, but in the current day and age do you feel that is still necessary? I would imagine the majority of meetings nowadays can be achieved with a virtual conference such as Zoom.

Before COVID it was very important to attend various meetings and actually meet people. A lot of the people I have worked with over the years were introduced by friends at these functions, and just being there offers opportunities to make all sorts of connections.

Actual business interaction can be handled via email quite adequately, and in fact is better in writing because there’s less chance for an “I said you said” argument.

I don’t know how much this will change with COVID and Zoom.

Can you tell us a little about how you studied Japanese before you moved to Japan? Are there any learning techniques you found particularly helpful in your journey to Japanese fluency?

I studied Japanese language, literature, and history for a few years at university, attended a summer intensive at Middlebury, and then attended the advanced Japanese language program at Keio University for a year. I basically never went home.

Tips for fluency? Also very subjective, but (1) you’ll never gain real fluency outside Japan, (2) stop hanging out with people who speak English, and (3) if anyone compliments you on your Japanese, chances are you just said something wrong.

I’ve discovered that there is a big difference between conversational fluency and being able to read Japanese literature with a deep understanding of the subtle nuances of the language, a skill important to translators as well as to those wanting to really get a native-level appreciation. Do you have any tips for Japanese learners trying to improve their ability to understand the literature of Japan?

I think that’s the same in every language. There are courses that will teach you how to analyze, understand, and more deeply enjoy English literature, and the same applies to probing the depths of Japanese literature. Obviously you need to have a broad base of literature to start with, which means you have to read a lot. How much? If that’s a serious question on your part, you probably aren’t cut out to be a literary translator. Published criticism is also important, but the most important element of all is to read it and digest it and think about what it means to you, before reading the analyses and critical reviews.

In closing, do you have any comments for those considering becoming Japanese translators or those at an early point in their career as a translator, especially in terms of how to hone their skills, as well as how to build relationships with publishers such as KHP?

Understanding Japanese and JLIT is only half the battle; you also have to know your own language and how to wield it properly, and have a broad base in your own literary heritage.

As far as becoming a translator is concerned, just keep reading and translating. Worry about selling it later.


After answering my final question, Edward pasted a link to an interview he gave for the site readingintranslation.com last year. It gave me mixed feelings to learn of that interview, especially since it covered some of the same topics, sometimes in more detail. However, there were some topics addressed in my interview not covered there, and overall I was still glad to have an opportunity to learn more from Edward based on questions I personally formulated.

If you want to see more written by Edward, you can check out the KHP blog which has many educational entries (many are written by him). You can see KHP’s catalog of books here.

Finally, if you enjoyed this interview, you may want to check out this interview I did with novelist and translator Eli K.P. William.

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