Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Two Worlds And In Between

Jonathan Kiefer discusses the delicate art of translation with Michael Emmerich, English translator of Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto

Here's what it means to be a literary translator: If you haven't heard of Banana Yoshimoto, you probably haven't heard of Michael Emmerich. If you have heard of Banana Yoshimoto, you probably haven't heard of Michael Emmerich. The former is a hip, ethereal, superstar Japanese fiction stylist; the latter is her English translator. If Banana becomes as big in Britain and the United States as she is in Japan, it will be because of Emmerich, but unless he too renames himself for a piece of fruit, who will give a damn?

"A nice thing about being a translator is that you don't have to worry about that stuff too much," Emmerich says. "You don't have to worry about being a really public figure. You can just do what you love." It's hard to know whether his Zen attitude comes from a longstanding affinity for Japanese culture or from having no illusions, but in either case it serves him well.

Make no mistake: as translators go, Emmerich is a hot shot. He didn't seriously study Japanese until he got to college, but by graduation he had translated one of Japan's most revered writers to great acclaim. That's impressive for an English major.

"It didn't make sense to take East Asian studies," Emmerich recalls. "I'd have to study economics, and that didn't interest me at all." In 1997, while still a Princeton undergraduate, Emmerich read several stories by Japan's first Nobel laureate for literature, Yasunari Kawabata, and decided to make a senior thesis of translating them. His advisor, Joyce Carol Oates, was enthusiastic and supportive; so were the various literary magazines which soon published some of the stories, and Counterpoint Press, which published all of them, as the collection First Snow on Fuji, in 1999.

"The reviews were terrific, and a couple said very kind things about the translation itself, which is unusual," Emmerich says. "So after that I started getting requests from publishers. One such request was Banana Yoshimoto's Asleep, which was published in 2000."

Last August, Grove released his translation of the newest Banana book, Goodbye Tsugumi, a wistful but transformative tale of the burdened relationship between a young woman and her cousin, an invalid "who had been going through her rebellious teens ever since she was born." In a deceptively compact volume, the book furthers Yoshimoto's human insights, and her radiant, searching style.

"I don't think she really has the right image in the U.S. yet," Emmerich says. "I don't think she has the right image in Japan either. She's a pretty experimental, sophisticated writer. She's writing carefully, and creating her public image carefully. I've been trying to make it clear how smart she is."

Still only in his mid-twenties, Emmerich is now about as on the map as a translator can hope to be. He is therefore entitled to make sweeping romantic pronouncements about his craft:

"A good translation is one that translates meaning, not words. Meaning is alive, words are dead."

"When you read a scene it could take five minutes. To translate it could take eight hours. Reading gives you an intense emotion. Translating gives you that same emotion for eight hours. It's ten times, a hundred times, more intense than reading!"

"Translating is always going to be much more than you hoped."

"The translator is of course always blamed for everything."

Such assurance is almost mandatory for Emmerich's highly detailed and fundamentally speculative work. When reading something that really excites him—whether it's the lucid cleanliness of Kawabata or the moody dreams of Yoshimoto or something else—Emmerich can't resist starting to translate immediately. He has also been known to exhaust himself in pursuit of a single correct cadence.

He seems undaunted by the responsibility of cultural ambassadorship, and concedes that translation is a kind of hyper-nuanced literary criticism. "Ultimately translators have to rely on their own instincts," he says. "We try to create feelings and scenes in one language that approximate as closely as possible the feelings and scenes we live as we read the book we are translating….Rhythm is very important. The rhythms of language. Getting things to connect."

Emmerich has what he can only describe as a "tendency to try and sneak into the spaces between words." His dark, inky voice shimmers whenever he inserts a Japanese word or notion into an English sentence. Yet, he says, "I've never felt translating literature from Japanese is automatic. The words are so far apart. The texture of the language is so different…it's some hazy realm that's bordered by the two languages. When I was growing up I had no idea that that space between languages existed." He grew up on Long Island, and can not account for what drew him to such a notably foreign language in the first place.

"My parents were travelling," he says. "When she was pregnant, they went to Japan. There's probably no other answer that means anything. For some reason Japan has always interested me most." Emmerich confesses that he has, in fact, wanted to be a translator for nearly as long as he can remember. When they were children, he and his sister Karen once planned to learn seven languages so they could speak a different one on each day of the week. It didn't happen, but probably came a lot closer than similar plans in other families. Karen is also a translator now, currently living and working in Greece.

Last summer, Michael left for China, "from whence he'll come back, no doubt, with another language under his belt," his sister observed at the time. He stayed with a non-English-speaking family and studied Mandarin. Such monkish immersion is no doubt elemental to his success, and to his comfortable obscurity.

The people who have heard of him, including his family and many admiring colleagues, will occasionally ask Emmerich if he'd like to try a novel of his own. But translation beckons. "You get excited as if you were writing your own stuff," he explains. "You are writing your own stuff. I have no interest in that. This is what I do."

Publishing's latest gimmick
Matt Seaton
Tuesday January 21, 2003
The Guardian

The things publishers will do to get their books noticed, part 44. The latest wheeze, from Fourth Estate, is to dispatch David Flusfeder's new novel, The Gift, to literary editors and reviewers with a cover-wrapped slip bearing the legend "Signed first edition". This type of inducement is not without precedent: in 2001, the same publisher printed a limited number of proof copies of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, followed by a large quantity of signed review copies. More recently, Donna Tartt added her autograph to the 500 proofs of The Little Friend sent out by Bloomsbury. The implication is that you, esteemed reviewer, are getting something valuable. In the case of The Gift, you are being given, well, a gift.

Of course, publishers are always coming up with such scams. Literary editors not only receive 400-500 "first editions" (ie review copies) of books every week, but some come with all manner of goodies - sweets, helium balloons, T-shirts. Even the sober academic press, Routledge, sent out Raimond Gaita's new book about our relationship with animals, The Philosopher's Dog, with a cuddly toy mastiff.

But the "signed first edition" of the Flusfeder novel is different: there's no add-on gimmick here, just the planting of the idea that this is a serious novel that's going to be talked about, bought and reprinted ... and, eventually, be worth something (provided you have a signed first edition). After all, signed first editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone go for upwards of £20,000; a mint copy of Fever Pitch will fetch £750; even a first edition of Trainspotting is worth £300. So can a publisher create an instant collectable like this?

"Absolutely," says Robin Harvie, Flusfeder's publicist. But isn't that the same as a bribe? "Of course it is." Oh, right. "This is David's break-out novel," Harvie goes on. "All the lit eds have picked it up, so it's worked."

So how many of these signed first editions are there? "We've done a first run of 4,000. It took him about a month to do - but he's recovered now."

I call Simon Finch Rare Books, who deal in first editions, for a quote. It says £12.99 on the flap, I say, but what will they give me?

"Probably a bit less. But it wouldn't be something we would buy: 4,000 is an awful lot," says Natalie Galustian. "Unless he becomes some kind of through-the-roof phenomenon, I wouldn't hold my breath."

What does the author think of these shenanigans? "I find the whole thing a bit baffling," confesses Flusfeder. "I went through some minor psychosis at the time." To prevent himself going completely mad, he says, he occasionally doodled as well as signed. So if you get one of the three or four copies that contain a caricature of the author, hang on to it. You never know, it might be worth something.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

January 20, 2003
Some Best-Seller Old Reliables Have String of Unreliable Sales

Some of America's most popular authors are finding that being big isn't what it used to be.

Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark and Sue Grafton, usually among the most bankable of best-selling writers, sold far fewer copies of their books than expected this past year. The disappointing sales numbers, possibly the result of too many books from the same authors or the book-buying public's changing tastes, contributed to a dismal holiday season for book retailers, particularly chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Not all star authors suffered drop-offs in their sales numbers: Michael Crichton, James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich continued their predictable and profitable ways. But the decline of such stalwarts as Mr. Clancy and Ms. Clark could presage a trend that would play havoc with publishers' bottom lines, and even the advances handed out to big-name authors.

The commercial necessity of publishing a lucrative roster of brand-name novelists, who can be counted on to write a book a year, was underscored last week by the ouster of Ann Godoff as president of the Random House Trade Group and the merger of the imprint with Ballantine Books.

The trade group had more adult hardcover best sellers in 2002, including books by Tom Brokaw, Anna Quindlen and Maya Angelou, than any other Random House division. But its recent lists have lacked the prolific best-selling novelists that are vital to the book divisions of large media conglomerates like Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, AOL Time Warner and Viacom, which owns Simon & Schuster. Random House no longer has a James Michener or Robert Ludlum to pour cash into its coffers consistently and help smooth out the inevitable peaks and valleys of publishing new authors.

Ballantine, primarily a paperback imprint, publishes crime novelists like Jonathan Kellerman and Richard North Patterson in hardcover.

"Brand-name authors still dominate the best-seller lists. They are still the bread and butter of the industry," said Laurence J. Kirshbaum, chief executive of the AOL Time Warner Book Group, the publisher of James Patterson. But a change is afoot, he said. "There is no longer a quintessential best seller. The market is diluted to some extent by the incredible number of brand-name authors out at the same time."

And some retailers and publishing industry executives blame publishers for giving readers too much of the same thing by individual authors. Mr. King released two horror books in 2002, and Ms. Clark, the suspense novelist, published three.

While sales of Mr. King's first book of 2002, "Everything's Eventual," a story collection, nearly matched those of his 2001 novel, "Dreamcatcher," his second book, the novel "From a Buick 8," fell short. "From a Buick 8" has sold 367,000 copies, about a 20 percent decline, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which gathers sales data from outlets that represent about 70 percent of total sales.

Ms. Clark's June 2002 novel, "Mount Vernon Love Story," has sold 108,000 copies, far fewer than the 427,000 copies that sold after her "Daddy's Little Girl" went on the shelves in April, according to Nielsen Bookscan. (Her other book in 2002, a memoir, sold about 60,000 copies.)

Executives at the companies that publish Mr. Clancy, Mr. King, Ms. Grafton and Ms. Clark acknowledge their weaker sales in 2002, but contend that the sales drops are the consequence of a weak retail economy that has hit booksellers especially hard. During the nine-week holiday season ending Jan. 4, sales at Barnes & Noble stores open at least a year were down 3 percent from the previous year. And Borders's fourth-quarter comparable-store sales at its superstores were down 2.5 percent, while sales at Waldenbooks were off 6.3 percent.

Susan Petersen Kennedy, the president of the Penguin Group (USA), confirmed that Mr. Clancy's "Red Rabbit," a spy thriller published under its Putnam imprint, had not sold as well as expected. But, she said, it still reached No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. "Tom's audience is still out there," she said. "If blue jeans are down for a month, does that mean Americans aren't going to keep buying blue jeans?"

"It's been a year of different buying patterns," Ms. Kennedy said. "They're not the patterns we predicted." She pointed to the Penguin Group's success with new books by Jan Karon, Maeve Binchy, Nora Roberts and Patricia Cornwell.

Some retailers speculate that younger readers are turning elsewhere for commercial fiction. "We're all old enough to know these writers who've been writing a long time," said Daniel Goldin, a trade buyer at Harry Schwartz Booksellers in Milwaukee. "When I first started in publishing, people like Arthur Hailey were still selling. And then they stopped."

One retailing executive insisted that the downturn was not because of the economy. "Too many authors are cranking out at least a book a year," the executive said. "Readers can't keep up. It's the bottom-line pressure to be on schedule, to deliver at least a book a year. You have 10 percent of people saying, I can wait for the paperback or wait until I hear more about it. And then they may not buy."

But the definition of overproduction is relative. Hardcover sales for James Patterson are up, though he published three novels, including collaborations, in 2002. Warner expects to sell more than a million hardcover copies of his latest thriller, "Four Blind Mice," released in November, an 8 to 10 percent increase over his previous book's sales, according to Mr. Kirshbaum. Warner will sell more than seven million copies of Mr. Patterson's books in hardcover and paperback this year, up from about two million copies five years ago.

"There's no question we're seeing a softness at retail, which is impacting sales on the brand-name authors," said Jack Romanos, president and chief operating officer of Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Ms. Clark and, under its Scribner imprint, Mr. King. "But we won't really know how well these books have done until they're published in paperback a year from now. We won't make up the hardcover dollars, but ultimately readers will come to them."

While sales have slipped for Mr. Clancy and Mr. King, the authors are not in danger of going the way of Irving Wallace and Arthur Hailey just yet. Sales of their earlier books in paperback have remained remarkably consistent, even as their latest hardcover sales dip. Mr. King's "Carrie," for example, his first novel, originally published in 1974, sold about 23,000 copies in both 2001 and 2002, according to Nielsen Bookscan.

Paperback sales for previous titles by Ms. Clark and Ms. Grafton have stayed similarly consistent. "As each of these authors has a new novel, they may dilute" their own hardcover sales, Mr. Kirshbaum said. "But when you take all their books together, they may actually be growing." Ms. Grafton, he said, may be selling less of her latest mystery, "Q is for Quarry," in hardcover, "but she's still selling A through P."

Nonetheless, the steep sales decline could have a long-term impact on future author advances. "I am more nervous about paying large sums," Ms. Kennedy said, because "a sense of solid trending" is more difficult to achieve today than several years ago.

Mr. Kirshbaum said: "Publishers will be more careful when courting major authors. There will be some tempering of advances going forward. There are limits to what can be sold, and if agents realize there has to be some reality in terms of advances, that would be valuable. It's a nice thought."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Monday, January 20, 2003

The Dialect Survey uses a series of questions, including rhyming word pairs and vocabulary words, to explore words and sounds in the English language. There are no right or wrong answers; by answering each question with what you really say and not what you think is "right", you can help contribute to an accurate picture of how English is used in your community.

The test is designed for speakers of North American English, but speakers of all varieties of English are welcome to take the test.

The dialect survey is an expansion of an initiative begun by Professor Bert Vaux at Harvard University. Dr. Vaux prepared an earlier version of this survey for his Dialects of English class at Harvard in 1999. The survey has since been revised and expanded for a larger, lay audience.

Dialect Survey

Sunday, January 19, 2003

BookMania! a rousing success story
By Christine Selvaggi staff writer
The Stuart News
January 19, 2003

Book enthusiasts, a group of authors with growing notoriety, and a bit of marketing helped make the ninth annual BookMania! a success beyond expectations, according to organizers.

The book festival commenced Friday at the Blake Library in Stuart with a much-anticipated lecture by crime fiction author Elmore Leonard. It ends today at 7 p.m. with a performance of "The Tender Nights of F. Scott Fitzgerald."

"Each year, the caliber of writers gets higher and higher," said Judi Snyder, library community relations coordinator. "We're thinking about space for next year."

Snyder said a book festival's biggest draw is the lecturing authors, which this year included Leonard and Edna Buchanan, a suspense novelist and Pulitzer prize-winning crime reporter.

"This is a small community, and it's amazing they can put on this presentation," Boca Raton resident Stacy Alesi said. "It's very impressive."

As Alesi waited in line for Buchanan to autograph her newest title, "The Ice Maiden," the Miami Herald reporter chatted about the "victory garden" she planted after Sept. 11 and her guess on the whereabouts of missing child Rilya Wilson.

"The audience here was very responsive because we're all Floridians," Buchanan said.

Buchanan's book, along with others, sold steadily throughout the fair, with one title unexpectedly selling out.

"We're doing a considerable amount better than last year," said Dale Kostakos, community relations manager with Barnes & Noble Booksellers.

Snyder attributed the numbers to increased marketing, which included mailing 3,000 BookMania! fliers weeks in advance to hype the event.

"We doubled the size of the brochure and it was massive campaigning," she said.

Snyder added that brainstorming already has begun for next year's festival. She thinks it will surpass the success that the little library in Stuart found this weekend.

"We want to accommodate the people," she said.


I loved response to a thread on a listserv regarding pet peeves in books, Mark Terry posted this eloquent, intelligent response. I wish I'd wrote it:

Subject: My anti-peeves

Anti-peeves? Oh well.'s what I like in books.

Books that tell good stories. Books with male main characters. Books with female main characters. Books with male and female main characters. Interesting characters. interesting voices. Humor. Good dialogue. Books I can get lost in. Books that make me want to keep reading. Books with cliffhanger chapter endings that make me excited to turn the page. Books that I'm so excited by their existence that I go to the bookstore as soon as possible and buy them even if I don't get around to reading them for a while. Books told in the first person and the third person. Multiple point of view books. Drama. Sadness. Happiness. Violence. Did I say violence? Let me repeat that. I don't want violence in my life, but I really do want it in my reading. Go figure. Violence. Death. Murder. Madness. Love. Sex. Romance. Sex and romance. Romance and sex. Love. Anger. Hostility. Sweetness. Books that take me to exotic places like Panama and the Congo and Greenland and Texas and Miami. Books that take place in my backyard. Did I say violence and death? Murder and mayhem? Death, destruction. The end of the world. Birth. Rebirth. Did I say sex? Let me say it again. Sex. Blue collar and white collar and pink collar and no collar. Straight people and gay people and angry people and happy people. I want to be presented an organized version of life which is entertaining and thought-provoking, but recognizably like life with all its messiness. I want, desperately, to be entertained. I want books that suck me in and won't let me go, that I think about when I'm not reading them and that I can't wait to get back to, that I'm sorry when they're over, about people who I would like to have in my life...and I guess, in a way, I do. And if I can't get that from a book, well, then I might not finish it.

Mark Terry
The author of Catfish Guru
Two Theo MacGreggor Mysteries
Medical Writer:
Mystery author:

Thank you, Mark, for sharing.

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