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Dec 26, 2016
All the Clichés Apply (I)
by Neil Gudovitz, Founder/President at Gudovitz & Company Literary Agency

All the clichés apply.   Go bold or go home.    You have to spend money to make money.  A leopard can’t change his spots.   And likely 1001 more but I’ll stop there, sparing you the suffering.  Clichés are like dental x-rays or family vacation photos, best kept to oneself.

 

I've worked for over 20 years to license English-language books for translation into other language-markets.  During that time I’ve licensed books into more languages than I can remember, including Klingon…almost . (That was for a computer science book in the 1990’s and there’s a lot about that era we’d all like to forget.   The deal never went through because the ‘licensing publisher’ insisted on a bilingual contract. I wish I were joking…)   During my career, I’ve had a few opportunities to work on books written in languages other than English, but it was not until 2013 that I came upon a work that seemed to have the credentials to become a worldwide bestseller. I was having dinner in New York City with friends from the Japanese publisher Sunmark. Wanting to get them out of Manhattan and the tourist belt, I packed us all on the subway and took us to an Uzbeki restaurant in Queens.  We ate whatever the waitstaff put in front of us (most of it was on a stick) and drank Uzbeki beer, which comes in 3 varieties:  weak, medium and strong.  As I had to find our way back into Manhattan, I opted for the ‘weak’ beer but Sunmark was more courageous.   Even weak Uzbeki beer has a way to make its impact felt and after a while, as we discussed the books Sunmark was publishing, it struck me that a book they had recently published about tidying your house not only could be attractive to an American publisher, but it simply HAD to be the next big thing.  To my knowledge there had never been an Asian practical self-help book that sold very well in the USA, but this book seemed to so much going for it.  The assets of the book, combined with the perhaps unnaturally relaxed environment as we drank on, left me absolutely certain that Marie Kondo could be a bestseller.   Sunmark agreed, or at least I remember them agreeing, and we all got pretty excited about what was to come.  Unfortunately it was some special Uzbeki dessert glue-like substance so our celebration was interrupted, and then I proceeded thereafter to take us on the wrong direction on the subway.   At that point I’d only lived in NYC for 21 years so it was of course understandable.  

 

Eventually our course was righted and another course took hold, one which eventually led to over 7 million copies of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up being sold worldwide, with more than 5 million of those coming in languages other than Japanese.   Everything about that book was a perfect storm, from the contents to the author herself to the emerging notion that people (particularly) simply have too much stuff and too little idea of what to do about it.   The book takes what is commonly regarded as a rather unpleasant task and makes it not only fun, but life-changing. But when asked, as I have been many times, to identify the ONE key to the book’s success outside of Japan, the element without which none of it could have happened, I always point to the simply flawless translation of the Japanese-language text submitted by Cathy Hirano, a translator born and raised in Canada who studied and now lives in Japan.   What you read in the American or British edition is 98% identical to the copy Sunmark delivered to my inbox some months after that drunken dinner.  

 

I don’t frankly recall if they told me they were going to deliver a full English translation, or if I first said that it would be necessary to do so, but it was something we agreed upon without discussion. At that point, Sunmark had enjoyed excellent success in the American market with several other titles in translation, and they well understood what it took to reach that goal.  They didn’t doubt the quality of their work and they wanted the translations to reflect that quality to the greatest extent possible.    

 

And this is one of the key points I wish to communicate in this piece: good enough is NOT good enough.  A skilled, University-trained translator, one who perhaps lived or studied for a time in the US or the UK is NOT enough. For a foreign-language book to be published in the US and/or the UK, the requirement is, without exception, is that the translation be prepared by a translator who was raised and educated in an English-speaking country. There is no substitute for this. I know what you’re thinking, “But isn’t something better than nothing”? Why can’t a translation be done by a highly-skilled local translator who has translated English into Chinese?” 

 

Because it can’t. I’ve seen hundreds of bad translations and almost all of them have one dominant characteristic: the translator was translating away from his or her mother tongue.   There are also bad ones from native-language translations, but each one NOT from a native-language translator has been bad.

 

A skilled native-language translator understands his or her language in ways that other translators cannot, and has a better sense of nuance, slang, and facile use of language that mark the best translations, the books that people clamor to read. 

 

Remember that awful cliché that “you have to spend money to make money”?   That’s the idea here.   But why must this be the case? Because -- cliché alert – it turns out that life isn’t fair.    Hundreds of thousands of books published first in English are published in other languages around the world every year, by publishers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.    So this exchange of ideas and information is a two-way stream, right?   Not exactly.   Fewer than 1% of fiction works published in the US every year are from foreign-language authors (classics of literature excepted), and less than 1/10th of 1% of trade nonfiction works published each year come from foreign languages. Recent political events have confirmed what I'm afraid many of us already knew:  the American public is a bit too xenophobic for comfort.  But we shouldn’t think this is a new phenomenon, it simply has a new champion.  One result is that for too many Americans the rest of the world is something to be avoided, to be feared, and from which we must be protected.  “America First” is not just a political rallying cry, for many it’s become a preferred way of life.