O is for O'Brien and Outlandish Science

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh is the type of book I usually don't read--I prefer people, even
tiny people like the Borrowers or the Littles.

Anthropomorphized animals don't catch my interest. My apologies to all the Jacques fans in the universe but I never got into the small Redwall series (I kept thinking, "Why can't these characters just all be human?").

Having said that, Mrs. Fribsy and the Rats of Nimh is a good book and a good movie (The Secret of Nimh).

The comparison is odd because although the movie makers used sizable chuck from the book, including the entire opening plot sequence, it is also HUGELY different. The book rests on the proposition that the rats are scientifically advanced and wish to become self-sufficient. The movie rests on the idea that scientific advancement comes with mystical advancement--the kind of idea that makes U.F.O. and Bigfoot nuts* happy but drives Sherlock Holmes and Sheldon Copper mad with irritation.

Justin meets Mrs. Brisby
And yet, it works in The Secret of Nimh. I'm not sure why although it could be that I never really bought into the whole Flowers of Algernon idea where the rats became smart due to injections. I mostly hated Flowers of Algernon (although I like its movie version, the Bourne Legacy). So the addition of a mystical element in Nimh didn't bother me even though I tend to side with Holmes and Copper when it come to real science.

Besides which, the movie ends on a more positive note than the book: namely, Justin doesn't die (his death is implied at the end of the book). Interestingly enough, O'Brien's daughter, who wrote a couple of sequels, keeps Justin alive; Justin is totally lovable in the book and when I saw the movie years later, I considered his image/voice a perfect match for his book character.

*U.F.O. and Bigfoot nuts didn't start out that way. In the early 20th century, hunting for the unknown was still a legitimate science; there were unexplored parts of the world (explorations that have now moved into the oceans and into space). Anything could be out there!

There are still explorers of this type among the U.F.O. and Bigfoot crowd although the authors of Abominable Science point out that they may be explorers; they are not trustworthy scientists.

Unfortunately, for the explorer-types, U.F.O. and Bigfoot believers expanded in the 1970s and 1980s to include the mystics, fortune-tellers, astrologer-promoters, and crystal-gazers--basically, all the people in Independence Day who get destroyed by the alien spaceships while they are dancing on the roof and holding signs saying, "Welcome!" Belief in E.T. and Bigfoot moved inward, becoming a matter of self-indulgent naval-gazing and the use of hypnosis (as opposed to radio signals) to ponder the possibility of alien contact.

As you might imagined, these new-age believers are enemies of the original believers. Every sect has its fault lines.

Angela Lansbury's Clothes

Lansbury in 2016
It isn't easy for anyone on television from the 1980s to look good.

Can you say . . . mullets?!

There are two actresses that succeeded in wearing 1980s/early 1990s garb with aplomb: Gillian Anderson and Angela Lansbury.

The astonishing aspect of Angela Lansbury is how well she dresses no matter the occasion. She has (yes, she is still alive as of April 19, 2017) the impressive ability to look comfortable and stylish. She wears her clothes--they don't wear her.

Even more impressive is that her clothes look timeless. The Golden Girls' actresses wore 1980s dress to the nth degree. They were of obviously high quality but . . . pastel anyone?

In comparison, Lansbury's clothes from Murder, She Wrote to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the Academy Awards are something more than mere "trends"--they are extravagant wear for everyday, any day.

The current actress who comes closest to capturing Lansbury (and Anderson's) ability to wear the right clothes for the right occasion regardless of time period is Lucy Liu (Elementary).






Tom Selleck's Butlers

When he was Magnum, Tom Selleck had Higgins, his major-domo, butler, right-hand-man, factotum. Technically, of course, Higgins didn't work for Magnum, yet he did fulfill all the roles that made it possible for Magnum to live, function, and succeed. Higgins is played by the magnificent John Hillerman who played a similar--but far less supportive--character on Ellery Queen (foil to Jim Hutton).

As the Police Commissioner on Blue Bloods, Tom Selleck has Garrett Moore, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information played by Gregory Jbara. Moore is later joined by Danny's boss, Lieutenant Sidney "Sid" Gormley, played by Robert Clohessy.

Jbara as Moore shows up at the end of Season 1, becoming a regular guest star in Season 2. And then the impact of his character becomes instantly apparent.

Like any strong lead and character actor, Tom Selleck shines when he has a decent actor to bounce dialog off. Some leads are productions unto themselves--and there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that. But actors who thrive within a cast tend to be more interesting in the long-run--at least on television. Selleck's ability to banter, for example, explains his great success on Friends as Monica's boyfriend.

As more Blue Bloods scripts focused on 1 PP, Selleck's ability to banter with the Commissioner's staff became a useful tool--and Moore is one of the best banterees on television. They deliver rapid-fire points at each other that yet feel utterly natural to their personalities and interests. Moore also offers a necessary outside perspective (outside to the police and to the Reagan family). Some of the funniest and also most insightful moments come from these points of contact.

Gormley's addition to the mix doesn't harm the relay of ideas. For one, Moore has to step up his game--Gormley's perspective, though always pro-police, can catch other parties by surprise; he isn't a political animal and doesn't have Commissioner Reagan's natural aura of sophistication. However, as Moore sagely points out to the Commissioner, Gormley is far more ambitious than he will admit even to himself.

Blue Bloods is my favorite type of police procedural largely due to the clean writing--I don't mean "clean" as "absent of expletives" but rather as fresh, non-pretentious, and smart. There's (mostly) no attempt to "fool" the audience (you thought he was a good guy--nope, he's totally evil!). The stories unwind organically; the characters behave as expected but not as stereotyped. As the sometimes fussy, highly opinionated, argumentative and rather urbane Moore--in other words, as a great butler--Jbara fits the Blue Bloods cast. He also gives Selleck more to do than behave paternally displeased with his brood (though those scenes can be fun as well).


Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Words Words Words

From Holy Kaw
Wrapping up with some reflections on language.  

Kate: What accounts for the excessive passive voice and vague pronouns in poorer translations?
Eugene: It's mostly from translating Japanese too quickly and too literally.

Japanese advantages its close integration with the culture and society to "compress" the grammatical structure whenever possible, shifting most of the heavy lifting to the verb and a myriad of agglutinative conjugations at the end of the sentence.

Consider as well that the shadow of feudalism lasted into the 20th century. Along with it came the lexical complexity of marking status and using honorifics. Thus dropping the subject of a sentence became a desired efficiency. (Along with titles taking the place of pronouns.)

But the "compression" in Japanese is often "lossy," which is difficult to reverse because of lost information. Unlike English, which tries to pack all the available data into self-contained sentences (and uses subject placeholders like "it" to keep the structure intact), Japanese can scatter information all across the page.

From the perspective of English grammar, Japanese favors "passive" formations that skip the subject ("Mistakes were made"), and sees no problem in failing to mention the subject for another several paragraphs. A Japanese writer can easily create a page of third-person narrative that fails to clarify the sex of the POV character. That's hard to reproduce in English.

One translation "shortcut" is to have a native Japanese speaker do a rough translation and then have a native English speaker do the cleanup. The problem here is that the cleanup editor may have no way figuring out the antecedent to one of those vague pronouns.
Purple Prose,  Prather-style
Kate: Some light novels have what is sometimes referred to as "purple prose"--it varies considerably from poetic to explicit. Do translators make a conscious choice which approach to take? Does the original text make the decision for the translator?
Eugene: I'd say the original text pretty much dictates the final product. There's always leeway in tone and word choices, but the explicitness of the terminology pretty well controls the explicitness of the prose.

Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Elmore Leonard wrote detective novels, but their use of "vocabulary," shall we say, is quite different. It mostly comes down to a matter of discerning the sociolinguistic milieu and the genre, and then deciding who the audience is.

 Harlequin novels--rights likely obtained for cheap--turned
into manga by Japanese artists.

Or rather, figuring out who the author pictured as his readers. Once you get all those variables adjusted properly, so that you are writing in the same mindset for the same readers, you don't have to think about it that much.

Although there is always the challenge of making purple prose not sound so purposely purple.
Kate: In the previous interview, we discussed colloquialisms—the difficulty/necessity of translating figurative language between cultures versus letting the phrases/references stand. Some translators seem to fall back on clichés due to lack of imagination. Sometimes, however, the original writer appears to deliberately use a cliché. How does a translator recognize and handle clichés?
Eugene: In a very real sense, all language is a cliché or we couldn't understand each other. Like continents and species, language drifts and mutates. Before long, the past and the present (and the here and there) are miles apart and have adapted to quite different environments.

Language is thus a moving window that attempts to pin down usage within a certain time-frame in order to maximize comprehensibility. Most usage is effectively transparent. We process it without paying undue attention to the semantic and syntactical structure.

When we do start paying attention, that window starts moving. Some usage, like the subjunctive, dwindles away over the protests of a few stubborn grammarians. A lot is like fashion. Some usages never go out of fashion, and others can't go fast enough.

Stock Phrase
So there are expressions that last for centuries, while others, like bell-bottoms, get shipped off to the Salvation Army with a roll of the eyes. And maybe some creative soul will find a totally self-aware use for them that brings the cliché back to life again.

In Japanese, there is a whole category of what are called four character idioms, often adapted from Chinese. They are expressions compressed to their essence, like saying "Two birds one stone." A couple dozen would qualify as cliches. The rest can get quite arcane.

And as in English, Japanese has stock phrases. For the non-native speaker, it can be difficult to identify an ironic usage when it comes into play. Luckily, Japanese tend to avoid irony. But contemporary references can be just as tricky. You can at least look up historical allusions.
Kate: Speaking of allusions, they can crop up unexpectedly. As P.J. O'Rourke mentions, when Senator Kennedy mocked incumbent Vice President Bush during the 1988 Democratic Convention by asking, “Where was Bush [during Reagan’s scandals]?” the reporters watching immediately responded with, “At home, in bed, with his wife.”

Is the creation of contemporary allusions/slogans easier or harder to see in another culture? How “current” do you have to stay in order to “get” other cultures’ allusions?
Eugene: The most recent Godzilla movie apparently makes veiled references to Fukushima and the subsequent political storms. Those are easy enough as long as you keep up on the news. Harder are trends that truly are "socially constructed," that come and go like mayflies.

On the other hand, language that is to subjective would probably not be accessible to a foreign audience either, so translated too literally you could end up with translated language that isn't any more comprehensible. 
Kate: Different countries use different punctuation. For example, American quotations are double (“) on the outside, single (‘) on the inside; the reverse is true in much British literature. And when I was taking French literature, many of the books used <> to indicate a speaker speaking.

What do the Japanese do? Do you “translate” punctuation?
Introduction to Japanese Punctuation
Eugene: I've always found Japanese punctuation to be logical and comprehensible. Perhaps because there is no interference from the familiar conventions I already associate with Latin scripts, my brain maps punctuation marks pretty much on a one-to-one basis.

Japanese has adopted several punctuation marks directly from Latin script, including the exclamation point, question mark, parentheses, and the comma. And increasingly uses smart quotes (“…”) alongside the traditional kagi kakko (「…」 and 『…』).

Emphasis (italics) is indicated with a dot or comma next to (or above) each character (bouten, meaning "side mark").

NHK in particular likes using smart quotes rather like "air quotes." Kagi kakko remain the standard in narrative fiction and the usage is almost the same, although it is quite common for any dialogue enclosed in kagi kakko to be separated into its own paragraph.

Yes, this can at times make it easy to lose track of dialogue tags.
Kate: Is there any grand unifying theory that explains how language works? And does a grand unifying theory help the translator?
Eugene: Language universals do exist, but it's tricky getting from there to the "universal grammar" concepts pioneered by Noam Chomsky, that tie language to structures in the human brain that work exactly the same for everyone everywhere.

As a result, a "linguistic theory of everything" remains as elusive as it does for physicists, who end up with compelling explanations and neat ideas and no way to empirically test them.

Unfortunately, Chomsky was still all the rage when I was in graduate school so I had to study transformational grammar. This was Chomsky's attempt to create a calculus of language.

It is a useful tool for analyzing language but not necessary for creating real-world
Language is a grass-roots thing.
functionality or for describing how language actually works in the minds of the human beings using it.

But in the 1980s, Moore's Law was taking off. The revolution in computer technology
triggered much wishful thinking that rules-based computing could solve all the difficult algorithmic problems that had eluded the more mechanical processes to date.

One of the goals of the Fifth Generation Computer project, initiated by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1982, was machine translation. It pretty much completely failed.

Simply consider the imprecision of rule-based grammar checkers. They're useful only when paired with human beings who can weed out all the false positives.

A chess or go program based on algorithms alone can play a pretty good game. But beating a smart human requires pattern recognition based on massive real-world data sets and machine learning systems. Saying "Oh, this resembles that" a billion times a second.

Pattern recognition is the key. It's at the core of all modern machine translation systems. It's what the human brain does best (so well we eagerly perceive patterns where they don't exist).

But, again, we can't confuse explanation with application, descriptions of how language works with prescriptions of how it ought to work. What's of actual use to a translator also involves universals but at a much higher level. I'm talking about story universals.

In other words, Joseph Campbell instead of Noam Chomsky. Less universal grammar and more monomyth. (Well, and you do need a good copy editor.)

Granted, art can get so abstract at one extreme, and so culturally-bound at the other, as to defeat reasonable attempts to identify the shared patterns. But neither is there a point in translating stories without universal appeal.
Ah, words are not enough . . . except, Thanks, Eugene!

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: The Act of Translation

Poseidon of the East
The next two posts deal with the nitty-gritty aspect of translation: "All those words"!

Kate: While translating, what enables the translation process to get easier? What still causes difficulties?
Eugene: What enables the translation process to get easier is translating. The more you translate a particular author, the more you get used to that author's particular use of the language. Though you tend to absorb it along the way, so it's not something you pay a lot of attention to, if you notice it at all.

The fast pace at which translations have to be churned out to be profitable means you have to end up going with the "good enough" or even the "I'm pretty sure it's not totally wrong" version.

When you've only got time for copyediting (forget about line editing), an easy mistake to make is translating a certain expression the same way every time. Not all redundancies are created equal.
For example, it's not a good idea to get clever with a word like "said." But when readers point out that I've overused a particular expression, that I've simply translated the same expression the same way isn't a good excuse. When the reader starts noticing the prose, something's wrong.
The Wings of Dreams
Kate: In my various light novel readings, obvious differences about the original authors come apparent (some are better at plotting than others). It is harder to gauge tone--so much depends on the translator! However, some differences do tend to appear. Do you sense a difference in tone when translating?
Eugene: Not really, at least probably not during the translation process.

The problem with tone is that it arises as a byproduct of the entire effort. To be sure, I can get a grasp from the start on genre, whether the prose is "hard-boiled" or "romance" or "high fantasy, and that dictates the tone and register of the translation.

I tend to begin with assumptions and adjust them along the way.

I do notice writing quality. The better the writing, the easier it is to translate. Vocabulary is of only peripheral importance. The Chinese cognates Fuyumi Ono uses don't make her prose more difficult to understand, though it can take longer to think up translations for fantasy terms.

If the worst thing you can say about somebody's writing is that you have to look up some words in the dictionary, you're on firm ground.

I've been surprised at how readable Natsume Soseki is. Granted some of his vocabulary and usages are dated (as well as the geographical references to Tokyo a century ago), but his prose does not otherwise suffer from any lack of clarity.  
Shadow of the Moon
Kate: Many of the light novels I've encountered--with a few exceptions--seem quite Jane Austen-like in their semi-omniscient narrators. Points of view shift easily within a chapter. Do Japanese novels worry about point of view or is that a Western obsession? 
Eugene: I don't know if this is something that Japanese writers writing about writing worry about to the same extent that English writers writing about writing worry about it.

In Shadow of the Moon, Fuyumi Ono maintains an admirably strict third-person POV with the omniscience voice limited to the protagonist alone, the world seen only from her perspective. And even in her multiple POV novels, she doesn't let her omniscience wander.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with "head-hopping," but I think this speaks more to the skill and style of the writer than to the culture. I suspect the ongoing tension between the two is a pretty universal concern--among those of us who think excessively about such things.

For everybody else, what matters is whether the author tells a compelling story. Less about how.
A Thousand Leagues of Wind
Kate: As a reader, I occasionally note plot errors in novels. One paragraph said that the character went home but the next paragraph clearly indicates that the character went to school. I don’t assume it is the translator's fault! As a writer, I am always wary of making these types mistakes (a character sets out to do something in the morning but in the next scene, I mistakenly refer to the time of day as "twilight"). Have you ever encountered these errors as a translator? Do you fix them? Do you think translators should fix them? Or leave them as original to the text?
Eugene: I wouldn't be so certain [a change in tense or time of day] is not the translator's/editor's fault. Japanese narrative prose tends to follow the same POV rules as English prose. Tense, however, is far more fluid, switching from "present" to "past" tense in the same paragraph.

In Japanese it's easy to confuse aspects of the perfect tense and participles in general with the present tense. As an oversimplified example, a participle phrase can be split off in the present tense, and followed by the rest in the past.
"Floating in the pool, I gazed up at the clouds."

"(I) float in the pool; gazed up at the clouds."
This use of the "historical present" is VERY common, and is independent of the "quality" of the writing. When translating, I will simply render everything in the past tense.

(I studiously avoid fiction written in the present tense and loath the trend of narrating historical documentaries in the present tense. If it happened in the past, put it in the past tense!)  
The Shore in Twilight
Kate: Are you ever tempted to the fix bigger issues, such as stories with no pay-offs or lack of character development? Or is your main focus on making the language work?
Eugene: As for actual mistakes in narrative structure, I tend to unconsciously knit everything together so it makes sense on the page. Though as noted previously, during the translation process, I can get so close to the text that I completely miss these types of mistakes.

I avoid thinking much about bigger issues. It being completely out of my purview, to start with, and not having the time in any case.
I don't think it's the translator's job to make those kinds of editorial decisions, so if I don't have an editor to bounce things off of, I don't.
Dreaming of Paradise
Kate: C.S. Lewis stated in his autobiography that he knew he had begun to master Greek when he no longer translated the word into English first. The Greek word “boat” brought up the image boat, not the English word (followed by the image). But translation involves doing exactly this—thinking of the word rather than the image. In fact, translation appears to involve multiple skill-sets from understanding to writing to rearranging words at the sentence level—do you feel yourself switching “hats” as you translate?
Eugene: There's the meaning part and the wordsmithing path. Like good acting, good writing shouldn't normally call attention to itself. The right words pull the right meaning out of our experiential memory banks. The better the word, the better it does that (without us noticing).

One problem comes when the words access the wrong thing.

A good example (from the Nibleys) is "Aegis" as the name of a ship vs. "Aegis" as a class of guided missile cruisers (referring to the combat system). And translating Fuyumi Ono, I have to keep the Chinese references distinct from the Japanese references.

At times, the only thing in a particular memory bank location is wrong. Or is blank. The etymology only goes so far, so I have to find something to fill it. The Internet makes that much easier. I can Google Image a Chinese word and realize, "Oh, that's what she means."

There's is also the problem of the words themselves gumming up the works—to continue with the above metaphor, acting that calls so much attention to itself that it distracts from the story. The challenge is to find the right word that doesn't trip over its own two feet.

If you're John Lasseter, then you hire Neil Gaiman to rewrite the script for Princess Mononoke. That's not usually in the budget. There's more leeway with subtitles because the visuals and voice acting can cover much of the "wordsmithing" chores for you.

With prose, if the story starts to sag for any reason, the tattered edges of the words will start to show.
Coming Next: WINDING UP with "Words Words Words"

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Psychology and Japanese Fiction

Kate: Light novels seem to always have a psychological component, discussions of why people behave the way they do. Would you say that capturing inner beliefs is difficult in all writing, easier in Japanese, more difficult . . . ?
Eugene: It's probably easier in Japanese, as the writer is less likely to get bogged down in a morass of first-person pronouns. Japanese literature created the genre known as the "I-novel," and many works of poetry going back to the Heian period are intense first-person explorations of the psyche.

Anime series from Kanon to Madoka Magica can easily be interpreted as journeys through the mind of the protagonist, and Kokoro Connect makes this explicit. The entire last third of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro has "Sensei" explaining at length to the narrator why he is the way he is.

At the end of the day, when it comes to talking about yourself, it's the skill of the writer that makes the biggest difference.
Kate: People are people and relationships are difficult. In the romance light novels as in the American paperbacks I read, the difficulties rest on miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misreading. The ultimate desired outcome is closeness.

So far, so good: people are people. However, one difference seems to be that in Japanese light novels, the closeness is achieved by figuring out exactly how much power to give up while in American paperbacks, closeness is achieved by dismissing or supposedly rising above issues of power. Consequently, Japanese light novels seem closer to Jane Austen/nineteenth century literature with the ongoing negotiation of hierarchy, power, and money. Would you say this is a fair assessment of Japanese literature and society?
Popular series Emma by Kaoru Mori
tackles servant and master relations
in Victorian England.
Eugene: Yes, very much so. The Faulkner quote, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past," is a good way to approach Japanese sociology. The feudal Edo period only ended in 1868 and it didn't really end until 1945 (if even then).

Feudalism arises out of the common denominators of human interaction. There will never be a "classless" society, so the gravity of feudalism will always exert a force. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

No, romantic love doesn't overcome it either. As C.S. Lewis has written at length, it is more likely to royally screw everything up. Candid discussions of power, money, and sex will prove more productive in the long run.
Kate: Regarding psychological trends, are the Japanese more nature or nurture oriented? Some American readers complain/point out that light novels are still (in the 21st century) filled with Freudian (“nurture-centered”) arguments. Is Freud popular in Japanese culture?
A trope in shojo and yaoi manga/
light novels is when one character
discovers how hard another works.
Eugene: Japan actually came up with its own sort-of-Freudian theory, that was energized by the Nihonjinron movement, which naturally proclaimed it uniquely Japanese. It was popularized in The Anatomy of Dependence by Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, published in 1971.
"Amae is the nominal form of the verb amaeru, which Doi uses to describe the behavior of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as a parent, spouse, teacher, or supervisor, to take care of him. The behavior of children towards their parents is perhaps the most common example of amae, but Doi argued that child-rearing practices in the Western world seek to stop this kind of dependence, whereas in Japan it persists into adulthood in all kinds of social relationships."
Amae is seen as arising out of "Japaneseness" rather than genes. Japanese are nurture oriented. Although "IQ" is mentioned all the time--brilliant detectives always have high IQs and attended institutions like Harvard and Cambridge--what matters for everybody else is the ganbaru variable.

A movie like Stand and Deliver belongs to its own genre in Japanese entertainment, epitomized by television series like Dragon Zakura. Almost the entire emphasis is on EFFORT. Shoulder to the wheel and nose to the grindstone, that's what success is made of.
Japanese can be VERY introspective. As my Japanese theory of everything goes, the mysteriousness of Japan is often simply the result of it being a country of introverts who rarely see the need to spill all their mental anguish to a shrink. The stigma of mental illness is pervasive.

That's what books with thinly-veiled fictional protagonists are for.

Again, we get back to the "ganbaru" mentality. People have problems because they're not trying hard enough not to have them.
From Culture Map by Erin Meyer
Kate: Some sociologists argue that Asians see things/people in terms of their relationship to their surroundings while westerners see the person as emphatically an individual. So a portrait of an Asian by an Asian would place that person in context while a portrait of an American by an American would focus on the face.

Almost all light novels I've encountered are heavy on dialog but also go out of their way to provide setting details--where exactly things are spatially in an apartment or business, city or country. Is this specifically Japanese (people/things in context) or a product of the light novel genre?
Eugene: It's a Japanese thing (granted, my sample size here is two).

Japanese television has the usual travel shows about adventurers venturing off the exotic locations along with the more sedate Rick Steves-style tourist guides. But there are a whole lot of shows that focus exclusively on Japan, including the relatively mundane.

NHK has a series on one or two-day mountain hikes (not climbing, hiking to the top of a hikeable mountain). And there are a ton of series about accessible railway travel from point A to point B, with hardly a tourist trap in site.
Fans flocking to an area reminds me of
pilgrimages by young women to visit
"J. Dawson's" grave when Titanic came
out. No, Leonardo DiCaprio's character
wasn't based on him--the real J. Dawson
was a crew-member.

Granted, with 2000 years of recorded history, you can go anywhere in Japan and find something interesting to say about practically anything.

A show called Bura Tamori has a guy named Tamori (famous for hosting a pop music show a la Dick Clark), who walks around a city in Japan with a local historian and cartographer in tow and talks how the city grew to be the way it is. (I find stuff like that fascinating.)

 Asadora are always linked to a specific geographical settings. A five-minute addendum is appended to the end of every Taiga historical drama episode that explores the episode's past and present-day setting, how to get there and what to see.

 Then there's the "holy sites" phenomenon:
"When an anime is set in a certain locale, or even if background scenery strongly resembles a certain locale, that anime's fans will flock to the area to see the sights for themselves and buy local merchandise."
Kate: When you are writing/translating, does geography pose a problem? Do you rely on maps? You've lived in Japan—but of course, construction and new projects do change landscapes. How reliable is Google Maps? Did you go by memory or web images to write Serpent of Time and Fox and Wolf?
Mount Koya: a important location in Serpent of Time.
Eugene: Geography is a big challenge and Google Maps is a massively useful tool. When I was writing Serpent of Time, Google Maps let me drive the same road that Ishibashi-san takes from Kii Kamiya to Kudoyama. I had visited the area in person, but hadn't taken that particular route.

I also made use of Meiji Era maps of Osaka and Wakayama published online by the East Asia Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

In Fox & Wolf, Google Maps let me I drive from Hiraoka shrine to Mt. Ikoma and then to the Ikoma Skyland Amusement Park. And when I was translating Demon City Shinjuku, Google Maps and Google Images helped to clear away the confusion on several occasions.
COMING NEXT: The Act of Translation

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Translating Story

Kate: As discussed in the prior interview, you have translated a number of the Twelve Kingdom novels. Wikipedia lists 8 novels; you have translated 6. What about the other two? Are they related to the six? Would you translate them if you could?
Eugene: I haven't translated Masho no Ko ("The Demon Child") and Kaze no Umi, Meikyu no Kishi ("A Sea of Wind, Shores of the Labyrinth").

Fuyumi Ono wrote "The Demon Child" before she started the Twelve Kingdoms series and fit the crossover material from the later novels around it, especially in "The Shore in Twilight" and "A Sea of Wind."

All of the above feature Taiki, and were touched upon in the NHK anime series. The hope and expectation is that Ono will finally conclude the Taiki arc in her upcoming novel. I'm sort of waiting on that too.

I'm currently slowly at work on Hisho no Tori ("Hisho's Birds"), a second short story collection.
Kate: What attracted you to the Twelve Kingdoms series?
Eugene: In the late 1990s, I discovered JWPce and online tools like Eijirou. And Honto. Unlike Amazon, Honto offers SAL shipping, which makes ordering books much more affordable. Then Windows 2000 and Window XP debuted with full Unicode support.

I used to peruse the manga section at bookstores to try and pick out titles and authors that I might want to read in Japanese. I started translating manga just for the heck of it and a couple of light novels. A girl at work asked me to do a chapter of Fruits Basket for a scanlation site she contributed to.

And then I saw the NHK anime series, and that turned out to be a deep well to draw from. (At the time, the books hadn't been licensed.) It certainly helped that the books turned out to be even better than the anime.

The entire Microsoft customer support team I was working on was getting transferred to India, so we were getting paid to sit around for hours without anything to do. So that's when I started emailing myself scans of the novels to give myself something to do at work.

And since I was translating them already, and was teaching myself HTML and website hosting, I decided to post them online. And I actually got feedback on the material I was posted. So I kept on going.
Kate: The Wings of Dreams can definitely be critiqued as a hero's journey a la Joseph Campbell. Does awareness of universal tropes help when translating or hinder? That is, can recognition of a familiar trope help the translator or will it prevent the translator from seeing the individual story?
Eugene: Creating expectations for yourself can cause big problems when you anticipate the story going one way and it goes another. This is especially true if you've encountered the story before out of the original "creative order."

The NHK Twelve Kingdoms anime series, for example, invented at least one character out of whole cloth, and borrowed characters and mixed in plot elements from different novels in order to condense the entire series into a single storyline.

So you've got to forget about what you think about the story, take off the critical analysis hat, and rely on the text to guide you through.

Most of the time, you're down there at the sentence level, a rat navigating a maze with little time for the big picture view. It's sort of a postmodern thing--all that exists is the text. You're encountering the story the way the reader will, though at a much slower pace.
Kate: How does Fuyumi Ono's storytelling/tone compare to other authors, Asian and Western?
Eugene: She compares well, proof that good writing is universal. I'd place Fuyumi Ono among the high fantasy greats. World building par excellence. That's medieval Asian world building, not medieval European world building. (She also does contemporary horror.)

She approaches her prose a bit like a fusty 19th century historian, with the occasional old spelling and not dumbing anything down. But the narrative is always leavened by her wry political and social commentary. She is an astute observer of the human condition and the political animal.

One political theme that runs through the Twelve Kingdoms is a critique of legalism and how the paternalistic state succumbs to totalitarianism.

Her dialog, however, is reasonably contemporary and accessible without being so glib that it quickly becomes dated. Over all, she has a straightforward writing style, a disciplined POV, and no more grammatical complexity than necessary.

Though, again, one tough aspect about high fantasy or SF technobabble is coming up with translations for words that don't really exist in the source language either, or were adapted from yet another language (Chinese) to start with.
Kate: Although there are elements of story that are universal, some elements seem more translatable than others. Frozen was hugely popular in Japan. Harry Potter apparently made its way across the ocean. What are some popular Hollywood tales that didn't make it to Japan? What about the other way around (the tales that don't make it here because they are too culturally embedded)?
Eugene: Unlike the ubiquitous action movie (from the shoot-'em-up to the space opera), conventional Hollywood comedies don't do well in Japan. They do better when combined with an accessible genre, like romantic comedy or musical comedy.

One consistent observation from long-time western observers is that Japanese don't do the whole "dripping with irony" thing, what with the winks and the nods and the sarcasm. The "American joke" (that's the actual term) is sand in the gears of a culture that depends so much on hints and assumptions.

The usual Hollywood blockbuster films show up in Japan, but also a surprising number of relatively obscure art house human dramas from around the world.

Similarly, Natsume Soseki [writer of realistic fiction circa 1900] can be an easier read than Fuyumi Ono [the Twelve Kingdoms], not because of the language but because of the difficulty of translating a high fantasy culture based on medieval China. The angsty characters in Kokoro from a century ago, for example, remain surprisingly accessible.

To turn Tolstoy's adage upside down, unhappy people are pretty much the same the world around.

A Harry Potter or Frozen will still zoom to the top of the charts, but home-grown films hold most of the top-twenty spots. The irony is, they often do so by fitting into Japanese culture in ways that Hollywood films can't, by exploiting currents and trends that are literally foreign outside Japan.

So while "accessible" family films and more conventional copies of Hollywood actioners from Japan get crowded out by behemoths like Disney (to the extent that most are never released in the U.S.), anime and manga have thrived by being not-Disney, by finding a media niche all to themselves not easily duplicated.

The evolutionary spiral that results has been termed "Galapagos syndrome," referring to products so customized to Japan's isolated island culture that they are incompatible with the rest of the world.

Dante's journey can be enjoyed for the
journey--his contemporaries would have
"got" all the snarkiness, without footnotes.
The recently released Rurouni Kenshin trilogy follows the Hollywood action flick playbook, with slick production values and lots of action paired with a dumbed-down script stocked with cardboard characters (played by actors better than their parts) and head-scratching plotting (that fizzles out in part 3).

And yet the Rurouni Kenshin series [containing Shinsengumi characters] assumes at least a cursory understanding of the Bakumatsu era (during which the various sides negotiated by day and assassinated each other by night), the Boshin War, and the early Meiji leading up to the Satsuma Rebellion.

 Even a Japanese kid who slept through every history class in school will have absorbed the rough details along the way. Western audiences would have a much harder time figuring out what the heck is going on.

By contrast, Memoirs of a Geisha didn't do anything that Japanese period melodramas don't do on a regular basis, and without any popular Japanese actresses in the leads. What was exotic to western audiences was ho-hum in Japan.

Consider an equally dumb Jason Statham actioner like The Mechanic: Resurrection or the much better John Wick with Keanu Reeves. Both movies present bankable stars in stories denatured of cultural specificity, hitting plot points instantly recognizable to anyone anywhere in the world.

That's why Hollywood prefers to make Hollywood versions of foreign films, going way back to Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai, with bigger budgets and wider audiences in mind. It looks like they might get the formula right with Ghost in the Shell too.
Kate: One cultural aspect of light novels and much manga are authors' afterwords. Many Western tomes have afterwords and/or "book questions"; the Japanese literary afterwords, however, are cute little "Howdy, I'm the author--I enjoyed working on this novel--let me tell you about what I did today" blurbs. Does the translator handle these? Or are they added in later/translated by someone else?
Eugene: In most cases, I translate everything (aside from the copyright pages and advertising inserts), including those personal notes from the author. Though they can be a pain, what with the inside jokes and the off-off-offhand style that can be like trying to translate half of an overheard conversation.

Makoto Shinkai
They can also be awfully self-deprecating, and that doesn't translate very well. But it's a Japanese thing. It's hard to imagine an Hollywood director saying about his own blockbuster film, as has Makoto Shinkai, that he wasn't entirely happy with all of it and some parts could be improved.

Oh, and maybe everybody should stop making such a big deal about it.

Though I wish that had occurred to George Lucas.
Kate: I have also noticed the self-depreciation! Sometimes, the authors will even admit to health problems, a failure to meet deadlines, personal crises, etc.—the type of stuff that often shows up on American authors' blogs but rarely on their book jackets. What accounts for this incredible willingness to "bare all"? Aren't Americans supposed to be the ones who "let it all hang out"?
Eugene: I fall back on my go-to explanation that introverts living in an introverted culture don't necessarily mind being extroverted about their introversion when they can do so without leaving the house.

An author and media star like Naoki Matayoshi started out doing stand-up (manzai) comedy, yet in public he still maintains a quite reticent demeanor. Being loudmouthed and opinionated is Hikari Ota's fairly unique shtick, and he's also half of a manzai duo.

If you're a Freudian, manzai is the public expression of the Japanese repressed id (I say almost seriously).

Shiro thought he was going to a non-political dinner
with his class of fellow apprentices. Nope, the
canny host ends by hitting them up for favors.
Shiro is thinking, "Dammit. The only way to get out of
this is to pay back the equivalent of tonight's bill."
These authors otherwise aren't going on Oprah and exposing their souls. They might not be J.D. Salinger, but aside from what they write, can be quite reclusive.

I think they have much in common with the original Star Trek convention circuit. The vast majority didn't get where they are [writing a bestseller] out of the block. They slowly built careers out of "1000 true fans," starting with doujinshi back in high school and college.

So there's a large measure of on and giri at work here, the ongoing cycle of favor and obligation that's been a tireless engine of Japanese social relations for two thousand years. An element of this reciprocation inevitably shows up on the inside covers of their books.
COMING NEXT: Light novels and psychology

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Reading Culture in Japan

Kate: Critics of contemporary culture often bemoan the decline of novel reading (they also often seem to be disgruntled academics whose tomes don’t sell). How does reading fare in Japan? Do books sell?
Eugene: Japanese bookstores sell on consignment (returns are allowed), and books are sold under a resale price maintenance (RPM) system that disallows discounting. Online retailers like Amazon compete on the convenience of "one-stop shopping," huge inventories, and free shipping.

Family reunion--yup, everybody's reading.
That makes it possible for small and niche bookstores to compete. Japan's high population density makes distribution more efficient. And I do think public transportation--along with a long literary culture and high literacy rates--is key in fostering "disposable" reading habits. If the ride might be long, grab an easy read.

(Like the habit we and our siblings had growing up of always carrying a book with us whenever
we went somewhere "just in case" we found ourselves stuck somewhere with nothing to do. The horror!)

The A6 format is truly pocked-sized, with lightweight but durable paper and flexible spines. A big bestselling novel like Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was initially released in two volumes of 474 and 499 pages at 1,728 yen ($15) each. The mass-market paperback was released in four A6 volumes of around 350 pages and 680 yen ($6) each.

I suspect as well that the doujinshi culture help create a printing industry adept at doing economical short runs. Along with a devoted fan base willing to spend money on their hobby.

Seriously, think of the economic impact of almost completely eliminating the automobile from the teen to thirty-something budgetary balance sheet. Which just happens to overlap with the otaku demographic.

And yet, while CDs and DVDs are (at least) two to three times more expensive in Japan, books are often less expensive, manga compilations being half what you'd pay for a translation in the U.S. In other words, the "gateway drugs"--manga and light novels--are always affordable.
Kate: How about downloading books--is the idea of "Kindle" as prevalent in Japan as it appears to be in the United States?
Eugene: Amazon is pushing the Kindle platform hard in Japan. Amazon competitors like Honto have their own ebook publishing platforms. But Japan has been slow to embrace digital media. Distribution is still about pushing physical products. Tower Records went bankrupt in the U.S. It is thriving in Japan: "Globally, 39 percent of all music sales are physical CDs and vinyl, but in Japan the figure is double that."

 When it comes to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray, distributors are loath to give up their sky-high profit margins. The convenience factor is not as critical a variable given Japan's high urban population density and resale price maintenance laws that make possible a "nation of shopkeepers" (Adam Smith said it first). And Japanese seem to like collecting physical "stuff" (that's easy to store), not just information.
A manga shelf--with a little bit of Star Wars at the end.

The typical scene of a teenager's bedroom includes a bookcase with thirty volumes of his favorite manga neatly lined up in rows.

Books, on the other hand, aren't expected to deliver those fat profit margins, and they've always had competition from used bookstores. Manga marketing begins with loss-leading. I'm always getting emails from Honto pushing the latest free e-manga: give away the first volume, sell the rest. Plus, once a manga is typeset, it is relatively easy to convert to electronic format.

Online shopping is rapidly growing in popularity in Japan, as is electronic publishing. The latter has long been a lagging indicator but is catching up fast.
[In 2016] the combined 296.3 billion yen (about US$2.60 billion) total of print sales of manga from both compiled book volumes and magazines saw a 9.3% decrease from last year. This the 15th year in a row to mark a decline in sales for manga's print market. The print-only market is now about half of what it was in the mid-1990s.

However, sales of digital manga volumes amounted to 146 billion yen (about US$1.28 billion), a 27.1% increase from the previous year, while sales of digital manga magazines amounted to 3.1 billion yen (about US$27.24 million), a 55% increase from the previous year.
Kate: "Deluxe" print editions of manga in English will often come with fold out posters, an impossibility with digital versions. Is this a way to make the print version more appealing? Are collectors of tangible goods still a force to be appeased?
Eugene: Successful manga will often come out with revised editions featuring larger formats with heavier paper and full-color inserts (for example, initially published in Ko B-ban or JIS B6 and then coming out with a special edition A5). But that was going on long before digital publishing became a thing.

Publishing companies often house books and periodicals under the same roof, so enhancing the one with the printing techniques from the other is standard practice.
Kate: Light novels don't appear to have the same negative status as "grocery store paperbacks" do in the U.S. Is this true? Why?
Eugene: To start with, the printing quality of light novels is pretty darn high. I have a light novel I bought in 1989 for 360 yen (about $3.25). The paper has faded a bit, but the full-color wraparound dust cover and the spine are in perfect condition.

In Japan, the rift between "literature" and "stories for the masses," as Dean Wesley Smith puts it, never really developed. Sure, there are literary snobs but publishers see no point in surrendering to those pretensions. Publishers make a point of publishing and licensing just about everything that shows potential (see the comparison to commercial television production above).

Daughter manga
Along with the mass market paperback, Daughter of the Murakami Pirates was also released in a manga version. Someday there will likely be an anime and a live-action historical drama. The Moribito series recently added a high-budget (for Japanese television) live-action series to its publishing arc (light novels, manga, and anime).

The long-running Rurouni Kenshin manga series, first published in 1994, added a trilogy of live-action films in 2012-2014, adding to a catalog that includes an anime series, several anime movies, and light novels.

Even the radio drama (distributed on CD) remains a viable medium for popular culture in Japan.

Japan actually figured out how to make literacy "cool" and to hook kids on reading, from elevating calligraphy to a pop culture art form (see Barakamon), to creating the visual novel video game format that requires more reading than most novels, to publishing school textbooks that look more like manga rather than the heavy, ponderous boat anchors used in American schools.
Kate: Along the same lines, manga appears to have never had the same negative status that "comic books" has/had in the United States. When "comic books" get serious treatment in the U.S. they become "graphic novels" but manga have always been manga. Why?
Eugene: Back in the 1950s, the comic book panic briefly swept over Japan too. Writing then for the short-lived rental book market, horror manga artist Shigeru Mizuki briefly fell victim to it. Fortunately for him, as the "rental library" business dried up, so did the protests. Or everybody was too busy growing the GDP at double-digits to care.

Once his manga found a wider audience in the 1960s and made their way to television, his reputation was never in doubt, and he became one of the grand old deans of Japanese popular culture.

Every now and then, a manga artist will "go too far" (meaning WAY further than what would be acceptable in the U.S., especially for a teen audience) and get push-back from politicians and social activist types. But publishers are quick to respond and pull back just far enough to make everybody happy. It rarely turns into a sweeping indictment that sticks.

Part of this may the attitude that it doesn't matter what the kids are reading as long as they are reading.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the Japan's reading culture better than the visual novel. It's the oldest video game format in Japan. A classic visual novel like Clannad has over a million words of text in all its branches, and most contain at least in the high five figures.

Clannad clip: It may be a video but it has lots of words!
No matter what the language--
The visual novel is the "interactive novel" that American prognosticators are always promising is going to be the next big thing in e-publishing. And never is. While in Japan the visual novel has been a big thing in e-publishing for three decades.
Kate: Returning to light novels, will they ever find a home in the U.S.? To the same degree as manga?
Eugene: As mentioned previously, the success of the visual novel genre in Japan does point to profound differences in the "reading culture."

Nevertheless, I think that kids who grow up reading R.L. Stein and K. A. Applegate and Nancy Drew, the equivalent of light novel series, would read light novels if they could find titles in the genres they like.

The problem is building a critical mass of supply when current demand doesn't justify the investment by a publisher big enough to negotiate the licensing agreements. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century).

With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English. A novel has to typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).

A light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great in any case. It's a market segment that needs to be husbanded in the short-to-medium term and shielded from the blockbuster mentality.

"Science fiction" as a genre is itself "long tail," making up about five percent of the publishing market. The "light novel" would be a fraction of that. These are the small numbers we're talking about.

Yen Press is co-owned by Kadokawa and Hachette, Kadokawa is the majority owner, so they have a vested interest in the long term. That bodes well for the future.

I don't think the light novel will ever be as successful as the manga, but it should be able to find a niche if given enough time to grow its audience and become self-sustaining. Along the way, a few break-through titles sure would help.

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Light Novel Publishing in Japan

As with Interview with a Translator, Part 1, these posts address aspects of Japanese popular culture. There will be six posts total. Eugene, the translator, is a votary of Japanese literature, art, and contemporary culture as well as a fiction writer. More of his thoughts can be found on his website and blog.

Part 2 delves specifically into the world of light novels, Japan's reading culture and, of course, more translation challenges.

Kate: What is a light novel? Does its designation depend on subject matter or word count? If word count, why are U.S. publishers so obsessed with 100,000 words or more when the light novel clearly does well in Japan?
Light novel equivalent.
Eugene: The "light novel" is a mass market novella format in Japan, a paperback of around 40,000 words, most often printed in the A6 (4x6 inch) format. The content is genre fiction, with a dozen or so pen and ink illustrations. Furigana are included to help with the pronunciation of difficult kanji.
The equivalent of the light novel used to be a thing in American publishing too. Back in the day they were called the "pulps," after the cheap paper they were printed on. And like the pulps, light novels can be diamonds in the rough and they also can be barely good enough to pass muster. 
Dean Wesley Smith explains on his website about how the paperback novel grew from true "pocket-size" into a doorstop:
"Publishers forced writers to write longer books, not to make the books better, but to justify their need to raise book prices because of other costs. (Paper and printing were cheap, so most of the extra costs were in overhead and could be made up with just fatter books.)"
Kate: Why is the publishing industry in Japan willing to play for supposedly lower stakes?
Eugene: An established Japanese publishing firm was likely founded by a guy who started from literally nothing after the war. Most of Japan's 3,700 publishing companies are privately-held companies with less than 10 employees. Only 30 publishers have more than 1000 employees.
So keeping overhead low and spreading the costs (and risks) around is standard practice (true of Japan's movie industry too). There's no blockbuster mentality. If Your Name had made 30 million dollars instead of 300 million, everybody would have counted it a success.
This means publishers can throw just about anything against the wall to see if it sticks. In this respect, the manga and light novel resembles the Hollywood television pilot (on a much smaller scale). And it can be surprising what sticks, like this.
This is a mom.
The standard publishing contract in Japan is so standard (no advance and 10 percent of list price paid on publication) that agents usually aren't involved. Rarely to never will a Japanese publisher throw six or seven figures at an unknown who is going to be "the next big thing."
Of course, things get more complicated once the licensing deals begin. But unlike his American counterpart, the Japanese author retains most creative rights by default. And because there is no one big payday in the offing, licensing far and wide is standard practice.
Japanese publishers will publish periodicals out of the same offices, and use loss-leading manga magazines to "audition" series and artists. The cream of the crop become source material for light novels, anime, live-action television, movies, and even stage productions.
Kate: In one light novel series, the main character is an editor at a publishing company. The major author with whom he works has contracts at several different companies—this author produces one to two books per year for each company. Is this flexibility (a major author coasting between several companies) typical?
Eugene: According to Robert Whiting (author of baseball books like You Gotta Have Wa and The Chrysanthemum and Bat), most of the time a Japanese publisher will ask a writer to do a book "without a contract or an advance." Then when the book is published, "the author gets paid on books printed, not sold."
This is the opposite of how traditional U.S. publishers work. First, it means that Japanese publishers don't contractually lock down an author from the start. Second, it means they have more skin in the game once the book gets printed. A U.S. publisher can do a run of 100,000 books (and boast "100,000 books in print!"), get 50,000 returns, and pay a royalty on the 50,000 (a year later).
The Japanese publisher, by contrast, is down a 7-10 percent royalty right out of the gate. Returns can't be so easily shrugged off. However, shorter printing runs and supply more carefully matched to demand results in books going out of print faster (at least that's my experience with manga). And then you have to anxiously wait around for another printing or edition to come out.
Kate: How do Japanese writers get noticed?
Eugene: My sense is that there's a lot more going on at the grassroots level in Japanese publishing. Authors can start at zero in the doujinshi arena and build a fan base. Think of the way sports stars emerge from the gauntlet of high school and college sports. Once the professional teams get involved, they have a pretty good idea of who's worth recruiting.
One big sorting and recruiting tool are literary prizes. We tend to think of literary prizes as rewarding "Literature" (with a capital "L" because it's "high art" and it's "good for you"); or celebrating a "body of work" from a known and respected quantity (at least known to and respected by all the critics who "matter").
The two biggest literary awards in Japan are the biannual Akutagawa and Naoki prizes, the former for "the best serious literary story published in a newspaper or magazine by a new or rising author" and the latter for "the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author."
Naoki Matayoshi
Kate: Are these awards more the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Literature or the Nebula? Or something even less hoity-toity?
Eugene: It does seem that the jurors try not to let too much pretentiousness govern their selections. Although, as in Always: Sunset on Third Street, a common writerly stereotype is the guy scribbling away in his hovel with high hopes of winning the Akutagawa prize while actually earning a living cranking out serial novels.
The serial novel is still going in Japan and many light novels start out that way.
The 2016 January Akutagawa prize was awarded to Naoki Matayoshi (no relation to the Naoki prize). He's a comedian, commentator, and occasional actor. Especially since winning the prize, he's been a regular on the chat and news show circuit. He hosts a weekly show about applied economics for NHK. He never attended college.
His biography is not terribly unusual for media intellectuals. In Japan, a diploma (the "Ivy Leagues" aside) is not a necessary credential for having smart things to say. (The protagonist in Hero passed the bar exam and became a public prosecutor without ever attending college or law school. Rare but possible.)
Daughter of the Murakami Pirates by Ryo Wada won the 2014 Japan Booksellers Yoshikawa Eiji prize for new writers, not for being "great literature" (nobody claims it is) but for being a great read. The Kodansha Manga Award has been awarded to hugely popular series like Ace of the Diamond and Attack on Titan.
As with college sports, in Japanese publishing there's the equivalent of a weekly MVP award and an annual Heisman for just about any genre in any medium. They serve a similar purpose: to reward up and coming talent, and to get the word out to the press and the public.
Kate: Why is it comparably more difficult to track down light novels in the U.S. than manga? Isn't manga harder to publish due to the art work? Is word count the reason light novels don't get translated more often?
Eugene: As far as books go, a light novel that finds the right audience can do just as well as any other "long tail" genre novel, which is not all that great. The term "manga," on the other hand, identifies it as a unique print and reading format. Expectations are met before the reading begins. A light novel is, at the end of the day, just another "book" among tens of thousands, and light novels have the additional expense of licensing fees to contend with on the balance sheet.
Along with Justin Sevakis, I also think that light novel adaptations have been slow to take off for the same reason visual novel adaptations have been slow to take off--all those words. 
One of the most popular yaoi light
novel series in the U.S., the later
volumes are far superior translations
to the earlier ones. Readers read
them anyway--but they complained.
Like American television producers, Japanese publishers try to cover every genre and demographic and hope that something catches fire. That includes, of course, chasing the latest trends.
The problem outside Japan is building a critical mass of supply when the still nascent demand doesn't justify the investment. That critical mass has been achieved with manga and anime (it only took a quarter century). It's tougher with a non-visual medium like traditional books.
The steepest cost in localizing a Japanese novel is the translation. A manga can be translated in a week or two, as opposed to a month or two (with no editing). With manga, the American publisher can work from the original print-ready PDFs, erase the speech bubbles and type in the English.
A novel has to be edited and typeset from scratch. On current budgets, there is never enough editing (and often there is barely any).
Good anime and manga can survive mediocre translations. Not so much novels. Especially when it precedes the manga, anime, and movie adaptations, the text has to stand on its own.
Coming next: Japan's Reading Culture!