Self-Publishing a Self-Initiated Translation

A professional non-fiction translator for over 40 years, Fred Uleman, in September 2009, self-published Rethinking the Constitution: An Anthology of Japanese Opinion, a translation of Kodansha’s 2004 Nihon no kenpo: Kokumin shuken no ronten. SWET asked Uleman how he came to translate and publish a book he was not paid to do, and what it involved.

 

Interview with Author Fred Uleman

Q: Your name is a fixture in SWET and in the Japan Association of Translators, among other professional interest groups. How did you get started in translation?

A: I came to Japan in 1963, shortly after graduating from the University of Michigan. Needing a student visa, I pretended to study at International Christian University, but actually spent more time learning outside than inside the classroom. After several years, I got lucky and Simul International asked me to translate a paper on U.S.-Japan relations for the first Shimoda Conference (a conference designed to allow high-level Japanese and American figures to discuss critical issues in an unofficial setting). With that began a long-time association with Simul, a relationship that endured for decades. Yet even while I was working for Simul, I found myself with an increasingly broad array of business, political, and other translation clients, which led me to set up my own company, Japan Research, in 1974.

Q: You have published a book yourself, at your own initiative. What is it about?

A: It is my translation of an anthology of essays by Japanese opinion leaders on whether or not the Constitution should be revised and how and why. The list of authors includes people from a wide range of fields and with a wide range of opinions. Hence the English title Rethinking the Constitution: An Anthology of Japanese Opinion. I see it as primary source material—or at least as close to primary as translation can get—for anyone interested in this issue.

As you know, the Constitution has been controversial almost from day one. Some people complain that it ties the military’s hands unduly, others that it admits the people excessive rights, still others that it insufficiently honors the imperial institutions. And more. Yet each of these “failings” is supported by substantial numbers of people who see them as “features” and defend them fiercely. Nonetheless, talk of amending the Constitution has become more and more conspicuous.

Yet when push comes to shove, it is ultimately the Japanese people who will decide this issue. Which leads to the question: What do they think? Not only politicians and pundits, but other people in all walks of life. And that is the question this book seeks to answer.

Q: How did you decide to do this? Did somebody bring it to you?

A: I picked it myself. I saw Nihon no kenpō: Kokumin shuken no ronten in the bookstore, read it, and thought, “Good book. Wonder who Kōdansha is going to ask to translate it.”

But when I asked Kōdansha, it turned out they were not going to ask anyone. They would not even let me volunteer to do it for them. They had no plans to put out an English edition. That really seemed a shame, since it is such an interesting book.

So I decided I would do it: Translate the book and find a publisher.

Q: You blithely talk about just going ahead and translating the book, but that’s a big chunk of time and energy. How can you afford this?

A: I’m retired. Basically, I can do whatever I want to. Of course, even when I was pre-retired and working intensely as a commercial translator, I tried to only do interesting projects that paid well. (I even gave away some clients when they became not-interesting-enough.) But now that I’m retired, the pay-well aspect is irrelevant. This struck me as a significant book—an interesting project—so I decided to do it.

Q: Just like that?

A: Not really. Even if I translated it, I could not publish the translation unless all of the scores of authors had given me permission to translate their essays. So that was the next step: Get the necessary permissions.

Happily, Kōdansha was willing to supply contact information for most of the authors. And even more happily, all of the authors were very encouraging. Everybody said yes.

Q: What did you do about royalties?

A: One or two people asked about royalties, but I explained that the book will be lucky to break even, that there are so many authors that trying to calculate royalties would be a nightmare, that nobody else is getting paid, and a few other things, and they signed over the translation permission for free. The level of cooperation was truly gratifying.

Q: I assume you were translating even as you were seeking these permissions.

A: Yes. There is a tremendous amount of material there, and I wanted to get it into English and out as soon as I reasonably could. Of course, “as soon as I reasonably could” turned out to be not all that soon, but I did not want to sit around doing nothing while the okays trickled in.

Q: We know you have been translating a long time and politics is one of the things you do, but did you have any qualms about just going to print with your raw translation?

A: Absolutely. I do my best to do publication-quality translation, but I also know my limitations. So I asked a friend—a professional translation checker and a very good translator in her own right—if she would be willing to go over the translation and save me from my mistakes, careless and otherwise. She was my first choice, and I was relieved when she said yes. In addition, there were a few essays that another translator did, and we both went over those.

Once the translations were all done and I was happy with them, the next step was to get an editor to look at them. An experienced editor knows different things than I know and does not have the distraction of working from the source text. In addition, a good editor will catch awkward phrasing and other things that I might be too close to the text to notice. Here again, I was very fortunate in that one of the best in the business said she would help out with this project.

And then finally, I asked a couple of other friends to proofread the finished text for typos and other things the rest of us might have missed.

Q: And then it was ready for print?

A: Not yet. The next step was to send the translations to the original-Japanese authors in case they might have special terms they wanted to use. I do not know these people. I do not know their styles except for the text I am translating. So it was very possible the translation might get the voice wrong—the translation might not sound like these people sound in real life. I wanted to give them a chance to tune the translation if they were not comfortable with it. And in a few cases, when I thought the suggestions disrupted the flow, I talked with the authors about their suggestions and we were able to find alternative phrasings we were both happy with. Only then was it ready to be designed and laid out for publication.

Q: The way this is going, I half expect you to tell me another friend did that.

A: At that point, I wanted a publisher who would take care of the rest of the process—design, printing, placement, and all the rest. But the publishers I approached were not interested. It did not fit their lists. So I decided to publish it myself. And this meant finding a designer. Which gets me to saying “yes and no” to your assumption.

A friend—again one of the best in the business—said she would do it. She said it was an interesting book and a challenge to design well, so she would do it. Unfortunately, health problems got in the way. When she realized she was not going to be able to complete the design as soon as she wanted to, she told me I should find someone else.

So I asked around, and a friend whose judgment I respect suggested the person I ended up working with. He laid everything out, I found a good photo and a few endorsements for the cover, and we were set. The files went to the publish-on-demand company and they took care of the rest.

Q: You mentioned there are scores of essays. What are your favorites?

A: Sorry, I’m not going to say. There are too many good ones—people speaking personally to this crucial issue. I have a few favorites, but they are very subjective favorites and they probably won’t be your favorites. So I’m not going to say. By the same token, I’m not going to tell you who I think comes across as a little flakey. Our criteria are probably different, and I would rather you read them all without my biases.

Q: Fair enough. You mentioned you did this publish-on-demand. What attracted you to publish-on-demand?

A: You mean besides the fact that I could not find a regular publisher?

First, it was a way to get the book into print. And that was the whole point of this exercise. How can I get it out looking professional so people who are interested in Japanese Constitutional issues can access this material in English? Publish-on-demand does that.

Second, publish-on-demand avoids sunk costs and inventory. I do not have thousands of books taking up valuable real estate. If somebody wants a copy, we print up a copy and send it out.

And third, the company I used (BookSurge) is affiliated with Amazon, which meant the book got listed on Amazon.com. If I cannot get it into the bookstores, I at least want it on Amazon.com.

Q: That makes sense. Are there any downsides?

A: For me, the biggest downside is the flip side of an upside. I mentioned that the publish-on-demand company has an Amazon connection. That got the book on Amazon.com and a few other sites, but not Amazon.co.jp—which is ridiculous for a book as Japan-specific as this is. I assumed that a book that is available on one Amazon is available on all the Amazons. I assumed they are online and connected. Apparently not. While I was working on that, a number of people in Japan sent me money and I sent them books. It was not ideal, but it was a reasonable interim work-around. Now, happily, the book is available on Amazon.co.jp as well.

Another downside is that publish-on-demand does not take care of the advertising and all. It is publish-on-demand, not publicize-on-demand.

Q: So how are people supposed to find out about this book?

A: I sent multiple copies to the authors, both by way of thanks and in the hope they will spread the word. I have publicized it on some J/E translation mailing lists as well as lists where academics and other specialists discuss Japan issues. And I am hoping for some reviews. This is largely a word-of-mouth campaign. I do not have a lot of money to spend on advertising, and I’m not sure where I would spend it even if I did. This is not a mass-market book. It is not something that is going to sell a lot of copies right away. But I hope it is a niche reference resource that will keep selling for a long time.

Q: You mentioned you are retired. Now that you’ve done this, what’s next?

A: I don’t know yet. I’m doing some community things in Shibuya that take a lot of time and thought, but they’re not going to take forever. So what’s next? I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see what strikes me as compelling.

Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 121 (November 2008), pp. 51-56.