SWET Open Forum 2009: Wordsmithing in Japan

by Katherine Heins

Where to go for translators’ resources, how to control your computer’s Japanese inputting settings, what an editor needs to know about word processing and other software, how to market your professional skills and carve your niche, how to get your work published, what to tell a Japanese author who wants his/her work published—these were some of the questions that were asked and answered on April 21, 2009 at the SWET Open Forum on wordsmithing in Japan.

In a drenching rain on an April evening, 28 people made their way to the Shōkō Kaikan in Shibuya to take part in the SWET Open Forum on Wordsmithing in Japan. A quick round of self-introductions revealed a large contingent of translators (11), along with four translator/editors, four editors, one editor/writer, and eight writers. Translator/editor Lynne Riggs and translator Fred Uleman, both long-time SWET stalwarts, moderated the meeting.

Not unexpectedly, the first question to be asked in the forum was “What are good resources for translators?” Two were mentioned immediately, the first being the Japan Association of Translators (JAT). According to the JAT website, JAT exists “as a means for individual translators to exchange information and insight, thereby helping each other not just to do a better job for their clients but a more rewarding one for themselves as well.” (More than a few of those present at the forum turned out to be JAT members; when it was established in the mid-1980s, JAT was actually originally part of SWET.) The other recommended resource was the Honyaku mailing list, an open mailing list for translators. Established in 1994 by Dan Kanagy, the list gives access to the know-how of over 500 members, and also sends out job postings. A complementary website developed by Adam Rice offers some useful links for translators ranging from industry-specific terminology resources to dictionaries to online tools for translators. These resources would likely be particularly useful to the several medical translators and editors who were present at the forum.

Technical Assistance

The discussion moved on to the subject of technical difficulties for editors. The editors present expressed varying levels of comfort with computers and software, but even for the most tech-savvy among us, there are always new tools on the horizon! First, we learned about some useful software for editors needing to work in both Japanese and English. One recommended method for inputting characters is JustSystems’ ATOK, which apparently used to mean “Automatic Transfer of Kana-kanji” but is now officially spelled out as “Applied Text of Kana-kanji.” Acronymics aside, ATOK has a number of functions, depending on your platform, including searching for kanji using phonetic input, or by radical, or by using a graphics tablet. It also will do reverse retrieval of phonetic input, both to kun yomi and on yomi. It has text templates for standard phrases, address labels, and Japanese emoticons, and offers real-time text auto-completion in both Japanese and English. Also useful is the Japanese-English popup dictionary Rikaichan (an add-on for Mozilla Firefox) which displays kanji, hiragana, and/or katakana readings for any Japanese word online with a quick mouse-over. Great for quickly scanning e-mails in Japanese if you are not a translator!

Some writers and editors struggle to bridge the gap in word processing between Mac and PC platforms. Microsoft Word is often the application of choice for editors and clients, and the compatibility of MS Word files between Mac and Windows makes it unbeatable for word work involving many people using different work set-ups. A vocal few seem to find it hard to use, overly complicated, and worthy of only the strongest expletives. Those who have used Word as it has gone through its more than 10 versions are not uncritical, but find they can “tame the beast” where necessary and get on with the work. On the other hand, many wordsmiths who use MS Word are unhappy with the most recent versions because they have a number of unnecessary new features, some of which also limit cross-platform collaboration. MS Word 2004 has nearly everything a wordsmith really needs for most workaday editing/rewriting/translating, though the geeks will probably never stop coming up with new ways to be “helpful.”

If you find MS Word to be overly complex or expensive, there are alternatives available that may suit your needs. An overall computer-savvy editor/writer veteran energetically recommends (for Mac users only) Pages, which is Apple’s word processor and document layout application (part of the iWork productivity suite) and costs substantially less than the Microsoft offering. Pages has word processing functions comparable to Word’s, including a number of useful templates, and can in fact import Microsoft Word documents (including Word 2007’s XML format). The application can also export edited documents in a number of formats, including RTF, PDF, and Word’s own .doc file formats (the last comes complete with tracked changes and comments). However, the range of import and export options is more limited than in Word. On the freeware side, wordsmiths can download the open-source application OpenOffice.org (informally known as OpenOffice) for free; it offers a more-or-less seamless way to work on Microsoft Office documents if you don’t have the Microsoft software or prefer not to use it. In fact, some claim that it can open damaged files or those made with older versions of Office that the latest “official” Office versions cannot. OpenOffice includes not only a word processor, but also a spreadsheet program, a presentation program, a database management program, a graphics editor, and a tool for creating and editing mathematical formulae.

On Marketing Ourselves

A question that concerns writers, editors, and translators alike is how to effectively market and promote oneself, particularly using the Internet. We were told about author and entrepreneur Seth Godin’s popular and thought-provoking blog oriented toward marketing. You can subscribe to it via RSS feed and get a whole new perspective on marketing by following Godin’s daily posts. Forum participants also recommended posting comments on other peoples’ blogs (especially if they are in a field similar to yours)—you can even sign your comments with a link to your own website for extra impact. Visibility is the key to getting noticed, and if people consistently see your name appended to incisive commentary on relevant issues, good things are likely to come your way.

For those who prefer a more traditional approach, making a distinctive meishi, letting it be known that you are in the market for work, and participating in events attended by the kind of people you want to work for can get your foot in the door. Having a face-to-face acquaintance with a client can be reassuring if you are just starting out; the more established you become, the easier it is to work with clients entirely online. Working for people you know in person is always more congenial and harmonious, however; and going to the trouble of visiting a new client and introducing yourself just once can make a big difference in how much confidence they will have in your work. At the very least, making voice contact—no matter how busy you and they are—will improve trust and help nurture a good professional relationship.

Though we are all concerned with finding work, in Tokyo it is generally not difficult to find some kind of work in writing, editing, or translation, with the right skills and by building on whatever connections you might have. In less central areas, the search may take a little more perseverance. Several attendees had made their way to the forum from distant cities (including one stouthearted translator from Kyushu!) and wanted to know how to find work outside the big city. Treasure your local connections, they were told—find out who else in your area does the work you want to do, and establish a relationship.

To build your business, it may be helpful to develop more than one specialization; e.g., a translator might decide to focus on medical translation as well as, say, legal or patent work. Translators can also establish their credentials by participating in (and, one hopes, winning) translation competitions. Writers wishing to become known should submit work to as many magazines and anthologies as possible. (In days of yore, it was not acceptable to submit the same piece to multiple publications, but this practice is now encouraged—as long as you are clear up-front that you have also sent your work elsewhere and that you may withdraw it from consideration if it is accepted by another publication.)

If you are a writer, it pays to be aware of the style requirements specified by the publisher and fully investigate the types of articles in the publication: magazines and academic journals will refuse submissions without further consideration if the content does not suit their publication and its style does not follow their guidelines. Most publications now explain their style and submission requirements on their websites.

Finally, mention was made of Peter Matthews’s Academic Research Cooperative, a kind of clearinghouse where researchers, research editors, science writers, translators, and publishers can come together to find work or someone to do work. This site may be a useful resource for academic writers and translators, especially those with a scientific focus.

Getting into Print

Discussion of the question, “How can one find a publisher or get something published, especially when it caters to several niche or limited markets rather than one obvious mass market?” led to a substantial discussion on publishing, including the pros and cons of self-publishing. Various Tokyo publishers, including Kodansha International and Charles E. Tuttle, were mentioned, as was the possibility of finding an agent. University presses tend to pay low royalties, but may be an avenue for publication if you have written or translated a work that is scholarly or of interest to scholars. Two participants in the forum had recently gone the self-publishing route, and they offered a wealth of information and suggestions. Their insights can best be shared by referring to accounts of their experiences already published in the SWET Newsletter and on the SWET Weblog:

  • Fred Uleman’s article on self-publishing a translated collection of essays on the Japanese Constitution appeared in SWET Newsletter Number 121 (November 2008).

  • Hugh Ashton has written several entries for the SWET Weblog detailing his efforts to self-publish and self-market his novel Beneath Gray Skies; his post “Is the the future of fiction publishing?” tells the story of how he finally ended up self-publishing through a company called Lulu.

Unfortunately, although several participants still had questions, the tyranny of the clock forced the discussion to a close. We adjourned for a 15-minute session of mingling, chatting, and passing out name cards before venturing back out into the rainy night, at least marginally wiser than we had been before we came, and comforted by the knowledge that though our work brings endless questions, at least we are in good company.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 123, October 2009)