Thinking Forward: SWET Starts Its Fourth Decade

by Lynne E. Riggs

Only a few blocks away from the apartment building in Aoyama where, in November 1980, 100 writers, editors, translators, and others of their kind had gathered and founded SWET, 33 SWETers—young, not-so-young, and 30 years older—gathered at the Wesley Center on November 3, 2010 to celebrate the beginning of SWET’s fourth decade. Remarks by James Baxter, Janine Beichman, Juliet Winters Carpenter, Andrew Horvat, Lynne Riggs, Mark Schreiber, and Fred Uleman noted the strengths of the organization and made suggestions for the future. Messages were also received from Anne Bergasse, Torkil Christensen, and Leza Lowitz.

The wave of publishing and writing in English about Japan that swelled from the end of World War II and crested in the mid-1990s gave many teachers and wordsmiths lucrative careers. Then the speculative Bubble burst, Kobe quaked, and Chinese capitalism surged. The print publishing industry and cultural exchange endeavors are in recession, but “internationalism” and “globalism” are irreversible trends for the island nation of Japan. With English apparently the lingua franca of Asia, the lighthouse that SWET has provided for professionals working with the English word in a non-Anglophone environment still seems a needed edifice. The advent of the Internet and digital technology have revolutionized the media and the reference tools we use, but have done little to replace the human interface. Computers and software programs still cannot fix garbled sentences or read between the lines; the human brain can. Indeed, the digital age has simply made the tasks we must perform even more overwhelming.

There are societies and associations of all sorts in Japan—for writers, teachers, translators, women executives, English instructors, and so on—but SWET has been the only organization that reaches out to those whose work with the English word across professions. Linguists and literature professors are editors and proofreaders; translators are page-layout advisors and proofreaders; editors are translators in disguise; rewriters are translators—especially in Japan—adding currency to our affinity with each other as “wordsmiths.” Passing on the expertise and experience of the past to the next generation, SWET has long provided a place where people can discuss shared problems, improve their skills, and establish professional connections both offline and in cyberspace.
    There are now plenty of ways to obtain information. Thanks to the Internet and the digital revolution in databases and publishing, one can ask questions, get reliable answers, and engage in discussion without ever changing out of pajamas. So why do we need an organization like SWET? What do we want from it that we can’t get otherwise, elsewhere? What can we do to advance the goals that brought us to this society? Every decade or so, we ask ourselves these questions anew.
    The SWET Newsletter invites you to ponder such questions in order to articulate, with those who attended the 30th anniversary celebration in Tokyo November 3, 2010, what we can and should be on the threshold of our fourth decade. This juncture seems to be a little different from the beginning of other phases in our history; it coincides with a shift in generations, making the society perhaps more open than ever to new ideas and initiatives and new modes of doing things. All SWET members, no matter where they are, are eligible and welcome to shape the group’s activities and launch its projects. We encourage you to make your voice heard. Here we present highlights of the remarks presented at the 30th anniversary celebration and the messages received on that occasion as samples of the different ways people see SWET and give it their support.

Please share your thoughts with us in the usual ways.

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“I applaud you!”
James Baxter, historian and currently director of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Yokohama, was previously professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. At Nichibunken, he was in charge of editing the periodical Japan Review and other English-language publications for the Center. He continues to edit papers, academic and otherwise, for scholars on both a pro bono and a professional basis. As a scholar and administrator on the front lines of Japan’s efforts in international exchange, Baxter has nevertheless long been a member of SWET, and speaking of the challenges and frustrations faced by wordsmiths here, Baxter said, “I know how hard it is.” He added, “Precisely because of the terrible English—even in such simple things as the abstracts of articles—Japanese scholarship does not get its due overseas.”
    Reflecting how it is now the norm for researchers to scan online resources for information and pick and choose what is most accessible, he regrets that “while in many fields there is much research that is worthy in Japanese, if international scholars read an abstract that is badly written, they are not going to bother to pursue the research in its original.” Baxter is a member of the advisory board for Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies, which is the relatively new refereed journal of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies, a consortium institution of which Nichibunken is a member. The journal’s content is mostly in Japanese, and he mourned that while “the main parts in English are the abstracts, for the last two years the abstracts have really, really not done justice to the Japanese originals.” These experiences underline the importance of what SWET wordsmiths do, he emphasized, concluding, “I applaud you!”

“The mutual exchange of professional wisdom”
Anne Bergasse, who heads the Abinitio Design studio with her husband Kiwaki Tetsuji, is designer of the SWET Newsletter. In a message to those gathered in Aoyama on November 3, Bergasse wrote of her appreciation of SWET:
. . . over the 20-plus years that I’ve been [in Japan], I’ve had my share of working with amateur writers and editors. In contrast and without exception, the writers or “word” people from the SWET membership that I have had the pleasure of working with have always been professional, with exacting standards. From them, I learned a lot and it was a mutual exchange of professional wisdom.
    I think this is the strength of SWET: “The mutual exchange of professional wisdom.”
    Bergasse’s message also expressed her hope that more design professionals would be involved with SWET. “How do we entice more designers to join SWET?” Designers may express more eloquence in their graphics and layouts than in the words that their work holds, but they have long taught us that, as Bergasse reiterates, “like two sides of a coin, the two sides of a moving and interesting piece of writing are “content” and “presentation.” When an experienced designer and writer work together there is truly a “mutual exchange of professional wisdom.” This is a message that will ring in our ears in the years ahead.

 “Yes! Mutuality, rather than hierarchy.”
Janine Beichman, professor of Japanese literature at Daito Bunka University, is a contributor to the SWET Newsletter as well as one of its most stalwart fans. She celebrates the space it gives articles that might not be published elswhere, and applauds the near-anonymous volunteer efforts that go into its publication, projecting the energy of the organization as a whole, rather than self-interested individual agendas. Beichman, who is a member of various other societies and associations and is familiar with the foibles of academic institutions, expressed praise for SWET’s lack of hierarchy and the generally harmonious collaboration that characterizes its management. “It is almost as if some of the good qualities of the collectives in the 1960s United States are alive in SWET,” she observes. “That’s something to treasure as you consider where SWET should go from here.”

SWET’s goals are to facilitate the flow of information among members, encourage the sharing of know-how and experience, and provide a vehicle for increased contact among people working in related fields. We hope our efforts will result in better working conditions and higher standards of expertise in the many fields that relate to the use of written English in Japan, be they translation, rewriting, publishing, editing, copywriting, book and magazine design, or allied fields.

“We want SWET, like Mt. Fuji, always to be there.”
Despite her busy schedule of teaching and translating (often two or three books simultaneously), Juliet Winters Carpenter, translator and professor at Doshisha Women’s College, Kyoto, supplies the SWET Newsletter Committee with ideas for reviews, articles, and suggestions for events, as well as speaking at and attending as many events and meetings as she can. Carpenter explained that she has not always been an active SWET member, but that it has become an important institution to her in recent years. Especially the people she meets at its gatherings, she remarked, are “people who are always worth coming all the way from Kyoto to see.” Recalling her trip up to Tokyo on the Shinkansen, she honored SWET with a surprising simile: “SWET is kind of like Mt. Fuji—you might not get to all the meetings, there might have been something you really planned on going to, but didn’t—but like Mt. Fuji, SWET would still be there; and I’d like to think that SWET will always be there.”
    Carpenter described her appreciation for the umbrella SWET creates, under which people of different specialties—who are often described as wordsmiths—gather together, and learn from each other. When she needed to proofread a book she was involved in, she attended SWET’s Proofreading Workshop and picked up numerous tips for the times when she has to put on that different “hat” from the ones she usually wears. “SWET is a wonderful institution because it provides a place where you can get help—or vent your frustrations—as a translator, and you can enjoy a forum where wordsmiths come together—people who all share this passion about words. I don’t know how much wisdom I have to share, but I have a lot of passion, and I value the chance to absorb from other people who really care deeply about these same things.”

“Let us keep sharing and polishing the wonder of English”
Now an emeritus professor residing in Sapporo, Torkil Christensen is an indispensable member of the SWET Newsletter team who with distinctive wit and humor digests the threads on the organization’s Internet mailing list (SWET-L) for readers of the Newsletter. Sending “greetings and felicitations on the auspicious occasion of SWET’s 30th,” Christensen reminded us that though “thirty years used to be a lifetime, it is not even half of what we get today,” so this is hopefully just the start for SWET. Applauding the landmark achievements in publishing the Japan Style Sheet and maintaining SWET-L, he urges us to “keep sharing and polishing the wonders of English,” and to invigorate “the wrinkles of our gray matter through the mutual help and assistance that SWET offers.”

“The passionate commitment of translators, and the value of social capital”
Andrew Horvat currently serves as director of the Stanford Center for Technology and Innovation in Kyoto and is a part-time instructor at Showa Women’s University. Horvat referred to his earlier efforts for the proposed TES-Net (Translation and Editing Support Network) project aimed at encouraging Japanese scholars to publish more work in English (see SWET Newsletter 108), to which he contributed while he was Tokyo representative of the Asia Foundation. The Asia Foundation has funded educational and cultural exchange programs between Japan and the United States since the early post–World War II period—the days “when Japan and the United States were thrown together as allies and suddenly needed to really know each other.” About 50 million dollars were spent on promoting such cultural exchange, he told us, noting that even the often-maligned CIA put its money behind praiseworthy translation and publishing projects. Such endeavors—bread and butter for SWET members—are key elements of cultural exchange, but require “passionate commitment” and often arduous, solitary work. Horvat included an anecdote from Hungary, the land of his birth, describing how A. A. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh, translated into Hungarian by the country’s foremost humorist, went on to inspire even a Hungarian rock-and-roll star. Still, noting that “sometimes passion is not enough,” and observing that “what translators are doing is not commercially viable,” Horvat offers the view that sometimes government funding is necessary. “If you are looking for SWET to be around in the next thirty years, the most important thing is to find a way to make what you are doing of interest to a foundation, a government, or some kind of organization that believes that the promotion of cultural and educational exchange is in its interest.” The existence of an organization like SWET, he reminded us, is social capital: “The concept of social capital is that an organization that has been founded to achieve a particular goal is not only advantageous to that organization and its members, but to society as a whole. So were SWET to disappear tomorrow, it would not just be your loss, it would be a loss for the whole concept of transpacific exchange.”

“A true society . . . of like-minded souls”
Prolific writer, editor, co-translator, and poet as well as yoga teacher, Leza Lowitz thanks SWET for helping her launch her successful career when she first came to Tokyo two decades ago. Not long after finding her first job as editor at the University of Tokyo Press, leading SWET organizer Susie Schmidt urged her to join the society. “I was not much of a joiner,” wrote Lowitz, who could not attend the 30th anniversary celebration but sent us her message beforehand, “but I nonetheless paid heed to the suggestion and signed up. What a relief to soon find that SWET was the kind of group that other “non-joiners” joined! I felt immediately at home. Through the all-volunteer and marvelously grass-roots gatherings and publications, I learned how to write, edit, publish and market a book. I learned about fonts and fiction, commas and colophons. I made lifelong friends, found jobs, and met my publisher—Peter Goodman of Stone Bridge Press, also a long-time SWETer. SWET helped me realize my dream of becoming a writer and offered a wonderful model of teamwork and vision.”
    Calling our attention to the Wikipedia definition of “society,” Lowitz reminds us what SWET brings to Japan’s literary world: a society that “allows its members to achieve needs or wishes they could not fulfill alone. . . certain resources, objectives, requirements, or results . . .[that] can only be gotten in a collective, collaborative manner, [and] teamwork [that] becomes the valid functional means to individual ends.” The society that is SWET, declares Lowitz, is “a gathering of like-minded souls, and as the thirty-year anniversary proves, it is a sustainable one that is as strong as ever.”

SWET’s membership is defined less by occupation than by the desire to share experience, information, and expertise regarding English writing and publishing.

“Renewed commitment to improving the professional abilities of wordsmiths”
Lynne E. Riggs, translator and editor of mainly non-fiction work in the humanities and social sciences, is currently coordinator of the SWET Newsletter editorial team. She writes of her hope to see translation and editing in Japan recognized for the professions they are—not dismissed as amateur or clerical activities that anyone can perform. “The caliber of Japan’s international participation could be dramatically enhanced by wider recognition of the need for real translation and editorial expertise.” SWET has been able to increase the visibility of professional wordsmiths somewhat, but there is much more to be done. Riggs suggests the following approaches:
    More emphasis on lectures, workshops, educational programs, and networking among members. A renewed commitment to the improvement of wordsmiths’ professional abilities and to cross-professional collaboration, networking, and skill-sharing among members can give individuals confidence and strengthen their voices, contributing to recognition of what we do.
    An advocacy program to lend weight to the position that translation, editing, and writing are occupations requiring specialized expertise. SWET should develop a list of recommendations and guidelines, perhaps similar to the wonderful resources provided by the U.K. Institute of Translation and Interpreting.
“Necessity is the mother of invention . . .”
Columnist and translator Mark Schreiber, a charter member of SWET, gently ridiculed the apparent never-ending fascination with what may well be “invented Japan” (his most recent encounter having been with a foreign TV crew searching for a shop where sushi is served atop a naked woman’s stomach). Rather than exploit clichés and stereotypes that never seem to go away, he declared that he finds no shortage of fresh topics to write about: “I still feel stimulated and interested to make Japan appreciated—or disliked—it doesn’t matter, because I’m not a propagandist.” Schreiber is known for unconventional topics ranging from the story behind the invention of the Gokiburi Hoi-hoi “roach motel” to tabloidesque accounts of ancient and modern crimes.
    A growing challenge writers face today, lamented Schreiber, comes from Internet blogs. Articles about Japan—“many of them quite good,” he ruefully admitted—are everywhere, and are available for free, much to the consternation of those who “shed so much blood, sweat, and tears to meet deadlines, keep editors happy, write well, etc.” via more traditional publishing channels. Schreiber concludes that writers may have to depend more on “the proposal type of business” to get publications to “understand that these are stories which need to be told, which have to be told, and which will by their telling create a larger body of information.” To meet the challenges of the digital age, he advised fellow SWETers that “necessity is the mother of invention—and I think that goes for writers, editors, and translators as well.”

“SWET will be what you make it. You are SWET. Happy Birthday.”
Playing a leading role in SWET from the beginning, in 1974 translator Fred Uleman had founded his own translation company—Japan Research, Inc.—and had established a broad professional network, especially among translators. He has also been a driving force in the Japan Association of Translators, which branched off from SWET in 1985. “SWET is some very good people,” he said, who are “good not only at what they do, but at getting things done and making things happen right.” Two of the dynamic stand-outs were Susie Schmidt and Becky Davis—competent, can-do, no-nonsense people who were personable, efficient, and got results.” Then and now, SWET is people taking the initiative, doing things—like setting up lectures, panels, compiling the Japan Style Sheet, editing and publishing Wordcraft, managing the SWET-L mailing list, doing maintenance on the website, updating the membership database, writing, editing, proofreading, designing the SWET Newsletter, answering questions that come into SWET and mailing out materials to new members, keeping its accounts, creating its directory of members, coming up with ideas for events, contacting potential speakers, working reception at events, and so on. People take turns when necessary, and pitch in when needed.
    “Over the years, we have sometimes wondered if SWET should have a formal hierarchy—with officers and everything,” Uleman recalled, with Beichman’s comments in mind, “but we have decided it did not need them.” Making decisions by consensus and through the leadership of initiative, the organization trundled along without adopting a hierarchy. The organization does have a nominal set of directors, “but they are not directors in the sense of actually directing anything. They are more like an archive of decisions the self-appointed members of the Steering Committee have already made. So that is what SWET has been: a very loose, non-structured organization of can-do people who do things.”
    As for what SWET should be from now on, said Uleman, “that’s what each member has to ask him- or herself. What do you want to do? We hope you will speak up—because that is part of SWET’s vision for the future. SWET will be what you make it. You are SWET. Happy birthday!”

Originally published in the No. 127 issue of the SWET Newsletter. For a detailed account of SWET’s four decades see the History of SWET. (Illustration by John Shelley 2011)

(Illustration by John Shelley 2011)