“Keep your day job.” Edward Lipsett reveals what it’s really like to be an independent publisher of translated literature

By Gabi Reigh

Edward Lipsett is an American immigrant to Japan, living and working there for over 40 years as a professional translator. About a decade ago he began publishing English translations of foreign literature, initially Japanese works under the Kurodahan Press imprint, followed more recently by Eastern and Southeastern European works as Cadmus Press. He lives in Kumamoto prefecture. In this interview, our contributor Gabi Reigh, whose translation from Romanian of Liviu Rebreanu’s 1927 novel Danse Macabre (from the original Ciuleandra) will be published by Cadmus Press later this year, finds out his views about what makes a good translation, why, as a small publisher, you should never give up the day job, and what life is like in rural Japan during a global pandemic.


Gabi Reigh (GR): At the moment, due to the Covid 19 restrictions, the only way most of us can travel is through our imagination. You are writing your answers to this interview from your home in Japan. Describe to us the place where you live, so we can see it through your eyes. What can you see out of your window?

Edward Lipsett (EL): I face the same restrictions as everyone else, but fortunately I live in the country where they don’t impact me too much. For decades I lived in big Japanese cities, but a few years ago my wife, dogs, and I moved to up-country Kumamoto prefecture, in southern Japan. It’s in the mountains: the town has only about 2500 people and is primarily rice-growing country. A few dairy farmers. A lot of green, green mountains. Frogs, pheasants, boar, deer, tanuki, and an occasional monkey or two, although our garden hasn’t received any visitors except the frogs, geckos, and snakes that live here, and a few cats who didn’t know about our dogs.

We can go days without actually meeting anyone; even when I walk the dog in the morning I rarely see anyone closer than a few hundred meters. Shopping is maybe twice a week, and it’s easy enough to stay meters away from other people there because there are so few of them.

The sparse population has its advantages, but it also means the closest hospital is designed to serve an older, relatively small population… and if (when) COVID gets here that might get very unpleasant very quickly. Still, I don’t regret leaving urban Japan behind.

GR: You have been living in Japan for 40 years and were originally born in the USA. How did you come to live in Japan and what attracted you to this country?

EL: I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, right over the border from Washington DC, and went to University of Maryland originally to get an Electrical Engineering degree. It wasn’t as glamorous as I had hoped, and while wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up, I took a random comparative religion course for the humanities credits.

It literally changed my life.

My knowledge of East Asia at the time was pretty much just what I got from movies and fantasy books, and the comparative religion course was obviously a lot more realistic, and deeper. I was fascinated, and the next semester took a boatload of courses on East Asia. Eventually I ended up on a double major (Electrical Engineering and Japanese Literature and Civilization), topped off with an exchange scholarship to a Japanese university. I basically never went back after that.

What attracted me?

Hard to pin it down. A lot of little things, coupled with general dissatisfaction with the US (I was in my early 20s then, and like most people looking for Something Better). Specifically, I was very interested in the extended family, and arrived in Japan just about the time it became extinct here. The Japanese have their faults, being human, but probably the thing that attracts me the most is that they simply are quieter and less likely to shout or get into arguments. I happen to like a lot of things about the way the culture works, too, although some of them (like the strong community awareness that traditionally minimized crime while also ensuring everyone fit the same-sized round peg-hole) have been breaking down over the last few years/decades as the Japanese get used to expressing their opinions and wants.

GR: You founded the Kurodahan Press in 2002. Why did you decide to go into publishing? 

EL: After a few years at a major Japanese trading firm I decided I could do better as an independent translator. I was right, and my income increased about ten-fold within a year or so of leaving. One thing led to another, and after relocating from Tokyo to Fukuoka I ended up with a corporation employing (at peak) about 20 people and doing a million dollars a year in business. You get tired of translating the same business material very quickly; it took me several decades to get tired enough.

I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy, and of course promptly began reading Japanese literature as soon as I got here. It took me a few years before I could read it without a dictionary, but a summer intensive at Middlebury and a year at a Japanese university gave me a strong start. I began attending Japanese conventions, gradually finding friends there, and was fortunate enough to be invited to serve as “English consultant” to a group of professional translators who met once a month. I’d help them parse difficult English by people like Asimov, Heinlein, Crichton, GRR Martin and other brand name authors. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the translators who came to these meetings (usually held at a spa for an overnight event) were the cream of the profession, and provided me with an incredible network of Important People.

I began translating my first science fiction novel probably in the early 1980s, and over the years have translated maybe a dozen works of various length, including several novels. I’m (slowly) working on a collection of weird stories now by an author who was active before WW2.

My commercial translation company ate up an awful lot of time and energy, and I was not very happy after the first decade or two. With in-house translators and designers, though, I figured it should be possible to translate Japanese literature and publish it. Turned out that it was. Now my commercial translation company is essentially non-existent, and I (as sole employee!) spend most of my time working on literature in translation.

GR: In your Twitter profile you describe yourself as a “professional translator, now losing money hand over fist as a publisher.” Can you tell us a bit more about the challenges, financial and otherwise, of being an independent publisher? Have you noticed any changes in the publishing industry since you started?

EL: Everything costs money. Even the time I invested cost me money when I started, because it meant I wasn’t translating as a paying job. On-demand printing has made it possible for anyone to publish their own books, with global distribution, which is great, but it also means that anything you publish immediately faces competition from a zillion other books. I’m hardly an expert in the field – if I were, I’d be a lot more successful than I am now – but I do have a few observations that may help.

  1. Keep your day job. You need that income, and it will take a long time to start getting any profit (or even revenue!) from a publishing business.
  2. Learn about your copyright law. It varies with nation, and you need to understand it before you get sued. Sure, it can be very complicated, but it’s pretty easy to figure out what sorts of things are likely to end up in court. And you really, really don’t want to go to court. There is some invaluable material here dealing with American law: http://www.ivanhoffman.com/ (which does not obviate your need to talk to an attorney!)
  3. You will need to look and sound professional when you approach authors, rights agencies, publishers, literary estates, etc. That doesn’t mean you have to be formal and stiff as a board — friendly works better for me — but if you act like someone publishing out of their closet, you may not get the answers you want. Look and act professional, even if you are publishing out of your closet.
  4. Keep your day job.
  5. Marketing is pretty much everything. I mentioned those zillion competing titles – keep that in mind. You need “eyeballs,” which means getting people to notice your book. No matter how great it is, if nobody ever hears about it, it won’t sell. There is a lot of information available for free on the web (for example, try the article archive at https://www.ibpa-online.org/). Marketing means all sorts of things, and what tools you use will depend on who your prospective buyers are: advertisements, Amazon, Library Thing and GoodReads, Twitter, video presentations, reviewer copies, conventions and book fairs, etc, etc, etc. The list of possibilities is endless, and they all take time and money.
  6. Did I mention keeping your day job?
  7. Regardless of everything, you will forget it all the instant you hold a copy of your first book in your paws. If it has your name on the cover, you may be euphoric for days. The thrill never goes away, but you do begin to get used to it.

GR: In 2016 you started a new venture, the publishing company Cadmus Press, specializing in Eastern and Southeastern European literature. What prompted this venture?

EL: As a publisher, Kurodahan Press is primarily interested in translating Japanese literature into English. I used to be a wide-ranging and voracious reader, though, and along the way I picked up a book by Serbian author Zoran Živković. I was enthralled (and was astonished when he emailed me to thank me for my comments!) We gradually became friends, and eventually we decided to publish a few of his best stories in Japanese. I asked a leading Japanese literary translator to handle it. She was ecstatic about his writing as well, and made time (yes, I also paid her going rates…). I priced the book pretty close to cost, hoping to just get people interested in his work, and hopefully stimulate other translations.

It worked to a limited extent: we sold a bunch of copies and a major Japanese publisher released a collection of his stories in a full-scale hardcover release. We still haven’t made a profit on our book, though. That was all through Kurodahan Press.

Throughout that whole process, I had been looking for a partner to work with me in publishing, to eventually inherit the company so Kurodahan books would remain in print in the future (still am, actually, but I’ve pretty much abandoned hope by now). George Sipos, a scholar with excellent translation creds (literary and commercial), a southeastern Europe background, academic creds for Japanese studies, and strong interest in publishing translations into English turned up, and we talked. He originally wanted to help out with Kurodahan, but later it turned out he really wanted to publish literature from eastern and southeastern Europe, too. One thing led to another, and eventually we ended up working with Zoran Živković to release all of his works in English under a new imprint

That collection is expected to be completed in 2020, and meanwhile other authors have been added, from nations like Ukraine, North Macedonia, Romania, and Montenegro.

While both imprints are legally the same company, they don’t have any obvious connection to each other, or the two other imprints I’m involved with. The content handled is different, but the backoffice work involved is much the same. I deliberately left them as apparently different imprints so that they could be split apart in the future more easily.

GR: Your work with Cadmus Press has introduced you to a variety of Eastern European authors. Do you think there is something particularly distinctive about their writing – could you recognize that a book is written by an Eastern European right away?

EL: No, I don’t think so. Thanks to translation all sorts of literature is crossing national boundaries, and non-traditional themes and styles are pretty common now. If you replaced all the proper nouns in a work I think most people would be hard-pressed to guess where it came from.

GR: How do you select the books that you publish? Are you mostly guided by the things that you are interested in or are you influenced by trends in the publishing world?

EL: I read Japanese but no European languages (other than English, duh), so obviously any new titles I personally like are coming from Japanese literature. Just this year I finally signed a book that has been near the top of my list for literally decades (sorry, not announced yet). Last year I published The Sheltering Rain by Hanmura Ryō, which is another book I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.

My tastes tend toward SF and the uncanny, so the Kaiki series, the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series, Rampo, and the Tani Kōshū books, for example, were all my choices.

Most of the “mainstream” titles are ideas brought to me by translators or agents. I get a lot of proposals, and have to read the book (sometimes in two languages) to see if it’s interesting or worthy, check the translation briefly to make sure it’s acceptable even if it still needs work, and then reach a preliminary agreement with the translator. Once that’s done, the next step is to talk to the rights holder of the source.

One of the advantages of running my own company and not expecting to make any money at it is that I can publish the books I think are worthy, regardless of what the publishing world thinks. Every so often it turns out that we think alike, though, which is nice.

GR: What about the books that translators pitch to you? What do you think constitutes a good translation or a book that is worth investing in?

EL: The first step is just to read the translation and see if it’s interesting, or at least worthy of being published even if it is dry as a bone. Even if the translation and the English usage are perfect, if the content is a laundry list, I’m not interested.

The second step is to check a number of places and see how the translator handled them. Japanese has a number of peculiarities that don’t work well in English, such as frequent use of passive constructions, missing subjects, and frequently forgetting to specify quantity, gender, and sometimes tense. Unless the translator can check with the author, there can be a lot of places where different translators can make different interpretations of a given source sentence, and all can be equally good. It’s impossible to tell if the translator’s interpretation is right, most of the time, but it is usually possible to tell when it is clearly wrong.

The third step is to see how the English reads, sounds, sings. I have seen a number of accurate  translations that read like 19th-century history textbooks. Minor stuff can be fixed by an editor, but if a manuscript needs to be completely rewritten it should be done by the translator. Or translated again by someone else.

It’s often possible to tell a book is a translation because the English is peculiar. The Japanese call books translated from English that have this problem “bata-kusai,” which means they “smell of butter” (i.e., a taste imported from the West). Somebody – maybe me, I don’t recall – coined the term “shōyu-kusai” (“smells of soy sauce”) to describe the reverse: a Japanese work in English that still reads Japanese.

There are certainly times when you want to preserve the alien flavor of a work, but it has to be done selectively, and with care. Walt Disney mentioned the “willing suspension of disbelief” as a key element in his work, and it applies to literature, too. A poorly chosen word or phrase can make the reader stop and wonder about the meaning, destroying the illusion and dropping the reader abruptly back into the real world.

For Japanese I handle most of these evaluations myself, but have a few people I ask for opinions or suggestions as needed. For languages I don’t speak I have little choice but to ask other people to check the accuracy of the translation.

Any book that gets through those three evaluations is worth looking into, which means talking time and money with the author, translator, editor, etc.

GR: What advice would you give to somebody thinking about setting up as an independent publisher specializing in literature in translation?

EL: See No. 5 above, but basically:

Have enough time and money to do it right.

Don’t get people angry at you. It’s a small industry, and if you do anything silly it will come back to bite you.

Try to fix potential problems before you need to, because once you need to fix them it may be too late.

GR: Tell us more about the highlights of the past 18 years since you started publishing. Are there any books that are particularly special to you or new authors you have been pleased to discover?

EL: Never ask a parent which child is more special!

I think The Black Lizard by Edogawa Rampo is perhaps the most important, because it played a huge part in getting Kurodahan founded. Way back in the previous century, I wanted to translate it just for a few friends, and asked if anyone wanted to do it with me as a lark. An Australian translator, Ian Hughes, agreed it sounded like a good way to relax, and we alternated chapters, whipping it though it very quickly. It was loads of fun, with no deadline and no overseers.

Fast-forward a few years, and Kurodahan Press is conceived, and I would really like to publish that book. I asked Ian if he wanted to re-do the whole thing as a real job (abandoning my claim on the portions I translated, whether he used them or not), plus Beast in the Shadows to make a reasonably thick book. He agreed, the Japanese publisher and rights holder agreed, and we were off. It was one of the very first books we signed. As it turned out, everyone loves Rampo, and we’ve been adding Rampo books over the years. Rampo’s grandson was always very supportive. Rampo’s work entered public domain a few years ago.








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