The debut issue of the Brooklyn, New York–based literary journal A Public Space, published in 2006, featured the inaugural installment of the quarterly’s now-popular Focus Portfolio series—a collection of writing, art, and interviews from other countries. The first portfolio covered Japan, and was curated by the country’s preeminent translator of American literature, Motoyuki Shibata, a professor of American literature at the University of Tokyo who has translated authors such as Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser, and Thomas Pynchon. Inspired by the new journal, Shibata decided to start his own literary magazine, a form that is virtually nonexistent in Japan. The result, launched in 2008, is the Tokyo-based Monkey Business, a quarterly magazine of new work by emerging, and some established, Japanese writers. Named for the Chuck Berry tune “Too Much Monkey Business,” the magazine also features at least one piece of new American writing in each issue, often selected from an American literary magazine, and a few classics, translated into Japanese by Shibata.
Other than the novels of Haruki Murakami, Japanese writing is in relatively limited supply in North America—and the work of emerging Japanese writers is especially hard to find. Ted Goossen, a translator and professor of Japanese literature at York University in Toronto, noticed this lack. Realizing that another literary magazine might be the best way to consistently supply contemporary Japanese writing to North America, Goossen teamed up with friend and fellow translator Shibata, and, with a little help from their friends at A Public Space, who agreed to serve as the new magazine’s North American publisher, Monkey Business International was born.
Funded by the Nippon Foundation, the inaugural issue of Monkey Business International, an annual magazine of new Japanese writing, translated into English and distributed in the United States and Canada, was released in March 2011; the third will be published next spring. Coedited by Shibata and Goossen, the content is culled from the previous issues of Monkey Business—a sort of “best of” created from the original volumes. (The Japanese edition of the magazine is currently on hiatus, but Shibata hopes to resume publishing in the near future.)
“We do think a bit about what would attract North American readers and what wouldn’t,” Shibata says, “but not too much—we simply choose to publish whatever we like most.” The first two issues have included translations of fiction by Yoko Ogawa and Hiromi Kawakami; poetry, including traditional tanka and haiku, by Shion Mizuhara and Minoru Ozawa; manga, or Japanese comics, based on stories by Franz Kafka; and an interview with Murakami.
Unlike writing, Shibata says, translation is much more a team effort than a solitary act: “From English to Japanese I am a translator 100 percent. From Japanese to English I can re-create the general meaning of a text as well as its tone to a certain extent, but you have to be a native [speaker] of the target language at the stage of final fine-tuning. That’s why I always cotranslate with Ted.” Shibata and Goossen also enlist the help of other accomplished translators when putting each issue together.
In the 2006 interview for A Public Space’s first Focus Portfolio, “Japan: America Inverted,” Shibata spoke with Roland Kelts, a Japanese American scholar and author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (Palgrave, 2006), about why Japanese readers have historically been so interested in American literature. “We always wanted to become something else,” Shibata said of growing up in Japan. “And spiritually, we had respect for American democracy and individualism, although we didn’t know those words yet. In America, who you are is not something you inherit, it’s something you’re supposed to create on your own.”
For A Public Space’s founding editor, Brigid Hughes, and its managing editor, Anne McPeak, helping introduce more Japanese writing to America is a large part of what drew them to the collaboration. “I think what’s so neat about Monkey Business International is that it’s sort of a real-time translation of literary work in Japan,” McPeak says. “I always think of ‘discovering’ a writer in translation and then finding out that the book was published two decades ago. So I think there’s something very alive about the magazine—this idea of having compatriots in foreign countries and getting the opportunity to know their writing.”
With writers like Murakami gaining popularity in the United States, an increased interest in foreign literature among American readers may already be occurring. While Hughes ascribes the increase to the Internet—where, she says, she’s discovered other literary magazines from abroad, such as Kenya’s Kwani?—McPeak suggests that the causes of its growth may run a bit more deeply. “Since the early 2000s, there seems to have been this growing idea that one way to better understand our place in the world is to have access to translated work,” she says. “And there’s been a real increase, in the indie world at least, of that interest.”
In addition to publishing Monkey Business International, the editors of A Public Space plan to work with a Chinese magazine in the future, and, with the help of the Asia Society, to continue to host Monkey Business events in New York City, at which Japanese and American authors are paired in conversation. They also hope to participate in an international literary festival in Tokyo, organized by Shibata and the Nippon Foundation, in the spring of 2013.
As for American readers’ heightened interest in foreign literature, Shibata isn’t sure what has caused an upswing—nor, he says, is it necessarily important. “Perhaps globalization has not only spread things American to the whole world but has also made Americans more aware of other cultures,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned from teaching and translating for thirty years is the futility of worrying about why students and readers love or hate what you promote. You just show them whatever you are passionate about, and hope for the best.”
Melissa Faliveno is the assistant editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.