Coming Soon: The Devil’s Flute Murders

A book cover for The Devil's Flute Murders featuring an open hand next to a fallen bottle of poison.

My translation of classic Kindaichi Kosuke mystery Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku (Translated as The Devil’s Flute Murders) is done and off to the editors! It’s scheduled to come out from Pushkin Vertigo Press June 29, 2023.

This was an absolute joy to translate, though I worry about fitting into the legacy left by great translators like Louise Heal Kawai and Bryan Karetnyk. I also wish my name was on the cover, but alas…

This was by far the biggest fiction translation I’ve done. The the two books I did for Kurodahan Press (oh how we miss ye…) were smaller both in scope and, as very niche ones, overall social weight. They were fun, but somehow this one feels, just… more, somehow. More important, more meaningful, and more prestige, I suppose. I guess I have an ego, too…

I can’t wait for everyone to get to read it!


New Newsletter!

Announcing the Ochoko Times! My new newsletter starting from November 15, 2020.

I’m just getting the hang of it, but my plan is to send emails twice monthly, one in the middle and one at the end. The emails will feature western Japan sake news and reviews, event updates and recaps, and also look at some of my non-sake work and interests. I’ll also be including the “sake of the month” in the second email of each month, so look out for that one!

Occasionally, I will also include links and reminders of where you can buy my current translated work, and announce upcoming work as well.

Also, as time goes by, I’ll use the list to announce new projects that I think people might be interested in. I will not be spamming you with marketing, and will never sell your data.

A signup form is also available from my contact page.

Take a look!

Success! You're on the list.

Book Review – A Sense of Place

The cover of the book A Sense of Place by Dave Broom, featuring a picture of whisky casks on the cover. In front of the book is a small glass with some amber whisky inside.

A Sense of Place: A journey around Scotland’s whisky
by Dave Broom
Photography by Christina Kernohan

I first saw this book mentioned on the author’s Instagram, where he used something like the phrase “sense of place, not terroir.” That is what grabbed me. The growing ubiquity of “terroir” usage in drink writing is puzzling to me, because it is such a wine-centric term. Its core meaning, “the taste of the land,” makes sense for grapes but not for much else. That has encouraged people to make it mean, basically, whatever they want if it helps them sell some kind of very expensive processed agricultural good—from chocolate to, well, whisky. I am immediately suspicious of any use of the term outside wine, because it’s just become a stand-in for “this is different for reasons” as part of a sales pitch.

A sense of place, though? That, I can get behind. It’s not trying to dress itself up in fancy clothes. It’s honest about being a story. A story about a place, which has room in it for all kinds of things. People. History. Water. Land. Plants. Rocks.

A place is what we make of it. What we say about it. It’s a story.

And that is what this book is all about.

In this incredibly beautiful book (and it is among the most beautiful I have ever held—Kernohan’s photography is glorious), Dave Broom writes two hundred and fifty-odd pages worth of ode to Scotland. Its people. Its history. Its water. And yes, its rocks. He writes about whisky, yes, but what this book truly does is delve into what makes Scotch special to him, and that is its position within the communities around each bottle.

It’s a celebration of Scotch as more than a drink, as something else than the icon of capitalism it has seemingly become: it is a product of a community bound by shared land, shared history, shared culture, shared language. A cultural artifact.

The book is lyrical. Rhapsodic. At times gloomy, and at times filled with hope. The language is unabashedly Scots English—I have to admit I was grateful for the glossary in the back—and that is a lovely thing. The book touches on that, on how Gaelic was taken from so many Scots and how that was part of the Clearances that not only scarred Scotland’s culture, but in so doing shaped modern Scotch whiskey and the places it is from, and also how words influence not just how we speak, but how we perceive. How we taste things.

In a way, this book has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. I have to admit that, as a thoroughly common person with stubbornly low-class tastes, the fetishization and hyper-valuation of whisk(e)y turns me right off. As a beverage, I like it fine. It’s a delicious, complex, nuanced and exciting thing to drink in and of itself. But so much of the modern placing of it is about image, status, and wealth. At both ends—production and consumption—whisk(e)y has become a rich man’s game. And I mean all three of those words. The history of whisk(e)y in Scotland and Ireland, in particular, is one of capital, empire, and the forceful transformation of a common culture to a private one.

But here, Broom pokes at the cracks in that, revealing the humanity and love that maintains in even the largest of distilleries. Yes, they’re still massive monuments to capital, but there is also a reverence for craft, and a (re)growing respect for the farmers that once would have been making the drink. I found myself actually wanting a sip of single malt on finishing this book, something I very rarely feel these days. (Sorry, Dave, but it was Miyagikyo. No proper Scotch in the house, I’m afraid).

And he did it with such style! What a writer the man is. I found myself snapping pictures of sentence after sentence, almost wanting to shout with glee at the beautifully made points.

Let me also add, I am so happy and in favor of his persistent cheerleading for blended whisky. The fact that “whisky lovers” persist in looking down on 98% of the market is not only silly, it reeks of classist arrogance. Never poo-poo the cheap stuff.

It is no exaggeration, not even a hint of a lie, to say this is the book I wanted (want?) to write about sake. I am not the writer Broom is, nor is the English-language sake book market mature enough to have room for such a departure, but maybe someday.

Until then, I am grateful for this wonder of a book.

How many books? TWO BOOKS.

That’s how many books I’ve been editing this last week. What a strange, blessed life I live now.

It goes a long way to ease the pain of finding out that a super exciting possibility I was looking forward to early next year fell through. It is also a bit of salve on the loss of Twitter which, among all the bad, was also a pretty nice home on the net and a great way to reach a lot of people who seemed mostly pretty awesome.

If you are one of those people I connected with over there, do feel free to reach out elsewhere. I’m on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/jim_and_jizake/, on Mastodon at @JimRion@bookwor.ms and, well, here.

In the mean time, back to the edits before I go on my first family vacation in literal years next week. See you on the flip side, yeah?


How I Found My Specialization

I started freelance translation as a pure generalist, as I think many do. I would take basically any work that was not legal or medical (I wanted no lawsuits or medical accidents on my hands), and in practice that resulted in some wildly varied work, including industrial informational videos, TV commercial storyboards, bicycle rule pamphlets, garbage separation guides, and many many more.

I was also very aware of the general professional consensus that specializing was the only real way to continue improving rates. As a freelancer, rates are the real key to improving earning–at a certain level, efficiency and speed of translation level off, and the only way to increase earning potential is to increase rates.

Generalists, who often are limited to working through translation agencies, have a much lower ceiling than those who focus on one professional field and work directly with corporate clients. Specialists can do that because they have established a professional reputation for skill and in-depth knowledge through their specialization, while the sales work of agencies often ignores individual translator skill in favor of gaining sales through lower rates.

I thus found myself looking for a reasonable specialization. Most specialized translators come into translation from another field, and their specialization is natural: people who worked in finance specialize in finance, people who worked in chemistry specialize in chemistry, etc. In terms of work experience, I could conceivably offer specialization in academics, particularly linguistics and second language acquisition, but one of the real draws for me to be a freelancer was the ability to choose work I found interesting, and that work did not at all sound interesting. Then, in spring of 2018 or so, I stumbled on the idea: sake.

I had been a sake drinker for some years, of course, but never really got too seriously interested in it as a topic of study. I had taken a brewery tour, and was of course aware of Yamaguchi’s premium sake products through Dassai and Toyobijin. Then, as I was thinking about what I could do that was both interesting and potentially career worthy, I saw a news story about local sake brewers pushing to expand their markets abroad, and I had it. This was a perfect storm: an industry that needed skills I had, that I was interested in, and was located right outside my front door. All I needed to do was actually specialize.

I asked around about ideas on how to capitalize on my location and my idea, but what it all came down to was three things:

  • Acquire professional skills (i.e. study)
  • Find a way to visibly demonstrate those skills (i.e. get certifications)
  • Let potential clients know about me and those skills (i.e. network)

For the first, I just started reading. I studied books in Japanese and in English about sake, including its history and production. I also began subscribing to magazines and online newsletters about the industry, and actually studying the way they used English in discussing sake.

For the second step, I turned first the Sake Service Institute. They offer education at varying levels, and I was able to take advantage of both live and correspondence courses to earn some visible credentials to demonstrate my knowledge. Naturally, one can argue about the meaning of any kind of pro-profit credentials. I have my doubts about the educational value of the Sake Navigator courses, for example. But one undeniable benefit is that they demonstrate to potential clients that I am serious enough about this topic to spend the time and money to study. That is exactly what I needed for the second point. I have also since completed John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course, and a Shochu Advisor course.

So, with some courses completed and research under by belt, I then had to go about the third point: letting clients know about me. This proved to be the most enjoyable part, as I was able to network at public sake events all over Yamaguchi. These not only let me meet and greet important people in the industry, but also helped me demonstrate my interests and understanding.

I also talk about sake on social media (which is only natural, as this is a genuine interest) and that is a way to let others in my general professional field know about my interests and skills. And yes, that also leads to work. It is important to remember, though, that simply using social media to create a “brand” is an empty thing that people see right through. My social media usage is always honest, because this work I do is something I genuinely enjoy and like to talk about.

I take advantage of brewery tours and tourist events to make contact, and never missed a chance to spread around my business card. I also kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities to directly sell my skills. For example, I saw a news feature about local sake brewery Shintani Shuzo where the toji mentioned she was working on a pamphlet to sell her latest premium sake abroad, and immediately emailed to offer my services. Since I had met the toji’s husband at a sake event already, it was fast to convince the couple of my sincerity, and we were able to work together.

I have since worked for Yaoshin Shuzo, Nagayama Honke Shuzojo, Chiyonosono Shuzo, Ninki Shuzo, and a variety of sake related organizations like Sake Business Laboratory, Sake On Air, the Sakenomy app, and more. I am currently negotiating future projects with three other sake breweries right now, as well.

I have achieved what I had hoped for. Local sake brewers think of me first when they start to consider English branding, websites, or catalogs. I am able to work directly with clients in the industry and negotiate my own terms, including rates, as a professional with standing in the field. I still work in other fields, as time allows and finances demand, but I am increasingly focusing particularly on this one field. As of right now, I only actively seek out new clients in the sake field.

It is not as lucrative a specialization as, say, international finance, but it is enjoyable, challenging, and has created personal connections that I value deeply.

I present this as a description of how people can search for successes in translation that don’t necessarily come from past work experience, or require much compromise in interest. Everyone has their own path, and maybe seeing mine can help others find theirs.