Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight
is Vertical's editorial director.
is the marketing director.
May 14, 2003:
Japan's Stephen Kings to U.S.
Mentzas '94 and Micah Burch '95 translate and publish popular Japanese
Take two Princeton alumni, one a scholar of comparative literature
and the other a tax lawyer seeking a career change; add a savvy
literary agent looking for a new angle; throw in a connection to
an Asian country shared by all three. While the ingredients might
show potential for a popular novel, in reality they have led
indirectly to four popular novels, with more on the way.
Ioannis Mentzas '94, who majored in comparative literature at
Princeton and earned a master's in English at Columbia, and Micah
Burch '95, a former tax lawyer, are the editorial and marketing
directors, respectively, of Vertical (www.vertical-inc.com),
a new publishing company they formed with president Hiroki Sakai,
a veteran of Japanese publishing. They believe that the company
is filling a void in the American market: the translation, publication,
and distribution of contemporary popular Japanese fiction.
"Most of the Japanese literature that comes to the United
States is highbrow stuff," Mentzas explains, citing classic
Japanese literature and books about Japanese culture as examples,
"but there is a lot of excellent popular fiction in Japan today."
Burch compares the status of the Japanese authors Vertical is
translating and publishing to that of America's Stephen King or
The company is releasing its first four novels this spring: Koji
Suzuki's Ring, the book upon which the recent DreamWorks movie,
The Ring, is based; The Leopard Mask, the first book in an 86-volume
fantasy series by Kaoru Kurimoto, The Guin Saga, so popular in Japan
that all of the volumes are still in print; Twinkle Twinkle by Kaori
Ekuni, a novel exploring an unconventional modern marriage; and
Ashes by Kenzo Kitakata, a hard-boiled portrait of a Japanese gangster
facing middle age and diminished prospects. Fall 2003 will bring
four volumes of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha, a serious biography presented
in the "graphic novel" format, similar to a comic book.
Noted illustrator and author Osamu Tezuka, is sometimes called the
"Walt Disney of Japan."
Through a network of academics, Sakai found Mentzas in 2001 while
looking for an editor for his new literary agency, Magic Works International,
hoping to bring Japanese children's books to the U.S. Mentzas was
in the midst of his doctoral program at Columbia. "I wasn't
looking to go into publishing at all," he says. "I wanted
to be a professor. Mr. Sakai wooed me for a bout four months, and
he changed my mind."
In the course of their conversations, Mentzas persuaded Sakai
to change his focus to contemporary fiction for adults; the agency
changed its name and became a publishing company.
Burch, who studied Japanese and majored in East Asian Studies
at Princeton, spent a year in Sendai, Japan, as a Fulbright Scholar
before earning his law degree at Harvard. In 2002 he emailed former
assistant professor of East Asian studies Soho Machida expressing
his lack of fulfillment as a tax lawyer. Machida, who had also taught
Mentzas, thought there might be a role for Burch in the new publishing
house and suggested he get in touch with Mentzas. Burch changed
careers not long after that.
The company is small. Besides Burch, Mentzas, and company president
Sakai, the other full-time employees are a graphic designer and
a representative in Tokyo who is their liaison with Japanese publishers.
Their philosophy is one of keeping the company lean, Burch and Mentzas
explain, and doing much of the work themselves. Burch says that
he and Mentzas end up performing various aspects of the other's
job: "Yani does as much marketing as I do, actually, and I
help with the editing."
The translations are usually done by native English speakers
often graduate students who have studied Japanese. Mentzas, the
son of a Greek father and a Japanese mother, lived in Japan from
birth to age 18; he checks the English texts to eliminate mistranslations
and corrects or retranslates, as necessary.
Enjoying these works does not require any particular interest
in or knowledge of Japan, Burch says. "Except for the names,
these novels could be taking place almost anywhere." What Vertical
hopes to bring to America from Japan, Mentzas adds, is "literary
entertainment something that you read on the train or pick
up after work when you're tired. There is a lot of good popular
Japanese fiction that's been largely ignored over here." With
Vertical, Burch and Mentzas hope to change all that.
By A. Melissa Kiser '75
A. Melissa Kiser is the public relations officer at The Pennington