By Lindsay Nelson, New Berlin, Wisconsin Tony Gonzalez is the translator of Math Girls, the first novel in English translation by bestselling Japanese author and mathematician Hiroshi Yuki. Math Girls combines math and romance in this story of three high schoolers who learn to solve problems seldom found in textbooks. Tony is a cofounder of publishing company Bento Books and has been translating video games, technical material, and academic papers from Japanese to English since 1992. He has also worked in a variety of fields, including software development and localization, technical management, and Japanese and mathematics education. In addition to his work with Bento Books, he also runs Mini-Oni, LLC from his office in Portland, Oregon. First of all, you did a really great job on the Math Girls novel translation! It made me want to go to the library and start learning about advanced math, now that I was seeing it in such an aesthetically pleasing light for the first time. Thank you! Is this your first published book translation? I guess I’d call Math Girls my first serious book translation. I’ve done a vanity translation of another novel as a direct hire by the author, but this was the first book I did that’s been edited, published, and promoted in earnest. What was it like working on a book centered around a very specialized subject, and did you struggle at any point with the depth of the subject matter going over your head? Given my background (my master’s degree is in math education, and I taught high school math for a couple of years), Math Girls is a perfect fit for my interests, and its technical content is exactly why I wanted to translate the book; not only am I personally interested in the content, but helping to bring this book to Western audiences is arguably a greater contribution towards mathematics education than I could ever make in a classroom. Math Girls definitely has math content that I’d never seen before, which required a bit of outside study to make sure that I was getting things right in the translation. But I really enjoy that sort of thing, so if it was a struggle, it was a very pleasant one. How closely did you work with the author during translation? We got the rights to translate and publish Math Girls after I directly contacted the author, Hiroshi Yuki, who then introduced us to Softbank Creative, the Japanese publisher. Perhaps because first contact was with the author, and certainly because Mr. Yuki was highly interested in the English translation project, direct contact was much easier than with most novel translations. As to specifics, I emailed the author several times about, for example, confirming character motivations and other nuances in the source. Mr. Yuki (in addition to a mathematician we hired for the job) also did proof checks of our drafts to look for mathematical errors, formatting issues, etc. How has the response been to a book that’s not only translated, but different from what Americans are used to reading? Response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, as can be seen by our reviews on Amazon.com and in various mathematics and library journals. It’s helpful that Math Girls targets a very specific niche—young adults who are mathematically proficient and likely looking at entering math-oriented studies or careers—and that’s a group that popular media hasn’t paid much attention to in the West. For whatever reason, mathematics study is somewhat vilified in the West, the U.S. in particular, to the extent that young persons who love mathematics are likely to play down that aspect of themselves. For some perverse reason, it’s cool to say “I suck at math,” while one can’t quite so blithely say, for example, “I suck at reading.” So I think that it’s refreshing for many closeted (or, at least, sequestered) math aficionados to stumble across a book like Math Girls: pop media that revels and delights in the joys of learning advanced mathematics, without being apologetic, pedantic, or condescending. In this case, the differences of the book are likely key to its success. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a book like Math Girls being written by a Western (again, particularly American) author, who would take on such a project with a lot of hard-to-shed cultural baggage regarding both “math” and “girls” that would take things in a very different direction. I see you have a background in translating academic works. Math Girls seems like it would be a fantastic addition to school curriculums to get students fired up about subjects that teachers may struggle to get kids interested in. Has there been any talk of incorporating the Math Girls novel series into academic programs? We were in contact with one high school that wanted to buy several hundred copies to distribute to students as part of an outside reading program, but due to very limited school budgets for that kind of thing, the purchase remains pending until at least the next school year. But using the full book as a text for some significant part of a formal curriculum is likely tricky, as most schools select texts with careful attention paid to alignment with existing educational goals. Unlike a textbook written to fulfill pedagogical requirements established by some curricular committee, the content in Math Girls jumps here and there as the interests of its characters change. The focus of Math Girls isn’t so much to impart formal education of specific mathematical fields or techniques, but rather to show the reader something of what one reviewer called “the mathematical experience”—what learning advanced mathematics feels like, and some of the challenges future mathematicians will face. I’ve read reviews on Amazon.com written by math teachers who mentioned wanting to take excerpts from Math Girls to use as supplemental material for their classes. I think that’s probably an ideal way to use Math Girls in a formal educational setting. I see Bento Books will soon release the sequel to Math Girls. How many books are in the series, and do you plan to pick up the rest of the installments? Yes, Math Girls 2: Fermat’s Last Theorem is the second book in the series, and will be released in English translation this week. Currently there are five books in the series, and the author has been adding approximately one book each year. We’ve been contracting with the Japanese publisher on a book-by-book basis, but certainly hope to translate and publish the entire series eventually . Could you tell us briefly about Bento Books and how it got started? Bento Books is a new company, started in January 2011 by myself and my partners Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder as a way for us as translators to use new technologies and business models to more closely control the translation/publishing process. To keep things brief, I’ll point those interested to an interview with us regarding exactly this topic. What does Bento Books have lined up for future releases? We have several titles lined up for release in 2013. First, there’s the manga version of Math Girls, a unique project in that it was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign. We will also be releasing a work of historical fiction about Japanese World War II holdouts in the Mariana Islands, and another novel about con men running scams in the Tohoku region after the 3/11 earthquake. We’ve also cleared the rights for several mystery, fantasy, and science fiction titles from a major Japanese publisher, and are working out the logistics of how to get those to market as quickly as possible. What have been some of the challenges of running a joint publication-translation company? The biggest challenge has been solving a sort of chicken-and-egg problem: We know that in the long run, after we have many titles in our catalog, Bento Books will be self-sustaining and provide us with sufficient income to live comfortably while we pursue projects that interest us. The problem is that we can’t quit our day jobs—academic/technical work for me, game industry work and non-Bento Books titles for Alex and Joe—until that point, as we each have families to support, bills to pay, and all that jazz. Unfortunately, day jobs tend to take up a lot of time, and not much is left over to devote to what we really want to do. To solve this, we’re currently looking for creative ways of funding ourselves, bootstrapping us to the point where we can devote all of our energies to Bento Books. We have a few leads that we’ll be pursuing over the next year, so please check back in around the end of 2013 to see where we are then! Thanks again to Tony for participating in this interview. An interview with Tony by the math blog Wild About Math! can be found here. The Bento Books website is available here.