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Interview with Michael Emmerich

As I was poking around the JLPP site this morning, I came across this recent interview with translator Michael Emmerich, who has translated more than a dozen books from Japanese, including Asleep, Goodbye Tsugumi, and Hardboiled & Hard Luck, all by Banana Yoshimoto and The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P by Matsuura Rieko, which was on an earlier JLPP list, and I believe is coming out from Seven Stories early next year.

(As a sidenote, Emmerich is going to be part of a translation panel here at the University of Rochester taking place on October 1st and also featuring Marian Schwartz, Edward Gauvin, and Martha Tennent—more details to come.)

In response to the opening question about Matsuura Rieko’s fiction, Emmerich has some interesting things to say about both the book and women’s writing in Japan.

Some years ago, it struck me that most of the writers I was reading in Japanese were women—people like Enchi Fumiko, Tsushima Yuko, Tawada Yoko, and many others. I still have the sense that a fairly large proportion of the writers I find most interesting are women. You can imagine that, until recently, when men really occupied the center of the Japanese literary world, it must have been incredibly difficult for women to break into publishing. But perhaps in some ways that situation also enabled women writers to be more experimental than their male counterparts, or to experiment in different ways.

When I was a Master’s student at Ritsumeikan Univeristy, in Kyoto, a good friend recommended Matsuura Rieko to me, and I made a mental note of her name. Then one day during a visit to Keyaki Shoten, one of the dozens of bookstore in the Jinbocho area of Tokyo, I happened across a signed first edition of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P. I started reading it on the train back to Kyoto, and I was completely sucked in—I simply couldn’t put it down. And since lesbianism is one of the main themes of the book, and that’s not something you see all that often in Japanese literature, certainly not Japanese literature in English translation, I had the sense it could have a big effect on the image of Japanese literature in English. Part of what I’m trying to do as a translator, I think, is to help readers see that there’s more to Japanese literature than just Kawabata Yasunari and Murakami Haruki.

He also touches on the situation of translation within the academy:

When the late Edward G. Seidensticker and other scholars of his generation were on their way up, establishing themselves as scholars, translation was really the only way to go—there was a pressing need to introduce Japanese literature to scholars in other fields, to show them that it was worth studying. And of course translation was the only way to do that. But by the late 1970s, once translation had established the field, people began to ask whether translation really ought to be counted as scholarship at all. “Theory” was on the way in, especially in English departments, and there was a strong sense that Japanese literary studies needed to head in that direction, too. And so, by the 1980s, translation was something to be actively avoided. People sometimes ask me “So are you a scholar or a translator?” But the truth is, that’s not a question you can ask—it’s not a choice we have in this field. You can only be both. And yet if you do a lot of translation at the same time that you’re active as a scholar, people tend to pass over the scholarship and focus on the translation.

But his reason for learning languages is my favorite part of this interview:

As a child, I really liked to read, and my sister and I had a dream that one day we’d be able to speak seven languages. We figured that if we could learn seven languages, we could speak a different one every day, and that would be really great.



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