21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and available from Melville House Publishing.

This is Will’s second review in a row, so I’m not sure how much of an introduction he really needs . . . He’s a graduate of the University of Rochester, where he majored in Japanese and received a certificate in literary translation. I believe he’s also looking for a job in publishing . . .

Banana Yoshimoto is maybe the most popular female Japanese author whose works have been translated into English. She’s the author of seven books of essays and twelve novels, eight of which have been translated into English, including Kitchen and Goodbye Tsugumi. Michael Emmerich—who, as Will points out, is one of the great Japanese translators of our time—has translated most of these.

It’s been a while since we last reviewed a Melville House book, so this is a great time to point out that they do a ton of great stuff, both in translation and originally written in English, and their Melville International Crime series seems very cool, as does the Neversink Library collection. Also personally very thrilled to see all the Heinrich Boll reprints, although to be honest, I haven’t read any of these because I can’t decide which to start with . . .

Anyway, back to Yoshimoto. Here’s the opening of Will’s review of The Lake:

“The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.”

This is the first sentence of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Lake. I vaguely recall learning or reading somewhere some sort of creative writing related piece of wisdom—or maybe it’s just some advice, or simply someone’s particular philosophy. It might not even be very good advice, or a generally accepted piece of thought. It could be the most common idea in all fiction writing. I’m not sure. It’s just something I sort of remember coming across. (And now that I’ve demonstrated my impeccable credentials for book reviewing, let’s continue).

Anyway, the nugget of wisdom was that the first sentence of a novel should sum up the essence of the work to follow, to lay it all out on the table. It might not be obvious as to how that sentence relates to the following work, and of course the reader will probably forget it on the journey, but the first sentence, as important as it is, should tie the whole piece together in some way. And Yoshimoto does just that.

Although the one line summary on the back cover would summarize it a little differently (more on that later), The Lake is about Chihiro, an up-and-coming mural painter who was born out of wedlock, but by loving if unusual parents: her mother was a bar owner and her father a patron, and although they were in love and had a child together, they never actually got married. Her family life was happy, if not normal, but it was that abnormality that marked Chihiro as different her whole young adult life.

Click here to read the entire review.

21 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.”

This is the first sentence of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel to be translated into English, The Lake. I vaguely recall learning or reading somewhere some sort of creative writing related piece of wisdom—or maybe it’s just some advice, or simply someone’s particular philosophy. It might not even be very good advice, or a generally accepted piece of thought. It could be the most common idea in all fiction writing. I’m not sure. It’s just something I sort of remember coming across. (And now that I’ve demonstrated my impeccable credentials for book reviewing, let’s continue).

Anyway, the nugget of wisdom was that the first sentence of a novel should sum up the essence of the work to follow, to lay it all out on the table. It might not be obvious as to how that sentence relates to the following work, and of course the reader will probably forget it on the journey, but the first sentence, as important as it is, should tie the whole piece together in some way. And Yoshimoto does just that.

Although the one line summary on the back cover would summarize it a little differently (more on that later), The Lake is about Chihiro, an up-and-coming mural painter who was born out of wedlock, but by loving if unusual parents: her mother was a bar owner and her father a patron, and although they were in love and had a child together, they never actually got married. Her family life was happy, if not normal, but it was that abnormality that marked Chihiro as different her whole young adult life:

All my life, I cherished the possibility of escape. I worried that if I started going out with a guy and somehow botched things up and fell seriously in love, if we ended up having a splendid wedding in some hotel in town—or even worse, if I happened to get pregnant!—well, that would be the end of everything. So while my classmates thrilled over their puppy loves and fantasized about getting married, I held myself back. Before I did anything, I considered the possible consequences. And as soon as I graduated from high school, on the pretext of attending an art school in Tokyo, I made my getaway. I left home.

My body knew. It sensed the discrimination, subtle but real, all around me.

vq. Sure, she’s the daughter of a prominent local figure, but c’mon—he knocked up the “Mama-san” of a bar, right? That’s the kind of girl she is. The feeling oppressed me, squeezing all the more tightly because I knew it was only in this city, nowhere else, that my dad mattered.

vq. When I came to Tokyo and became an ordinary art school student, just like everyone else, I felt so free and light I thought I’d float up in the air.

After college, Chihiro’s mother becomes sick, and eventually dies. Sometime after that, she meets Nakajima. The two are remarkably alike, though it takes them weeks of smiling at each other across their windows to find out: they are both in their late twenties, neighbors, and they both have tragically lost their mother. They fall in love slowly, almost accidentally, because they are both, in their different ways, damaged from their respective traumas. The rest of The Lake follows Chihiro and Nakajima’s unusual relationship and life together, while Chihiro slowly starts to piece together the details of Nakajima’s particularly troubled past, and why it is so important, and painful, for Nakajima to visit some old friends at his old family lake house.

The details of Nakajima’s past are unveiled towards the very end of the book, but if you really need to know right away, you can unfortunately find it in the Amazon product description. Avoid reading that, if possible. It’s unfortunate, because the book is a wonderfully sweet tale about love in spite of a history of sorrow, about being on the cusp of adulthood and trying to find one’s future, although the mystery, if you can avoid the spoiler, is a pleasant, and poignant, surprise.

I’m willing to defend the choice, because although the reveal of Nakajima’s past would have been slightly more enjoyable with that element of surprise, that mystery is not really what the book is about, and it certainly doesn’t ruin the pleasures of reading this novel. Yoshimoto’s strength as a writer lies in her clear, unadorned prose; it is simple but effective, even elegant, brought into life in English by translator Michael Emmerich, who proves once again that he is one of, if not the, best Japanese translators working today. Chihiro is a lively, engaging narrator, likeable but not perfect—a genuine human being. Her humor and her sadness are palpable, and it’s a joy to watch her try to figure out her life. The Lake is a short, engaging novel, the kind where you want more to read not because it’s underdeveloped (though part of me wish there was more), but because it is so enjoyable to read. It’s not a particularly action-filled book, and there was a minor plot line that ends up fading away without resolution. I nonetheless found the novel engrossing throughout.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of the most translated contemporary Japanese authors, ever since her runaway bestseller Kitchen in the early 1990s, but it’s a testament to her skills as a writer that she’s been able to keep being published in English for almost twenty years now. The Lake is simply another example of her ability to write powerful, engaging, and accessible fiction.

6 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tananaugh Espinoza on Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru, which is translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and available from Counterpoint.

Tananaugh Espinoza was a student in my “World Literature & Translation” class this past spring. She graduated in May with a degree in Japanese and a certificate in literary translation.

Manazuru was a book that I used in the class, and which enabled to have a fascinating Skype session with super-translator Michael Emmerich. It’s a strange novel—to say the least—one that jumps between reality and memories within a sentence, and which features ghosts, etc. Michael did an amazing job translating this, capturing the oddness of the prose and punctuation in a way that’s poetic, dreamlike, and fun to read.

Anyway, here’s the opening of Tana’s review:

Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru is the carefully crafted story of Kei, and her lingering attachment to the husband who disappeared 12 years earlier. She travels to the titular seaside town, Manazuru, on a whim, feeling somehow that it is connected to her husband, Rei. Beset by a ghostly companion who seems to know something of his disappearance, troubled by the distance she feels toward her daughter, Momo, and her married lover, Seiji, Kei continues on a vague quest for answers and solidity. Although it is intensely personal and internal, Manazuru avoids becoming bogged down with introspection, just as Kei herself avoids it, by escaping into sequences of memory and of fantasy. These sequences, and the way they blend seamlessly in with present reality, are the crux of this novel’s appeal. Everything is rendered in strangely precise, matter-of-fact detail – whether memory, fantasy, or not – all of it blended into a single, tangible experience:

“In one corner of the quiet living room lay a few blocks, round and square, that Momo had been playing with that evening. The blocks were red, looked like things growing from the floor, and though I knew they meant nothing, they seemed to me like an ill omen. Rei. I called again. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was nine, and while every other time I had called him my voice, aimed into emptiness, simply vanished into emptiness, that evening I seemed to hear a voice in reply. Kei. I heard Rei’s voice, weakly, from the living-room ceiling.”

The tangibility of the red blocks, the reliability of the clock and its keeping of time, and the solidity of the memory lend their reality to the voice in the living room ceiling, despite the fact that it is the voice of a man who has completely disappeared. In moments like these the reader can fully appreciate the presence of Rei in Kei’s mind, and the way her life revolves still around him. She endlessly circles around him, like a leaf caught in the eddy around a rock. More

Click here to read the entire review.

6 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru is the carefully crafted story of Kei, and her lingering attachment to the husband who disappeared 12 years earlier. She travels to the titular seaside town, Manazuru, on a whim, feeling somehow that it is connected to her husband, Rei. Beset by a ghostly companion who seems to know something of his disappearance, troubled by the distance she feels toward her daughter, Momo, and her married lover, Seiji, Kei continues on a vague quest for answers and solidity. Although it is intensely personal and internal, Manazuru avoids becoming bogged down with introspection, just as Kei herself avoids it, by escaping into sequences of memory and of fantasy. These sequences, and the way they blend seamlessly in with present reality, are the crux of this novel’s appeal. Everything is rendered in strangely precise, matter-of-fact detail – whether memory, fantasy, or not – all of it blended into a single, tangible experience:

In one corner of the quiet living room lay a few blocks, round and square, that Momo had been playing with that evening. The blocks were red, looked like things growing from the floor, and though I knew they meant nothing, they seemed to me like an ill omen. Rei. I called again. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was nine, and while every other time I had called him my voice, aimed into emptiness, simply vanished into emptiness, that evening I seemed to hear a voice in reply. Kei. I heard Rei’s voice, weakly, from the living-room ceiling.

The tangibility of the red blocks, the reliability of the clock and its keeping of time, and the solidity of the memory lend their reality to the voice in the living room ceiling, despite the fact that it is the voice of a man who has completely disappeared. In moments like these the reader can fully appreciate the presence of Rei in Kei’s mind, and the way her life revolves still around him. She endlessly circles around him, like a leaf caught in the eddy around a rock.

Michael Emmerich’s translation captures this unsettling, restless atmosphere just as Kawakami rendered it, in slightly off word choice, slipping punctuation; he creates a voice that encourages trust with its precision and human irregularity, but offers an hint of its own unreliability through its quirks and a strange, elusive quality born of its slips between the past and present, the real and the imagined. The disjointed and fragmented sentences, cut up by periods or commas and matched with flowing paragraphs of description, provide a visual map of Kei’s mind. One of the most beautiful moments in the book takes place at a bus stop, at which the ten minutes which Kei spends waiting for a bus seem to bleed out endlessly, over pages and pages, with a different sense of time and space:

At some point, more herons came, there is one, now, on the roof of each house. Plodding through the houses, I think of the herons, beyond the ceilings, above the attics and crawl spaces, perched. The herons, unmoving, white, isolated lights in a dark, still scene.
I called, and Rei came.

Kei slides restlessly amongst the various realms of her mind, but despite its distortion, the moment she spends waiting for the bus is enjoyable; the voice and its maneuverings are familiar in their eerie strangeness. The voice which Emmerich creates allows the reader – with some careful reading – to move deftly between these slips of time and normalcy, instead of floundering confusedly in them.
Readers may find themselves feeling, as Kei feels, that they have an “inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive the direction the water was going.” All possibilities are considered in regards to Rei’s disappearance, and the cause of the ghostly presences that follow Kei, but none of these possibilities can be latched onto. The mysteries that arise, the distant, unstable relationships that Kei ponders, are never addressed to a conclusion. For some readers, this aspect of the novel will lead to a feeling of severe dissatisfaction. The novel provides what might be called the illusion of movement. Kei restlessly paces between her Tokyo home and Manazuru, and up the beaches. Her mind is even more active, panning smoothly and quickly between the scenes before her eyes and those scenes she remembers or imagines. However, Manazuru moves very little in terms of plot. Despite this possible frustration, Kei’s well-crafted voice and her unsettling, tangible-yet-dreamlike experience of life provides a soft, winding but vibrant read which can be enjoyed, if not for its deft solution to the mystery, for its thoughtful rendering and characterization of Kei, a 40-year-old woman still unable to right herself after the upset of her husband’s disappearance, caught up in the the passage of time but still, like the “tiny fish” she observes with the ghost woman, “swimming in circles, frantically.”

25 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

A Public Space has always been dedicated to promoting international literature, so it’s not all that surprising that Brigid Hughes has joined forces with Roland Kelts (author of Japanamerica), Ted Goossen (professor of Japanese lit) and Motoyuki Shibata (translator into Japanese of Pynchon [!] and a number of other great American writers) to produce an American version of Monkey Business, a journal highlighting new writing from Japan.

Monkey Business was founded in Japan in 2008, and, according to Shibata, is modeled in part after APS. It’s also named after the “immortal Chuck Berry tune.” According to Shibata, “No other work of art that I know of deals with the aggravations we face every day so straightforwardly and with such liberating humor. That is the guiding star we follow on this journey.”

The debut English language edition of MB culls the best writing from the first ten issues published in Japan. It was edited by Shibata and Ted Goossen, a professor at York University in Toronto and general editor of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories who has translated work by Murakami, Naoya Shiga, Masuji Ibuse and others. Hughes and Kelts contributed to the English language editing. Stories, poetry, interviews and even a manga, or Japanese comic, reimagining Franz Kafka’s The Country Doctor, grace its pages.

I was too busy this past weekend watching St. Louis take over first place in the NL Central to read through this carefully, but on first glance, I think it will be a vital contribution to Japanesse literature in English. As a publisher, I’ll say that aside from the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, it’s tricky getting good recommendations of Japanese literature. There are a series of posts waiting to be (re)written about this issue, but suffice it to say that with a single 150 page volume, MB has instantly become one of the best sources for info on new “pure literature” coming out of Japan.

In addition to the aforementioned Kafka manga (that runs from right to life [fuckyeahalternativereadingstyles] going from page 137 to 118), this first issue includes a number of interesting looking pieces, including a poem by Inuo Taguchi (translated by Ted Goossen) entitled “Interviews with the Heroes, or Is Baseball Just for Fun?,” a story by Koji Uno (translated by Jay Rubin), a collection of vignettes by Manazuru author Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Ted Goossen), and short story by Hideo Furukawa (translated by Michael Emmerich) that opens like this:

There is no answer. And why not? Because there’s no question. All we’ve got is the fact that the monster is there. And it’s hibernating. That’s stage number one. From here, we move on to stage number two, stage number three. The last stage is more or less identical to the first, so the whole thing is a sort of “cyclical motion,” you might say. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There can be no question that first of all we must address—observe, describe—the movement from the first stage to the second. The monster is there, hibernating . . . or rather, it was hibernating. It’s just woken up.

You can order the issue here, and if you happen to be in NYC over the next couple weeks, you can attend one or more of the opening launch events taking place at the Asia Society, Book Court, and the Japan Society.

I’ll leave off with a bit of Motoyuki Shibata’s “Monkey Business manifesto,” which appeared in the first Japanese issue of the journal:

Monkey Business is the newly founded journal of new writing from Japan and abroad with a few not-so-new works strategically slipped in. We offer nothing in the way of a “concept” or “lifestyle” aimed at a particular age bracket or social group, no useful information to help you get ahead. And we utterly lack that noble desire to provide a sanctuary from the whirl of daily life. If you gain any of these benefits, so much the better, but they are not our goals. Neither, we must add, do we have a radical agenda. Our intent is not to attack the system, whether it be artistic, political, or social. In fact, we aren’t out to pick a fight with anyone, right or left, old or young, conservative or radical.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., which was translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and published by Kodansha International.

We’ve already mentioned this book on Three Percent several times, including in this JLPP interview with Michael Emmerich, and more interestingly, in relation to this piece he wrote for CALQUE and the “ensuing debate/exchange it provoked.“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=1171

As if those pieces weren’t enough to get one intrigued, this is a book about a woman who wakes up with a penis growing out of her big toe and runs off to joint a “traveling performance show with other sexual misfits.” Sounds pretty crazy and fun, no? Well, unfortunately, Monica wasn’t as enamored with it as she had hoped to be:

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Monica does love the translation though . . . To read the full piece, click here.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Not only does Kazumi appear naïve, but perhaps a bit daft. For instance, when she questions her boyfriend, Masao, about being homophobic, her ruminations sound much more authorial than an authentic voice of a innocent twenty-year old whom just discovered that she had a penis:

Come to think of is, was the fact that Masao had sex with women proof that he wasn’t a faggot? He thought penises were dirty and he didn’t like the idea of sex with men, but he felt no qualms about sticking his dirty penis into my mouth at the same time that he emotionally felt closer to men than women. He was so confused, his emotional life so riddled with contradictions, he couldn’t possibly be normal! . . . But then who was I to talk? I had a penis.

Exactly. The main character does have a penis and this it what it takes for her to recognize someone else “riddled with contradictions” because apparently, she hadn’t noticed any of his contradictions in the three prior years that they had dated. This is what makes the main character inconsistent and then, unbelievable. Throughout the book, Kazumi is sickened and frightened by the idea of lesbianism, finding the idea of sticking her toe-penis in a vagina “gross.” Later, she experiments with a woman after she leaves her current boyfriend, Shunji, and finds that perhaps it isn’t as disgusting as she thought it was, but still not convinced that lesbianism or any other relationship is worth it:

Then he began preaching: “Forget this lesbian stuff! Nothing ever comes from two women getting together. I guess it can’t be helped if a woman is too ugly to attract a man—that’s a reason to turn lesbian. But you’re cute. Don’t you think that you should just stay with this Shunji kid here?”

I hardly knew what to make of these bizarre statements. True, maybe nothing came from two women getting together, but nothing came from a man and a woman getting together either—nothing but babies. Or did he know something I didn’t know? I had no idea whether or not there women who turned to homosexual love because men wouldn’t have anything to do with them, and I couldn’t help wondering what led Utagawa to believe there were. And what made him think he could be so arrogant as to decree, even if he wasn’t explicit about it, that women who could attract men were better off in heterosexual relationships—that they should mold their sexual proclivities to the needs of men, rather than stay attuned to their own desires?

Again, this sort of interior monologue runs contrary to Kazumi’s alleged innocence. Also, I get nervous as a reader when the author has the character asking questions. Matsuura has Kazumi asking questions in her mind frequently and it wears on the reader because it’s a lazy way of developing character. The reader is smart enough to ask those questions without the character doing it. So, this kind of intellectualizing does nothing for the reader in terms of believability of Kazumi as an innocent or even as a fully developed person.

Ultimately, the characters in this novel are thinly veiled stereotypes of what sexuality is. They give method to the intellectualization of gender and sexuality, but no meaning or passion. Matsuura intellectualizes the hell out of any attraction or passion so that by the end of the novel, the idea of sex of any kind seems joyless. More time spent on investing in the characters would have made me care, made me believe in Kazumi and her “apprenticeship.” As grating as this novel is, I found the translation above the material and hoped at some point, the writing would match the translation. Instead, I felt relieved that I was rid of her and her sexual musings and wished someone more fun would have grown a toe-penis.

7 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Corridor of Dreams, which is the May issue of Words Without Borders, is now available online and focuses on contemporary Japanese literature. From translator and guest editor Allison Powell’s introduction:

Over the past several decades, a steady stream of fascinating writers from Japan have appeared in English, including two Nobel prize winners, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe, as well as the now wildly popular Haruki Murakami. It may seem, however, that in recent years the stream has slowed to a trickle. Therefore, it has been my pleasure to act as guest editor for the Japan issue of Words Without Borders, and to have the opportunity to introduce new writing and new authors to WWB‘s audience.

The Japanese authors and works assembled here are not necessarily unified by any particular theme. I set out to showcase the robust variety of contemporary Japanese fiction, and I think these writers demonstrate just that, brilliantly. Most of the authors featured here have been writing for years and have well-established audiences in Japan. They have all been recognized with various literary awards and accolades, yet very little of their work has been published anywhere in English.

The point about how Japanese translations into English have “slowed to a trickle,” is absolutely true, although thanks to the Japanese Literature Publishing Project and Vertical, the situation is much better than it would be.

According to the Translation Database in 2008, 23 Japanese works made their way into English; so far in 2009, only 12. But of these 35 titles, 15 were published by Vertical—a press exclusively devoted to publishing Japanese literature, especially in the horror and thriller categories—and another 7 (at least) were funded by the JLPP—a program by which texts are selected, translated, and then offered to publishers. And if anyone publishes a JLPP book, the JLPP buys back a certain number of copies to send to libraries around the world.

Remove the JLPP influence and Vertical’s mandate, and you end up with only 13 Japanese titles coming out over the past two years. (Something similar happens to Arabic literature when you look beyond what the American University of Cairo Press is doing.)

Some of the fiction pieces included in this issue are: an excerpt from Sogil Yan’s Corridor of Dreams (translated by Linda Hoaglund), an excerpt from Kaho Nakayama’s Sentimental Education (translated by Allison Powell), and an excerpt from Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru (translated by Michael Emmerich).

And speaking of Michael Emmerich, he also has a short essay in this issue entitled “Beyond Between: Translation, Ghosts, Metaphors,” which opens with an bit about the meaning of the word “translation”:

In order for “translation” to have any meaning at all, it must be translatable into other languages; but the moment it is translated, it is swept up in a system of differentiations different from the one in which it is enmeshed in English—indeed, it doesn’t even have to be translated, because the word itself implies its own connectedness to these other systems of differentiation. Translation must be viewed as a node within which all the ideas of translation in all the languages there ever have been or could ever be might potentially congregate, intersect, mingle.

On top of all this, there are also reviews of Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (winner of the 2009 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry) and Satoshi Azuchi’s Supermarket: A Novel (which is a JLPP book).

Very solid issue . . .

17 March 09 | N. J. Furl | Comments

With our Politics of Translation event coming up next Monday, this seems like a good time to post the video of a different event that we hosted last fall.

As part of the Reading the World Conversation Series, this “Translators’ Roundtable” brought together four literary translators—who work in a variety of languages and genres—to discuss their experiences. The conversation explored a number of different topics, from how they got started as translators, to the obstacles of retranslating classic works, to translating film scripts during the writers’ strike, etc.

In attendance were Michael Emmerich, Edward Gauvin, Marian Schwartz, and Martha Tennent. There’s a lot of brilliant discussion here—one of my favorite points coming from Michael who makes a case to those who lean on the phrase “Lost in Translation” that it is, instead, and “100% gain.”


Translators’ Roundtable from Open Letter Books on Vimeo.

27 August 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

Yesterday’s post about how to dismiss translations caused a good deal of discussion in the comments section, ranging from Monica’s question about whether other cultures have this same authenticity/accuracy/I-can’t-judge-without-knowing-the-original language issues (I doubt it, but would love to hear from international readers about this) to Paul Verhaeghen’s spot-on critique about how all culture is translation and that these issues don’t come up in regard to music or visual arts.

There’s also a comment from Dan Green (the inspiration behind the initial post) reiterating that in addition to wanting more translations, he also wants more informed critics writing about these books (I totally agree). He also responded to part of my argument about treating the book as a book rather than questioning it’s accuracy, etc.:

“If you don’t think a part of a translation is up to snuff, point out what you don’t like about it.”

But how am I to know what’s not up to snuff in the translation itself if I don’t have the ability to judge it against the original?

(I do want to point out one thing here—I think Paul Verhaeghen’s amazing Omega Minor is a book that Dan can review, since Verhaeghen wrote it in Flemish, but also translated it into English. That said, the Dalkey version is not exactly the same as the original . . . )

My belief is that you simply have to treat the book as it is. A translation isn’t the same as the original, and can be/should be evaluated on its own terms. If a sentence is poorly written, or a chapter overly muddy, it’s a moot point to debate if this was the fault of the translator or author. It’s part of the book as it exists in translation and can be criticized as such.

The real reason I’m writing this today though is because his comment reminded me of a response Michael Emmerich gave in a recent interview in Calque. The interviewer asked, “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”

The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.

To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s something only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]

29 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The other day, we posted a short piece about an exchange between Michael Emmerich and Daniela Hurezanu that took place on the Calque website and centered around a recent interview with Emmerich the striking differences between his unedited version of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P and the version edited by Elmer Luke.

Thanks to the general awesomeness of St. Mark’s Bookshop I was able to pick up the most recent issue of Calque last night. And thanks to the boring, depersonalized nature of airports, I just had a chance to read this entire interview and versions of Emmerich’s translation of Matsuura Rieko’s novel.

First off, the edited version of the translation reads much better than the unedited one. The concerns Hurezanu expressed in her letter to Calque are completely valid—there are occasions when editors mutilate a translation to fit certain preconceived notions about the reader—but in this case, my personal feeling, and no offense to Emmerich, who is clearly one of the top Japanese translators working today, is that the edited version simply reads better. (For instance, “Roused from my slumbers by a barrage of knocks on the front door, it gradually dawned on me that an hour earlier I had agreed to have a talk with Kazumi, and I made a mad dash for the hall,” doesn’t read as well as “I was roused by a barrage of knocks on the door, and suddenly remembering Kazumi was coming over, I made a mad dash to the door.”)

And Emmerich’s description of this book makes it sound wonderfully perverse:

The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is an unusual sort of masterpiece. Riveting, provocative, funny, disturbing, touching, verbose, explicit, and absurd, it was also a bestseller. I doubt anyone in the United States who can’t read Japanese even suspects that Japanese literature contains novels like this, or authors like Matsuura. A novel, that is to say, whose heroine has a penis on her foot and spends much of the book on the road with what amounts to a sexual freak show.

Aside from the excerpts though, the interview with Emmerich is simply amazing and totally worth the cover price. The opening section about Ukigumo—which is considered the “first modern Japanese novel”—is fascinating, since its author, Futabatei Shimei (which is a pseudonym and pun that reflects a Japanese phrase that translates as “drop dead”) translated Ivan Turgenev and was heavily influenced by Russian writers.

Futabatei also cites Dostoevsky and Goncharov as the stylistic models that helped him break out of the distinctly “early modern” written style and prose rhythms that dominate Part 1 of Ukigumo, and we know that when he was struggling with Parts 2 and 3, he sometimes wrote in Russian first, then translated his Russian into Japanese [. . .]

There’s a ton of things to quote from this interview, but my plane is boarding, so I’ll leave off with Michael’s response to a question of “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”

The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.

To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s somethign only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]

24 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Today on the Calque blog, there’s a fascinating exchange between translators Daniela Hurezanu and Michael Emmerich regarding the editing of Matsuura Rieko’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, which Emmerich translated and is forthcoming from Seven Stories.

In the last issue of Calque—one of, if not the, finest journals of literary translation being published—there appeared an interview with Michael Emmerich followed by two versions of the opening paragraphs of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, an unedited version, and the one that’s actually going to be published.

The huge differences between the two versions—and Emmerich’s explanation of why certain changes were made—really set off Daniela Hurezanu, who wrote a substantial letter to Calque, asking them to publish it. They did so online along with Emmerich’s response.

Both letters are way too long to accurately summarize, but needless to say, the issues that come up are at the crux of literary translation, the editing of literary translations, and the nature of fitting a book to a particular country’s aesthetic and commercial desires—all of which are really fascinating and well presented in the two letters.

From Hurezanu:

In comparing the unedited translation with the edited version, one can see that the changes have been made according to a certain pattern, which obviously reflects the esthetic view of the editor(s). The first two long sentences have been chopped into much shorter sentences, and what is conveyed indirectly in the first version is expressed telegraphically in the second one, as if the narrator was answering a police questionnaire and was summoned to give the most unambiguous, direct answers possible. But the narrator is not answering a police questionnaire. She is telling a story about a woman whom she doesn’t recall very well. The first version has two paragraphs about the narrator’s difficulty in remembering who this woman who showed up at her door was, and the style parallels her mental hesitations. The sentences in these paragraphs have the oral feeling of an inner monologue, and contain words expressing hesitation that have been deleted in the edited version. All the nuances, the words that don’t convey specific information have been deleted, and only the bare bones of the text—its “message” has been kept. Why? Do the editors believe that we read fiction in order to get some “information,” and the shorter and more clearly it’s conveyed, the better? Do we really read in order to find out that the narrator didn’t remember Mazo Kazumi? So what? I can’t speak for all readers, but when I read a book it is to be transported not only into another physical universe—which, in the case of Japan, some might equate with a desire for exoticism (and I understand Emmerich’s frustration regarding such expectations)—but to be transported into another universe of thinking. It is not a book’s “message”—whether the narrator remembers or not Mazo Kazumi—that represents another view of the world, but the way a writer’s thinking is articulated through the flow of the words, that is, his/her structure of thinking. When a paragraph begins, as some do in Emmerich’s unedited version, with a subordinate clause or a sentence that draws us slowly into the story’s atmosphere, the text has an entirely different rhythm than when these sentences are either deleted or replaced by short sentences starting with “I.” There is a huge difference between a structure of thinking that places the I and its “actions” at the center of the world and a structure of thinking in which the I is less important than the background on which it is placed. If one alters a text’s syntax, it is this very structure that is altered.

And a bit from Emmerich:

When I proposed printing the two texts together, I assumed that this might make some readers uncomfortable—indeed, that was the point. I decided to present the most drastically edited section of the entire book, the opening paragraphs, because I have the sense that few readers are conscious of what goes on behind the scenes before a translated novel, or any novel, is published in the United States, and I hoped that putting these two texts on display might give Calque’s readers some insight into this process. At the same time, I expected that translators who believe, as I do, that it is important to consider the political, ethical, and economic choices we make when we engage, not only in the nearly impossible task of translation, but also in the all-too-frequently flat-out-one-hundred-percent impossible task of finding publishers willing to assume the daunting financial risks involved in paying for and publishing our work, might also be made uncomfortable by some of the points I made. My aim was not, after all, to repeat comfortable truths: it is true that editors often do things to translations that many of us find deeply objectionable, not infrequently without allowing translators the option of undoing their edits; it is true that English prose in the United States has been deeply influenced by the “shorter is better” aesthetic, and this has had an effect on the editing of translations, even in cases where strong arguments might be made in favor of preserving the prolixity and complexity of the original text; it is true that this imposition of a local aesthetic on translated foreign writing seems contrary to the purposes of translation as they are understood by many translators active in the United States today. While fully aware of these truths, I wanted instead to consider in discomfiting detail the fact that practical, real-world benefits can accrue from compromises that we might, in an ideal world, prefer not to make.

The whole exchange is fascinating and definitely worth reading, and hopefully we’ll be able to discuss this in more depth when Michael Emmerich comes to Rochester for a Translators Roundtable on October 1st. (An event that will be recorded and posted here.)

There’s such an interesting web of concerns related to how a translator relates to the original text, what liberties he/she takes when translated it, and what the American editor then does to the translation to make it “more appealing” to American readers. Personally, I’m very much against the idea of American editors altering the style of a book to make it more like crappy American neo-realism, but there are a number of people I respect who would probably disagree with this. To me, it’s the differences in the style and the structure of international books that is so intriguing . . .

23 June 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

16 August 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just received Contemporary Japanese Writers Vol. 1 from the J-Lit Center and realized that Three Percent has been totally lacking in love for this amazing cultural organization.

First off, their website has recently gone through a number of changes, and is quickly becoming an incredibly valuable resource for info on Japanese writing. The Emerging Writers in Translation section is great for introducing young authors, and the featured stories and articles are great.

Michael Emmerich’s piece on Abe Kazushige has me more excited than ever to see the translation of Sinsemillas, which is part of the most recent list of Japanese Literature Publishing Project titles.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Contemporary Japanese Writers book that arrived today is astounding. Featuring biographical and bibliographical information on 50 contemporary Japanese writers, this is a great way to find out about the contemporary lit landscape in Japan. (And the design is beautiful.)

I guess this is one of my typical cheerleader posts, but I think J-Lit is one of the most impressive cultural organizations out there and deserves more recognition.

....
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