Transcript of Episode 26: Translating Japanese to English, part 2

Find out more about Episode 26 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.

This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at

Thanks for your patience! Just when I thought I was back on track, my family was in what I think is technically a minor car accident? Our car was totaled. I’ve been on crutches for three weeks. We’re all otherwise fine. And now I’m finally getting out part 2 of “Translating Japanese to English”.

It’s appropriate that we’re still talking about Minae Mizumura because August is Women in Translation Month. In August 2014, a research biologist and booklover named Meytal Radzinski launched Women in Translation Month. People all over the world now participate each August on social media using the hashtag #witmonth. [Check out a list of RJL’s favorite books by Japanese women writers.]

If you haven’t already listened to part 1, I strongly encourage you to start there. This 2-part series is a look at translation. We’re zeroing in on how Minae Mizumura’s Shishosetsu from Left to Right made it from her Japanese manuscript onto our English-language bookshelves as An I-Novel, with a lot of help from translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. But we’re also talking a lot about the art and industry of translation in general.

In part 1, we talked about how 

  • How a book comes to be translated
  • How someone comes to be a translator
  • How a translator gets paired with a book

Today, in part 2, we’ll look at what translating a book actually involves?

  • Why isn’t translation just a process of taking a Japanese word, looking it up in a Japanese-English dictionary, and plopping that word back on the page in English?
  • What kinds of choices do translators have to make?
  • How involved are authors in the process?

And we’ll end with some big theoretical questions that people who care about literature in translation (that’s people like me—like you) need to occasionally ask ourselves—why translate a book and why read a book in translation?

To answer these questions, I’ll be bringing in the work of a lot of other translators. Many translators are very generous about sharing interviews regarding their work. I’m going to try to credit the interviewers in-episode. As always, I’ll link my sources on the website. I’ll also link to the work of the creative artists who bring us English-language readers Japanese work in translation.

I’ve also had the opportunity since the last episode to have an email conversation with Juliet Winters Carpenter to clarify a little bit more about her with Minae Mizumura. I’m excited to share that with you during this episode.

[3:35] So why doesn’t a translator just translate literally—take every bit of Japanese and translate it word-for-word into English? There are a lot of people who think this is what they want. 

There’s a certain aesthetic of Japanese media that comes from amateur “scanlations” of Japanese manga and “fansubs” (subtitles) of Japanese anime—both are unauthorized translations by non-professionals. (Piracy is outside of our scope today, but… pay your artists, y’all!)  “Fansubs” and “scanlations” are often superliteral. When a small subset of Japanese fiction readers get into a snit about non-literal translations, I’ve wondered if that’s part of what they’re expecting.

Literary translation is not a process of taking a sentence in the original language and rendering it into the “target language” word for word—for our purposes today, taking a Japanese sentence and rendering into English. There are a lot of reasons that doesn’t work—it’s actually impossible.

Most obviously, slang words and idioms don’t make any sense if you translate them word-for-word. Disney’s new adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese does a brilliant job playing with idioms that don’t really translate. One Chinese-American character wonders why his parents are arguing (in Chinese) about “fried squid”. A more fluent friend explains “friend squid” is a Chinese idiom for being fired.

On a more practical level, the most literal translations often come across as stilted and awkward.
In a kind of contradictory way, translators sometimes have to move away from their original text to actually convey what the author intends.

Think about it.

Authors don’t write stilted, over-literal prose in the original language. Or at least they usually don’t. A word-for-word translation that comes across as stilted and overliteral isn’t a true translation either.
Juliet Winters Carpenter speaks beautifully about the process of translating a novel as something more intimate and collaborative. (She actually worked together with [Minae] Mizumura on some translations very collaboratively, but I think Carpenter is speaking about any author she translates.) This is how she describes her task as translator:

“You have to become the person that you’re writing about and not just translate their words, but their whole experience.”

And I think this is really profound—she describes making changes to the Japanese text of An I-Novel as making it more authentic in English:

“In the course of translating An I-Novel, as often happens in literary translation, a variety of changes to the text were made as, working closely with Mizumura, I tried to keep, paradoxically, to the truth of the original novel.”

I should note that translation has always been an art and has never been literal, but translators’ priorities have also changed over time. The truth they most want to preserve from the original today isn’t always the same as what they were expected to preserve, say, 70 years ago. An English-to-Japanese literary translator named Motoyuki Shibata describes it this way: 

“To exaggerate a little, translators used to decode what was written in the text. Now, younger translators listen to the Japanese prose and try to reproduce that sense of music in their translations.”

And with every translator, you’re going to get a slightly different take on what it means to be true to the source text. But most translators, at least most translators I’ve encountered, are committed to a degree of truth to the source text.

I’m approaching my 200th book read in translation from Japanese. And one of my greatest reading joys is getting to know not just authors but also translators.

I know David Boyd is going to keep as much of the original author’s style as possible. If you read his translations of Hiroko Oyamada, you, too, can be overwhelmed by Oyamada’s l-o-o-ng sentences rendered into eloquent English prose.

I know Emily Balistrieri is going to trust me, the reader, and localize as little as possible. I’ll talk about localization more in just a minute, but that means he never explains a thing he thinks a non-Japanese reader can figure out for themselves.

[8:52] For the next several minutes, I want to talk about the kinds of choices translators have to make when they take a Japanese-language book and translate it into English. Some of these choices are specific to the Japanese language. Others are choices virtually all translators have to face. Obviously I can’t cover all the choices relevant to books in translation, but I’ve chosen a few that are especially interesting or dear to my heart.

And—a quick caveat—that these choices aren’t always ultimately up to the translator. Translators have to answer to their editors, who sometimes have opinions of their own. And sometimes publishing houses have house styles about italics or footnotes or non-English words that limit the choices available to the translator.

[9:45] Let’s start with some specific issues faced by Japanese to English translators.Cathy Hirano has translated a huge body of Japanese middle grade and young adult fiction. She has described Japanese-to-English translation as “fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics”. I like that. Let’s talk about why.

English is a language that does not like ambiguities. We don’t like incomplete sentences. Our sentences always go in the same order: subject + verb + then direct object if the sentence has one… (“Alison wrote the podcast.”)

There has to be a grammatical subject in a sentence: either a noun (Alison, Read Japanese Literature, the authors…) or a pronoun (she, it, they). Pronouns have to have antecedents—the words they refer back to.

None of that is as strictly true of Japanese.

Broadly speaking, Japanese is a language that is much happier with ambiguity. In fact, some authors play with that ambiguity on purpose. Some Japanese language speakers use that ambiguity as a way to preserve politeness. 

Translator Avery Fischer Udagawa says, “It’s not always clear what the subject of a sentence is, or who is speaking, and so much is left unsaid. The challenge is to preserve ambiguities where they’re crucial without leaving the reader at a loss, to elucidate [to make clear] without overexplaining.”

In rare cases, it isn’t even clear in a Japanese story what gender a character is. That’s very difficult in an English-language story. The very first time an author uses a pronoun it establishes a gender for a character. That’s especially true of anthropomorphic animals like the bear in “Kamisama”, which we discussed in a previous episode, or the cat in Sosuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Saved Books, translated by Louise Heal Kawai. If translators want to use pronouns for these characters, they have to guess if they’re a “he” or a “she” or an “it” or a “they”.

[12:11] “Gender” as a broad category causes a surprising amount of trouble translating Japanese. Manga translator Leo McDonagh has an excellent article about it on his blog—there’s a link on the episode page.

In Japanese, the way people speak can be more obviously gendered. For example, men tend to use different first person pronouns—different Is—than women. Men tend to speak more bluntly. When they speak in a more soft or traditionally “feminine” way, it’s usually for a reason. How is a translator supposed to convey all of that?

Then there’s, of course, also the issue of honorifics—the -san or -chan or -sensei that Japanese people place at the end of a person’s name out of respect. They convey important information… but is that information important enough to be necessary in English? Sometimes translators render -san as “Mr.” or “Ms.” That can get awkward and imply a degree of formality that isn’t intended. Sometimes translators leave -san—that can end up with an orientalist feeling, making the book feel a lot more foreign than it needs to.

Japanese also has words like obasan and obaasan—“auntie” and “grandma”. Except in very specific parts of the English-speaking world, we don’t classify unrelated adults by their age group—Japanese does. So translators are left with options like awkwardly writing “middle-aged woman” for every “obasan”… using “auntie”, which would strike some English readers as bizarre… leaving obasan, which could be either confusing, or, if done really wrong, orientalist… or coming up with some other alternative of their own.

[14:09] And then there’s the issue of the Japanese writing system.

We haven’t talked about the Japanese writing system since episode 2—our episode about The Tale of Genji. Japanese has one of the most complicated writing systems in the world with native and borrowed symbols. A Japanese person is expected to know:

  • Romaji, which is the Japanese name for the Roman alphabet (A, B, C… yada yada…)
  • Arabic numerals, which are the same 1-2-3 that English-speakers use
  • Then there are the 2 Japanese syllabaries native to Japan. Each kana makes 1 vowel or consonant-vowel sound.

You can write the entire Japanese language in hiragana, but virtually no adult does. It’s primarily used for grammar—things like conjugating the end of a verb or adding a part of speech to a sentence. It’s also used to spell out unfamiliar words.

I suppose you can write the entire Japanese language in katakana—I don’t know why you would. It’s mostly reserved for foreign words and onomatopoeia.

(Actually, side note: Japanese onomatopoeia are another aspect of the language that’s difficult to translate. The Kaori Ekuni novel Kira Kira comes into English as Twinkle Twinkle, but kira kira is more like the sound evoking something sparkling and glittering. It’s impossible to translate perfectly, although Twinkle Twinkle is a nice attempt. Especially because it evokes the song or poem “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” That one was translated by the way, by Emi Shimokawa.)

But, anyway,  the Japanese love kanji—a logographic system based on Chinese characters. Modern Japanese uses kanji for “content words”, especially nouns, adjectives, verbs.
What does all that have to do with translation?

Sometimes kanji have what are almost hidden meanings. And that’s impossible to translate. You can only see the hidden meanings when you can see the kanji on the page. 

Ted Gooseen provides an excellent example in an interview with translators David Boyd and David Karashima. Snow Country is probably Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s most famous novel—at least in English. (And yes, I’m overdue for something on Kawabata…) The protagonist is named “Shimamura”—and that’s written using the kanji for “island” and “village”. (There are different ways you could spell out the sounds for “Shimamura” using kanji.) His name foretells that he’s going to be an isolated character, but that nuance is almost impossible to relay without the kanji.

Just like in English, sometimes a character’s name is significant, but most of the time it’s more-or-less arbitrary. Why would a translator offer “Mr. Island-Village? any more than a translator of The Chronicles of Narnia [by C. S. Lewis] should offer foreign-language readers “Founder of the Church” Peter Pevensie and “Patron Saint of Light” Lucy Pevensie?

[17:30] Another issue for Japanese books is that publishing categories in Japan are well established. Publishing categories in the Anglo-American world are well established. And they don’t exactly overlap.
Just a warning that I have very strong feelings about this particular issue because, to me, changing a publishing category changes a book’s meaning.

Let me give you an example: In Japan, there’s a major division between what I usually call “literature” and light novels. The Japanese here is literally just “raito noberu”—it’s just a transliteration. 

Like English-language young adult fiction or YA, light novels are targeted at teens. They’re short—around 50,000 words. They’re often series published in 3-9 month intervals. Sometimes you can tell you’re looking at a light novel because the cover looks like a manga, but there’s prose inside.

The books are also usually published in what’s called a bunkobon format—smal, space-saving, A6-size for all non-Americans with their lovely standard-sized paper that the rest of us can only envy.

That distinction doesn’t exist in English. In English, we’ve got vaguer distinctions like “literary fiction” versus “genre fiction” and “young adult fiction”. And in English, there’s not a lot of fiction about kids and teens that isn’t middle-grade or young adult fiction.

What’s the big deal? Tomihiko Morimi, for example, ends up in a weird space in English-language publishing. We talked about Morimi and his work in the episode about magical realism. A lot of his work is about college students. His Penguin Highway [translated by Andrew Cunningham] is about a fourth grader. And a lot of English-speakers are excited about his work because they first encountered the stories in their incarnations as successful anime. So sometimes Morimi gets regarded as a light novelist by English-language readers, even though he decidedly isn’t perceived that way in Japan.

This may be my own personal hangup, by the way. But, yes, it does affect the translator and not just the publisher and bookseller. Translators like to have an audience in mind. Louise Heal Kawai talks about translating The Cat Who Saved Books:

“Picador (UK) and HarperVia (US) were clear that they didn’t want to package it as a YA book. Both large publishers have YA imprints and it wasn’t those who had bought the rights, so perhaps the reason was as simple as that?”

Kawai personally “felt because of its subject matter (teens, hikikomori, friendship, adventure ‘quests’) that it was very YA.”

In the end, she “didn’t aim [the] language at any particular readership.”

Maybe the moral of the story is simply, at least when it comes to translated fiction, we should read outside of our favorite publishing categories! There’s great translated fiction published as YA but written for adults. And there’s a lot of great middle grade fiction out there, too.

Check out anything translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Sachiko Kashiwaba’s The House of the Lost on the Cape is a piece of Fukushima fiction coming this fall. I finished it while I was recovering from the car accident. It’s stunning. Highly recommended.

[21:13] A more general question for all translators is how they deal with cultural content that is (probably) unfamiliar to the audience in their target language—things that are a part of Japanese life… or history… or art… that we don’t have in the English speaking world. Especially in the manga and anime worlds, the process of adapting a text to an audience in a new setting is referred to as “localization”. That’s really a process that applies in general.

Let’s start with a striking example I found in an interview David Boyd and David Karashima did with Lucy North. (These are all translators.) Lucy North translated, among many other excellent books, [Natsuko Imamura’s] The Woman in the Purple Skirt.

North talks about a “cream bun” a character eats in the novel’s opening pages. I want to summarize the amount of thought that went into her translation of this two-word noun. I highly recommend you go and read the interview for yourself—there’s a link on the episode page.

The word in Japanese is kuriimu (or “cream”) pan (“bread”, from the Portuguese), So it’s already a linguistically complicated word because it’s a borrowed word from 2 different languages imported into Japanese.

Let me read out a little of North’s thought process:

“If I used the Japanese word, should I italicize it? [In part 1, we talked about the complexities of italicization.] …Would kuriimu pan work? Some readers would not make the connection between ‘pan’ and ‘bread’ in a Japanese context. Then I realized that I didn’t know what a kuriimu pan was. I didn’t think I’d ever seen one of these… what were they? Rolls, buns, puffs? Pasties…?”

So North then did a lot of research about what kuriimu pan was—turns out it isn’t really a cream bun because it’s filled with cream before it’s baked.Technically the cream is cooked and therefore a custard.
And North found out that the publisher’s house style limited her choices. She had to italicize “foreign” words. She couldn’t use the special macrons over Japanese letter sounds—I don’t use them on my website either, but they’re lines over long vowel sounds to make it easier to pronounce Japanese correctly if you know how to read them. 

North goes on to explain, “in the end, bearing in mind the exigencies of house style,” she went for “cream bun” but with what she calls“residual anxiety”. And then she “added a stealth gloss to make sure that the reader would understand that the ‘cream’ in the ‘cream bun’ was not cream but custard.”

I’m going to explain what a “stealth gloss” is in just a minute. You might be able to guess right now. But I just want to emphasize that this process North just outlined isn’t unusual. Translators put a lot of thought into their work. Their personal “hang-ups” are all different, but a good translator is really doing their best to present the reader with a new version of the book that is both beautiful and “true”.

[24:50] So… what techniques are available to translators to deal with unfamiliar cultural content?
Some translators will simply choose a more familiar alternative. I say “simply”—it’s not that easy. It’s what Lucy North did with “cream bun”.

This technique isn’t bad or lazy. Often translators use this technique when they want their end result to be a text that creates the same experience for an English-language reader, even if they aren’t reading a literal translation of the words a Japanese reader would encounter. So they’re trying to give readers the most authentic experience of reading the book! Remember that the original reader presumably wouldn’t find anything foreign in the book at all!

Translators can do really creative things with “cultural equivalence”. Here’s one of my favorite examples of what I think of a “cultural equivalence done right”. It’s from a book called Rip It Up by Kou Machida. The protagonist sings a bizarre mash-up at a karaoke bar—and this is how translator Daniel Joseph renders it:

“It’s not unusual to hi-de hi-de-hi-di

You’re a chaste as ice, and baby we were born to nun,

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on Moon River

Any way the lunch grows doesn’t really matter.

Down in the horse corral, gnawing on rice

Hail Hibari, blithe spirit!

Have you anything to say to me?

Do with less—so they’ll have enough!

Any way the boat rows doesn’t really matter

Chicago, Chicago, it’s a helluva

Paradise for the losers, power to the people

Give it up, music, tonight only, there is no remorse

Like the remorse of the philosopher’s stone

I offer up my life,


I was blown away. I had a chance to ask Joseph about his translation choices. How like the Japanese original was this? Surely you recognized some of the references. I can see “You’re as cold as ice” and “Baby, we were born to run” and Creedence Clearwater Revival and Frank Sinatra…

Joseph explained he “did [his] best to capture the spirit, as well as the general outline of the sources.” He said, “Most of what comes out as a recognizable pop song in English was a snippet of an enka song in the [Japanese]…” Modern enka is like a sentimental ballad.

Joseph goes on to switch Japanese wartime food propaganda for American. (That’s where we get the “Do with less so they’ll have enough.”) He switches a shogi quote for a chess quote, a reference to a Chinese longevity potion to a reference to the philosopher’s stone…

Ultimately, Joseph says, “Basically none of the content is literal, it’s just all cultural equivalence”—at least to the extent that’s possible.

Alternative choices:

A few translated books use footnotes or endnotes, but that’s pretty unusual outside of academic publishing houses. The general consensus is that “normal” readers don’t like notes. And a lot of translators don’t like to rely on them anyway.

The same goes for translators’ explanatory prefaces and afterwards. They are still pretty rare. In some ways, that goes hand-in-hand with a long-running truism of English publishing in translation: English-language publishers almost hid the fact books were translations. That’s starting to change. The #namethetranslator movement to put translators’ names on covers is an effort to make translation a lot more visible.

Like Lucy North mentioned, one alternative choice is what’s called a “stealth gloss”. When a translator uses a stealth gloss, they provide the necessary context clues for a reader to figure out what a word or idea means without the reader having to look it up.

Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll start recognizing stealth glosses in translated fiction all the time. I already mentioned Sachiko Kashiwaba’s The House of the Lost on the Cape, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Udagawa left a huge number of Japanese words and cultural references and explained them with stealth glosses. The glosses in that book are a little less stealthy than they would be in an adult novel, but this is middle grade fiction. The technique provides a huge amount of information about Japan in general and life in the Tohoku region in particular and about Japanese folklore—it’s part of what I liked best about the book.

Other translators choose to supply actual glossaries. That’s another technique that Daniel Joseph used in Machida’s Rip It Up. A glossary is an unobtrusive way to give readers access to the information, but to leave it out of the reading experience for people who don’t want it.

Some translators explain as little as possible. I’ve already mentioned Emily Balistrieri, who translated The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl—which we discussed at length in an earlier episode. As I mentioned, his philosophy is to trust the reader. In one interview he talks about how he’d like to explain even less—he feels like readers “don’t usually need to be babied as much as we think they do.” And I think that technique works really well for Tomihiko Morimi, whom Balistrieri translates often.

[30:55] Translators face other questions, too—we don’t have time to take them all up today. But I’ll give you a couple of examples. 

Japanese has levels of formality—You don’t talk to your boss or professor the same way you talk to your Japanese friends. How do translator[s] convey those?

What to do about dialect? This is becoming an increasingly important question today as more and more Japanese authors write in, for example, Osaka-ben, the dialect of Osaka, instead of “standard,” Tokyo Japanese. Let me just mention that Louise Heal Kawai made a fascinating translation of bits from Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs into her native Mancunian (or Manchester) dialect—after all, both cities are the third largest cities in their island countries, both cities were central to their countries’ industrial revolutions, and both are still major industrial centers. There’s a cultural equivalence.

So listen to this: “Makiko’s my older sister and Midoriko’s her kid so that makes Midoriko my niece and me her unmarried auntie, and because it’s been nearly 10 years since Makiko broke up with Midoriko’s dad she doesn’t remember living with him, and I haven’t heard anything about her mum having them meet so she knows sod all about the bloke—but that’s by the by—and we all go by the same name now”. You can read the whole delightful thing on Words without Borders. It’s free, and there’s a link on the episode page.

We’ve also mentioned the issues about translating Okinawan dialects in a previous episode.

Other questions…

What variation of English is the target language? It’s usually assumed to be American. Polly Barton lives in the UK and writes unabashedly British translations. Some readers find that annoying. I imagine there were even some British readers who thought it was odd to have a Japanese character swear using the word “bloody” and to “skive off” work in There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura.
But if the presumed reader is almost always either American or British. And some translators are starting to question the assumed Anglo-American audience. After all, people read English all over the world. And we’ll talk about that a little bit more at the end of the episode.

[33:25] Now, there is the subjective question of whether a translator has gone “too far” making changes to an author’s original. I want to take a quick look at the way Haruki Murakami has been translated into English. I’m sure Murakami is not the only Japanese author we need to ask this question about. But translator David Karashima wrote a fascinating book called Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami that makes the answer a little more accessible. If you aren’t up to reading the whole 300-page book, novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has an excellent review/summary in The Atlantic called “Who You’re Reading When You Read Haruki Murakami”.

Karashima tells the story of how Murakami’s [A] Wild Sheep Chase came to be published in the US in 1989. The novel, more literally “An Adventure Surrounding Sheep”, was published in Japan in 1982.
The Japanese publishing house Kodansha wanted to break into the American market. Remember that this is right before it was obvious the Japanese bubble had burst. Japanese clout overseas was at an alltime high. A move into English-language publishing was probably overdue. 

But, according to Karashima, the editor and translator Alfred Birnbaum had American—and especially New York American—readers in mind. And so they dropped references to the book’s original setting in the 1970s, especially because they were very markedly Japanese. They even added a nod to a speech made by President Ronald Reagan, who was, obviously, president during the 1980s.  And they changed the title because, as Birbaum reportedly said, “Don’t you think it’s a much better title than the original?”
(It’s often difficult to render titles literally. Sometimes the literally rendered titles really don’t sound very good. And it’s not that uncommon to change a title.)

Murakami’s work continued to receive heavy revisions in translation. The English translation of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World [also translated by Alfred Birnbaum] is 100 pages shorter than the Japanese. Ostensibly, this was to make it more concise and approachable. But Professor Hosea Hirata at Tufts University thinks the cuts intentionally omit a sexually aggressive woman. If that’s true, the editors have actively played a role in shaping the way Americans think about Japanese women.

(This isn’t to say Murakami hasn’t done his own share of writing passive Japanese women—he does. Mieko Kawakami has taken him to task about it in Japanese. But English-language readers also aren’t getting the full picture of what Murakami has written, either.)

And then when Jay Rubin translated The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he cut 25,000 words.
The men who have worked on Murakami’s English-language translations have been sure that they’ve done it on Murakami’s behalf. Murakami genuinely wanted to reach American audiences. People probably aren’t wrong when they say you can tell from the way Murakami writes, from the references he’s added, that he’s writing with translation in mind as a goal. Japanese editors are more hands-off than Anglo-American editors. It’s not wrong that English-readers might find Murakami’s looser, less-edited prose tedious.

For his part, Murakami describes Alfred Birnbaum, for example, as “more of an introducer than a meticulous translator”. And Murakami hopes that someday his early works will appear in English unabridged.

For sure, Murakami understands that translation doesn’t involve word-for-word fidelity to the original. Murakami himself has worked as an English-to-Japanese translator. About translation, he says, “I have always felt that translation is fundamentally an act of kindness. It is not enough to find words that match: if images in the translated text are unclear, then the thoughts and feelings of the author are lost.”

[37:55] By the way, at this point you might be asking yourself, where is the author in all this translation business?

Authors have different levels of engagement with their translators.

Juliet Winters Carpenter worked so closely with Minae Mizumura that the two women are almost co-translators on Mizumura’s English language work. Carpenter describes it as a translation they did together.

Juliet Winters Carpenter was kind enough to have an email conversation with me about working with Mizumura.  She described Mizumura as flexible and explained that “all decisions were ultimately left” to Carpenter. But their level of collaboration, though, was truly extraordinary.

Carpenter talks about making a draft translation on her own, translating every day from 9pm to 3am. She’s retired now, but Carpenter was still teaching when she translated The Fall of Language in the Age of English and An I-Novel. Once she finished, Carpenter and Mizumura reviewed the draft separately. Then they got together to talk, question, research, reshape… She describes the process of rewriting as “focusing on the author’s main point (or the character’s emotion) and ensuring it’s conveyed as originally intended”.

Now… this level of cooperation is highly unusual.

For one, it’s rare that an author speaks and writes in the target language as well as Mizumura speaks and writes in English. We talked in part 1 about Mizumura’s biography. She spent her teenage years in the US and she has a graduate degree from Yale University.

The relationship that Avery Fischer Udagawa describes with author Sachiko Kashiwaba is a lot more typical. This is talking about the novel Temple Alley Summer, another enjoyable middle grade read:
“Besides green-lighting the translation and encouraging my efforts, she kindly read an annotated version of the Japanese that I prepared, to show her where I had taken some liberties to convey the story in English. She was open to this and has also been great about promoting the translation despite COVID, for example, by recording a video with me for Translators Aloud.”

Even Juliet Winters Carpenter doesn’t normally interact so closely with her authors. She’s translated three books by Shion Miura, but she only met that author once before the translations were finished—during a public talk at the university where Carpenter taught. Carpenter and her editor occasionally communicated with Miura’s agent.

And, of course, there are times when a translator is working with an author who is already dead. They aren’t available for questions at all.

[41:09] No translation will ever capture the full meaning and import of the original. If that’s what you want, you’ll need to learn the original language. Even then, there’s some question in my mind whether you’ll have “the real experience” of reading in the original language without growing up in “the original culture”. Sometimes I wonder if I’m even getting “the real experience” if I read an American novel written by an author who grew up in and sets a novel in New England. For that matter, we could think of all reading as some form of translation—one person’s attempt to make their thoughts and experiences real to someone else. Part of Read Japanese Literature’s project is to add context to books in translation to make the experience of reading them richer because of these kinds of cultural disconnects.

And so translators occasionally pass around the philosophical quandary: Is translation possible? And, on some very literal level, the answer is actually, “Not really. No.”

This is how Carpenter explains what she calls “the impossibility of translation”:

“I had always thought that it was possible, but you really hit some walls. There are things that you cannot do… you just have to accept that your translation is not going to ever be the same, that the reader will not get the same effect from reading your translation as the original.”

It’s important to think about what it is you hold in your hand when you read a translation.

  • What can a translation capture?
  • What can’t a translation capture?
  • And why is a book worth reading even though something actually is, in fact, lost in translation?

[43:16] There’s one question that I can’t ignore, even if the technical aspects are a little outside of my wheelhouse: Why not just put the whole book through Google Translate or Chat GPT?

I hope I’ve made an adequate case that translation is an art and not a science. It’s a difficult endeavor and, at the moment, a very human one. Right now, there isn’t any artificial intelligence software remotely capable of the work translators are doing.

(I, for one, wonder why we even want AI to do creative, human work. AI can fill out my tax forms—I want people writing my books and doing my translations. But that’s really neither here nor there.)

I do want to mention the looming threat of a really unethical situation. It’s possible translators are going to end up in a situation where they are paid even less to clean up machine-produced first drafts they could have done a better job translating on a first pass.

So if the opportunity presents itself to buy a machine translation, I strongly encourage you to consider (a) what you’ll be getting for your money and (b) whether that’s a precedent you really want to help set.

While we’re on the topic of ethics, I want to talk about 2 sets of ideas that English readers don’t always have in mind when we approach translation.

The first set comes from Minae Mizumura herself. Remember that An I-Novel is an exploration of the global power of the English language… and, according to Mizumura, it’s a global power that grows at the expense of every other language. Mizumura explored these ideas more formally in a book translated as The Fall of Language in the Age of English. That book was translated not by Juliet Winters Carpenter by also by Mari Yoshihara.

Mizumura published The Fall of Language in the Age of English in Japan in 2008. Surprisingly for an intellectual book about philosophy and linguistics, it became a national best-seller. 

Let me just say that The Fall of English isn’t a perfect book. Mizumura is pretty dismissive of contemporary Japanese fiction. That’s a stance I always object to. You may have been able to tell in earlier episodes that I get pretty annoyed with Kenzaburo Oe and the way he talks about Banana Yoshimoto, for example. And it’s clear that her academic background in Western languages is based in French and not English. (I have a master’s in medieval English literature.) Mizumura makes a common but very incorrect claim that English-language literature begins with Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s a huge medievalist pet peeve because that claim is off by several centuries.

But the points Mizumura makes are important. Mizumura wants all writers—writers in English and writers in other languages—to think about the asymmetry of a world dominated by the English language. She quotes from speech she gave to a group of French people:

“Those of us who know we are living in this asymmetry are the only ones condemned to perpetually reflect upon language, the only ones forced to know that the English language cannot dictate ‘truths’ and that there are other ‘truths’ in this world that cannot be perceived through the English language.”

That “forced to” is important—English writers may reflect on language. (We English readers are reflecting on language today. We just don’t have to.)

And Mizumura goes on:

“The works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism”.

Again, I think Mizumura might be unduly pessimistic—or maybe the selection of books in translation has just improved a good deal in the fifteen years since she wrote The Fall of Language.

Nevertheless, that attention to the asymmetry of language between English and other languages remains an important consideration. I also talked a lot in the first episode about what an important theme that asymmetry is in An I-Novel. It’s not just an important theme in the plot of the book, but also in the way the book is written. So if you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, keep that in mind as you read. It will really make your experience of reading the book richer.

[48:27] The second set of ideas that English readers don’t always have in mind when we approach translation but should came to my attention through Dr. Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda. 

Hofmann-Kuroda is one of my favorite voices on translation. I had the honor of taking a course with her on contemporary Japanese writers last winter. She’s also a co-translator on a new translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa.

A few months ago, she tweeted:

“Translation is not inherently good or altruistic. Some people don’t want their work translated. No one has a ‘right’ to translate anything… Sometimes translation is extractive. Predatory. Greedy.”

She brought up a 2022 Tilted Axis Press anthology called Violent Phenomena. Unfortunately, it isn’t available outside of the UK, but you can buy it directly from the publisher—link on the episode page. The anthology introduces a huge number of questions about translation. I’m going to bring up 2.

Korean-to-English translator Anton Hur’s essay, “The Mythical English Reader”, asks why translators must assume their readers are Anglo-American—white and male.Especially since men make up a minority of fiction readers in English. (I should point out that men make up a higher percentage of translated fiction readers in the UK than they do of non-translated fiction readers, but it’s still a minority.) Shouldn’t translators have the freedom to select their texts and address their translations to a much broader audience?

Poet and scholar Mona Kareem translates Arabic poetry into English. Her essay, “Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations: On the Colonial Phenomenon of Rendition as Translation”, is maybe more of a call to action for translators than to readers of translated fiction. But it’s also a pretty compelling invitation to reconsider the way we think about translation: She warns us to rethink our approach to translation as some sort of charity project to people who don’t speak English:

“Thinking of translation as a service for the Third World poet, as an ‘easing’ into the colonial language, as a championing, a celebration, or an unearthing, should simply not be tolerated.”

In a talk she later gave to support this essay, she encouraged translators to think about who their translations are supposed to serve. Whether their translations are being invasive to another culture. Whether their translations might cause harm. I suspect we readers should be asking ourselves these questions about the books we read and the way we talk about them, too.

[51:37] For my closing today, I’m going to pose some questions to think about when we read books in translation.

Why was this book published in English?

Why am I reading this book in translation?

What am I missing because I’m reading it in translation

What do my experiences add because I’m reading it in translation? I do think that reading in translation isn’t an impoverished experience—it’s different, but not less.

And who translated this book? (Is their name on the cover?) Is there something about this translator’s work that makes it special?

Our “focus text” for this series has been An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. But I also recommend the work of any translator I mentioned. You can find lists of their work on the episode page. And also the anthology Violent Phenomena

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A special thank you to Juliet Winters Carpenter for answering questions by email.

Thank you to Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda for bringing so many issues in translation to my attention.

Thank you to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Japan for providing amazing translator interviews on their website and in general to all the translators who have spent time and effort explaining what their lives and work are like.

And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and

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