American author Paul Auster once called translators “the shadow heroes of literature,” who have enabled us to understand that we all live in one world. He could also be describing Juliet Winters Carpenter, 61, one of the best-known literary translators from Japanese to English, who has won praise for her ability to channel the voices of Japanese writers into readable, often colloquial English and yet somehow retain their distinctive style.
Carpenter, an American living in Nara, has translated dozens of works over a 30-year career, including “Masks” by Fumiko Enchi; “A Lost Paradise” by Junichi Watanabe; Machi Tawara’s widely adored book of tanka poems, “Salad Anniversary”; and several books by Kobo Abe and historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba. She has also written a book of her own on Kyoto titled “Seeing Kyoto.”
She is now immersed in translating one of the eight volumes that together comprise Shiba’s best-selling work, the monumental “Saka no Ue no Kumo” (“The Clouds Above the Hill”).
As she described it during a recent interview, “The clouds of the title represent Japanese aspirations at the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Shiba focuses on two actual brothers, the Akiyama brothers from Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, who both played pivotal roles in the war. One founded the Japanese cavalry; the other was a brilliant naval strategist. They were both full of potential, not unlike Japan itself at that time.”
This 414-page book, scheduled for completion this year, is just one of the three volumes of “Saka no Ue no kumo” that Carpenter will do herself. “I call myself the Queen of Shiba,” she joked. Two other translators are also working on the English edition, which is scheduled to be released in four volumes by the independent publisher Japan Documents, probably in 2012.
Carpenter’s first encounter with Japan came exactly a half-century ago, at age 11, in March 1960, when her father, a lawyer, took her along on a 10-week trip around the world, with stops in 26 countries. Their first stop was Japan, where they spent 10 days.
Carpenter remembered a visit to Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto, the delights of sukiyaki, the kindness of the locals. “Perhaps because it was our first stop it had a lasting effect on me. I was impressed — and a bit jealous — seeing that ordinary people could understand each other so well speaking this strange tongue, while I couldn’t catch a thing.”
In high school, back in Evanston, Ill., she studied Japanese language and culture in a summer intensive course. “In reading translated Japanese literature I came to realize that a translator is a really important person. I was especially impressed with Edward Seidensticker, so I decided to attend the university where he taught, the University of Michigan.”
After graduating from Michigan, where she majored in Japanese language and literature, Carpenter studied at the Inter-University Center in Tokyo for a year in 1969-70, stayed an extra year to work as an editor of an English-language magazine put out by Toyota, and returned to Michigan for graduate work.
By now married, she returned to Japan in 1975 to work on her Ph.D. thesis. However, in 1977 she had a rare piece of luck: The novelist Abe was looking for a new translator for his work and Carpenter was asked to submit a sample chapter to the publisher, Knopf. Knopf awarded her the commission, for Abe’s book “Secret Rendezvous.”
“Abe’s writing contained passages about nuclear holocausts and environmental degradation. He was prophetic, writing back then about the deluge of information in our manic world,” Carpenter said. “Some aspects of the translation were nearly impossible to bring off, however, such as his transition in the writing from the third person, in the form of notebooks, to the first person. You just can’t change perspective that easily in English.”
The Abe book won Carpenter two awards for translation, launching her literary career. When asked about that time, she said: “It was exhausting but fun. Both my first book and my first child came out in the spring of 1979. Both were successful, so I produced another baby and another book in close succession, then another of each. I soon had three boys and several books to my name.”
From the 1970s Carpenter lectured part time at universities to supplement her translation work, and in 1986 she was recruited as a full-time instructor at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts Kyoto, where she is now a professor in the department of English. “I tell my students that translation is about making choices. In his classes Seidensticker would ask us, ‘So what did you do with this phrase?’ You have the freedom to play with the words until they make grammatical and psychological sense.”
Carpenter isn’t a stickler for literal meaning. She likens translation to acting, in that translators take words written by someone else and bring them to life in a different form, based on the translator’s own knowledge and experience.
Certainly, inherent differences in Japanese and English writing conventions can complicate the translator’s task, such as the penchant in Japanese for vagueness and sentimentality, or the contrast between the Western love of irony and the value Japanese assign to being sunao, or sincerity. “You don’t have to translate every polite phrase. You don’t want to make conversation sound exotic to the Western ear. It should seem to be normal people talking.”
She finds it helpful to decide on a key phrase for every work she translates. “For Shiba’s work there are a few themes that inform the writing, but particularly I think he wanted to explain how the Japanese became the Japanese,” she said. “He was fascinated by the Meiji Period, when Japanese came together as a country for the first time.”
Carpenter is also involved in the Japanese Literature Publication Project. Now in its eighth year and sponsored by the Cultural Affairs Agency, the project selects books, matches them with translators, edits the manuscripts and finds publishers for dozens of well-respected Japanese literary works that haven’t been translated to date. “There’s an amazing number of good Japanese writers but in the West we tend to only know the same five,” Carpenter said, “including Haruki Murakami, whom many people don’t even think of as especially Japanese.”
Thanks to this project more than 90 works have already been translated into English, French, German and Russian, and Carpenter has completed two: “Mubanso” (“A Cappella”) by Mariko Koike and Noboru Tsujihara’s “Jasmine,” which she describes as “a love story and a kind of ghost story that spans decades: old Shanghai, Tiananmen Square, the Kobe Earthquake. A terrific read.”
“Japan has very little presence in international news media today, yet Japanese literature seems to be much more accessible now than before, probably because of the appeal of Japanese pop culture,” Carpenter said. Manga, anime and sushi have brought the culture closer to the young, especially, she said. “It would be fun if we could think the same way about world literature as we do about food; you know, ‘Let’s read a little Chinese tonight.’ “