Translators’ icon with rhythm writ large in his lexicon

by Setsuko Kamiya

When people decide to read a book by a foreign author, they may be drawn by what they know of the writer, or by an intriguing title. But for many Japanese readers, the attraction is that a book was translated by Motoyuki Shibata — and will therefore likely be to their taste as well as his.

A professor of American literature at the University of Tokyo, Shibata has been translating books from English for about 15 years, and his efforts have been central to the success in this country of contemporary American writers, including Paul Auster, Stuart Dybek and Steven Millhauser.

Now, as a leader in this field, Shibata, 49, admits he is “blessed” to be able to choose what to translate — unlike most translators, who have to do what publishers ask them to. “The only reason I translate is to make readers happy,” he says.

Interestingly, the happy readers of Shibata’s translations are also often — like him — fans of the writer Haruki Murakami. Why? “I think I’ve been searching for contemporary American authors who I feel are somewhat in the same vein as Murakami, regardless of how they’re viewed in the United States,” Shibata explains.

In fact, Shibata isn’t just a fan of Murakami — the two also work closely together on translations. The popular fiction writer whose books are published in many languages is a busy translator, too, and he has been especially active bringing the works of Truman Capote and Raymond Carver to a Japanese readership.

Since the late 1980s, Shibata has been Murakami’s translation checker, with their most recent work being Murakami’s 2003 version of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” In the past few years, they have also copublished two books of their dialogues on the pitfalls and pleasures of translation.

Now, even even though he has become an icon of translators himself, Shibata says humbly that “being able to read the original [English] language texts and Murakami’s draft translations is a luxury, as it teaches me how certain lines can be paraphrased into brisk Japanese.”

It is this “feel” for language that Shibata says is his main priority when translating, so that his work renders the “rhythm” of the prose as close to that of the original as possible.

Technically, to achieve this result Shibata says it is often important to respect the English word order of sentences when turning them into Japanese.

Punctuation, too, is a key factor, he says. “I get angry with my students when they use commas and periods randomly,” he says. “If you are conscious of rhythm, it’s not possible to use them carelessly.”

But technical guidelines only take a translator so far. In reality, Shibata says, there is no failsafe method or rule. The crucial factor is the selection of words.

As he explained: “Working on fiction books by Rebecca Brown or Auster — who both write using plain words with simple rhythms — I am careful to choose words and phrases in Japanese that sound clear and succinct.

“In the case of Richard Powers, whose work is more of a stream of intellectual thought, I similarly try to give a certain limpidness to the flow of the narrative in Japanese.”

In his book “Nine Interviews”(2004, ALC Press Inc.), this emphasis on rhythm again comes through loud and clear as Shibata presents interviews with nine authors, including Auster, Brown and Kazuo Ishiguro. Among other topics, many of these dialogues include enthusiastic discussions of how the authors, too, consciously try to find and create a rhythm, or a certain tone of voice, in their narratives.

But when translating, Shibata says simply, “I guess it all comes down to my intuition — imitating what I ‘feel’ is right” — adding, apropos of nothing in particular, that he often works to music — classics, jazz or rock, just as long as it has no clear Japanese lyrics to distract him.

Though he says he always enjoys meeting “his” writers in person, when he is working on a translation he only ever contacts them to confirm things like the pronunciation of place names or characters’ names. And he never asks what they are trying to say through their writing.

“I believe translators are representing the readers, so we should judge from the text alone,” he says.