Two of the most successful Japanese novels of the past few years that have been translated into English are Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Briefcase” and Fuminori Nakamura’s “Last Winter, We Parted.” Both were translated by Allison Markin Powell, a literary translator and editor based in New York.
Her distinguished career includes translating Osamu Dazai’s “Schoolgirl,” so it’s somewhat surprising to learn that Japanese is her third language.
“I studied French in grade school,” says Powell in an interview with The Japan Times. “When we read ‘The Little Prince’ I was intrigued by the notion of translating literature. But when I got to college I wanted to start a new language. Japanese was a bit of an arbitrary decision but it worked out well — the literature is so vast and profound.”
Powell began working as a translator after completing her master’s in Asian Languages at Stanford University (she also lived in Japan as an undergraduate) and has translated nonfiction, manga, literary fiction as well as books about craft, art and architecture. She may be based in New York, but Powell returns to Tokyo every fall after the Frankfurt Book Fair to meet with writers, editors and agents.
Her work is so highly respected that she now has input into what gets translated. “Many editors express interest in publishing Japanese literature but they don’t really know where to start,” she says. “I have authors that I promote and recommend. American editors still think of literature in translation as risky. Lately there have been more literary journals and magazines publishing excerpts and stories — they are a great way to introduce new writers. Last year I also launched a website called Japanese Literature in English. It’s a database of books that have been translated and published.”
Fresh from appearing with Nakamura in New York to promote his recent released novel, she is already hard at work on his next book. “Soho has acquired a number of Nakamura’s titles and I’m trying to finish translating his first book, ‘The Gun.’ It’s different from ‘Last Winter, We Parted,’ but you can see it’s the same writer. It’s a tour de force and I’m very excited.”
Translating, like writing, is a solitary job and interaction with the writer is limited. “For “Last Winter, We Parted” I had a handful of questions for Nakamura after the editing process, questions about the language or specific items that appear in the book that I may not understand or recognize,” she says. “But I’ve translated books by people such as Osamu Dazai. You can’t ask Dazai any questions. To be honest I don’t really see the author as more or less of an authority on their book from a translation perspective.”
Some writers would disagree.
Powell says that when Haruki Murakami’s novels are translated he works very closely with his English translators, checking their translations and making changes.
“I was at a film festival where they showed ‘Norwegian Wood’ and there was a Q&A with the director. He’s Vietnamese but he wrote the script in French. It was translated into English and Murakami vetted that and made all of these changes and it was sent back and translated into French and then everything went into Japanese.”
We’re all familiar with the concept of untranslatable words and ideas and I ask Powell if there are any specific difficulties with translating Japanese to English?
“Yes,” she says with a laugh. “The syntax is so different that it’s almost impossible to do a literal translation. The ideas that we express at the end of a sentence, Japanese will put at the beginning. You’re getting the information in a different order. When I’m translating it into English I have to decide what’s the most important part of this sentence, is it the information or is it the way that you’re getting it? That’s fun. I heard another translator describe his process as trying to recreate the way that he felt when he read the original and I aspire to that.”
“Then there’s the subject. In Japanese dialogue, who is speaking is often implied but not expressed. Another translator from Japanese said he was working with the author and he got who was speaking wrong. That happens to me, too. It’s embarrassing, but really, how are you supposed to know? Maybe the Japanese always know when they’re reading it but that’s a challenge. And there’s a lot of repetition. In English we vary the way we say things, we vary our use of nouns and verbs, we use synonyms but in Japanese you’ll find the same phrase repeated and I don’t think that works well in English. I think as a translator the most important skill you have is being able to write well in the target language. Obviously a facility with the source language is important but it’s not as important as being able to produce a finished product that reads well.”
That skill means that a number of translators also write their own fiction, but not Powell. “I only translate. I was talking with a friend and they referred to the ‘tyranny of the blank page.’ Literary translation is working creatively with something that has already been produced. It suits me.”