The ‘dwarf’ architect of Japan’s literary boom

by

Special To The Japan Times

With a chuckle, translator and literary critic Motoyuki Shibata recalls the way author Steven Millhauser once described him.

Monkey Business Vol. 5, Edited by Ted Goossen and
Motoyuki Shibata.
A Public Space, Journal.

“(He) compared me with a dwarf who works while he’s sleeping,” Shibata says. “And that’s literally true: I’m very small, and because of the time difference, I work while they sleep.”

Others might not have taken the comparison so kindly, but Shibata knows where he stands. When he launched his own literary journal, “Monkey Business,” in 2008, he got in touch with some of the writers whose work he’d translated in the past, and discovered that they were eager to contribute.

“Sometimes editors try to commission something from an author, and authors don’t always say yes,” he says. “But when a translator asks the author to do something for him, they very often say yes. This is one of the nicest things I’ve discovered as a translator: authors are really friendly to you.”

At this point in his career, the 60-year-old — who recently retired from teaching American literature and translation at the University of Tokyo — has plenty of friends to call on. During its short lifetime, the Japanese edition of “Monkey Business” featured work by the likes of Paul Auster, Richard Powers and Rebecca Brown, all of whom have had books translated by Shibata, alongside a wealth of homegrown literary talent.

Though he discontinued the quarterly in 2011, Shibata waited just a couple of years before launching a successor. Titled simply “Monkey,” the new journal is handsomely illustrated and entirely ad-free; that it has managed to break even so far is thanks, in no small part, to the essays that Haruki Murakami contributes to each issue.

Shibata counts Japan’s most famous contemporary novelist as a close friend and colleague; Murakami is a prolific literary translator, too, and, for decades, has been enlisting Shibata to check his work. Their conversations about translation were compiled into a pair of anthologies in the early 2000s, the first of which saw them effectively “trade” authors: Shibata tried his hand at translating Raymond Carver, one of Murakami’s staples, while the latter had a go at Auster.

“The most important thing (for translators) is the passion or admiration you have for the work,” says Shibata. “Haruki Murakami, as a translator, is that way too. In this case, maybe, since he’s a novelist himself, it’s not so much admiration as empathy.”

Shibata may not have gone down the novelist route himself, but his admirations are wide-ranging. Even more so than its predecessor, “Monkey” provides a showcase to its editor’s diverse tastes: the latest edition finds him tackling short stories by a selection of authors that includes James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Magnus Mills and James Kelman. “Magazines are kind of an excuse for me to translate whatever I like,” he says. “It’s hard to do so many different things in book form.”

Flicking through, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the way Shibata captures each writer’s voice, adjusting the rhythms and tenor of his prose to accommodate their different styles — Joyce’s loquaciousness, Kelman’s terse precision.

“There is no settled method,” he says. “I just sort of listen to the text, and I come up with what seems most similar.”

Which is not to say it’s all easy, of course. Shibata spent a decade working on his award-winning 2010 Japanese translation of Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” a task he describes as the hardest thing he has ever done.

And even now, the rich vernacular of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” poses a challenge: “It’s one thing to reproduce Huck Finn’s voice — I nearly think I can do it — but with Jim’s voice, I still don’t know what to do, so I still haven’t translated it.”

After years of ushering English-language fiction into Japanese, in 2011 Shibata got a taste of how the other half live, when he teamed up with translator Ted Goossen to launch an English edition of “Monkey Business.”

Released once a year, the journal draws many of its stories from “Monkey,” translated from Japanese by a heavyweight lineup including Goossen, Jay Rubin, Michael Emmerich and, occasionally, Shibata himself.

Murakami makes frequent appearances, but the publication also champions Japanese authors who will be less familiar to overseas readers: Hideo Furukawa, Keita Jin, Mieko Kawakami, Toh EnJoe.

Some of these writers pose more of a challenge to translators than others. Shibata has a particular affection for the hushed, spare prose of Hiromi Kawakami (no relation to Mieko), but laments that he “still finds it hard to convince American editors how good she is.”

“It’s like wine,” he continues. “Some wines travel well, some wines don’t.”

Among the highlights in the latest edition of “Monkey Business,” he singles out Furukawa’s postmodern rehash of “The Tale of Genji,” Satoshi Kitamura’s “Variation and Theme” — a graphic narrative based on a poem by Charles Simic — and “a very, very great ghost story” by Mieko Kawakami. Murakami fans will find a translation of his recent “Monkey” essay offering advice to young writers, and there’s also work by promising new authors including Yoko Hayasuke and Aoko Matsuda.

“Japanese literature is in great shape now,” Shibata says. “So many writers are trying so many different things. It’s really a wonderful time for literature.”