Books

Understanding the challenging world of the literary translator

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

English translations of Japanese books have found an enthusiastic audience around the world, but the contribution of the translator is sometimes overlooked in discussions and reviews in the English media. While the author is undoubtedly the star of the show, the translator’s role is much more than that of a bit player. The job comes with its own set of challenges.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Louise Heal Kawai has published 10 well-received translations of Japanese books, but notes that her name has yet to appear on the cover with that of the author.

“I particularly enjoy works with a strong or quirky first-person narrator. I love capturing that voice,” says Kawai, whose accomplishments include channeling a 10-year-old boy for Mieko Kawakami’s “Ms Ice Sandwich.” Her 2018 translation of “Seventeen,” Hideo Yokoyama’s powerful novel based around the Japan Airlines Flight 123 plane crash in 1985, was recently nominated for two literary prizes.

Kawai finds her projects in various ways. A Japanese publisher or its agent may ask her to translate a sample of a book to try to sell the rights to a Western publisher. Even if the rights sell, however, she points out that this doesn’t guarantee that she is later hired to translate the entire book. More commonly, a publisher, usually Western, will approach her with a specific title for translation. Kawai has also started reaching out to publishers herself with sample translations of her favorite Japanese novels, and is working on developing relationships with a few authors she admires.

Like many Japanese-English translators, Matt Treyvaud started out his career with technical translations for things such as software user interfaces and manuals. He subsequently moved into literature through industry connections, which he calls “a very long and slowly building process.” His latest work, a translation of Hiroko Minagawa’s crime mystery “The Resurrection Fireplace,” was published this spring.

According to Treyvaud, who hails from Australia, a major challenge in his work is striking a balance between “objective reconsideration and simple indecisiveness.”

“Obviously it’s good to be able to look at your work objectively and critically, and change things if you need to,” he says. “But at some point you have to make a decision and stick to it or your translation risks having no voice at all.” He adds that it’s important to have a peer support network to whom you can turn to for advice and feedback.

Avery Fischer Udagawa focuses on translations for children, ranging from picture books to young adult literature.

“The most challenging aspect is the low demand for international children’s literature in the U.S., my home country. Getting published requires advocating in addition to translating, while earning a living another way altogether,” says Udagawa, who currently also works as native language coordinator at an international school in Bangkok.

Despite the difficulties, Udagawa is a firm believer in the value of her craft.

“Exposing young readers to the world’s stories encourages them to read globally as adults,” she says.

She is particularly proud of her work on Shogo Oketani’s 2011 middle-grade novel “J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965,” about a boy’s life in Tokyo just after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, providing a timely contrast with Japan’s preparations for the 2020 Games.

Commenting from the publisher’s side is Daniel Seton, commissioning editor at Pushkin Press in the U.K., who has worked on a wide range of translated Japanese books and novellas.

“The market for translated fiction in the U.K. is growing, and it seems Japanese titles will continue to be an important part of that market,” he says.

Finding the right translator is vital in providing an optimal reading experience.

“It’s important, therefore, that the translation doesn’t seem like a barrier, or constantly remind the reader that they aren’t reading the book in its original language,” says Seton.

Seton and his colleagues consider a book from multiple perspectives, including how it fits into their market and if they think it will gain the necessary attention from the media, bookseller and readers to be successful.

“The final piece of the puzzle is the editor’s own personal reaction to the book. Do they really love it? If they don’t feel really enthusiastic about it, then it will be hard to create the necessary enthusiasm in others,” he says.

For Stone Bridge Press, a California publishing house specializing in books about Asia and Japan in particular, subject matter plays a large part in the selection process. Publisher Peter Goodman considers whether the subject or approach is “marketable to any distinctly reachable group of Western readers (young adults, Bushido aficionados, spiritual seekers) or does it tie in with any newsworthy or timely subject (such as LGBTQ topics, dysfunctional family issues, corruption, women in the workplace).”

He also points out that finances must be carefully considered when selecting works.

“For the most part, the translations are done or in process, and either the translator (or author) is willing to work for royalties, or we need to apply for and receive a grant to cover the cost of translation before we can commit,” says Goodman.

One aspect of the business that Kawai hopes will change is the number of book reviewers not mentioning the translator.

“In the case of my own work, I’ve calculated that’s between a third and a half of reviews or recommendations,” she says. “There will be remarks such as ‘beautifully written’ or ‘flowing prose’ but no mention of the person who wrote that English prose.”

To this end, Kawai participates in the #namethetranslator campaign, which was started in 2013 by Helen Wang, a British translator of Chinese works. Kawai notes that often a polite message to the reviewer, along with the use of the hashtag on Twitter, will get results.

Kawai says that the idea is not to make personal attacks, nor to seek praise.

“We simply want to have our name printed, acknowledgement that the work is ours,” she points out. “We are, after all, people trying to make a living, and to have our work noticed is very important in landing the next job.”