In 2005, when Polly Barton arrived on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture as a college graduate out of the University of Cambridge, a career in translation was not on her radar.
She had joined the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme and traveled to Japan to pursue her love of Japanese literature, but during her time in the international exchange program, her Japanese was mostly self-taught. It was only when she was in London two years later, while working for a small Japanese press where she was asked to translate short articles and recipes, that she realized translation might be a career path for her.
Although at first she “looked up every other word,” she became hooked.
“I immediately had a sense of ‘oh, this is something I really enjoy,’” Barton says. “It built on my love of reading and writing in English, and I had developed quite a passion for Japanese as well.”
She entered SOAS University of London, earning her master’s in Theory and Practice of Translation in 2011 before moving to Frankfurt to take a job with Nintendo. Some of her earliest professional work was in gaming, but her reader’s heart was set on literary translation.
Barton received a boost in confidence when she won the inaugural Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP) International Translation Competition in 2012.
“Winning wasn’t perhaps such a big thing in the world of translation,” Barton says, “but it was enormous psychologically. It gave me a feeling that I really could be a literary translator.”
Soon after receiving the award, Barton moved back to Japan for five years to “reabsorb the culture.”
In 2017, three of Barton’s literary translations were published, starting with Tomoka Shibasaki’s “Spring Garden.” She has since gained a reputation for her discerning style and integrity to the text.
Now based in Bristol, Barton, 36, balances literary translation with art-related texts for museums and catalogs to make a comfortable living. This year, however, has proved to be a particularly exciting year for her literary work. Barton’s translation of “Where the Wild Ladies Are,” Aoko Matusda’s clever retelling of Japanese ghost tales, was released and won an English PEN award. Next, she has “There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job” by Kikuko Tsumura coming out in November.
But most significantly to Barton, she has just finished her first original work, “Fifty Sounds,” a nonfiction blend of memoir and theory on the Japanese language, with its emphasis on the Japanese use of onomatopoeia.
Behind the scenes of translating: “A lot of times I’m like an unpaid literary agent, finding new works, drafting out sample translations, pitching them to real agents or publishers, all in an effort to broaden the voice of Japanese literature.”
Most difficult phrase to translate: “Suki da yo (I like you). The whole culture that exists around telling someone ‘I love you’ in Japanese is so difficult to render in English. There’s a kokuhaku (confessional) model where you say to someone, ‘I like you, I love you, let’s go out,’ but often it is said early on in a relationship. If translated directly, it can often seem abrupt or inept in English contexts.”
This is the second installment of a monthly series that highlights notable translators and their work. Read more at http://jtimes.jp/translators.