Motoyuki Shibata still clearly remembers his first encounter with literature in English. He was 12 years old and his English textbook included a modified version of Lafcadio Hearn’s short story, “Mujina.” To this day, Shibata remembers the first sentence: “Kinokunizaka was a long slope in Tokyo.”
“Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I heard a whole story in that sentence,” says Shibata, 66. “It was completely different from all the other English sentences we had studied before, like ‘This is a pen.’ It was the first time I thought how fun it would be to read fiction in the English language.”
Over the past 30 years, Shibata has translated more than 50 books, from Paul Auster’s “Ghosts” and Edward Gorey’s “The Loathsome Couple” to Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” introducing a wide variety of works originally written in English to Japanese readers. He has received numerous awards for his translations, most recently Waseda University’s Tsubouchi Shoyo award in 2017.
Consistent across his translations is a focus on capturing each author’s distinctive style. Unlike his predecessors, Shibata says that today’s translators prioritize style over precise translations that heavily rely on elevated word choice that often fall short of expressing the natural feel of the original. “All the translators of my generation are more attuned to the voice of fiction than the previous generation,” says Shibata. “Our vocabulary may not be as rich, because for them, English text was something to mainly decode. But for us, we’re ready to listen to the voices.”
One prominent example from Shibata’s body of work is Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”
“I was in a position where I could be more careful of how Huck really talks,” Shibata says, adding that he was mindful of the fact that it is a story written from Huck’s perspective. “In English, it’s full of misspellings and it appears unedited. In all the previous translations, too many kanji were used for Huck’s voice. I was always asking myself, ‘Would Huck know this kanji?’”
Shibata is also the founder of the English literary magazine Monkey Business, which ran from 2011 to 2017 and was recently relaunched as Monkey. As an editor of Monkey, Shibata works extensively with Japanese-to-English translations in collaboration with fellow editors Ted Goossen and Meg Taylor.
Shibata says that when translating English to Japanese, “I simply translate what I like to read. But with the other way around, I strongly feel a mission to improve the quality of translation overall, to make the best English translators of Japanese fiction even better at what they are doing.”
Advice to Translators: “People tend to think fidelity is the most important thing, to convey the surface meaning accurately into another language. Yet as a translator, your first obligation should be to give readers the sense of pleasure you had while reading (the original text). Of course, every translation to some extent is a mistranslation, but it’s a more serious type of mistranslation if the sense of pleasure is missing.”
Hardest word to translate: “You. In Japanese, we say ‘anata’ far less often than ‘you’ is used in the English language. In no way can you reproduce the simplicity of that word, with just one syllable containing such a wealth of emotion and meaning, especially if it’s standing alone as a complete sentence. You can get across the meaning if you use a number of words, but the economy of thought in the original is lost.”