The immersive experience of Michael Emmerich’s first translation project forever changed the way he viewed language.
In 1998, while studying at Princeton University as an English major and learning Japanese on the side, Emmerich decided to translate Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata’s short stories for his undergraduate thesis. He says that at the time, “Translation was not as visible as it is now, and neither were translators. I had no sense of real people doing it as a career. It felt like I was in the middle of nowhere with this Kawabata text trying to figure out what to do with it.” Emmerich, now 44, describes the process as having been “finicky and grueling” — he spent 36 hours on a single sentence because he was reluctant to break it into more than one sentence in English.
That experience seeped into his writing: “I had spent an enormous amount of time banging my head against this text. And when I finally finished, I found I couldn’t write in English unless I thought of it as somehow translating thoughts. I broke my writer’s block by first typing in a single quotation mark.”
Early in his career, Emmerich requested signed copies from each author he was translating in order to remind himself that the words “were borrowed” from them. Known for a wide range of literature covering eclectic styles, Emmerich translates distinguished writers such as Banana Yoshimoto, Yasushi Inoue, Hiromi Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa. From contemporary literature to the classics, he’s also written about Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” and edited two fiction collections to encourage students of Japanese to absorb the language through reading.
For Emmerich, differing voices is the appeal: “They’re all written in styles that I can somehow feel when I’m reading them. Everything I’ve translated has been something that resonates and touches me through prose or poetry. One of the real pleasures of translating is to develop styles and work in prose styles that are not my own.”
Emmerich readily admits that, despite his responsibilities as a professor of Japanese literature at UCLA, “translation is a very particular kind of pleasure that I can’t do without.”
Advice to translators: “You must be able to move among multiple levels of translation. Sounds, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, stories — you must navigate wisely with learned instincts because you can never reconcile all the levels at once. Different levels often come into conflict — a pun is the best example of that — so a good translator is always moving between levels and making careful choices.”
Hardest word to translate: “It’s difficult to pinpoint one word. It’s almost more important to talk about how to translate the space between words. One thing I’ve wanted to do is to find a way to translate the tategaki (vertical writing) aspect of Japanese. I’d love to someday have a translation in English that’s done in tategaki.”
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