For Meredith McKinney, translation is really a form of transformation.

“A transformation is very difficult to get until you’re right on top of both languages,” McKinney, 70, says. “You really have to make it work in your own language. And when I say work, I mean, really work at every level, including literary.

“You have to be able to breathe into yourself the Japanese quite deeply so that you’re not missing what’s going on underneath the literal translation, and then bring it out in some other form that is as natural as breathing in your own language.”

Meredith McKinney
Meredith McKinney

The Australian translator, who is best known for her renderings of classical Japanese literature, believes part of her success comes from her strong connection to Kyoto, where she lived for over 20 years before moving back to Australia around 10 years ago.

“I spent what I feel has been a long apprenticeship familiarizing myself deeply with the culture and the language rather than just understanding the language on a technical level,” McKinney says. “By the time I finally got to playing around with translation, I had been living in Japan close to 10 years. It was really only at that point that I began to feel the language rather than just understand it. Then translation began to make sense to me. (Before then), it was really a battle of two languages trying to join together.”

McKinney discovered the Japanese language through a love of literature, specifically a 1960s translation of haiku by R.H. Blythe. The simplicity of the poems tempted McKinney toward studying Japanese. At the time, however, it wasn’t the most popular field of study at the Australian National University — she joined a cohort of less than 20 students in 1968.

“These little poems were so simple, I thought, ‘All I have to do is just learn a bit of Japanese.’” McKinney says. “Which is a great irony for anybody who understands what haiku are like.”

She traveled to Japan for the first time in 1969, and returned in 1972 for postgraduate study at Kyoto University, staying on afterwards as a teacher. McKinney believes her time spent teaching and researching in Kyoto gave her the opportunity to move beyond the linguistic side of language to true “transformation.”

Over the course of her career, McKinney has translated classical texts such as Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book,” and “Essays in Idleness” and “Hojoki” by the medieval Buddhist monks Kenko and Chomei respectively. She’s also translated a range of modern writers, from the popular to the literary, and feels each work has contributed to building her feel of Japanese, even the works she says she personally wouldn’t have selected to be translated.

“You get pushed beyond your natural inclinations,” McKinney says, “and in the process, you learn a great deal you would never have learned.”

Advice to Translators: “You need to get your translation as good as you can and then put it away for a time so it is no longer too familiar. Come back to it and pretend that you don’t even know it’s a translation. Read it just as an English piece of writing. If you can do that and come to it fresh, then you get that final sense of order if it works purely in English.”

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