Not only is Jeffrey Angles an award-winning translator of contemporary Japanese works, he’s also an award-winning Japanese poet. In 2017, the American writer received the Yomiuri Prize for Literature for his collection of poems written in Japanese, “Watashi no hizukehenkosen” (“My International Date Line”), making him one of a handful of non-Japanese writers to win the prize.
Angles, 49, first came to Japan for a four-month stint as a 15-year-old exchange student, and improved his language skills by taking courses at Ohio State University while still in high school. Drawn to poetry from an early age, Angles says not only did he love the genre, it also aided his language acquisition. “Poems are shorter than short stories or novels, of course, and it was fun to wrap my head around a poem and try to think through it,” Angles says. “I was able to do that more quickly than with longer texts, so it was an early way to build up my reading proficiency.”
During graduate school at Ohio State, where he completed his Ph.D in Japanese literature in 2004, Angles began to focus his career toward translation. His familiarity with Japanese poetry made him aware of both the depths of Japanese literature and the dearth of translated work.
“I realized at the time that although there was so much classical poetry translated into English, it was very easy to fall into the same pattern of translating traditional voices,” Angles says. “It’s often the case that there isn’t enough translation with prose, too, where Japan’s greatest novelists are represented by only one or two works. It made me purposely seek out what contemporary Japanese poets were doing.”
Angles also became curious about gender equity in translated works, leading him to research how many Japanese-to-English translations were published annually from each gender. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of men. “75% of English translations were of male authors, even though at that time, Japan’s publishing industry was equally divided (among male and female writers),” Angles says. His discovery sparked a desire to bring new voices to the fore.
One of the poets Angles found was Hiromi Ito, an avant-garde female poet living in the U.S. His translation of her collection, “Killing Kanoko,” was released in 2009, and is now considered classic feminist literature.
“I was shocked at how the book took off,” says Angles, “based on my individual choice alone in a room somewhere. It made me realize that a translator has the ability to shape what the rest of the world knows about literature.”
Since then Angles has viewed being a translator as an honor and a responsibility.
“You are helping to create the representation of Japanese literature, and I made a decision to represent women’s voices, gay or other marginalized voices, ones that I wish I could have read when I was younger.”
Advice to translators: “If a piece of text sounds smooth and fluent in the original, but you translate it as anything but smooth or fluent, then it’s a type of mistranslation. … That sounds very obvious, but it’s easy to lose this style point, because sometimes it’s hard for translators to understand how something sounds in the original language.”
Getting a foot in the door: “For translators just starting out, it is much easier to get one or two poems published in a magazine to build up your skills and experience. I recommend the online magazines ‘Words Without Borders,’ ‘Two Lines Journal’ and ‘Asymptote Journal.’”
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