In recent years, Japanese literature has earned a reputation abroad for its edgy, socially-conscious fiction, which translator Stephen Snyder, 63, has had a hand in encouraging. Snyder has translated titles like “Coin Locker Babies” by Ryu Murakami, “Out” by Natsuo Kirino and last year’s finalist for the International Booker Prize, “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa, which take on issues such as abandoned children, marginalized female factory workers and the role of literature in oppressed societies.
Snyder says how he chooses what to translate is “completely random.”
“After the success of my first translation, I chose novels I thought were the most interesting, whether they were literary or entertainment,” he says. “I’ve been incredibly lucky in picking the right ones because I’ve managed to translate some amazing novels, but there’s no rhyme or reason to my choices.”
His first translation, which he worked on as a graduate student at Yale University under noted Japanologist, Edwin McClellan, was “The Signore: Shogun of the Warring States” by Kunio Tsuji. The translation won the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Translation Prize in 1990, and was also positively reviewed in The New Yorker by John Updike.
Despite this early success, Snyder says balancing translation with his career as an academic was challenging.
“Back in those days, literary translation was not considered a research activity. In the French department, for instance, being a translator was almost a sure bet to be refused tenure. East Asian literature was traditionally more accommodating, since many of the founders of the field — Howard Hibbet, Donald Keene, Edward Seidensticker and McClellan — were all translators themselves, but still there was prejudice against translation.”
Snyder did what many of his generation had to do: continue academic research alongside translation. He credits Howard Goldblatt, a noted translator of Chinese literature, for championing his translations as research while working together at the University of Colorado.
Snyder, now dean of Middlebury Language Schools in Vermont, has been focusing on the teaching of translation for the last decade. He credits his role as a mentor to novice translators for pushing him to constantly reassess his craft.
“For the first five weeks or so in my translation seminar, we all translate the same short work,” he says, “It’s fascinating and tremendously educational to compare five different translations of the same four pages and to see how different voices have taken on different approaches. It’s what every good translator must learn, to translate but still keep a parallax view of all of the possibilities for any given sentence or any given vocabulary item. And then to focus on one version that seems most apt.”
Advice to translators: “Read so widely that you can find things that you love, because you can’t translate something unless you love it. And then read widely as well in English, American and Australian literature, to really understand how a novel or short story is constructed at various levels. Understand what good taste looks like and sounds like in a literary work, because if you can’t identify and distill that essence, then you’re not going to create something translated from Japanese that anyone will actually want to read.”
Rewards of translation: “I think of translation both literally and metaphorically as a relationship. … The goal of our relationship (with translation) is to communicate and to be comprehensible and pleasurable to the reader. That’s the metaphorical level, but on the literal level, I’ve had such fun in my real-life relationships with Japanese writers. Sometimes it’s as acquaintances (but I also have) much longer friendships with many of the writers I’ve translated. As a scholar, it might be hard to get access to a writer, but usually as a translator, you do, and when a relationship forms beyond the literature, it is very rewarding.”
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