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Raised in a small fishing village along the coast of Kyushu, Masatsugu Ono, 50, Akutagawa Prize-winning author and French and English to Japanese translator, never dreamed of international success.

“Because I was growing up in the countryside in the late 1970s and early ’80s, it was very difficult to meet foreign nationals, so the English-speaking world was very far away,” he says. “For me, like for many of that time, we knew of English only from the junior high school classroom or NHK radio.” All that changed when Ono started at the University of Tokyo, keen to study comparative literature.

Author and translator Masatsugu Ono
Author and translator Masatsugu Ono

University fueled both his creative and academic success. Ono shared stories of his hometown — Kamae, Oita Prefecture — with his new friends and classmates, who mostly came from bigger cities. They enjoyed his tales so much that he was inspired to begin writing short stories and longer fiction.

France was another attraction.

“At the beginning of the ’90s, for the ambitious students, learning French was very important because the atmosphere encouraged French high theory, Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida,” Ono says. “For me, French and English were the two most important foreign languages, but I focused on French.”

He went on to gain a doctorate from the University of Paris, shifting his thesis focus from philosophy to French Caribbean literature, a genre he’d discovered in graduate school.

“There was something very familiar about French Caribbean literature with its oral traditions and focus. I felt its sense of place was similar to my own background. I always feel for those on the periphery of society,” he says.

As part of his studies, Ono was required to translate French into Japanese; his first French translation was an article by Foucault.

“As I started to translate French to Japanese, I had also started to write my own fiction. For me, the two activities have always been completely related to each other,” Ono says.

His first two novels — “The Water-covered Grave” and “Boat on a Choppy Bay” — were published while he was still living in France. Both were highly acclaimed and won him the Asahi Newcomers Prize and the Mishima Yukio Prize, respectively.

After returning to Japan in 2005, Ono began teaching French and French literature at several different Japanese universities, but he was eager to translate French literary fiction. His first published translation was “Rosie Carpe” by Marie NDiaye, and his first solo translation from English was “Family Life” by Akhil Sharma. Ono now teaches translation and creative writing at Waseda University, while continuing to write and translate.

On teaching translation: As a translator, I always feel that I lack many abilities or skills to truly render a good translation. But to understand the craft of writing better, the best way is to translate. The best way to truly understand one writer deeply is to translate his or her works. I am always learning to be a better translator and writer. So for me, it is not so much teaching translation as it is learning along with my students.

On translation: We think about the profession of writing as the writer is always right, because he or she is creating the text, controlling the text. But a translator is always open to mistakes. Even a good translator can make mistakes, can misunderstand text or miss hidden meanings. There is no perfect translation. But sometimes a misunderstanding is very important for the reader. Each reader has their own way of interpreting the text. The individual perspective is always a part of the reader’s experience. This mingling of the text with our own experiences brings a singular interpretation. Reading is a very creative activity. Even with a bad translation, we can learn something as a reader.

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