The Japan Times wraps up its year-long tribute to translators by focusing on newcomer Morgan Giles, 33, whose poetic translation of Yu Miri’s “Tokyo Ueno Station” won the National Book Award for translated literature in 2020. It was Giles’ first full-length work.
Her professional career as a translator may be just starting, but Giles has been translating Japanese literature since high school. She grew up in Richmond, Kentucky, near the first and largest Toyota Motors Manufacturing facility in North America, and her hometown is the sister city to the Yatsugatake region of Yamanashi Prefecture.
“There were a lot of Japanese people and Japan-related things around, growing up,” Giles says. Japanese culture coexisted with the Appalachian mountains of her childhood.
In middle school, Giles applied for Richmond’s adolescent exchange program. Her host sister from Yamanashi came to Kentucky, and the following year, Giles spent one week in Japan, during which a brief stay in a Tokyo hospital with a bout of pneumonia made Giles fully appreciate the power of language. “I was only 12 years old, and didn’t know anything about Japan (before the exchange program); I had no way of knowing that this would eventually completely change my life.”
Later, while enrolled at the Model Laboratory School on the Eastern Kentucky University campus, Giles was given special permission to take college-level Japanese classes. She quickly progressed through the intermediate courses, so her teacher suggested they read a novel together.
“Naturally, I started making notes to help me consolidate meaning and remember new vocabulary,” Giles says. “It turned into me attempting to translate it, which my teacher encouraged.” The Japanese novel was the 2003 Akutagawa Prize winner “Keritai Senaka” (“I Want to Kick You in the Back”) by Risa Wataya, written when Wataya was still a teenager herself.
After graduating from Indiana University in 2009 with a degree in Japanese and linguistics, Giles moved to London, working in social media at various news agencies. Facing long periods of time at her desk, Giles was inspired to start translating again. She soon launched her own bilingual blog, and encouragement from other translators and fans of Japanese literature prodded her to hone her skills. In 2013, she attended a summer program at the British Centre for Literary Translation, based out of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and later she became a research student at Waseda University, studying there for two years until 2019.
As a newcomer to the translating scene, Giles credits the advice and guidance of others as key to her success.
“For me, over and over again, I’m astounded by the sense of community among literary translators,” she says. “I routinely asked people for contacts or publishers, and people were always too happy to help.”
One such contact was Korean-to-English translator Deborah Smith, who started Tilted Axis Press, a publishing company with a focus on Asian literature, and secured “Tokyo Ueno Station” on Giles’ recommendation. The two are currently working on Miri’s “The End of August.”
“It’s really (Miri’s) masterpiece, a semi-fictionalized story about her grandfather, who was a marathon runner in Korea in the early part of the 20th century,” Giles explains about Miri’s next novel. “Through his stories, Miri also weaves a comprehensive portrait of life in Korea under Japanese occupation, and manages to bring herself into the story as a Zainichi Korean in the context of the world events that created that identity. It’s an ambitious novel involving Korean, Chinese and Japanese languages.”
Advice to translators: “Read translated books in your target language alongside the original. It’s like a master class in translation, except I don’t have to ask my fellow translators awkward questions. I can just sit down with their work and the original and learn from their choices.”
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