Here’s a little quiz for you.
Take your favorite works of translated fiction. Now, name their translators. How many do you know by name? I would venture to guess, “Not very many, if any at all.”
This would be especially true for works translated into English. Some authors who are born with English as their native language even nurture a mild bias against translators, thinking that “Those who do, write; those who don’t, translate.” In the English-speaking world, the translator is sometimes so little regarded as to not even have their name placed on the book’s cover.
This has not been the case in Japan. Nor has it been the case in other countries where so-called minority languages are spoken. In such places, learning about the culture and mores of more powerful nations has been one way to survive and be successful in a competitive international climate. Translators above all allows us to experience this.
The Japanese first took to their translators, often turning them into literary stars, in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Virtually all cultured people at that time would have known and revered the names, for example, of Bin Ueda (1874-1916) and Masao Yonekawa (1891-1965). Ueda gave Japanese readers the most exquisite renderings of the poetry of Paul Verlaine and other Symbolists. Yonekawa translated Dostoevsky and Pushkin, among other Russian authors, so beautifully that his translations were still being read a half-century later.
After World War II, Japanese translation turned its eye toward the United States, a country that people wished to understand and emulate. But, while translators of American literature became famous in literary and academic circles, one would be hard pressed to come up with one who became a household name. The stature translators enjoyed in the Meiji Era appeared not to be repeated.
Enter Motoyuki Shibata, currently a professor at the University of Tokyo and prolific translator of, primarily, contemporary American literature. One of the few superstars of the profession, his translations are so clear, artful and easy to read that, in some cases, the books he translates sell more copies in Japan than they do in the U.S.
Shibata also writes essays, criticism and occasional fiction. Last week, publisher Shinshokan released his latest book of creative writing under the title “Sore wa Watashi Desu.” The title takes off on the name of an old television game show where panelists are given the description of someone and must choose the actual individual from among several imposters. Perhaps the best translation of the title is “I’m the One.”
“I’m the One” is a collection of works of fiction, nonfiction and what one might call “imaginary nonfiction,” a genre in which the author takes a real down-to-earth occurrence and flies with it.
The story “Ghosts All Over” begins, as many here do, on a mundane note. Shibata and his wife go to America and rent a house, even though they have been told that it is haunted. He explains . . .
“We were sick and tired of going from one B & B to another and we thought, What the hell . . . what’s a ghost or two between friends? We can plug up our ears, put on eye shades and get a good night’s sleep that way.”
Ghosts do appear; and, as it turns out, they are ghosts of themselves. Everywhere he looks he sees his wife: on the sofa, then at the dining table . . . Behind every great man, they say, there is a woman. In this case, she’s in front of him.
“Wife to the left of me. Wife to the right of me,” writes Shibata. “It suddenly struck me that I was leading a ‘wifeful’ existence.”
Shibata was born and raised in the working-class neighborhood of Nakarokugo in the Kamata district of Tokyo. The trappings of everyday life in just such a district permeate his writing. In this book we find a charming mixture of the high culture that he embraced in his adulthood and the less high culture of his childhood. In fact, the two are indistinguishable here, forming a cultural celebration of life in Tokyo from the bathhouse to the brasserie.
In his essay “If it’s rice cakes you want, go to a rice cake maker,” he writes “I make it a point to stay clear of anything in my essays that smacks of ideology, and offer no statements on current events, but this time I am going to. It seems to me that we are more and more giving in to the notion that we can’t survive if we aren’t competing with somebody.”
It is in this essay, above all, that Shibata reveals himself to be an astute observer of life in Japan.
“Someone in organization A says that organization B is purportedly doing such-and-such, so we have to do it too in order to survive. So, A starts doing the thing, and then B feels the need to do it as well. For example, take the fact that the designation of delivery times on parcels [delivered by competing companies] has become so exact. No one comes out and says that we shouldn’t be so uptight, that we should just take things easy.”
At the end of this essay, Shibata expresses his wish that, “As for me, all I can do is hope that the economy will recover and that everyone will start to move at a more relaxed pace and not simply grind away all the time.”
In a moving essay about his father, who died at age 84, Shibata describes how he and his brother, with the help of a nurse, cleansed his body as Mrs. Shibata went out on her bicycle to buy overalls and a check shirt, his favorite outfit, for him. Shibata is as at home with a poignant description as he is with a witty remark.
Shibata can also be as macabre as the American writer and artist Edward Gorey, whose works he has translated; and he can be as attuned to minute detail as American author Paul Auster (whom he has also translated). These characteristics are more present in “I’m the One” than in any other book of his I have read.
It is people like Motoyuki Shibata who keep translated literature alive when its market, all over the world, is sadly dwindling.
Next time you read a thrilling work of foreign fiction, note the name of the translator. If their name is not on the cover, write to the publisher and give them what for. Ask them this: Where would you be without your master translators? Where would we all be?