Michael Emmerich is the translator of Hardboiled & Hard Luck and the two previous Yoshimoto books to be released in English, Asleep and Goodbye Tsugumi, as well as works by such Japanese writers as Genichiro Takahashi and 1968 Nobel prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata.
Emmerich started his career in translation as a Princeton undergraduate. He submitted a translation of Kawabata’s stories First Snow on Fuji as his senior thesis, to the English and Creative Writing Departments, no less. His faculty advisor, Joyce Carol Oates, encouraged him to publish some of the stories in literary journals, and in 1999 Counterpoint Press published the complete collection. He is now a PhD student in Japanese literature at Columbia. He graciously agreed to an email interview from Japan on topics ranging from Yoshimoto’s work to the experience of translation.
Elizabeth Wadell: I understand that this is the third Yoshimoto book you have translated. Were you familiar with her work before you began translating? How did you initially get involved with the project? Has your understanding of her writing changed over the course of your work?
Michael Emmerich: As a matter of fact, this is the fifth book by Yoshimoto that I’ve done. One, a new translation of “Moonlight Shadow” (included, of course, in Kitchen) was published in Japan in a bilingual edition, and another (a novel called There is No Lid on the Sea) was serialized in a Japanese newspaper called The Daily Yomiuri at the same time that Yoshimoto’s Japanese original was serialized in Yomiuri Shimbun, the Japanese version of the same newspaper. I first started translating Yoshimoto because my agent (who also happens to be Yoshimoto’s English language agent) had been asked to look for a new translator to do the next book. She asked me if I was interested, and naturally I told her I was. [. . .] I did a sample of Asleep and had lunch with Yoshimoto. She appeared to like both my translation and me, and we decided I’d do the book. She sent me a very kind fax about the final product and has liked all my later translations, so I’ve been doing her work ever since.
To tell the truth, when I first agreed to translate Yoshimoto I had only read Kitchen in English, and I wasn’t all that crazy about it. This may have been due to the fact that the translator of Kitchen (in the book version, I should say. . . . [A] partial translation by another translator appeared in an anthology called New Japanese Voices) and I have a somewhat different sense of translation, or at least of how to translate Yoshimoto. I decided to translate Banana Yoshimoto, then, precisely because I wanted to see for myself, by looking closely at her work, what it was that had enchanted so many readers, what it was that I was missing. And I did see for myself: by translating Asleep and reading just about everything else she had written, I really came to enjoy her writing. I don’t like all her books equally, but I think when she’s good, she’s really good.
EW: What is the process you go through in translating a book like Hardboiled & Hard Luck? Do you communicate with Yoshimoto frequently? What are the greatest challenges?
ME: I’ve translated so much by Yoshimoto that I don’t really have to consult with her all that much. I do send her e-mails when I have questions, but that doesn’t happen so much any more. Sometimes (this was true in the case of Hardboiled & Hard Luck) I come across something that looks like a mistake, and I’ll confirm that it is. I send the manuscript to Yoshimoto for approval. She has a friend of hers whose English is great and who is a wonderful reader, and sometimes that friend will make some suggestions. Always very good ones.
As for the greatest challenges . . . it’s hard to say, because for me the challenging parts sometimes (though not always) feel like the most fun. Which is to say that they don’t feel like challenges. It’s like hiking, once you’ve gotten past the exhaustion and your breathing starts to even out. [L]ike climbing up some very tall mountain and seeing some incredible scenery, breathing a thinner, fresher sort of air, and then coming down to show friends photographs that are only able to communicate a fraction of what you’ve experienced. That sort of climbing doesn’t really feel like a challenge, because its an ongoing experiencesomething one does, not something one just maps out in an abstract way. (Sometimes, on the other hand, the challenging parts feel like headaches. In those cases, nothing I’ve just said applies.)
If I were forced to be more specific, I’d say I find it most difficult in translating Yoshimoto to fine tune the language. Her writing is so carefully stripped down, so beautifully balanced between the plain and the poetic, the cliched and the overwhelming, that it’s generally very hard to write an English version that doesn’t tip too far one way or the other. And of course there’s no way of knowing how many readers will have anything like the response that I have to the sentences I’m hammering together. Yoshimoto’s writing is very colloquial, for instance, which means that my English often ends up sounding very American. No doubt this is jarring to some readers. (Whether this jarring quality is a good thing or a bad thing is open to debate. I think it depends on the reader.)
EW: How does your experience translating Yoshimoto differ from Kawabata (and others) you have worked on?
ME: Her prose is extremely different from that of every other author I’ve ever translated. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but I guess I’d say that translation always seems to involve a lot of balancing acts. Different authors, and different works by different authors, and even individual sentences will require that one balance different concerns. With Yoshimoto it’s mostly a matter of tone, I guess. Trying to avoid becoming too plain or too fancy, too exaggerated or too understated, too colloquial or too literary. (I don’t always stick to English grammar, for instance, because grammatically perfect and complete sentences sometimes sound pretentiousor maybe phony is the word. Wow. I doubt I’ve used that word since my high school English class. Catcher in the Rye came out not too long ago in a new Japanese translation by Haruki Murakami, by the way. Can you imagine something like that happening in the U.S.?)
I also try to balance myself somewhere between Japanese and Englishor rather to keep myself as much as possible in both languages at once, like a ghost that isn’t entirely here but isn’t entirely gone, either. To produce a work that feels right to me both as English prose and as a translation from Japanese. This isn’t a very good answer to your question, but all I can say is that each author and each work and each sentence in each work requires that one perform a different sort of balancing act. Usually several different balancing acts at once, in fact.
EW: Yoshimoto’s language can be so simple, yet the weight of the stories rests largely on the subtle shifts of emotion on the border of what is said and what is unsaid. I’m thinking of lines like: “The streetlights seemed strangely close from this angle, and they were very pretty . . . I felt sick to my stomach, but I thought I could put up with the discomfort if it was just for a short time, because it made the world seem kind of new” (“Hard Luck”). How do you keep the rhythm of her language? Can everything be translated, or are there sentiments in the Japanese which cannot be said in English?
ME: I like your choice of an example. That’s one of my favorite sections in “Hard Luck,” actually. There’s a similar passage in Asleep, too, which I also like a lot. For some reason Yoshimoto does very good stuff with streetlights. Light generally. The light in the sky in the morning. Sunset. Skylines. Headlights. Etc. But in answer to your question . . . as with any sort of creative writing, maintaining the pulse of the prose, making the rhythm work (if it doesreaders are bound to have a more or less different sense of the English language from mine, and may not feel anything like what I feel at a particular spot in a work, or hope that other readers will feel), is all a matter of intuition. Physical feel for the language. I used to read all my translations aloud, and I still tend to do that when it’s not clear to me whether or not things are going well. (Of course, it is always a good idea to use one’s brain when one is translating, too. Feel something, then think about it.)
I try to focus very closely on what I’m feeling as an individual reader as I read a given sentence, and then try to create a sentence in English that makes me feel something as close as possible to that. There’s no guarantee that other readers will feel the same thing when they read my English translation, or when they read the Japanese original, if they read Japanese. So I focus on my own thoughts and feelings, in and between two different languages, about what I’m translating.
And while it may not seem like it, this is actually an answer to the last part of this question: It’s hard if not impossible to compare two feelings in a single language (to compare, to give a rather Yoshimotoesque example, the feeling one has looking at the sunset on Monday and the feeling one has looking at the sunset on Tuesday). It’s even more difficult to compare the feelings one has in two different languages. It’s possible to point out grammatical differences between Japanese and English, but it’s a lot harder to decide to what extent those differences matter. . . . [I]t’s very hard, at least for me, to say anything interesting about what is lost, and what is gained, in translation. Sometimes, after all, the feelings and thoughts one has watching the sun set might be pretty much the same as those one has eating an ice cream cone in summer.
EW: Is the fact that several other translators, including Megan Backus, Ann Sherif, and Russell Wasden, have already tackled Yoshimoto make it easier or more difficult for you? Is it a challenge to keep the voice consistent for English readers?
ME: I don’t really worry about the written styles earlier translators produced for Yoshimoto because I wouldn’t be able to reproduce them even if I tried. Each of these translators has her or his own take on Yoshimoto’s writing in Japanese, and on English prose, and I have mine. To tell the truth, I think it’s kind of refreshing to have a bit of variety. A lot of different takes on Yoshimoto. Not every reader is going to like my translations, after all. All of which is to say, I suppose, that in most cases the presence of English translations by other translators has little or no effect on my own translations. The one exception to this was “Moonlight Shadow,” which, as I mentioned earlier, I retranslated. I felt more free to experiment in certain ways (something I had been doing anyway, but with less assurance) because Megan Backus’s translation was already out there and very well read. I think the fact that her translation is so well known made it easier for me to produce a good translation (hopefully) of my own. Of course, the existence of earlier translations also makes it impossible to publish new translations, which is why my new translation of “Moonlight Shadow” has only appeared in Japan. Oh well.
EW: One of my favorite Yoshimoto novels is N.P., at the center of which is a collection of short stories by a Japanese author that a series of translators attempt to translate into English. Translators have it hard in that book. Does that depiction of the translator’s job bear any relation to your own experience? To put it another way, “Hardboiled” and “Hard Luck” are at times so dark and lonely. Is it ever draining to be immersed in such moody emotions?
ME: One of the odd things about reading, I find, is that one is able to derive a certain type of pleasure from emotions that wouldn’t be at all pleasurable in our non-reading lives. I don’t know if catharsis is quite the right word, but what I’m talking about is something along those lines. The same thing happens when one is translating, except that it’s a whole lot more intense. The emotions may be draining, but the experience of creating the emotioncreating prose that fuels the emotion, I should sayis exhilarating. I used to have my computer right next to my bed, and I would get so excited when I was translating that I’d jump from the chair onto my mattress and then bounce off onto the floor and run into the kitchen to make tea. Boiling water and making tea was how I’d calm myself down and keep from getting too wrapped up in whatever I was working on. I’d drink about fourteen cups of tea a day. Now I’ve moved on to espresso.
EW: Yoshimoto seems stylistically unique. How would you categorize her writing? How does Hardboiled & Hard Luck fit in with the rest of her work?
ME: I’d agree that Yoshimoto is pretty unique stylistically, especially in English translation. She’s unique in Japanese, too, but she can be linked up to other kinds of writing in other genres (certain types of manga are the most obvious example). I have the feeling that along with a few books that came out around the same time (notably a great short story collection whose title might be translated as Illicit Love and South America), Hardboiled & Hard Luck represents kind of a turning point in Yoshimoto’s fiction. Except that lately she seems to have turned again in another direction. This is a just very vague impression, though, and I wouldn’t be able to say why I have it even if I were pressed.
EW: Do you feel that Yoshimoto is viewed and read in the same way (and by the same demographics) in the U.S. and Japan?
ME: I don’t have the feeling that she’s always read in the same way, or by the same sorts of people, in the two countries, but I suspect that sometimes she is read by the same sorts of people and in similar ways. Personally, I like the idea of her being read by different sorts of people in different ways in different placesbut then on the other hand, she has a really wonderful ability to make it seem as if she’s talking directly to each individual reader, and that’s something that certain types of readers really seem to appreciate. I have the impression that that’s something that communicates across cultures, across languages. And I wouldn’t like to see that get lost in the shuffle if everyone all over the world was seeing something completely different in her writing from everyone else. When I’m translating, I try to create an English text that will work for as many people as possible (though, as I said, I’m always consulting my own feelings and thoughts, and I know they’re not a very reliable index of what other readers will think and feel.)
EW: How does the experience of reading Yoshimoto’s books (or other Japanese writers) change depending on whether you are reading them in Japanese or in English translations?
ME: Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way to answer this question. All one can do is study Japanese for a long time and try reading her oneself. Learning a new language is the most mind-opening thing one can do, I think, especially if that new language is the second language one learns, after one’s “mother tongue,” as Japanese was for me. To try and describe the differences (apart from the most basic, uninteresting ones) between reading in English and reading in Japanese would be like trying to glue together a model airplane using the pieces in a model racing car set.
EW: Recently much has been made of the little amount of works-in-translation consumed in America. What’s your opinion on this? What can we gain from reading more works-in-translation?
ME: It’s awful! It’s a scandal! But most of all, it’s really regrettable. The biggest reason for people in the U.S. to read more translations is that there’s a hell of a lot of amazing stuff being written (or narrated orally or what have you) all around the world. Most of us have, at least one point in our lives, come across writers or books that really changed the way we think, or feel, or what we like or something else about us. There are a lot of terrific writers working in English, of course, but there are even more writing in other languages. Who knows, maybe a book has already been written in some other place, in some other language, that would really change my life and the way I look at things, if only I knew about it? Translators are the people who give us the opportunity to know about those works. Translations are those works. People who don’t read translations would be like the proverbial frog at the bottom of the well that believes it knows the whole world. Though of course, in this day and age, there actually aren’t any people who don’t read translations of some sort or another. Just think how much translation goes into the making every article in the international news section of every newspaper and TV news program. And don’t forget the Bible, which is fairly widely read in the U.S., I believe.
EW: I understand that you are now an academic studying East Asian Languages at Columbia. How do your scholarly interests mesh with your translation work?
ME: Very well, actually. My dissertation [. . .] is going to be about The Tale of Genji, but I’ll be writing about the crucial role that translation (very broadly defined) has played in bringing the work to new audiences over the past two centuries. About the relationship, that is to say, between translation and literary canonization. As I see it, “national literatures” are only made possible by translation (again, broadly defined.) I should note, though, that I won’t only be writing about modern Japanese translations of Genji, of which there are dozens. I’ll also be dealing with people who wrote about translations of Genji, such as Masamune Hakucho, an author who wrote in Japanese about Arthur Waley’s English translation.
EW: What’s next? Are you working on a new translation?
ME: In about a week I’ll be sending my translation of a novel by Taichi Yamada to Faber & Faber, which did another very recent translation of mine (Mari Akasaka’s Vibrator, which is, alas, not yet scheduled to be published in the U.S.I’m hoping for a popular uprising demanding the book’s American publication.) And since you have given me the opportunity to publicize it to at least one more person, I’ll mention another book that is no longer entirely new: Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi. This may be my own personal favorite among the books I’ve translated, but unfortunately it hasn’t gotten anywhere near as much press as it deserves. It is, frankly, one of the best books to appear in Japan (or anywhere else) in the second half of the twentieth century. (This is my own opinion, of course. But the very few reviews the book got tended to agree. It made the Village Voice’s “best twenty books of the year”!) If you haven’t had a chance to read this book, I recommend it.
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