Thursday, June 14, 2018

What does it take to inspire you?

The Avon Free Public Library in Avon, CT, is running a Local Author Festival this summer, the fifth year in a row that the staff has promoted Connecticut authors. I have just participated in a fiction author panel in which six of us answered questions about inspiration (or Inspiration).

The June Fiction Author Panel at Avon Free Public Library
Questions like: Where do you get your ideas for a story? What do you do when you're not inspired? Do you write every day? Do you do any research in writing your books? How do you choose character names? And more.

I am always interested in hearing other writers answers to these perennial questions. After all, there is no one answer. Ideas come from everywhere, anywhere—personal experience, news stories, reading, conversation. I am hard put to say exactly where a story idea originates, although every one of my books and short stories has some connection to my own life.

And when we're not inspire, some of us write anyway—a journal, a letter, an essay, a poem. And some knit, read, watch a movie.

Not everyone writes every day. One panelist has written one book and has no plans to write another. The working writers on the panel, however, are doing something related to writing—researching, recuperating, recharging—when they're not.

Because it was an opportunity to share tips and thoughts with other writers, I thought the experience was valuable. I hope the people who attended our panel got as much out of it as I did.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

What I did on my summer vacation

What do you do at a translators' conference? If it's the week-long Middlebury Bread Loaf Translators' Conference, from which I have just returned, you work your buns off.
Classes, lectures, and social events during the translators conference were held in The Barn
on the Middlebury Bread Loaf campus in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
You can start with an hour-long yoga session at 6:30 a.m., (I started with breakfast at 7:30) and end with readings and socializing at 10:30 p.m. In between there are lectures, workshops, talks, and meetings. To be admitted, every one of the fifty or so translators at this year's conference submitted a translation and its original. Translations of literary fiction and poetry, and the underlying assumption is that the translator knows the language well enough to understand the original. You don't—for the most part—try to re-translate a work.

For one thing, who could? My workshop leader was Bill Johnston who teaches literary translation at Indiana University, who has published over 30 book-length translations from the Polish, including poetry, prose, and drama, and who (by the evidence in our workshop) has a reading knowledge of French and German. The workshop to which I was assigned did have translations from French and German, but for the rest we were pretty much on our own.

Our workshop considered two translations from Japanese (mine was one), two from French, two from Spanish, and one each from Swedish, Vietnamese, and German. Each translator read a paragraph or so from the original to give the group a sense of the sound of the piece and then discussed any problems/questions/issues she/he was having with the translation. Some of us—and I include myself—felt that the work we'd submitted was relatively polished. It did not read like a translation.

I was mistaken. By the time Bill and the group had finished discussing my prose, my first page and a half were covered with red edits. One key lesson learned last week: When you're having a problem with the English, the solution is not to return to the original but to spend more time, thought, tears, and sweat on the English. As one of my fellow translators said, "Take it all the way to English."

So the translation workshop turned out to be as much a writing workshop as a discussion of translation. What makes a good translation? How close should you be to the original? Not so close that the English sounds clunky or unnatural. Not so close that the dialogue sounds as if spoken by aliens (unless of course the characters in the work are aliens).

There is an argument to make it "translatorise" so a reader can follow along with the original, but how many readers what to do that? It's hard enough to find readers for a translation at all—Elena Ferrante, Steig Larsson, Haruki Murakami being exceptions—why make a reader work? And anyway the translations of Ferrante, Larsson, and Murakami are engaging English novels.

In my next post, I'll talk about some of the practical issues surrounding literary translation. I.e., how do you get published?

Friday, May 25, 2018

Why the traitor can use some sympathy

Faithful readers of this blog may recall posts in which I have talked about the translator's dilemma. Because I have been using translation to improve my knowledge of Japanese, I have occasionally had a problem with a term that is familiar to native speakers but would mystify most Western readers— "natto" for example.

My dictionary defines natto as "fermented soybeans." But to stick closely to the original Japanese and translate that a character was eating fermented soybeans at breakfast does not convey the reality that natto (with a burning hot yellow mustard) is seen by many Japanese as promoting health and regularity. Perhaps an analogy would be say that the character was eating muesli for breakfast. But if readers don't know "muesli"—which in content, texture, and odor is entirely different from natto—I'm not sure you've accomplished much, aside from distorting Japanese breakfast dishes.

For this reason and more I will be attending the Bread Loaf Translator's Conference in Vermont this year. This is "designed to provide training and community to beginning as well as experienced translators in the pursuit of translating literary texts into English—or to those aiming to be more sophisticated readers of literary translation and to incorporate it into the classroom." I will be in a workshop with nine others in which we will be exposed to "some of the recurring questions, problems, and pleasures of the activity of literary translation."

And in preparation for all this, I've just read Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto by Mark Polizzotti, which The MIT Press recently published. Polizzotti is the publisher and editor-in-chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, according to the flap copy, has translated more than fifty books from apparently French and Spanish. 

The translation issue of course goes back to the third century B.C. when seventy (or seventy-two) Hellenistic Jewish scholars translated the bible into Koiné Greek—the Septuagint. Seven hundred years later, Saint Jerome "undertook a new Latin translation based on the Hebrew and Aramaic source texts, bypassing the Greek." St. Augustine of Hippo criticized it because it wasn't based on the orthodox Greek version. And about a thousand years later, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into "a radically simplified, 'sweet and good' German that was intelligible to the common man" which "aroused the ire of the Church fathers."

There are two translation issues with the Bible: What is the source? And: Does the translation convey the sense (meaning, implications, intentions, message) of the original? (Plus, in the 16th Century there was another question: who should be able to read the text at all?) 

Polizotti believes that in general a translation should convey meaning and, to radically simplify his argument, be easy to read. If the translation is a chore to read in English, why read it at all unless you are dragooned into doing so for grade in class? I would like the translations my conversation partner Naoko Miyazaki are doing to be enjoyable for what they evoke of Japanese life and culture and for the English to be unnoticeable.

Because Japanese is so different in grammar and syntax from English, because I believe Japanese in fact has fewer words than English, because Japanese can be so allusive, and because cultural references—like natto—can be mystifying for Western readers, translating is challenging and stimulating. I'm looking forward to my week in Vermont to learn much, much more.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ordinary people making their way in the world

A tradition in Japanese fiction is the "I-novel," sort of  a fctionalized autobiography or memoir. Hiromi Kawakami's The Nakano Thrift Shop reads like an I-novel. The narrator, Hitomi Suganuma tells her story of working in the shop, her attraction to a younger co-worker Takeo, the advice she receives from her boss's older sister Masayo, the idiosyncrasies of the boss/owner Mr. Nakano, and the stories of certain of the shop's customers.

Mr. Nakano is a wheeler-dealer. He buys used items—not antiques—and sells them from the shop in a western Tokyo suburb where there are a lot of students. A man in his early fifties, he's on his third wife. He has a college-student son by the first wife, an elementary-school daughter by the second, and a six-month-old son by the third. Plus he has a mistress. When he says he's going to the bank in the afternoon, he's as likely to be meeting his mistress at a love hotel.

Hitomi, who seems to have no parents, no siblings, no friends, is attracted to Takeo, who is Mr. Reticent. At one point Hitomi asks Masayo for advice. Masayo is a woman in her early 50s, single, with a regular lover.

     "How does one go about having a carefree conversation with a boy?" I decided to ask Masayo one afternoon when Takeo wasn't around. Masayo was in the process of going over the receipt book, but she looked up and thought about it for a moment.
     "If you can get them into bed, they tend to relax a bit."
     I see, I said in response.

Hitomi manages to invite Takeo to her apartment for pizza and beer. After they chatted about the shop, eaten the pizza, and drank the beer Takeo smoked a cigarette:

     I didn't know you smoked, I said. Every once in a while, he replied. Without saying much to say, we just sat facing each other. We esch drank another can of beer. Takeo looked at the clock twice. I looked three times.
     Well, then, Takeo said and stood up. At the front door, he brought his lips near my ear. I thought he was going to kiss me, but I was wrong. With his lips close, he said, "I, uh, I'm not one for sex and all. Sorry."
     While I was standing there astonished, Takeo closed the door behind him as he left. After a few moments I snapped out of it. Thinking about it while I washed the glasses and plates, it occurred to me that Takeo had chosen to eat the pieces with the least amount of anchovies on them. I couldn't decide whether I should be angry or sad about it, or just laugh.

These two citations give you a sense of Allison Markin Powell's translation (with I presume the original's use or lack of quotation marks) and the tenor of the text. The Nakano Thrift Shop is a novel in which nothing very dramatic happens. Rather, individual Japanese act and interact on one another. One has a sense that the author has not attempted to heighten the reality to engage the reader but to use the minutia of daily life to convey the reality of these individuals. It is a love story, but it's not a romance. It's the story of ordinary people trying to make their way in the world, and in this case the world is contemporary Tokyo and a shop filled with used goods.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Where I'll be going this summer

For some time, I‘ve been following a website “Words without Borders,” which focuses on literature in translation. Last fall, the site announced a Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference to be held in Vermont in June, sponsored by (organized by?) Middlebury College. I went to the conference site, it seemed interesting, focuses on literary translation, and I applied.

Which was more than filling out a form and sending a $15 check. Applicants also had send along 4,000 words of a translation plus the original. I sent the first half of one of the Japanese stories I’ve been working on. 
A week ago the conference staff wrote to tell me I’d been admitted. So I will be in Vermont for a week at the beginning of June.
What, you ask, do you do at a translation conference?
I'm not sure. I suspect that we will discuss the craft of translation—general questions, not specific about any one language—and the business of translation. Craft questions like: At what point is fidelity to the original a disservice to the English? What do you do when a foreign word is not in any dictionary because it’s a neologism? Or dialect, a word many native speakers don’t understand?
Concerning the business of translation, I expect the conference leaders will talk about rights, the market for translation, publishers, and everything that has to do with getting a translation published and sold. 

Stay tuned. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

A delightful novel of Japanese dictionary-making

"Kohei Araki had devoted his entire life—his entire working life—to dictionaries."

With that first sentence, Shion Miura establishes his subject and theme: dictionaries, their creation, and their creators. Miura's novel, The Great Passage, is the story of producing a new dictionary. Simon Winchester was able to write a fascinating non-fiction book about creating a dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, but a novel? How interesting could that be? (Of course, Winchester's subtitle helped attract readers: "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.")

Kohei Araki is the head of the Dictionary Editorial Department, a backwater at Gembu Books, a major, fictional Japanese publisher. ("Gembu" in the Taoist tradition is the black turtle-snake that defends the north.) Araki and his academic consultant friend, Professor Matsumoto, have persuaded the firm to publish a major new dictionary to join the Gembu Dictionary of Modern Japanese, the Gembu Student's Dictionary of Japanese, and Wordmaster. Araki has to retire under corporate rules although he will work on as a consultant, but he manages to find an equally-driven word-drunk young man in the sales department, Mitsuya Majime.

Hearing the last name as a nickname, Araki thinks, "Majime, eh? Serious diligent. Araki nodded in satisfaction. This was very good. Lexicography was slow and steady work—exactly the sort of work that required someone majime at the helm."

It's a problem with Japanese: homonyms are common. "Majime" (真面目) does mean "serious, sober, earnest, steady" but "majime" (馬じめ) with the same sound means "horse dealer." Majime's ancestors probably rented horses at post stations along the Tokaido road. I imagine that the translator, the brilliant Juliet Winters Carpenter, had fun playing with the language in this novel about language and the challenges of capturing a word's meaning with other words.

For example, the verbs "agaru" and 'noboru" both mean "to go up." When do you use one and when do you use the other or are they perfectly interchangeable? No. "Agaru" carries the sense of going up to a destination, a place: I went upstairs. "Noboru" has the sense of the process of going up: I climbed the mountain.

The Great Passage is interesting not only for insight into Japanese—which is almost a side issue—but for the personal and professional efforts by Araki, Matsumoto, Majime, and their associates to create this massive new work. Miura describes the efforts of a paper manufacturer to develop a new thin, strong, opaque paper appropriate for a fat dictionary.

At one point late in the production process—one that requires five rounds of proofreading (!)—they discover the word for "blood" is missing. The mistake is so egregious and so serious, Majime and Araki call in all the college interns and part-timers who've been helping to live in the office full time for a month while they review the entire dictionary to ensure there are no other such omissions.

The novel's timeline covers more than fifteen years, from the conception of the dictionary to its (spoiler alert) publication. In the course of the action Majime falls in love—timidly, awkwardly—with a co-worker, writing her a long letter declaring himself in almost unreadable Japanese. A sweet romance that makes this more than a dry case history.

As one who has spent a lot of time in considerable time in Japanese dictionaries, I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Passage. Using the creation of a new dictionary as the armature on which to wind the characters' personal stories, the tensions and pressures within a business, and much more, Shion Miura engages the reader in a fascinating portrayal of Japanese life.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Strange weather in Tokyo; love is in the air

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell) is a slim, poignant, big-city love story. Tsukiko Omachi, who narrates the book, is a single, unmarried woman in her late thirties. One evening when she is eating dinner alone, she is greeted by Mr. Harutuma Matsumoto, her Japanese language teacher in secondary school, now retired. He remembers her, has occasionally spotted her in the bar, and this evening greets her. She cannot recall his name and so calls him "Sensei" (teacher) throughout the book.

That first evening, they drink five flasks of saké between them and, she notes, Sensei pays. The next time they met at the bar, Tsukiko pays. The third time and from then on, they got separate checks. "We both seemed to be the type of person who liked to stop in every so often at the local bar . . . Despite the age difference of more than thirty years, I felt much more at ease with him than with friends my own age."

They begin a friendship that eventually, slowly. grows into something more. "We never made plans, but always happened to meet by chance. Weeks went by when our paths didn't cross, and there were stretches when we'd see each other every night." As the seasons change—and the menu at their favorite bar follows—Tukiko and Sensei gradually learn more about each other, but not with out fits and starts. Early on they have a disagreement about a baseball team and don't speak for weeks.

But without the occasional meetings with Sensei, Tsukiko realizes she has been lonely. "I took the bus alone, I walked around the city alone, I did my shopping alone, and I drank alone." She impulsively buys Sensei a vegetable grater and in thanking her he quotes a Basho haiku that mentions grated yam and they begin talking again.

They go into the mountains to hunt mushrooms with the bar owner. Tsukiko spends the New Year with her mother and brother and his family.Tsukiko attracts a suitor and they go to a cherry blossom party. He kisses her but she fends him off. Ultimately, she realizes she loves Sensei.

It's an interesting love story. The couple have to adjust to the difference in their ages, in their status, and in their expectations. Sensei sounds as if he as a widower—he has an adult son—is as lonely and as afraid of intimacy as Tsukiko. Gradually, slowly, slowly, through one small incident after another, the two finally come together.

It is also an interesting slice of what I suspect is not untypical Japanese life. While at one time the vast majority of Japanese marriages were arranged by families, today fewer than 30 percent are arranged. More and more young men and women want a love marriage. The down side of that trend is that Tokyo and other big cities are filled with lonely people like Tsukiko. All of which is to say that Strange Weather in Tokyo is a sweet, convincing novel of two mature adults finding an unlikely love.