Greatest Women in Translation: Allison Markin Powell

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our interviewee today, Allison Markin Powell, was nominated by Ginny Takemori.

Allison Markin Powell

Image created with Canva. Picture credit: Jonathan Armstrong for The Documentist.

1. Japanese is your third language. How have you become a Japanese-to-English literary translator then, translating successful Japanese novels?

Well, where I grew up, it wasn’t until seventh grade that we had the opportunity to study another language, and at that time it was French (or nothing). But I loved learning French, so when I entered university I knew I would study at least one more language, and that turned out to be Japanese. I had been interested in literary translation from the time when I was assigned Le Petit Prince in high school, and ultimately I ran with it in Japanese. I think one of the reasons is that there are fewer Japanese literary translators, and fewer Japanese works that have been translated as well. That said, I feel there are greater challenges in bringing Japanese books into English than from Western languages.

I came to translation from a publishing perspective—I worked in various editorial departments where I learned how the industry works—in the U.S., that is—before I began translating books from Japanese. And now I translate all sorts of books—primarily fiction, but I work on nonfiction projects as well. This past summer, for instance, I’ve had the chance to translate a book on Zen and one on embroidery as well. It certainly keeps things interesting.

2. In this interview you gave to The Japan Times, you say, “I don’t really see the author as more or less of an authority on their book from a translation perspective.” Could you elaborate and explain what exactly you meant by that?

I believe that, once a work of literature is out there, it becomes something like the communal property of readers, open to infinite interpretations. Some of those interpretations may not have been intentional, yet they exist, for better or worse. When I translate something, I always try to convey the myriad possibilities that are incorporated in the original, rather than simply the version that I might prefer personally. It’s also been my experience that an author’s attitude toward their work shifts and changes, so that they may see things differently at one point from what they meant at the time it was written, especially as they mature as a writer or gain a more international audience—and that might change their answers to my questions.

3. In this interview you gave to PEN Atlas, you mention book titles are translated differently in the United States and in the United Kingdom. We hear a lot about different translations of movie titles, but I don’t think I have ever heard the same happened with book titles. Could you talk a bit about that, based on your experience with your own translations? Are the books themselves also translated differently for both markets? If so, how?

The first novel I translated by Hiromi Kawakami was published in the U.S. as The Briefcase, and then retitled as Strange Weather in Tokyo by the U.K. publisher. The Briefcase is a more literal translation of the original title in Japanese, and it was a rather oblique title at that. The author agreed to the change, and the book ended up being much more successful in the U.K. Last fall, it was reissued in the U.S. with the U.K. title and the U.K. cover as well. I think it was confusing for readers, and it’s hard to say how much of the book’s success has to do with the title and the cover—though some would say, “A lot!”—but it’s fair to say that a book’s packaging and presentation has a lot to do with how it is received. As for the text itself, I translate into American English, and the British publisher edits for context. I aim for neutral English, if there is such a thing, but inevitably certain details—like the register vs. the till or the trunk vs. the boot of a car—are adjusted for different markets.

4. As Ginny Tapley Takemori already told us about, you, she and Lucy North formed a collective called Strong Women, Soft Power, which is committed to promoting Japanese writers, in particular Japanese women writers who are being overlooked in translation. What’s your role in this collective? Has it shown any positive outcomes so far?

I don’t think I can overstate how positive it has been to be a member of Strong Women, Soft Power. As translators, our work is most often solitary and isolated. And yet, especially to those of us for whom it is a full-time occupation, the fact is that our work and practices affect one another, either in the form of setting precedents for the terms of our contracts or by the choices we make about which books we translate. The three of us—Lucy North, Ginny Tapley Takemori, and I—are equal members in the collective, and we work to support each other as much as we try to promote Japanese women writers. Our first endeavor was a reading we held during the London Book Fair in 2016; next we collaborated on an article for Literary Hub about ten Japanese books by women we’d love to see in English; then we planned a full-day symposium in Tokyo in 2017; and we have some exciting things on tap for the future. We really are stronger together, and the fact is that, rather than feel we are in competition with each other for the small number of books that are being translated from Japanese, working with each other has had the effect of creating more opportunities. It’s been very true for us that “A rising tide lifts all ships.” And the collective model is tremendously invigorating—we are inspired with ideas and to create new initiatives, especially when we know that we have the others’ support.

5. You have translated both women and men writers. Are there any differences or particularities in translating women versus men or are authors all the same, regardless of gender?

I have translated both women and men writers, including female protagonists written by male authors as well as male protagonists created by women authors. I wouldn’t say there are gendered differences in translating the work itself, beyond the fact that every writer is distinct. With each author, it’s necessary for me to feel comfortable and confident about capturing the voice and style of the piece that I’m translating. But as for how the work is received—or whether it is received at all—I do believe that there are imbalances between male and female authors. I have done some research, and recent data show that women writers in Japan currently maintain something close to parity within publishing in terms of prestige—the number of literary prizes won—and popularity—their representation on bestseller lists. But that equality does not appear in translation—little more than a quarter of the books translated from Japanese are by women—and I have yet to figure out why that is the case.

6. You have a website (which is a searchable database) where you showcase all existing literary works translated from Japanese into English, Japanese Literature in English. Besides this great initiative and the collective Strong Women, Soft Power, in which other ways are you engaged in promoting Japanese literature in translation?

My website has been sadly neglected lately, and I am eager to update the database with recent publications and found titles. Besides Strong Women, Soft Power, I am also a founding member of another collective, Cedilla & Co., and through that initiative I work closely with specific writers to bring their work into English and introduce them to English-language readers. Through my experience in book publishing, I have met many people who are champions of literature in translation, and that enables me to recommend and promote Japanese authors and books that may have been overlooked.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I am thrilled to nominate one of my Cedilla colleagues, Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish.

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Greatest Women in Translation: Ginny Takemori

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Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Did you know August is Women in Translation month? Learn more about the initiative here. And follow the hashtag #WITMonth on Twitter.

This month I talk to Ginny Takemori, nominated by our last interviewee, Nicky Smalley.

Welcome, Ginny!

Ginny Takemori

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1. Translators usually like to learn more about other translators’ beginnings. How was yours?

Well, I actually started out translating Spanish and Catalan. I approached a small agency in Barcelona, which took me on despite my lack of experience because they liked the way I tackled tricky designer-speak articles that their regular translators weren’t keen on. They basically taught me how to translate, editing my work and giving it back to me to learn from. Gradually the red ink on the page diminished as I got better. It was through translation that I got to know a literary agent who asked me to translate blurbs and promotional material, then suggested I write them myself from scratch, and eventually took me on as a foreign-rights agent. It was while working for her that I developed a fascination for Japanese language and literature, and decided to drop everything and enroll in SOAS in London to study Japanese with the long-term goal of translating Japanese literature into English.

2. And you have managed to achieve your goal. What advice would you give to translators who are thinking of venturing into another working language from scratch?

I suppose I’m living proof that it is possible to learn a new—and challenging— language as an adult. I should say though that I had learned several languages before this (French, German, Spanish, Catalan), and also the first few years of my life were spent in Tanzania, surrounded by people speaking Swahili as well as English. I think being exposed to more than one language at that critical, most formative time means a child already learns about different worlds, and even if they forget the language later (as I did), the ability to move between languages and worlds is already hardwired in their brain. Having said that, learning a new language as an adult requires a lot of dedication and hard work. Part-time language study was never going to be enough, so I dropped everything and enrolled on a challenging four year BA Honours course at SOAS, with year 2 at Waseda University in Tokyo, which had me living and breathing study for the duration (as well as working to support myself). All my study options were focused on courses that might be useful to me as a literary translator, including classical Japanese. After graduating I went back into publishing, this time as an editor at Kodansha International in Tokyo, where I could continue to improve my Japanese, learn about a different aspect of publishing, and also edit other literary translators, all of which has stood me in good stead as a translator too. Eventually I decided it was time to take the plunge as a freelancer again, and enrolled in a distance learning MA at Sheffield University to get me back into the study mode. The flexibility of the course enabled me to combine it with work, and the most important benefit of it to me was that it gave me the opportunity to focus on literary translation and get feedback from tutors, which was invaluable. At first most of my freelance work was as a literary editor, but little by little I started pushing the balance more towards translation, and now I only translate.

So my advice to translators would be to always have a clear goal in mind, and work hard towards it taking whatever opportunities present themselves along the way.

Also don’t be shy about trying to make your own opportunities: Kodansha wasn’t advertising for staff, but I found out the name of a senior editor there and wrote to him asking for work—and was quite amazed when he wrote back saying he needed another editor.

3. Could you tell us a bit about your latest translation, Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata?

Sayaka Murata is one of the most exciting young women writers in Japan, with an utterly unique voice. I’ve translated a number of her short stories before, but Convenience Store Woman is the first novel to come out in English. It won the prestigious Akutagawa Award before going on to be a runaway bestseller in Japan, with over 650,000 hardcover copies sold, and pocket book edition out soon. It has had an amazing reception from reviewers and readers alike in the US and the UK, and is rapidly becoming an international bestseller with translations into 22 languages. The narrative is from the hyperlogical perspective of a socially awkward 36-year-old woman who is still working in the same casual job in a convenience store that she took on while at university. Despite pressure from family and friends to either get married or start a career job, Keiko takes pride and satisfaction in excelling in her role in the store, which enables her to be a functioning member of society. Her deadpan observations and the disconnect between her thoughts and those of the people around her provide some laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a somewhat caustic look at how society functions and the pressure it places on individuals to fit in. She also has an eye for the grotesque, which can be both hilarious and very dark. My favourite review quote so far was from Dwight Garner in the New York Times: “One begins to spin through one’s Rolodex of loners, and wonder if Keiko is less like Dickens’s Miss Havisham and less like Babette in Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast” and perhaps more like Norman Bates, without the mommy issues.” He really nailed it!  I’m a huge fan of all Murata’s work and am looking forward to bringing more of it into English.

4. In your opinion and based on your experience, what are the challenges in translating Japanese into English? Do you mind giving a couple of examples based on your translations?

Japanese as a language is absolutely context based, whereas English and other European languages are largely grammar based. This means you often have to pin down details in the original that were intended to be ambiguous. To give you just one small example, there are several dozen words for the first person pronoun “I” which determine a lot about the person using it and their relationships with people around them, the level of formality and so forth—and often it is omitted altogether! English does not allow for the same level of ambiguity and you are often forced to pin down something that was meant to be left open-ended. I think this is true of everything I translate to some extent, but perhaps the most extreme example was my translation of a 1906 short story by Izumi Kyoka, who writes a bit like an impressionist painter. Mimicking the style would have been unreadable in English, so I decided to focus on aspects of the text that I could capture such as the very visual aspect with strong images.

Another problem is when you have words that simply don’t exist in English. In Convenience Store Woman, for example, you have the stock phrases used by store workers—these are absolutely formulaic, set out in the manual, and practiced daily. I decided to keep one of the phrases in Japanese—irasshaimasé—which anyone who comes to Japan will hear every time they go into a shop or a restaurant. It means, basically, “welcome,” but it would sound just too weird to translate it as that in English, and we really don’t have any equivalent. Store workers might call out hello, but not every time somebody comes into the store, so I decided it would be more natural to keep the Japanese word. Other phrases I came up with something more or less equivalent in English, keeping the formulaic feel, but making it sound more or less natural. “Yes madam, certainly madam,” and so forth.

The fact that Japanese people tend to call each other by their family names with “san” (or other title) can be a little difficult to handle in translation, since in English we do not use Mr./Mrs./Miss in the same way – it generally sounds very formal and stilted. I made the protagonist Miss Furukura to her coworkers in the store, since this emphasizes her status as a single woman, but otherwise generally tended to use her first name, Keiko (even when she was called Furukura in the original). I chose to call her coworker, who takes a more senior role, Mrs. Izumi to emphasise the difference between the two of them, although they are similar ages. For the man she ends up living with, we only know his last name, Shiraha, but it would sound very unnatural to have Keiko call him Mr. Shiraha, so I dropped any title for him (which I though suited his character anyway). I had to make similar decisions for all the characters in the book.

5. August is Women in Translation month, so why don’t you tell us more about the event you organized with two colleagues promoting Japanese women in translation, Strong Women, Soft Power?

This all started at the London Book Fair in 2016, when Allison Markin Powell, Lucy North, and I decided to take advantage of the fact that we were all attending (Allison from the US, me from Japan, Lucy from the UK) to organize a reading of our work. This was the beginnings of our collective, Strong Women, Soft Power. It coincided with a big get-together among translators of many different languages to discuss the poor representation of women authors from around the world in English translation, and ways in which we could improve this. When we crunched the numbers for Japanese literature, we were quite shocked to see how few women were making it into translation, especially given the prominence of women authors in Japan. We decided, therefore, to hold a symposium in Tokyo to address this issue, as well as to encourage increased collaboration between translators, and between translators and industry people to better promote literature in translation. The symposium was a great success, bringing together translators, academics, editors, rights managers, and agents together into the discussion. There are so many great Japanese women authors out there, and I think we will be seeing many more making it into translation from now on.

6. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I nominate Allison Markin Powell, who in addition to being a great translator herself has also been a dedicated advocate for translators generally, not least during her stint as co-Chair of the Pen Translation Committee.