Translating Japanese Literature: Powell and Kawakami

In News by Dennis Abrams

Author Hiromi Kawakami and translator Allison Markin Powell are linked by literature, as Powell opens a new database of Japanese-to-English work.
Two of the Hiromi Kawakami titles that Allison Markin Powell has translated

Two of the Hiromi Kawakami titles that Allison Markin Powell has translated

 By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2
‘The Syntax Is So Different’

english PEN logo red 270

As part of English PEN’s “PEN Atlas” series, Tasja Dorkofikis speaks with author Hiromi Kawakami and translator Allison Markin Powell.

They discuss, among other topics, Kawakami’s novel The Nakano Thrift Shop (Portobello Books, 2016), the challenges of translating Japanese syntax and dialogue into English, and Powell’s new Web site, Japanese Literature in English.

Some highlights from the conversation follow.

PEN Atlas: Allison, how did you find out about this book and how did it come to be published in English?

Allison Markin Powell

Allison Markin Powell

Allison Markin Powell: The Nakano Thrift Shop is the second novel by Hiromi Kawakami that I have translated. The first one, Strange Weather in Tokyo (the US title is The Briefcase), was also published by Portobello Books.

After its huge success—it was shortlisted for both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize—the author’s agent approached me about which novel ought to be translated next, and Nakano is one of the author’s own favorites.

In a twist, though, this book is being published first in the UK (Europa Editions will publish in the US next year), whereas the US edition of the other novel came out a year before the UK edition. At least the title will be the same this time.

PA: The “shop” is full of obscure and amazing objects not necessarily familiar to an English-speaking audience, from kotatsu heaters to Glico toys. Allison, did you need to do much research to find out about them?

AMP: Kawakami has a wonderful way of working these kinds of items into her writing in a very unobtrusive way. She is such a keen observer, and if you’ve spent any time in Japan, these are cultural touchstones (even if they come from pop culture) that read as familiar to me. Although I am grateful for the use of Google Images.

PA: Allison, are there any specific difficulties with translating Japanese into English?

AMP: For me, one of the challenges with Japanese is that the syntax is so different from English. Readers get the information in a different order and, depending on what’s happening in the book at that moment, this can have a significant impact on the reading experience. So I think about that a lot when I am working.

PA: How closely did you work together on this book?

AMP: Not very closely at all. There were a few very specific questions that came up during the editorial process that required the author to weigh in. I did, however, refer at times to the French translation by Elisabeth Suetsugu, so if she’s reading this, many thanks!

Hiromi Kawakami: I have met Allison once or twice, and I’m delighted that she has found a true voice for my novels. I get questions from translators about certain words in my works, and I try my best to answer them.

Generally, I just place my trust in their sensibilities.

japanese-literature-in-english-linedPA: Allison, you set up a website called Japanese Literature in English. Could you tell our readers a bit more about this?

AMP: Thank you for asking. My site contains a database of Japanese literature that has been translated and published in English (just as the name suggests).

This was something that I myself wanted–a resource that was very user-friendly–and so I decided to create it. It’s a bit of a challenge to keep it up to date–I’m afraid I’m behind on adding some important titles–but I welcome suggestions from anyone.

It’s also a great way to interact with readers of Japanese literature, and other translators as well.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.