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Translator Relay: Michael Emmerich

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For December's installment, Karen Emmerich passed the baton to her brother, Japanese translator Michael Emmerich, who is an associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. He has translated numerous books from Japanese, including most recently Yasushi Inoue's Bullfight, The Hunting Gun, and Life of a Counterfeiter, all published by Pushkin Press. He is the author of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, and the editor of Read Real Japanese Fiction and New Penguin Parallel Texts: Short Stories in Japanese.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

The easy answer to this question is that I started studying modern Japanese in my freshman year of college and classical Japanese in my first year of graduate school, and have been burrowing deeper into both languages ever since; and that I’ve spent enough time living in Japan that I have as many friends there and feel as comfortable there as I do anywhere else. But this is an oversimplification. The truth is that my connections to modern and classical Japanese, and to the various towns and cities where I have lived in Japan (Mattō, Komatsu, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Tokyo), are always changing—as are my connections to English, and to the places where I have written my translations. This is true not only because I use and encounter different forms of English and Japanese more or less frequently depending on where I am and what I am doing, and adapt to being in certain linguistic environments, but also because languages and places are themselves constantly changing. This is part of what makes it interesting to go on translating over a long period of time. I keep copies of all the books I’ve translated lined up on a shelf in my office; perhaps I really ought to stack them vertically, in a formation that suggests geological strata.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

I tend to think of untranslatables as linguistic versions of the Loch Ness Monster. From a distance they look mysterious and otherworldly, but when you finally catch them in your net and get a good look, you discover that they are just words. If anything, it seems to me that the words and phrases and books people speak of as “untranslatable” are the best instances of the translatable. Ask someone who claims a word or phrase is untranslatable to show you a word that is translatable. Take that word to the water’s edge and gently release it. Wait until it drifts out to the center of the loch and take a photograph.

That said, I suppose emoticons are untranslatable.

Do you have any translating rituals?

Not really, other than working in very long blocks of time. It takes me about two hours to start hearing the rhythms of the sentences I’m writing, and to achieve just the right balance between the currents of Japanese and English moving within me.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I think of the translator as a ghost who belongs to two worlds, two languages, two cultures, but belongs fully to neither—a figure whose very existence demonstrates that this world and that world are not separate, but coexist in the same place and at the same time.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

Right now I’m working on one of two books I’ve agreed to translate by Japan’s first writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, Kawabata Yasunari. This is exciting for a variety of reasons: because the books are so good; because I find it refreshing to be translating modern rather than contemporary works; and because the first book I translated was a collection of stories by Kawabata called First Snow on Fuji, published in 1998. It’s odd and wonderful to be engaging with prose by the same writer seventeen years later. To return to my earlier geologic metaphor, it’s as if a landslide has exposed a layer of rock that has been hidden from view for a very long time.

Karen Emmerich's question: Do you see your translation work as a form of activism, broadly conceived?

Certainly—in fact, I see it as a number of different but related forms of activism, all rolled up into one addictively pleasurable activity. As a translator working in and from Japanese, I’m often irked by the complete lack of imagination evident in so much journalism about Japan. The other night, my wife and I were annoyed by a report on NPR that noted that in Japan only “the elites” consume lots of butter. Imagine someone saying that in the US only “the elites” eat a lot of baguettes. Who exactly would these “elites” be? Politicians? The Rockefellers? Wall Street bankers? Successful performance artists? The phrase “the one percent” is useful precisely because it is based on real numbers and figures; “the elites,” by contrast, makes sense only in the context of a ludicrously oversimplified conception of a society—of a failure to imagine Japan as a place that is every bit as complex and full of variety as any other.

During another report about the Japanese government’s plans to reduce energy consumption in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of March 2011, another NPR host wondered whether this would be feasible in a country that had toilets with heated seats. The notion of heated toilet seats was being invoked, of course, as a sign of extravagant, wasteful use of electricity—but the only reason these seats exist in Japan is that hardly anyone has central heat at home. In other words, the NPR host’s reference to heated toilet seats was predicated on the assumption that Japan is just like the US—on a failure of imagination. I see my work as, in part, an effort to combat this kind of thing: little by little, I and other translators from Japanese are making it more difficult for people to treat Japan as a fantasy by presenting all sorts of Japanese texts in English, showing in English just what a big and diverse and complex and real place it is. I recently spent a year translating monthly Op-Ed pieces by literary and cultural critic Katō Norihiro for the New York Times; as far as I know, he was the first Japanese writer ever to have a regular column in the paper, and I consider those brief essays some of the most important translation work I’ve done. At the same time, I also see my translating as a sort of activism promoting the value and visibility of translation itself, and of the many different kinds of work translators do. After all, there isn’t a single facet of life in the twenty-first century US that hasn’t been touched in ways both big and small by translation. How many unnamed, unacknowledged translators and interpreters are involved in the production of every issue of the New York Times, for instance? Imagine how empty the shelves would be in just about every store in the country if there were no translators. Think what the cuisines of the world would be like. It’s easy to forget all this. It’s important not to.


Published Dec 22, 2014   Copyright 2014 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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