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An Interview with Motoyuki Shibata

By Susannah Greenblatt

We sat down with Japanese translator and editor Motoyuki Shibata, cofounder (with Ted Goossen) and editor in chief of the literary magazine Monkey Business, which brings new writing from Japan into English translation for the first time. We talked about working with Haruki Murakami, lit mags in Japan, some of his favorite new literary voices in Japan, and his love of Chuck Berry.


Words Without Borders (WWB): Could you tell us a little bit about Monkey Business and how it got started.

Motoyuki Shibata (MS): I started a Japanese literary journal back in 2008—a quarterly journal focusing half on Japanese literature and half on [literature in] translation. A friend of mine, Ted Goossen, who teaches at York University in Toronto, is the editor of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories—a classic, a kind of textbook in Japanese literature courses—and Oxford had been urging him to do a contemporary version of that anthology. But Ted thought if you make an anthology of contemporary short stories, it might get dated very quickly. Classics don’t get dated. They are proven by time. So he thought an anthology of contemporary short stories wouldn’t work. But then he took a look at what I was doing with this journal, half focusing on contemporary Japanese fiction, and he thought if we picked some good stories for the Western audience and translated them into English, and if we did it maybe annually, that would be ideal for letting American readers know what’s going on in contemporary Japanese literature. So he talked me into doing this.


WWB: When you’re curating an issue, do you think a lot about what stories will be best received by Western audiences?

MS: Actually, not very much. It’s been my experience that no matter who the audience is, the most important thing is to do what I like. And to translate what I like. Probably the only exception is that [with] stories about America you have to be careful. You might be teaching Buddhism to Buddha as we say. But we don’t really have a sense of mission. It’s fun for us to do it and that seems to be the best way to enlighten others.


WWB: And do you feel the same way when you’re translating into Japanese?

MS: That’s right. Exactly.


WWB: I’m wondering if you feel that there are some aspects of Japanese literature that are more difficult for an outsider to grasp—about the history or the style or the content?

MS: That’s a good question. You know writers like Haruki [Murakami] travel well. Readers can relate no matter where they’re from. One time, British author Julian Barnes had a dialogue with Japanese author Takahashi Genichiro. Mr. Takahashi is passionate about baseball, and Julian Barnes knows nothing about baseball, but he said that if a Japanese writer writes passionately about baseball, the most important things will come across.

But maybe, for instance, stories focusing on families in Japan—the parent-children relationship works in a different way in Japan.


WWB: What is it about the parent-child relationship in Japan that seems difficult to translate?

MS: For instance, the role of a new wife. In the West, if you’re a woman and you marry a man, you’re not marrying into a family. It might have been that way in the past, especially for the aristocratic families. But it’s more often the case in Japan, so we have this word—it’s not a synonym for “wife” or “bride,” but [describes] a woman who has been married into a family. The word is yome. And there is this Japanese female author who wrote a novel called The Andersons’s Yome back in the 1980s, I think. A woman in her novel marries a man named Anderson, and she believes she’s married a man, not a family, because they live in the United States. She believes this is not Japan, this is the United States, so they married each other as individuals, but it turns out it’s not that way.


WWB: So the concept translates even though the word doesn’t?

MS: Yeah. Even in the US you sometimes have so many duties as a new wife—you have obligations to your mother-in-law, father-in-law, but of course [the novel’s twist] works because the assumption is that it’s different in the US.


WWB: It seems like a lot of foreigners encounter Japanese literature through reading about the most incomprehensible moment in Japanese history—the dropping of the atomic bomb. How do you think that shapes or skews the understanding of Japanese literature?

MS: Well, there’s a story about an elephant: there are five blind men and they all touched an elephant. And somebody touched the tail, so he thought, “oh, an elephant is like a rope,” and somebody touched the leg and he thought, “an elephant is like a tree,” and somebody touched the torso and he thought, “an elephant is like leather.” So it always has been that way. When it comes down to it, all that matters are individual works. Not this concept of Japanese literature as a whole. I’m basically a translator of contemporary American fiction, but I don’t feel any obligation toward American literature, not even toward authors—my only obligation is toward individual books. So if you have a wider view of Japanese literature, that’s nice. But knowing this epoch [of the bomb] and literature related to it is just wonderful. It’s much better than just not knowing.

People used to read Mishima, Tanizaki, or Kawabata, partly to learn about Japan, but no one reads Haruki Murakami to learn about Japan. They read Haruki because they like him.

When it comes down to it, all that matters are individual works. Not this concept of Japanese literature as a whole.

WWB: What do you think is so translatable about Haruki Murakami’s work?

MS: He focuses on individuals. He doesn’t focus on families. And he describes a world where good and bad are not clean-cut, not so distinguishable from each other, and that seems to reflect a reality for people from so many parts of the world.


WWB: Who is reading Japanese literature translated into English? Do you know what demographics are?

MS: I don’t know. We don’t have sales people for Monkey Business. We do have a wonderful marketing manager, but I don’t really know about demographics and things like that. But the biggest way for this magazine to get around seems to be classrooms. Professors of Japanese literature use this as a textbook.


WWB: As a sort of updatable textbook?

MS: An updatable textbook—that’s right. That’s wonderful.


WWB: What do you think it means for a contemporary Japanese writer to be translated into English? What does it mean for their careers right now?

MS: Of course, to be translated into English is the only way for you to be read internationally. I’m not used to thinking in terms of career, but all I can think of is that there are writers who deserve to be read internationally, not just in Japan, and if I can be of help—in promoting their stories, in introducing their stories to an international audience—and if it’s fun for me and if I can learn something, there’s no reason not to do it.


WWB: What about literary magazines in Japan? Do they function differently than they do here?

MS: I think so. There are about five major literary journals. They are all published by major publishers. Lots of the stories are serialized and they eventually become a book. Some people call those journals “galleys-in-public.” So the literary journals don’t make money in themselves, but since they eventually become books, it makes sense for publishers to keep on doing it.


WWB: As kind of a test drive?

MS: That’s right. So [Monkey Business] is not a typical literary journal.

There are writers who deserve to be read internationally, not just in Japan, and if I can be of help—in promoting their stories, in introducing their stories to an international audience . . . there’s no reason not to do it.

WWB: Atypical, how so?

MS: Because it’s not serious. That’s why I called it “Monkey Business.”


WWB: Can you elaborate a bit on how that name come to you?

MS: So I started a Japanese journal, [also] called Monkey Business. But when we started it, we wanted to call ourselves simply Story, because there was a wonderful literary journal here in the States called Story. I think J. D. Salinger and other wonderful writers made their debut in that magazine. But they discontinued in the early 2000s. So to pay respect to them, that’s what we wanted to call ourselves. But we found out there was a women’s fashion magazine called Story and they had the copyright. And we didn’t know what to do. So I was talking to my editor over the phone and I took out my CDs and somehow I noticed there was a CD by Chuck Berry and one of my favorite songs by Chuck Berry is “Too Much Monkey Business,” and it occurred to me that maybe in the Japanese literary scene there is too much serious business and not enough monkey business. I published that journal for three years and we went bankrupt because of the tsunami/earthquake—everything sold less after that. After two years, I started this one. But one thing I learned doing that journal is that there’s no business in literary business. So we [jokingly] call it Monkey.


WWB: A lot of people talk about translation as this impossible task or a loss or a betrayal even, but you tend to refer to it as a game. What about it to you feels like a game?

MS: It’s not so much a game. It is indeed fun. But it’s fun that it turns out to be useful to others. There are so many great stories written in Japanese, but unless the readers read Japanese, it’s just a blur—black blurs on paper. What I do for fun turns out to be helpful to others.

As for the impossibility of translation, of course it’s impossible if you think you have to achieve perfection. Perfect translation would be like a map where the scale is one-to-one. You always lose something when you create a map. Because it’s distorting the reality. But that’s the only way a map can work—a one-to-one map doesn’t work, except for you, you know, in Borges’s story. He makes everything work, but that’s, of course, literary magic. So you can say translation is impossible, but you stand on the wrong assumption that translation has to achieve perfection. You aim for perfection—that’s what you do, but you aim for perfection knowing that you cannot really achieve it. But still you have to aim for it. And a good map is better than a bad map. Losing a game 10-9 is better than losing a game 0-10.


WWB: In your writing you talk about the limits of trying to explain some things in Japanese, of coming up against the formality of Japanese. Are there instances when you feel like certain languages are better for expressing certain things or that one language translates better into the other—for example, English into Japanese versus Japanese into English?

MS: Some languages are good at some things and other languages are good at other things. For instance, [in terms of] personal pronouns in English, and in most Western languages, [there] is only one for first person [singular] and one for [first person] plural. But in Japanese there are a number of pronouns that can refer to yourself. Depending on the context you are in, even one person uses different pronouns. Sometimes it creates difficulty, but sometimes it helps make characters distinct from each other. Because if a character says “boku wa tsukareta” “I am tired.” “Boku” is usually used by young persons—males. If you say “I am tired” in English, you have no clue as to who is saying it. But if you say “boku wa tsukareta” in Japanese, readers immediately get the idea of a young man or boy.

But sometimes you don’t have a perfect answer. I was giving a talk with Haruki Murakami last week in Tokyo and we were talking about the first person pronoun in a Raymond Chandler novel in which the private detective Philip Marlowe is the first-person narrator. Haruki goes for “watashi,” which is rather formal, and I go for “ore,” which sounds more like an outsider. And we agreed that there has to be something in between. Watashi is a little bit too formal and ore smacks too much of an outsider. You think you have many alternatives, but there’s not necessarily a perfect solution.

You can say translation is impossible, but you stand on the wrong assumption that translation has to achieve perfection. You aim for perfection—that’s what you do, but you aim for perfection knowing that you cannot really achieve it.

WWB: You’re an expert in both Japanese and American literature, and we’ve talked about how those categories are problematic, but have there been any moments of crossover between new Japanese writing and new American writing that feel important to you?

MS: In the past it was always one-way: America influences Japan. In the nineteenth century it was [through] philosophy and ideas, like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, not so much literature in that time. But in the twentieth century, American literature was a major inspiration for so many Japanese writers—of course Hemingway, and Faulkner to a lesser extent because his work is so hard to translate. After the war, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, people like that. There was major change in the 1970s, at least for me. Writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan began to be translated. We started to have a different sense of what American literature can be—not everyone is trying to write the great American novel, [they] can be more suspicious of the big idea. And those writers were influential for the best Japanese writers we have now, starting with Haruki Murakami and Genichiro Takahashi. And especially since Haruki is so popular here and other Japanese writers, like Yoko Ogawa, [are as well], I think Japanese writers are finally beginning to have an impact on American writers. But it takes time.


WWB: And where do you see that impact?

MS: Well not in the works themselves yet. But I’ve talked to some young American writers and sometimes their favorite writer turns out to be Haruki. It happened in movies first. Film directors like Kurosawa and Ozu were so influential to filmmakers in Europe and America. I can’t pinpoint who they were, but there must be examples like that. I think we’ll be seeing the same phenomenon in literature, too.


WWB: If there was an English language reader who said “I want to learn more about Japanese literature,” where would you recommend that they start?

MS: Well of course Monkey Business. (Laughs) At least [in terms of] somebody who is doing it regularly, I think we’re the only ones. Sometimes Granta does a Japan issue and Words Without Borders of course.


WWB: When you read a piece of literature, what makes you feel like a specific work deserves to be translated?

MS: If you eat a good hamburger, what makes you say “I love it”? You don’t have to explain it if it’s good. It’s very easy to explain why you don’t like something. One way would be to say that a story or a novel makes you think, makes you wish you had written it yourself, that would be the best test.


WWB: If you wish you’d made the hamburger.

MS: (Laughing) I don’t care who made it actually, as long as I can eat it.


WWB: Are there any Japanese writers you’d like to see translated into English?

MS: So many. Hideo Furukawa—he’s wilder than Murakami and takes more risks. The closest thing in the US would be Steve Erickson. Also, Hiroko Oyamada and Mieko Kawakami, but she’s now represented by the same agent as Haruki Murakami, Amanda Urban. And Hiromi Kawakami.


WWB: And what about the other way? Are there any English-language writers you’d like to see translated into Japanese?

MS: Writers that make me wish I had a better ear to the English language, like Don DeLillo. I can tell that something great is going on, but due to the limit of my ability reading the English language, I seem to be always losing something. For young writers, Ben Lerner. Everyone says he’s so funny, but it doesn’t come to me—I know it’s my fault.


WWB: How did translation become such a big part of your life and work?

MS: How far should I go back? When I was a kid they gave us a vocational aptitude test. I wanted to do something artistic, but my ability seemed to be more clerical than artistic. And there seemed to be no way to harmonize ability and desire. But in some ways translation is very clerical work—you have to be paying attention to detail. It’s not a top-down project, it’s very bottom-up. You are paying attention to details and the whole picture can take care of itself if it’s a good work. So somehow I managed to find a way to harmonize my aptitude and desire. So that’s what I’ve been doing for so many years.


Motoyuki Shibata, one of the founding editors of Monkey Business, teaches American literature and literary translation at the University of Tokyo. He has translated Paul Auster, Stuart Dybek, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link, and Steven Millhauser, among others. He will be touring with the new issue of Monkey Business this fall, with appearances in Toronto, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.


Further Reading

“Walking the Keihin Factory Belt with Stuart Dybek,” by Motoyuki Shibata, translated by Allison Markin Powell

On Memory: New Japanese Writing

New Writing from Japan, Part I

New Writing from Japan, Part II

Corridor of Dreams: Writing From Japan

Published Sep 13, 2017   Copyright 2017 Susannah Greenblatt

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