Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

Stephen Snyder talks about “The Diving Pool

By Bud Parr

In the second installment in our Diving Pool book club, Stephen Snyder, the translator of the book and of Ogawa's Housekeeper and the Professor (forthcoming from Picador), speaks to Amber Qureshi about the Japanese literary scene, the author's fixation on rotting food and the difficulties of marketing Japanese writing to an American audience. This interview was originally featured in the companion booklet to the live discussion between Allison Powell and Stephen Snyder held at the Idlewild book store in New York City on January 8, 2009. You can find Amber's introduction to the online book club over here—Editors

Amber Qureshi: I'd like to start by placing Ogawa in some kind of context for those of us, I daresay all of us, who do not know Japanese literature as well as we'd like. What about Ogawa's prose style resembles the other authors you read and translate? What do you find utterly unique?

Stephen Snyder: I don't like to think about style in terms of influence, but there do seem to be genealogies connecting Ogawa's prose to earlier writers. She says herself that she was powerfully affected by Haruki Murakami's work, and I think this is apparent in both her subject matter and her prose style. She uses the same relatively brief structures Haruki developed in response to his reading and translation of American writers such as Ray Carver. Murakami pared down literary Japanese and rebuilt it, and Ogawa is one of many writers who developed her style in part under his influence. I think her style has older roots as well, however. While Murakami was actively negating what he found counterproductive in traditional literary Japanese, Ogawa seems to be comfortable looking further back. Her work owes something to the restraint and subdued sensualism of the late Kawabata. When I first read Hotel Iris, I was struck by the echoes of Kawabata's Sleeping Beauties or even Snow Country.

AQ: There are many kinds of narrative style in contemporary Japanese literature—the tone of Natsuo Kirino differs greatly from that of recent Akutagawa Prize winner Hitomi Kanehara, for example. You've rendered a perfectly chilling and perfectly appropriate narrative voice for all of the first person narratives in this book, which we can appreciate in English, but I wonder how Ogawa's style reads in Japanese? Again, compared to her contemporaries, would she be considered chatty with familiar slang, impersonal and distant, formal and self-consciously literary?

SS: Ogawa's voice in Japanese (and in French, and hopefully in English) is quite different from that of most of her contemporaries. I wouldn't describe it as self-consciously literary, but it is much more formal and refined than Kanehara's, for example. Nor does her style resemble Kirino's in any way. Kirino's prose is extremely raw and overheated in places. Her content dictates a kind of stylistic intensity that is not uncommon in popular Japanese fiction (and film or television drama). It is actually outside the normal literary range for American readers—conventions differ between the two cultures, as Edward Seidensticker liked to point out in relation to the copious tears in Japanese fiction—so much so that when I was translating Out I found it preferable to tone down certain passages for a Western reading audience—or my editors did. Ogawa's prose, on the other hand, reflects the emotional restraint of her narratives. Her syntax is controlled and elliptical, her imagery—one of her great strengths, I think—is obsessive but understated in its expression. I am finishing the translation of Hotel Iris at the moment, and while the story is more intense than almost any other Ogawa novel, the narrative tone is utterly controlled, even detached, not unlike that in íThe Diving Poolë or íPregnancy Diary.ë I find this contradiction to be one of the most engaging things about her work, and one of the most interesting challenges for a translator.

AQ: It's been suggested that U.S. readers are particularly interested in horror, crime, the grotesque in Japanese literature, Kirino being the most obvious and successful example, and there is certainly an element of horror in Ogawa's work. How much of the contemporary Japanese literary scene does horror comprise?

SS: Horror and crime are considered genre fiction in Japan, but the lines drawn between them and what the Japanese call ípureë (literary) fiction are perhaps more porous than in the US. For one thing, many if not most writers of ípure fictionë (junbungaku) occasionally write genre fiction. Mishima, for instance, wrote hundreds of popular pieces not included in his serious íoeuvreë simply to supplement his income, and Oe himself has written science fiction (though needless to say of a serious sort). An enormous number of mainstream novelists in Japan today started their careers as writers of crime fiction (Kirino included), and it could be argued that most of Murakami's work exploits the mystery format. I am currently serving on a Japanese Ministry of Culture committee to select titles to translate into foreign languages, and in the broad survey of contemporary writers I've done for that committee, I'm struck by the number who have at least some mysteries among their work. The readership is huge in Japan (as it seems to be here) and I suppose writers and publishers have responded.

Horror is a somewhat more limited genre, despite the interest that Japanese titles have garnered here. Koji Suzuki, who I assume has been Vertical's greatest success, still seems to dominate the market in Japan, but writers who are taken much more seriously, such as Ryu Murakami, have dabbled in íJ-horrorë for some time. Miike's adaptation of his Audition is perhaps the best film in the genre, but my favorite novel is In the Miso Soup, which is both the most ghoulish and the most interesting narrative experiment in Ryu's very long list of titles.

I'm not sure that I would include Ogawa's work in this category, despite the undeniable creepiness of some of her stories. J-horror, in fiction or film, seems to rely on over-the-top effects, many derived from Edo-period ghost tales or Kabuki stagings, and this is decidedly not what Ogawa is up to. She is clearly fascinated with obsessive behavior that often borders on the ghoulish, and then replicates that behavior in her own use of obsessive imagery—rotten fruit, deformed bodies, eerie pastry shops—but her approach is always far more controlled. She seems to enjoy creating the suspense these images and situations evoke, but almost always pulls back from the full implications. As in the ending of íDormitory.ë

AQ: The paucity of translated work in Western markets has long been bemoaned by many in the industry; it's a problem that efforts like this wonderful website are trying to redress. Do you see more Japanese translations in recent years than you have in the past? Do you think that we are seeing more variety in what is translated from the Japanese, or are market forces pushing us toward one trend or another?

SS: This is a question about which I've been thinking a good deal recently. I gave a paper last fall at a symposium in conjunction with Haruki Murakami's appearance in Berkeley. I called it something like íAre there any more like you at home: Cloning Murakami for the U.S. Market,ë and I was essentially arguing that Murakami's success in English translation (along with the relative lack of success for writers who debuted in English about the same time—Banana Yoshimoto, Eimi Yamada, or Ryu Murakami) has meant that some publishers have spent a good bit of time and energy looking for a successor to Murakami. I think projects like Vertical are driven in part by this kind of thinking; and, of course, a number of writers have been identified as the ínext Murakamië (Genichiro Takahashi, Masahiko Shimada, perhaps even Ogawa herself). On the other hand, Murakami's influence, as well as the successful globalization of other aspects of Japanese culture (J-pop, anime/manga, baseball players)—what Douglas McGray has called Japan's ígross national coolë—has meant a certain openness on the part of editors and publishers to Japanese fiction in general. I think it's remarkable, for example, that Harcourt published a series of novels by the late Akira Yoshimura who was a marvelous writer but hardly an enormous literary star in Japan. The work of the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Center has also been important in the last few years. They run a clearinghouse for information on the contemporary literary scene in Japan, and they commission translations and promote their publication in line with the Ministry of Culture list I mentioned earlier. It remains to be seen whether other Japanese writers will gain the kind of audience Murakami enjoys, but the response to Kirino—or, I hope, to Ogawa—is encouraging. As is, for example, the acquisition of rights to an interesting work such as Shuichi Yoshida's Akunin by a major U.S. publisher.

AQ: Ogawa's own range is incredible—The Professor and the Housekeeper is an entirely different book from Hotel Iris—what others of her work are out there for us to look out for?

SS: She has written so much and, as you say, her range is so broad. So the answer is yes, there is a great deal more out there. Readers of French know that Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle has translated nearly everything of Ogawa's already—an indication that the French now enjoy a considerable lead in this area—so it's fun for me to look at what she's done, in what order, and to think about how Ogawa might be introduced in English. After Hotel Iris, I'm particularly fond of a novel called The Museum of Silence (Chinmoku no hakubustukan) that is a murder mystery of sorts set in a very peculiar private museum. There are also a number of excellent novellas, such as íThe Hexagonal Room.ë But perhaps my favorite is a volume of linked short stories the title of which translates literally as íReticent corpse, indecent funeral.ë The stories are bound together by a series of interlocking images and leitmotivs. It's a great deal of fun, with all the signature Ogawa obsessions. (The cover of the Actes Sud edition is an extraordinary photograph by Kusama Yayoi that is worth the price even if you don't read French.)

AQ: Jonathan Franzen recently explained the purpose of literature in our lives as follows: "Literature may be a small subset of the total book market, but it's a durable and relatively inelastic subset, because the person for whom the language of Ian Frazier or Lydia Davis or Frederick Seidel [or, I would add, Yoko Ogawa] is a vital part of life has nowhere else to go for that kind of experience. Not even the Kindle, and certainly not Gears of War or ESPN360, are going to suffice." How and how much do you think the Japanese read? Are anime and the popularity of manga affecting the way writers of novels write? Do people read and write with fewer kanji? Do you think this is a good or bad thing? In light of this comment, talk about cell phone novels.

SS: There was speculation that the novel in Japan died when Mishima committed seppuku in 1970, and the idea has resurfaced every few years since. Lamenting the influence of the cell phone novel strikes me as simply the latest version of this argument. For a long time the villain was manga, then video games—whatever pulled young readers away from literature—and there is no doubt that the Japanese, like everyone else, read less than they once did. Still, as Franzen suggests, the íinelastic subsetë persists, and in Japan I have the sense that it is a rather substantial subset. Tokyo is a city of bookstores, and the publishing culture, while under siege lately, continues to be vigorous and creative. New literary magazines appear, and the old standards, of which there are many more than in this country, seem to survive. The literary prizes are followed as closely as ever. Japanese readers are often maniacal, insisting, for instance on owning every book by a prolific favorite author (which can sometimes, for someone like Ryu Murakami, run to hundreds of volumes), and I have heard speculation that people buy many more books than they read. But there is, nevertheless, a large market for serious—and less serious—fiction, and established writers have real cultural clout. The manga and the cell phone novel may have affected the language and subject matter of some writers—both Banana Yoshimoto and Ryu claim the influence of manga quite proudly—but there continue to be extraordinary stylists—Ogawa or someone like Ko Machida, for instance—and the energy for fabulation seems, if anything to be growing. Perhaps the most startling and, in a way, reassuring trend in Japanese fiction is the ambition of contemporary writers, seen in the sheer scale of their work. Writers such as Kazushige Abe and Rieko Matsuura have produced enormous and complex works in recent years, and Haruki Murakami has said that his just-completed novel is even longer than Kafka on the Shore. I think it's safe to say that these works are being written because they are finding a serious readership, and that reports of the death of the Japanese novel are premature at best.

AQ: Is there a literary community in Japan or do most writers, like Ogawa, write in isolation? Is there a cottage industry of writers' workshops/literary festivals and do known writers get sinecures and other gigs teaching at universities?

SS: There is most definitely a literary community in Japan, or I should say, in Tokyo. It's known as the bundan (literary world) and consists of a tight group of writers and editors from large Tokyo houses. It has had enormous power to control what gets published and how reputations are managed, and it has been dominant since the late nineteenth century, if not before. It functions through a series of literary prizes (for which established writers serve as jurors), and literary festivals and workshops are less common than they are in the U.S. The publishing system is quite different in Japan. Instead of an exclusive contract with one house, an established writer in Japan tends to work serially for most of the major houses, distributing works around to editors like favors being dispensed by a patron. Editors, therefore, spend a great deal of time courting and tending authors in hopes of securing the next manuscript, and less time on the business of editing. This kind of competition works to the advantage of established writers, who can support themselves quite nicely from their writing and take teaching jobs much more rarely than their American counterparts; but it also means that writers are usually over-committed and working against deadlines.

AQ: Michel Houellebecq once told me that every time he goes out on the street in Paris he gets recognized, which I couldn't help but see as a statement about how France feels about its writers, whose faces used to be printed on the country's own currency. I can count the number of face-famous American writers on one hand. Is Ogawa a celebrity in Japan, and are bestselling writers routinely recognized on the street?

SS: Writers enjoy celebrity in Japan that is much more similar to the French case than the American. Murakami has responded by being a recluse of sorts. He rarely appears in public in Japan and never on television. He is much more comfortable with his public persona in this country than in his own. Ogawa seems to be following suit, making few public appearances and living far from Tokyo (where almost all writers live), in Ashiya, a beautiful suburb of Kobe. Ryu Murakami or Kirino, on the other hand, are constantly on television (Ryu was a talk show host for some years) or in bookstores and are media darlings.

AQ: Were there moments—stylistic tropes or untranslatable phrases—that Ogawa's writing confounded you? What does a translator do at these moments?

SS: Japanese and English are so completely different linguistically that nearly every sentence is confounding in some way or another. Stylistic standards are often at odds, untranslatable cultural concepts abound (though admittedly less in a twenty-first century writer such as Ogawa than in the work of Nagai Kafu (1879–1959), the writer I translated right before The Diving Pool). When I come on something that I know will not translate, I tend to mourn the loss for a moment (Umberto Eco says that translation is negotiation, but I suspect it's often closer to surrender) and then find a way to convey what has to be conveyed and move on. That is an advantage that translators of prose enjoy that translators of poetry do not. At least the story, the plot, remains (Haruki Murakami claims that it's his plotting that makes his work so ítranslatableë), while with poetry, when the language is lost, it takes everything else with it. Ogawa's prose is austere and lovely in Japanese, with cadences and effects that don't exist in English, or at least not in my versions. But the fascination of translation for me is in the struggle to find a voice that approximates the experience of reading the original, however imperfectly, and then using it to tell the story.

Stephen Snyder has translated works by Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, Miri Yu, and Kafu Nagai, among others. His translation of Natsuo Kirino's Out was nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery novel. The Diving Pool, a translation of three novellas by Yoko Ogawa, was published earlier this year by Picador, and Ogawa's Housekeeper and the Professor will appear in February. He teaches Japanese literature at Middlebury College.

Published Jan 13, 2009   Copyright 2009 Bud Parr

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.