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

Translator Relay: Alfred Birnbaum

By Alfred Birnbaum

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. Stephen Snyder passed the baton to freelance translator and cultural critic Alfred Birnbaum. In addition to many of Haruki Murakami's early novels, Birnbaum has translated the work of Miyabe Miyuki, Natsuki Izekawa, and Nu Nu Yi. He also compiled the short story anthology Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction.

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

I've spent most of my life away from America, living day to day in other cultures and languages. I first came to Japan when I was five years old  and by now cumulatively I've spent over half my life here. Many of the Japanese novels I've translated have been set in the Japan of the '60s, '70s and '80s, a Japan that no longer exists, though I still have vivid memories of the places and people that figure in those books — not to mention the general atmosphere, sights, sounds and smells. When I was small I apparently spoke Japanese on a par with English, then promptly forgot everything when my family moved away (and I learned French, then Spanish instead). When we moved back to Tokyo ten years later, I never consciously set out to learn Japanese, but the spoken language all began to resurface. I only formally studied the written language from university on. I've done some translations from Burmese, again from having lived in Myanmar for about six years (my wife is Burmese). I always count my blessings: one, that I didn't have to learn either English or Japanese as foreign languages; and two, that I speak more than two languages so I can appreciate by "triangulation" what is truly exceptional about each, instead of merely playing ping-pong back and forth.

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

Japanese abounds in extremely subtle words  for natural phenomena, colors and social relations, as well as a surprisingly varied "occult vocabulary" that creeps into daily usage — know of any single English term for the ominous intimation of an unseen presence, typically coming from behind? Japanese also speak of the "scent" of  uncertainties. Predictably, I find I have to tease out such split hairs with multiple modifiers and added phrases. More challenging, however, is the task of creating specific English voices for characters where the Japanese is minutely articulated in gender-, age- and region-specific speech. Conversely, for Natsuki Ikezawa's The Navidad Affairwhere all the characters on a South Sea island are somehow fluent in standard Japanese,  I had to invent a Tagalog-inflected pidgin for a Filipina madame, a flippant hip-speak for two gay protagonists and a swashbuckling pirate argot for the ghost of a centuries-dead Polynesian prince (an actual historical figure buried in London's Southwark.)

Do you have any translating rituals? 

I'm not even sure what the question means. Having studiously avoided academia for most of my life, save for two ill-suited teaching stints, I've never had the luxury of focusing on literary translation (literature doesn't pay). Much of my translation work has simply been a job, consequently I don't take time for rituals or romaticizing the translation process. I just do whatever needs to be done each time. 

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?

"Untranslateable" idioms are one thing; notions of what constitutes "good writing" across different cultures is quite another. Much of the shaping of a translation depends on the target audience, particularly for non-scholarly mass-market readers who might not have the background or patience to wade through literal renderings that stray to far from their accustomed frame of reference. Accordingly, English readers — in societies where the individual is seen as the prime mover — typically want clearly identified subjects and objects, sentences in active voice, and stories that have well-defined resolutions. By contrast, Japanese readers, whose worldview is largely shaped by group pressures and conditions that outscale any prospect of personal change, find English over-exacting, even irritatingly calculated; they are more accustomed to passive voice, shades of ambiguity that do not offend, and open-ended stories that allow others to carry further. While I have no metaphor for translation from language A to language B in general, translation between languages as far removed as Japanese and English is often less a question of straining and pouring nuances from one mold into another than of reshaping the entire receptacle, especially where the publisher seeks a more readily palatable gel.

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

I'm working on two books by Toshihiko Yahagi, currently my favorite contemporary Japanese author who still has nothing out in English from a career spanning more than three decades. A sharp-witted satirist with an encyclopedic command of historical references and a gift for finding humor in the plausible-improbable (without resorting to pseudo-Vonnegut sci-fi), he crafts beautiful Japanese (I wouldn't even attempt to translate the finesse of his Semana Tragica) while infusing socio-critical agendas, something extremely rare in Japan. One book, A-JA-PAN!, perhaps Yahagi's magnum opus, is an alternative history of a cold-war Japan divided in two like North and South Korea — and it's a wonderful comedy! The other, The Wrong Goodbye is a Chandler-esque hardboiled send-up of the U.S. military presence that still haunts Japan — a rather darker shade of noir.

Stephen Snyder's Q: Is translation a "calling"? Are good translators born or made? Can translation be taught?

That's a bit like asking "Can diplomacy be taught?" Certainly some tools and tricks of the trade can be taught, and everyone at every level can always learn to do better, which is why it's so envigorating to work together with a good editor. Ultimately, however, I do feel those with an inborn "ear for language" will always have an advantage. By that I mean not just a knack for picking up foreign languages but, perhaps even more importantly, but a command of the cadences of one's own native idiom. I strongly believe that translation is mostly about writing; even the most informed reader or scholar will not necessarily make a good translator unless one is first and foremost a writer. So perhaps it comes down to the question, "Can creative writing be taught?" Of course, practice makes problems and problems make perfect. And a healthy diet of reading literary stylists gives one breadth of vocabulary and depth of phrasing. Still, as with diplomats, the default role of "cultural intermediary" is no easy mantle to assume and blame may come from all sides, so ideally good translators should be born with thick skin

Published May 30, 2013   Copyright 2013 Alfred Birnbaum

Leave Your Comment

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