An interview with Motoyuki Shibata

Sim Yee Chiang

Artwork by Satomi Shimabukuro

In a country where even translators may aspire to become superstars, not many can outshine Motoyuki Shibata, who has introduced writers like Paul Auster and Steven Millhauser to Japanese readers, and certainly no one is as engaged as he is in introducing a new generation of Japanese writers to international readers via the English-language version of his literary magazine Monkey Business. By day, he teaches classes on translation and contemporary literature at the University of Tokyo, where the following interview was conducted. It goes without saying that he feels entirely at home in English, but in the spirit of Asymptote he kindly agreed to speak to us in Japanese.

First, a question about your translation, published in 2010, of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. I'm still working through the first half, but one look at the text suffices to show the considerable efforts taken by the translator, particularly in the mingling of modern and classical registers. How did you go about deciding the novel's tone?

Tone, eh... by trial and error, really. The same goes for any novel, when you start translating you have of course some vague idea of what the tone will be, but it's never the case that you get it absolutely right, rather you start to see as you venture on that this novel, this text wants to be translated in a certain way. So when you get to the end and look back at what you produced at the start, you'll find that it has to be rewritten entirely. In the case of Mason & Dixon, since the original uses a kind of classical 18th century English, I had to think about style a bit more consciously, a bit more deliberately than usual. First of all, I wanted to recreate the oddity, the non-standard feel of the words themselves.  You open the original and it's teeming with capital letters, almost every noun has one... the oddness hits you right away, doesn't it; and thinking about how to bring that out in Japanese I kept okurigana to a bare minimum, in addition I used far more kanji than is conventional for a modern text. However, that tends to make reading extremely difficult, and then it occurred to me that things like newspapers in the Meiji era used full rubi, which was convenient in a two-birds-one-stone way. Literacy was still low at start of the Meiji period, so the readings for all kanji were given as rubi. While children's books these days use rubi too, the abundance of both rubi and kanji in a text for adults gives it an antiquated feel, and there's the bonus of being able to use all sorts of complicated kanji... but all this is going to be a pain to say in English, isn't it. (laughs) So be it. So we have the limited okurigana and the generous use of kanji and rubi. Then there's the business of the English being 18th century, but of course it would be impossible, not to mention pointless, to import 18th century Japanese wholesale in the translation. I think, however, that there's a sense of discovering something new, of Mason and Dixon going to the (at least, from a Western perspective) unknown land of America and discovering a new world, and that this sense is reflected in the very look of the text. To recreate this, I had no better time to return to than Meiji. That was when we had no idea what to do with concepts like love and nature—even the words themselves—Japanese equivalents had to be created one by one. I wanted to re-enact this process, which meant avoiding katakana nouns; I believe there's not a single one in the book, everything is given in kanji with katakana rubi. Thus if readers of the original are able to vicariously experience Mason and Dixon's discovery of America, then um, readers in modern Japan might be able to vicariously experience Meiji readers' discovery of the West, which sounds awfully convoluted when said aloud, doesn't it?

Having translated a wide range of works by authors such as Paul Auster, Stuart Dybek, Steven Millhauser, Edward Gorey, and Richard Powers, having absorbed and reconstituted their language, would you say that you've acquired a knack for ventriloquism? Among their voices, are there any that you find especially easy to take on, that you can pick out more clearly than the others?

Ventriloquism is an interesting way of putting it, as translation is about effacing oneself... in essence there's an original and through me a translation gets created, and during that time it's best if it doesn't change too much, we want to keep out unnecessary things, as far as possible. As for the second part of the question, I guess it'd have to be Paul Auster. In terms of fictional worlds portrayed, the writer I feel most suited to translate would probably be Stuart Dybek, for the reason that the working-class areas of Chicago he writes about resemble greatly the Keihin industrial district where I grew up. I get what he says about the grit and gristle of that world. Then there's Millhauser, who has this meticulousness and need to explain every little detail—I get that too, strangely enough, and even though I'm a pretty careless person I can sympathise... actually, they are all easy to become, the writers who I've translated more than one book for. What should be recreated, what I want most to recreate, is different for each; with Paul Auster for instance it's his musicality. And though these elements differ, I get the same joy out of recreating them, which is what it means to be a ventriloquist, I guess.

All your work so far has centred on American literature; have you thought about trying out other Anglophone literatures?

Hmm, I definitely want to do more of the classics, at least I've come to think that way of late. With the classics, however, there's almost always an existing translation, but there are some books that I want to translate regardless, ones that I think are great of course, and especially ones with less than stellar translations. (laughs) For example, I'd really like to give Tristram Shandy a go, or Gulliver's Travels, but the translations are good, in Swift's case there are several good ones, so it's a lost cause, really. But, though I've been with the English department specialising in American literature up until now, since the Contemporary Literary Studies department got established I don't have to cry America! America! all the time any more, and the same goes for my translations.

Tristram Shandy, Gulliver's Travels... given these choices, it would seem that you have an affinity for—how to put it—works written in half-jest.

Yes, something like Robinson Crusoe would be absolutely unthinkable for me, surely. Half-jest, yes, that could probably be said about many of my translations.

By the way, have you ever considered writing original fiction?

No, the thought has never crossed my mind. As by-products of some sort, there have been some essays published, as a brief fantasy, under the rubric of fiction but those were really just by-products after all. Those writer-types who "just have to write," I'm afraid I've never felt such a, what to call it, an impulse, besides the world is probably better off if I stick with translating.

For many years you've held translation classes at university in which students translate an assigned text and then participate in a discussion based on one or two selected submissions. Regarding this process, what kind of expectations or hopes do you have for the students?

Well, to put it simply, I'd like them to think about and produce the kinds of translations that convey their enjoyment of the original. Not to analyse or to understand what a text means per se, as in an ordinary class, but to be able to read a novel and identify what works. But whatever the case, even in a regular class, I think "pleasure" is definitely the keyword. Of course it won't do to think only of pleasure; in fact, the reader is likelier to experience that much more pleasure from an accurate translation, after all. But then again, there's always the case of the translation that's accurate and yet utterly insipid.

Looking at some of your other interviews, terms like "fun," "ludic quality," and of course "pleasure" come up rather frequently with respect to translation; in your opinion, is there anything to be gained from the task of translation?

Essentially it's the same thing as nuanced reading, so whatever could be gained from such a reading... if you compare my reading a book, say, and my translating it, then of course, it's plausible that I'll have a better understanding of it by translating it. But someone sharper than me could plausibly gain an even better understanding just by reading the book, so it depends on individual ability, really. (laughs) This summer I translated The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and when you translate a work you definitely pick up on the verbal habits of your writer. When I translated Conrad's Lord Jim, for instance, I was struck by just how often the word "sombre" came up. And so it is with Tom Sawyer and gloomy words like "melancholy" and "dark," and of course this is true for Huckleberry Finn too, as everyone knows. These words are never used genuinely, always in high parody of some sort, and therein lies the schizophrenic nature of that novel; in other words, the book that is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer wants to become the book that is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But it can't, and goes back and forth between the book that exists now and that which as yet doesn't, in a kind of bizarre tension. One probably notices these things more easily while translating and thinking about each and every word.

Hmm, it seems that the role or situation of translation is very different now compared to the start of the Meiji era.

Beats me, I don't really know how things were translated back then. (laughs) In fact, comparisons with early Meiji translations etc. have never crossed my mind. As for post-war translations, the reason you find all these incredibly stilted and abstruse things coming out of even schoolchildren's mouths, is because Western civilisation was thought of as superior. These are stories about superior beings, and so it's fine that a child uses such difficult language—such was the underlying supposition. This is clearly misguided, and I have no desire to produce translations like that.

You've published translations in various formats, ranging from novels to serialised translations in magazines such as Monkey Business and Paper Sky; what do modern Japanese readers make of the category "literature in translation," how do they conceive of it, how do they consume it?

Continuing from what I said earlier, I think there used to be this attitude of learning about cultures and civilisations more advanced than ours, an attitude which doesn't exist any more. Which then leads to the question: how is it different from reading Japanese literature? And basically they aren't that dissimilar, is how I see it. Take any bookstore in America, say, you walk in and you'll find translated works on the same shelves as all the other books. There aren't shelves dedicated to foreign literature, right? Likewise there aren't literary extremists who say things like "I read nothing but Japanese literature" or "I read nothing but foreign literature," I don't think. Almost everyone reads both. Of course, there are readers who like foreign literature, but that's about the same as saying you like ramen and I like curry rice. (laughs) Surely we must be beyond all that by now. As one can probably tell, looking at departments such as ours, synchronicity is a more significant force right now than power relations and so on. I'd prefer not to think about foreign literature as a means to the end of, say, learning about the perspective of an Other.

A kind of naturalisation or domesticisation, perhaps?

Not really, the decision to domesticise or foreignise is a sort of operational matter for the translator to settle. Even before getting to that point, in the case of America and Japan, for instance, I find that the two cultural contexts are already very similar. Thus there's no need for excessive domesticisation.

Due to such phenomena as the growth of post-colonial literatures, the corpus that is world literature is expanding almost exponentially. Would you say that translators, who stand between readers and this literary swell, have any roles they ought to play?

I don't believe that there are any new imperatives arising from the spread of the notion of world literature. Neither do I think that one's role is constrained by such contexts; my main concern is simply whether the writers' voices get across to people who want to read my translations... this is a matter of—take Professor Numano, for example, his field is Russian literature, yes? There are plenty of people researching Russian literature, to be sure, but people in that field somehow feel duty bound to convey Russian culture in its entirety. In contrast, with America, not only are there plenty of researchers but also there's a whole myriad of research subjects, and so there really isn't that sense of having to curate the whole field. You just try to convey what you find interesting; in my case that desire is particularly strong. And even with the rise of world literature, I suspect that things aren't too different in that context.  In short, I'd like to believe that world literature will develop providentially as long as everyone translates what he likes. Whether such providence is actually possible is another matter altogether; the question there is ultimately whether or not it can succeed commercially. How does one get modern Ukrainian literature published, that sort of thing. All literatures will be represented without omission as long as everyone does what he likes—it's impossibly optimistic, of course, and I have no intention of sacrificing my preferences in order to assist some minor national literature. If push came to shove, however, and I had to pick one book out of two, both of which I want to translate, I'd try as far as possible to pick the more obscure writer. Taking into account how well known he is in his own country too, of course.

Trying to get them out into the international market?

Yes. Take Paul Auster, for example. I mean, I'm fortunate enough to be translating him now, but it was only a matter of time before someone would have, wasn't it? With some other writers, I don't think anyone else would have thought of translating them. Such choices have a little more significance, I think, but you know, it's not really a big deal.

If I may use one of your phrases, this is where translation becomes a service industry.

You could say that, but it's an unusual service industry, one in which your own interests are served, and I say that because it's a job where you have to feel good about things in order to provide the service. It's not the kind of situation where the customer will be pleased even if you're upset. If a novel bores me... then again I've never been in that predicament so I can't say for sure. Ultimately, I'd like to believe that something I find interesting would elicit the same reaction from my readers.

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang