The art of literary translation goes back hundreds of years. Translators are at the forefront of cross-cultural dialogue, discussion and dissemination of information. They have played a significant and vital role in deepening humanity’s understanding of the world by creating a bridge across cultures, people and even time periods. From the classics we once read in school to the contemporary literature of our time, translators have toiled tirelessly behind-the-scenes to bring us the best of literature from all over the world.
Translated works provided me with the tools to travel the world without leaving the comfort of my abode. I am deeply grateful to translators for doing the work that they do. Without them, our understanding of the world would be limited to the language(s) we had the privilege to either study or be exposed to. But we all know the world is so much bigger, so much more diverse and so much much beautiful than the boundaries that exist in our mind.
Welcome to another Fireside Chat at Mith Books. I have the pleasure of having Polly Barton with me today. Polly is a Japanese to English translator currently living in Bristol, UK. She studied Philosophy at Cambridge University before moving to Japan to teach English on a remote island. There she began to learn Japanese, and quickly became hooked.
In 2012, Polly was awarded first prize in the inaugural Japanese Language Publishing Project Competition for her translations of Kobo Abe and Natsuki Ikezawa. Polly has been working as a freelance translator for ten years now, specialising in literature, non-fiction books, and art-related texts.
Dipa: In an article in The Japan Times, you mentioned, “A lot of times I’m like an unpaid literary agent, finding new works, drafting out sample translations, pitching them to real agents or publishers, all in an effort to broaden the voice of Japanese literature.” What inspired you to set out on the path to broaden the voice of Japanese literature?
Polly: I think a lot of it came out of an awareness of the disparity between the enormous diversity I saw in the work coming out of Japan and the way that when I would have conversations with those in the West about Japanese literature, they would invariably mention just one of a handful of names. And those names were primarily established, male, mostly heterosexual, and selected by translators and publishers as the kinds of books that would cross over well. I wanted to be involved in making people feel like there was lots to discover.
Especially the case because I think a lot of people in the West have a reductive and yet quite assured view of what Japan is like, and I wanted to be involved in giving a sense of that vibrancy I got in Japanese bookshops, that ‘oh my god there’s too much to read, where will I ever begin, maybe I know nothing at all about Japan’ overwhelm. In particular, I wanted and still want to see the representation of more narratives that are female-centred, queer, anti-capitalist, or in some way challenging the received picture and foregrounding marginalized voices. Also stories that don’t necessarily fit the western mould of how a story should go.
Dipa: Like you, I was once an English teacher in Japan. Like you, my Japanese was largely self-taught. How has your relationship with the Japanese language evolved over the years?
Polly: I started out from a place of knowing nothing, so it’s been a really long journey, and it still continues. I think it’s very important for me to remember that—to be continually aware of my own shortcomings, because I think complacency and a sense of having earnt your right to just do your thing are really very pernicious among non-native speakers.
And maybe in some way having started out from this position of groping around without any real structure is good in that respect—like, I’ve not really experienced what it’s like to have my language abilities or my status validated or vouched for by an institution, so it’s harder to lean back on that. Maybe? Actually, I feel quite lucky to have learned a lot of my language in Japan, on the ground; I think that helps a lot in translating dialogue, for having a sense of nuance.
Dipa: You’ve translated numerous books. As a translator, how do you capture ‘the spirit’ of a text? How would you describe the connection you feel with the books that you’ve translated?
Polly: I think of capturing the spirit of a text as really the nub of producing a good translation, and yet I’m aware it’s one of those phrases that’s very easy to say and far harder to unpack. I guess as I’ve developed as a translator I’ve become aware of how sometimes, cleaving to the spirit of the text requires a certain amount of deviation from what appears grammatically on the page—it’s a question of articulating what is meant not just semantically but within a wider context.
When I begin translating a new work and particularly by an author I haven’t worked with before, it takes me a while to land on the right voice (or voices) in English. There are many creative aspects to translation, but that task of summoning a voice feels to me like perhaps the most crucial one, and where the bulk of the effort throughout. And then there’s the task of maintaining that throughout, keeping that consistency, which is I think one of the key aspects of earning the reader’s trust.
Dipa: In literary circles, one often hears how important it is for people to ‘believe’ in the work they do. What are the main elements necessary for a successful author-translator partnership? Could you give us an insight into your partnership with Aoko Matsuda?
Polly: I find this issue of believing in the work that you do as a translator a very interesting one. For me, that seems like the obvious ideal situation. For one thing, there’s no better way of generating the feeling that you want to do your very best and go the extra mile in the translation itself, and also the promotional work needed to get the book published and then promoted. Yet I’m aware that practically speaking it’s not always viable for translators, especially full-time ones, to work solely on work that they believe in, either from a financial perspective or in terms of the opportunities that come their way. I wouldn’t ever want to criticise a translator for taking on a projects that they don’t 100% believe in.
I would say that the situation that I have with Aoko feels extremely close to the ideal author/translator relationship for me. I love what she writes and what that work stands for, and so I enjoy not only working on it but also feel inspired to promote it and spread word of it. And on top of that, I know Aoko personally, and consider her a friend. But actually, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m constantly consulting her about things, or that it’s close to a process of co-translation or anything. I pretty much do my own thing, and then get in touch with Aoko about outstanding queries, or parts where a straight translation won’t really work and I want to ask her permission for a more creative workaround.
Dipa: You recently translated Where the Wild Things Are by Aoko Matsuda. Matsuda’s stories give voice to the silence of feminine spirit that has persisted in storytelling traditions around the world. What do you believe is the root cause of this silence? How can women claim their voice in a world that demands their silence?
Polly: I think it’s very simply a question of those holding the reins of power being men. And that’s the case even if many of those ingesting those stories are in fact women, and even if many of the characters are women. In fact, I think that’s an issue that’s brought into relief really potently by Japanese ghost stories: an alien might imagine that a literature dominated by the patriarchy might feature only men, but of course that’s almost never true, and in the case of the Japanese ghost-story canon, almost all the ghosts and many of the spirits are women. They are like dislocated consciences, who remain on this earth to confront the men with their various misogynist acts. But of course, like you say they are silent, because they exist only within this fictional world in terms of what they signify to the men. They are signs, and not beings. Whereas Aoko’s fiction puts its emphasis firmly on the (ironically for ghosts and spirits) very earthy reality of them.
I feel like I would need forever to talk about how women can claim their voice, and probably still not get very far. Clearly, there are all kinds of structural changes that need to take place. But I feel like one thing we can do, a first step, is to validate each others’ fullness of being, and to practice not expecting ourselves or other women to be floaty, wraithlike or without needs.