Welcome everyone! For today’s top five list, I wanted to shine a light on some of the best translators out there for Japanese fiction! Many people who have been familiar with BiblioNyan’s content and my love of books will know that I absolutely adore #OwnVoices Japanese literature. It is my favourite genre, ever, and it’s been a while since I’ve created a list focusing on this subject.
Japanese is a very difficult language to translate because the context of what is being said or depicted can change heavily on quite a few factors. Firstly, the actual context of the narrative and the specific situations and scenarios taking place in the book. Secondly, you have the perception of the person reading the story. Every individual is going to interpret things very differently, and that will more often than not affect how something is translated. Lastly, and this is the biggest one, cultural differences and misunderstandings of individual words.
If you don’t understand the specifics of Japanese humour, for example, and are translating a book of it into English, it can become easy to miss idioms or euphemisms unique to the language and culture (particularly when it is region specific), especially if you’ve never engaged with the sort of thing before. This tends to happen when specific words are used with the intention of being a double entendre; sort of the equivalent of puns where a single word can have multiple meanings. Thus, what should be contextually translated is usually literally translated.
There is a major difference between literal and contextual interpretations of something. Literal translations can shift the entire tone, meaning, and overall narrative core of a book. In most cases, it creates a terrible reading experience and inaccurately portrays what the author was trying to convey. I see this quite a bit in English translations of Indian works as well, where an idiom or euphemism is literally translated and the result is absolutely horrifying.
Because I’m obsessed with Japanese fiction, I have read many books, some with great translations, as well as some mind-blowingly atrocious ones (usually found in manga; examples would include Naruto and Black Butler; the latter is a supreme example of literal versus contextual). So, today I wanted to take a moment and appreciate those immensely talented individuals who have done stellar jobs at accurately translating Japanese literature for the English-speaking world, and as such, introducing, what I believe to be, one of the best forms of literature to readers everywhere.
05. Royall Tyler
Royall Tyler is a British-born guy who has studied Eastern Languages diligently throughout college and who obtained a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from Columbia University. My first Tyler translation was The Tale of Genji and it was for a school project. I had to compare and contrast his translation with another translation of the book, and that was when I really started to understand the concept of literal versus contextual. Tyler has such a remarkable way of capturing the essence of classical Japanese prose, especially for older time periods, with such beauty and accuracy that it blew my mind and ignited a passion within me, not only for the genre, but also for translating as well. Since then, I have read a few more works translated by him—The Ise Stories published by University Hawai’i Press and The Tale of Heike published by Penguin—and they have been quite excellent!
04. Stephen B. Snyder
Stephen Snyder holds a very special place in my heart because he has worked on translations for another one of my favourite authors, Yōko Ogawa. Ogawa has such a visionary writing style and focuses on stories that can be dark and macabre, yet also explore human intimacy, whether it’s platonic as in between friends or mentor and mentee, or far deeper. What makes her works so brilliant is that she also works in metaphors on occasion, but she also utilises purple prose with very interesting descriptives that can make your mind come to life. Literal translations of her work would utterly butcher the magic and mysticism that envelops them, as well as the inherent connotations behind her tales. Stephen Snyder does an incredible job with translating narratives of this nature with such validity to the original work. Titles he’s worked on include: The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris, and The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ogawa; OUT by Natsuo Kirino; and Coin Locker Babies by Ryū Murakami.
03. Jay Rubin
Jay Rubin is another scholar of Japanese Literature and has translated some of my favourite Japanese works of all-time. One of things that I love about Rubin’s work is that he really knows how to portray the strange and eccentric prose styles of the narratives he’s worked on. Sanshirō written by one of the most brilliant and unconventional authors from Japan, Natsume Sōseki, is a prime example. Sōseki’s writings are not easy to understand in their native language, let alone in English. He has a provocative and obscure way of sharing messages on Japanese society, usually laced with euphemisms and bizarre metaphors. But Rubin brings them to life without ever making the works feel stripped down or censored. Rubin has also worked with my favourite author of all time—Haruki Murakami—in translating Norwegian Wood, After the Quake, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, all of which are equally weird and magical.
02. J. Philip Gabriel
Philip Gabriel is another brilliant talent who understands contextual importance when it comes to translating works. One of the first things of his I ever read was a story called Somersault written by Kenzaburō Ōe, and I felt like he had done a marvellous job of capturing the author’s persona (I had seen interviews of Ōe before picking up anything he had written). Ōe is… phenomenal and so intellective with his works and viewpoints, to say the least, particularly on Japanese history. His voice is a very unique one, and one that can be difficult to grasp at times. Other works that Gabriel has worked on include more of Haruki Murakami’s novels such as 1Q84, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Murakami’s latest, Killing Commendatore.
01. Allison Markin Powell
The finest translator of Japanese fiction in the present time, based on my own personal experiences and preferences, is Allison Markin Powell. Her translating capabilities are outstandingly versatile, as she works on many things from various genres, and she does so almost flawlessly. For example, she has translated books written by Hiromi Kawakami (Strange Weather in Tokyo), Fuminori Nakamura (The Gun), and Osamu Dazai (Schoolgirl), to name a few. Each of these authors have completely different writing styles and contribute to genres that can be vastly separate from one another. Kawakami writes contemporaries about the bonds between people, usually pertaining to special romances, while Nakamura creates one-hundred-percent psychological thrillers of the most fucked-up kind (and they are glorious). Then you have Osamu Dazai who is on an entirely different level, and the type of stories he tells is quite exclusive to each individual tale. Anyone who can exceptionally capture the essence of each author and all the traits that make them individually special, is nothing short of impeccable.
These five individuals are rather fascinating and amazing people whose dedication and diligence to their craft really show in the work that they do. If you are interested in reading Japanese literature, I recommend that you start with a book that has been translated by one of the five of them; you don’t be disappointed.