Tokyo International Literary Festival

Literary Bridge-Builder: An Interview with Shibata Motoyuki

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Authors, editors, and translators gathered in Tokyo on March 1–3 for the city’s first major international literary festival. We spoke to one of the organizers, scholar and translator Shibata Motoyuki, about the international potential of Japanese literature.

Shibata Motoyuki

Born in Tokyo in 1954. Teaches American literature and literary translation at the University of Tokyo. In addition to numerous books of essays, has published translations of works by Paul Auster, Rebecca Brown, Stuart Dybek, Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser, Richard Powers, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Simic, Mark Twain, Barry Yourgrau, and others.

A World of Books Comes to Tokyo

An impressive lineup of authors headed by Nobel Prize–winner J. M. Coetzee and Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Junot Díaz made the first Tokyo International Literary Festival a glittering success. Pulling the strings behind the scenes was Shibata Motoyuki, one of Japan’s best-known translators and literary critics. Shibata played a vital role in bringing to the festival some of the most influential figures in international publishing, among them Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker, and John Freeman, editor of the British literary journal Granta, now published in international versions in Brazil, China, Turkey, and several other countries. Some of the leading players in the literary world—writers, translators, and editors—came to Tokyo for the three days of the festival.

Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the "New Yorker," and John Freeman, editor of "Granta"

INTERVIEWER Japan’s first major literary festival seemed to be a resounding success. How did it go from your perspective?

SHIBATA There’s always room for improvement, but overall I think the festival was a significant success. First of all, it gave readers a valuable opportunity to see and hear Japanese and international writers reading their works in a live setting. Of course, what an author looks like or sounds like is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to read their books. But listening to writers discuss their work in a setting like this can sometimes introduce readers to books they might not have read otherwise. And this is a sweeping generalization, but as a general rule writers from English-speaking countries tend to be better at expressing themselves out loud than most Japanese writers—so that’s another factor that would have made the experience interesting for Japanese readers.

Best-selling Japanese novelist Kakuta Mitsuyo ("The Eighth Day") and English writer Geoff Dyer, whose book about jazz, "But Beautiful," was recently translated into Japanese by Murakami Haruki

Akutagawa Prize–winners Hirano Keiichirō (left) and Wataya Risa

INTERVIEWER How important is a festival like this for Japanese writers?

SHIBATA In the past, Japanese authors have had very few opportunities to take part in events like this. It can only be a good thing for Japanese writers to have more contact with their peers overseas, and the festival was an ideal opportunity for encouraging that kind of exchange. It’s always interesting to find out how two authors met and what they talked about . . . These kinds of encounters can have an influence on what authors write next, and sometimes even change the way they see the world. Clearly, this has to be a benefit.

Jonathan Safran Foer ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close") and Kawakami Mieko, who won the Akutagawa Prize for her novel "Chichi to ran" (Breasts and Egg)

INTERVIEWER It’s often said that Japanese writers exist in a kind of bubble cut off from the rest of the world—the so-called “Galapagos effect.” One of the main reasons for this, presumably, is that relatively few Japanese novels are translated into other languages.

SHIBATA Right. Of course, there’s not much point in bringing two groups of writers together if they haven’t read each other’s work. But having read even one short story in translation makes all the difference. One of the most important things is to create the foundations that will allow authors from both sides to read each other’s work. Once those foundations are in place, I think there’s a good chance that really fruitful dialogues will develop between writers from Japan and other parts of the world.

The Task of the Translator

Ono Masatsugu

INTERVIEWER Of course, it was not just authors who were involved in this festival. Editors, translators, and book designers played an important part, too—all the figures, in fact, involved in the publishing process.

SHIBATA Yes. A good example of the kind of thing you’re referring to would be one of the sessions I moderated, which featured Ono Masatsugu and Michael Emmerich among its panelists. As well as publishing his own fiction, Ono has also published several translations of French Creole literature. And Emmerich is one of the leading translators from Japanese into English, who has put out translations of works by Takahashi Gen’ichirō and Kawakami Hiromi, among many others. I thought their discussion of the role of the translator was quite fascinating: Should the translator be a visible presence in the translation, or is the aim to efface yourself from the translation as much as possible? I think everyone who attended the session was treated to a conversation that touched on some of the essential questions involved in translating a literary work from one language to another. I happen to belong to the “invisible man” school of translation myself, but of course a conversation like that isn’t really about deciding one way or the other which approach is best. It’s more about exploring ideas, and I think the discussion itself was something that the audience enjoyed listening to.

Michael Emmerich

INTERVIEWER To what extent can an author’s intentions be accurately conveyed in translation?

SHIBATA Well, of course, the question of how accurately the author’s intentions carry across to the reader is one that arises with any piece of writing, whether translation is involved or not. And books are often read in ways quite different from anything the author intended. That’s part of what makes literature so interesting. With translation . . . of course something is lost. A translator is constantly thinking about what is getting across, and what is getting lost. In the case of poetry, I think a lot gets lost. But with a novel, I think most of the important elements make it through. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m working on a translation!

Juno Díaz (right) with his Japanese translator Tokō Kōji

INTERVIEWER Haiku must be especially hard to translate.

SHIBATA Take Bashō’s famous poem about the frog jumping into the old pond, for example. As the action takes place, the main elements of the poem are introduced in units of sound that increase in length to convey a sense of the rippling movement as the frog jumps in and displaces the water. So we have kawazu (frog, three syllables), tobi-komu (jumps in, four syllables), mizu no oto (sound of water, five syllables). In the case of the final element, mizu no oto (sound of water), the last three syllables all share the same “o” vowel, as the frog plops into the pond. These elements of sound are a large part of what makes the poem effective. But of course, most of that resonance is inevitably lost in translation. In the case of a novel, you can console yourself that even if one element is lost, plenty of other things remain. But a poem of just 17 syllables leaves less room for maneuver. The novel is a high-redundancy medium, if you like. Even if some elements get lost, the whole still hangs together.

The Freedom of the Japanese Novel

INTERVIEWER One thing that came up over the course of the festival was the fact that literature is increasingly being written across national borders as the process of globalization continues.

SHIBATA In the United States, the New Yorker and Harper’s are the two mainstream magazines (as opposed to specialist literary journals) that carry fiction in every issue. If you look back at the stories published in the New Yorker over the last two to three years, the author who has appeared most often is Roberto Bolaño, from Chile. Next come writers like Murakami Haruki from Japan, Alice Munro from Canada, and William Trevor from Ireland. So many of the authors published in the New Yorker, which occupies a position at the absolute heart of American cultural life, are from places other than the United States. And this openness to outside influences is increasingly becoming the norm right across contemporary world literature.

INTERVIEWER One Japanese author who has achieved international recognition is Murakami. But so far, he’s the exception rather than the rule.

Elmer Luke, the editor who brought Murakami Haruki to the attention of readers outside Japan

SHIBATA Well, in terms of our literary balance of trade, our imports have been outstripping our exports for a long time now. I have my reservations about the idea of simply increasing the volume of Japanese cultural exports just for the sake of it. But it does seem a shame that some of the writers we have in Japan are not better known overseas. In opening up an international market for Japanese writers, Murakami’s success has been as important to literature in this country as the success of Nomo Hideo was for Japanese baseball. Manga have also been popular, as well as the anime films of Miyazaki Hayao, so I think people in English-speaking countries are increasingly aware that interesting things are happening in Japan. Twenty years ago this would have been unthinkable. In that sense, given the developments over the past couple of decades, this is the perfect time for an event like this and the perfect time for the next breakthrough. In the future I hope more Japanese writers will become a presence on the international scene. That’s part of what we’re trying to do: to piece together the conditions that will make that aspiration a reality. I think things are starting to move in the right direction.

INTERVIEWER Japanese writers already seem to be better known internationally than they used to be.

SHIBATA Until quite recently, for most readers overseas “Japanese literature” meant writers like Kawabata Yasunari and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, whose works dealt with elements of the traditional culture that made them seem typically or quintessentially Japanese. Abe Kōbō was an important exception to this tendency. But the situation has changed dramatically in recent years thanks to the explosive popularity of Murakami. Readers have been drawn to Murakami for many reasons. But the urge to find out more about Japan generally hasn’t been one of them. People aren’t reading Murakami’s books because they want to know more about Japan—they’re reading them because they’re fun!

If more Japanese writing were available in translation, I think people would get a better idea of how “free” the novel is in Japan. It’s a generalization, of course, but in some ways I feel that novelists in Japan have more freedom to experiment with form than their counterparts in the United States. There are all kinds of conventions and unspoken rules governing what a novel can and can’t do in English, and it can sometimes be difficult to depart from these rules. In Japan, there is perhaps more of a tendency for novelists to let their imaginations just run wild. And this, I think, is part of what makes them so successful at capturing the chaos of contemporary society. I think if these novels were introduced to readers in good translations, the potential exists for Japanese writing to enjoy a popularity boom something like the one that Latin American authors enjoyed in the 1970s. Japanese literature today has every bit as much to offer.

INTERVIEWER Finally, what does translation mean to you personally?

SHIBATA Oh, it’s fun! It’s the most satisfying game in the world. I mean, what could be better? The actual process itself is enjoyable, but on top of that there’s the additional thrill of knowing that you are introducing readers to a book that has moved you in some way. And you get the gratitude of the original writer too, as a general rule. For an author, a critic can be an enemy as much as a friend. But the translator is 100% on your side!

INTERVIEWER You once wrote that a translator is like a little dwarf, working his magic at night on the author’s behalf.

SHIBATA Right. And I probably do look a bit like a dwarf from the point of view of some of the American writers I’ve translated. And given the time difference, I really do work through their nighttime as well!

Shibata Motoyuki (center) performs in a dramatized performance based on Miyazawa Kenji’s Night on the Galactic Express at a music club in Roppongi during the festival.

(Translated from an interview in Japanese. Interview and text by Kondō Hisashi, director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Photographs by Ōsawa Hisayoshi, Kawamoto Seiya, Ōkubo Keizō, and Kodera Kei. With thanks to the Nippon Foundation.)

Japanese literature United States literature translation publishing Haiku novels Tokyo International Literary Festival Shibata Motoyuki world literature Murakami Haruki