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Interview with Allison Markin Powell, Translator of Schoolgirl by Dazai Osamu

I recently read and reviewed Schoolgirl by Dazai Osamu, which was translated by Allison Markin Powell from the Japanese this month and enjoyed its look at a teenage girl in post-WWII Japan.ย  Check out my review here.

One of my personal goals this year is to read more works that are translated from their original language into English, and as part of that, I hope to learn and share with you what I learn about the translation process and what translators find so attractive about their work.ย  To that end, I’m happy to share with you my recent interview with the translator of Schoolgirl, Allison Markin Powell.

Please give Allison a warm welcome.

1. Schoolgirl was originally written in Japanese by Osamu Dazai; Is Japanese your first language? If not, what prompted you to learn the language and start translating Japanese books into English? Also, I’ve noticed the use of “obsequious” several times in the book, does this have a literal translation into the Japanese?

English is my first language; I didn’t start studying Japanese until I got to college. I had studied French since middle school, and liked learning a new language, so I wanted to try one that was quite different. Japanese was a rather arbitrary choice, and little did I know how challenging it would be. But I was fascinated–in particular with the beauty of the written language–and eventually learned enough to start practicing with translation.

The word ‘obsequious’ in the text is a translation of hikutsu (ๅ‘ๅฑˆ) in Japanese.

2. Do you translate books from other languages? If so, which of those books would you recommend to my readers?

I only translate books from Japanese. Next month a novel that I translated, The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami, will be published by Counterpoint Press. Kawakami is immensely popular in Japan, and The Briefcase was a huge bestseller. It’s a wonderful book.

3. Could you describe a little bit about the translation process and what surprised you most about translating Dazai’s work?

I imagine every translator has their own idiosyncratic process. I try to read the work at least a couple of times before I start translating it, and hope that I begin to hear the author’s voice in English develop in my mind. I think it’s very important for the translator to feel comfortable with the author’s style. There have certainly been writers with whose style I’ve been incompatible.

Dazai is one of Japan’s most beloved writers and his work is extremely challenging to translate, although I can’t say that was surprising. He expresses himself so clearly in Japanese, yet his syntax is incredibly complex when you break down his sentences, as a translator must do. Last year I also had the opportunity to translate a modern adaptation in manga form of Dazai’s most famous novel, No Longer Human. That book is supposedly somewhat autobiographical (and terribly dark) and it presents an interesting contrast to Schoolgirl.

If I had to name something surprising about this book, though, I suppose it’s the tender quality of the vein of sadness that permeates the girl’s story. The scene she recalls in her sister’s kitchen makes me catch my breath every time.

4. How did you get into the business of translating? Did you just pick up a book and start translating it into English and shop your translation around or was it through other means?

Many translators would probably laugh at the phrase, ‘the business of translating.’ I’ve been interested in literary translation ever since reading The Little Prince in French class, and so I worked in the publishing industry for years, in order to understand how it works and who makes decisions about what gets translated and published. I had translated some fiction when I was in graduate school (as yet unpublished), but my first paid translation project was a manga series, which is a great gig for a freelancer because it’s steady work. Now I translate all kinds of books from Japanese–fiction, of course, but I’ve also translated biography, art & architecture books, craft books, and so on–and I edit Japanese translations as well.

5. Have you ever thought of writing your own novel in English or another language? Why or why not?

I have no interest in writing my own novel. I find that the art of translation suits my creative impulses quite aptly.

6. Please tell us a little bit about your work with Words Without Borders?

Words Without Borders is such a vital organization. These days there are more and more people and publications paying attention to and promoting international literature and works in translation–especially online–but that wasn’t the case when WWB started. I went to college with Samantha Schnee, one of the founding editors, and I was immediately interested when I heard about their mission. I jumped at the chance to guest edit an issue focused on new writing from Japan, which came out in May 2009. Translating can be such solitary work, and that was an incredible opportunity to reach out to other translators–to solicit ideas, to hear what they were working on, and to see what their process was like. I still submit translations to WWB whenever I can, and I’m tremendously grateful to be a part of the community they support.

7. Are there specific steps that you could suggest for someone interested in translating works into English or particular degrees/career paths that they should consider as a stepping stone?

I wouldn’t say there are specific steps along this career path, although in literary translation, it seems the vast majority of translators are in academia, a setting that provides ample opportunity to read and learn about writing in other languages. However, since I am not in that world, I can’t really speak to whether or not that facilitates one’s career as a translator.

My best advice is to do everything possible to hone one’s translation skills, which not only involves practicing translation but also reading widely–both in English and the language to be translated. Research who publishes the kind of work you wish to translate, both in print and online, and reach out to them. A (savvy) idea might be to start reviewing books in translation for any of the sites that promote international literature.

Thanks, Allison, for sharing your work with us and for providing us some insight into the translation process.

  • Interesting! And what a responsibility, to translate something. There are a million different nuances and meanings in books, that a direct ‘copy’ could never convey, so the job of a translator in selecting the best words, grammar, order, is so important. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Annie, I totally agree…you’d have to be very serious about what your work entails to get the right “feel” for a translation.

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  • This was a wonderful interview! I’ve always been interested in translating, and translating literature sounds like a dream job. Unfortunately my language skills aren’t up to snuff. ๐Ÿ™‚ I could totally see this being a job that I would have loved (in some parallel universe where I had continued my language studies).

    • Alyce, I totally agree. I would definitely have loved this kind of job….ah…a parallel universe where I was translating novels would be great!

  • Ti

    The art of translation fascinates me and has, ever since I heard that Murkami (my love) translates books in between his writing.

    I also remember a translator from one of the Festival of Book’s panels talking about translation and how delicate a job it can be. How most of the time, a straight translation does not convey what the author is trying to say. How it has to be massaged until you get it right, etc.

    • I think its a fascinating process and that you have to read in the language that you are translating makes the most sense…how else would the book have the same style and feel the author intended in the original language

  • Great interview! I find her process really interesting. It’s funny I never really thought about what goes into translating a book before this. I think it would be a great job to have.

    • I think it would be so interesting to be a translator of books, but I don’t have enough language skills to do it.

  • I’m amazed that she didn’t start learning Japanese until she was in college yet knows it well enough to translate. Great interview!

    • I was surprised by that as well given the characters you’d have to learn, etc. It must be such a different world reading and then translating Japanese into English

  • My issues with Schoolgirl had everything to do with the lack of plot and nothing to do with the translation. I found the prose to be quite beautiful and even the English version had a very Japanese feel to it, though since I don’t read Japanese, I can’t comment on accuracy. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Anyway, I found this interview to be fascinating. I never thought about how one goes about becoming a translator. It does sound like difficult but rewarding work.

    • I didn’t think the translation was the problem for you. I did like the Japanese “feel” to this one. I really like interviewing authors, but translators are fascinating too.

  • Hi Serena, enjoyed the interview with Allison. Also if you’re interested in translation/translators try Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters (especially last chapter on poetry) (posted) or David Bellos Is That a Fish in Your Ear & if your interested in my Japanese Literature a good place to start is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Shusaku Endo or even Yasunari Kawabata. Thanks again to you both for an interesting interview.

    • Parrish, thanks for the input and suggestions. I hope to take some time to find the Why Translation Matters book. Translated works are all new to me, but I think they’re important. I’m more cautious in the reviews because I have no basis to determine whether the translations are accurate or not.