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.  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.  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 (卑屈) 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.

Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai, Translated by Allison Markin Powell

Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai is a short book of less than 100 pages from One Peace Books and is translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.  The novella, which reads more like a narrative poem, has readers spend the day with a teenage girl who is adjusting to life after the death of her father and as a blossoming women in a post-WWII Japan.  Readers clearly see the clash between traditional Japanese customs of women who are quiet and subservient to others needs with the young woman’s need to express herself and be an individual.

“Waking up in the morning is always interesting.  It reminds me of when we’re playing hide-and-seek — I’m hidden crouching in the pitch-dark closet and suddenly Deko throws open the sliding door, sunlight pouring in as she shouts, ‘Found you!’ — that dazzling glare followed by an awkward pause, and then, my heart pounding as I adjust the front of my kimono and emerge from the closet, I’m slightly self-conscious and then suddenly irritated and annoyed — it feels similar, but no, not quite like that, somehow even more unbearable.” (page 7)

Like many pieces from Asian culture, spirits make an appearance, but these ghosts are thoughts and images that assail the young girl on a daily basis — perhaps images of war or the regrets she has about how she has treated her mother since her father’s death or even the moments she shared and failed to share with her father when he was alive.  It is clear that she is wavering, stuck between her girlhood and her pending womanhood — the past and the present.  She revels in the simple beauty of nature, while she reviles the obsequious nature of her family life.  The dichotomy of her existence plagues her throughout the novella as she rails against her servile nature and tries to hold back her individuality, at least in the presence of her mother.

“Falling asleep is such a strange feeling.  It’s like a carp or an eel is tugging on a fishing line,or something heavy like a lead weight is pulling on the line that I am holding with my head, as I doze off to sleep, the line slackens up a bit.  When that happens, it startles me back to awareness.”  (Page 93)

Dazai and Powell have captured the inner workings of a teenage mind with ease, and for those who have moved beyond those years, it could be tiresome.  However, there is beauty in Dazai’s simple prose that captures feelings so easily, evoking camaraderie with readers and deep seated understanding.  Not much happens plot wise in the novel, but its not necessary as readers come to understand the protagonist and her motivations.  She’s angsty, eager to please, frightened of the future, and mourning her past.  Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai, translated by Allison Markin Powell offers readers a stream of consciousness in a young girl’s life during not only her transition from girl to woman, but from her country’s transition from the past to more modern sensibilities and the struggle that places on individuals torn between tradition and change.

**I received this book from Caribousmom, and was eager to read it as part of my efforts to read more translated works in 2012.**

This is my 2nd book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

Mailbox Monday #153

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is the Mailbox Monday tour blog.

Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.

Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1. Last Sacrifice by Richelle Mead from a friend.

2. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw from Shelf Awareness.

3. Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai and translated by Allison Markin Powell from Caribousmom (Thanks!)

4. Irrepressible by Leslie Brody, a win from Unabridged Chick.

5. Mental_Floss: The Book: The Greatest Lists in the History of Listory edited by Ethan Trex, Will Pearson, and Mangesh Hattikudur

6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss for Wiggles’ Christmas gift.

7. The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss for Wiggles’ Christmas gift.

8. Curious George Pat-a-Cake by H.A. Ray for Wiggles’ Christmas gift.

What did you receive?