Editor’s note: Forget the old saw that English language readers won’t read literature in translation. For the last seven years, Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan has been publishing an annual journal of what it calls “the best of contemporary Japanese literature” in English. The paperback editions of the first three issues were completely sold out. This year, though, for reasons the editors call “both professional and personal,” it will not be releasing a new edition. Monkey Business will return with issue no. 8 in 2019 but the digital and most paperback editions of issues 1-7 are available for purchase at its online store. I asked Roland Kelts, who has been involved with the journal since its founding, to tell us about Monkey Business and his connection to Japanese literature in translation.
Eight years ago I had the good fortune of being asked to do a favor. Professors Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen, esteemed literary translators, invited me to dinner in Tokyo and asked if I could help find a North American partner for their venture: an annual English-language journal of Japanese literature.
Back in New York City, my home in America, I called Brigid Hughes, founding editor of A Public Space. (Brigid had commissioned me and Shibata to assemble a portfolio on Japanese fiction for her first issue.) We had lunch in Soho, Brigid said yes, and off we went.
Our partnership has since produced seven issues of Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan (MBI). They contain stories, poems, photo essays and manga by talents internationally renowned (Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami), fast rising (Hideo Furukawa, Mieko Kawakami), and those we’ll be seeing more of (Tomoka Shibasaki, Aoko Matsuda). Each issue is unpredictable and spiked with gems – what author Junot Diaz calls “an astonishment.”
In my role as MBI advisor, contributing editor and occasional road manager, the experience has been equal parts astonishment and education.
When I first read literature in translation (Dostoevsky, Kafka), the alchemy was transparent to me. I’m embarrassed to admit that as a teenager, I didn’t even know the prose had been translated, or at least I didn’t care. I just knew that the writers’ names sounded strange and cool. It felt like they were writing directly to me.
At Oberlin, poet and translator David Young taught me to think about the sound and shape of language beyond its content, which in turn made me think of its origin – not only in thought, but also in culture, place, and time. I remember learning that Ezra Pound claimed he could understand Chinese ideograms without formal study and thinking … wha?
Context is everything, and also, like a Zen koan, nothing.
After I moved to Japan and met Haruki Murakami, I asked him several questions about translation. He likened the process to living inside an author’s mind. Of J.D. Salinger’s mind, he once said while translating The Catcher in The Rye: “It’s very dark in there. That novel (Catcher) is a battle between the open world and the closed. That’s the tension. And in the end, its author chose the closed world.”
I’d never thought of the book in precisely those terms, as an internalized contest between the messiness of democratic tolerance (of the ‘phonies,’ the winners and jocks and fusty clueless schoolteachers) and the dignity and purity of authoritarian control. Through translating one of my favorite American novels, Murakami, a Japanese author, had uncovered a dark violence at its heart that I, an American reader, had never directly confronted.
Working alongside Shibata and Goossen and their team of writers and translators (Jay Rubin, Hitomi Yoshio, Michael Emmerich and David Boyd among the many) on MBI has produced similar revelations. As with the creation of it, the translation of literature is a labor of love and serious play. Matching author and translator has as much to do with sheer passion as it does with proclivity: a translator chooses the work that has chosen them.
And while the translator’s fluency in a second language is of obvious value, their skill as a writer in their first may be of even greater worth. As Shibata has explained to me: errors in a translator’s vocabulary, a word here or a phrase there, can always be fixed. But poor writing in a translator’s native language will sink a story, a poem, an essay or a manga.
These days I pay very close attention to the translators’ names on a beloved text or attached to the subtitles of a film or anime. (Constance Garnett was my first Dostoevsky; Willa and Edwin Muir my adolescent Kafka.) Sadly, in American publishing, it’s often difficult to find those names. Japanese translations of American literature by Shibata feature the kanji of his name in larger font than the katakana of the original American authors. But in English translations of Murakami’s books, you might struggle to find the names of Rubin, Goossen, Philip Gabriel or Alfred Birnbaum.
“When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time,” Rubin once told me in Tokyo. “Murakami wrote the names and locations, but the English words are mine.”
Can literature sometimes transcend words? One night in Brooklyn at the old BookCourt bookstore, where we were launching a new issue of MBI, I stood next to my dear friend Gabriel Brownstein, an award-winning short story writer and novelist. Hideo Furukawa was reading in Japanese his story, “Monsters,” about an apocalyptic, post-Godzilla Tokyo, his voice brittle and rangy, his body curling into a ball that popped wide open, arms flailing, with punk rock jerks and Pete Townshend windmills.
Yet before Shibata read his translation in English, Brownstein tapped my hip. “I don’t know any Japanese and didn’t get a word of that,” he said. “But I understood the whole thing.”