Translator Relay: Allison Markin Powell

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For July's installment, Tess Lewis passed the baton to Allison Markin Powell, a literary translator, editor, and publishing consultant in New York City. She has worked in the editorial departments of American and Japanese book and magazine publishing, and has translated works by Osamu Dazai, Hiromi Kawakami, and Fuminori Nakamura, among others. Her translation of Kawakami’s The Briefcase was nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and the UK edition (Strange Weather in Tokyo) was nominated for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Powell was the guest editor of WWB’s first Japan issue in May 2009 and she maintains the database http://www.japaneseliteratureinenglish.com.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I had absolutely no connection to Japanese or to Japan itself when I began studying the language. I had taken French in grade school, and when I got to college (university), I wanted to learn another language, one that was different from French. Despite the seeming arbitrariness of that decision, perhaps there was something that drew me to Japan, or I may have sensed on some level the compatibility of Japanese culture with my own nature. In particular, the attention to detail and the rituals surrounding many day-to-day activities provide a sense of comfort, as well as being an ongoing source of fascination.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

A novel I translated, The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami (U.K. title, Strange Weather in Tokyo), contained many scenes in an izakaya, and the characters' interactions mostly took place over food and drink. While not technically un-translatable, it was a challenge to decide whether to translate the names of the dishes or to leave them in their evocative Japanese and use contextual references to identify them. For instance, chrysanthemum greens sounded quite appealing, so I could easily translate that into English. But the simple sounding yudofu needs to be described as “boiled tofu eaten with soy sauce, chopped scallion, dried bonito shavings, and grated fresh ginger,” so I left that as yudofu, with the additional descriptive details appearing in surrounding sentences. And then there were the various connotations of changing seasons—like switching from hot saké to cold beer—and regional delicacies such as sweet ayu fish that their dining choices signify. It’s remarkable how much of our culture is tied up in food.

Do you have any translating rituals?

Having just referenced the ritualism I find in Japanese culture, it seems odd that I don’t really have any translating rituals per se. At the moment, I am working on different books by writers whose novels I have translated previously. While of course each book is different from the other one I worked on, there is a similarity in tone and style, and it is a pleasure to settle back into the rhythms of these writers.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Unfortunately I don’t have much of an answer to this question either. When it comes to translating metaphors or idioms, I tend to be rather literal because I think these phrases often convey quite a lot about the society or time period in which they were written. Translators have been compared to traitors and ghosts, among other things, but in my work, I feel more like a writer who isn’t required to produce original material.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

Recently I have been working more closely with writers whose work I now translate or hope to translate in the future. This year I met a writer who just won a major literary prize in Japan, and none of her work has ever been translated into English. She and I are in the process of determining which of her (many) books are the best prospects to introduce her writing here. I have worked in publishing for many years, and it’s like putting together a puzzle to find the right book by the right writer, to go with which editor at which publisher, and so on. That is to say, I’m very excited about the breadth of her work and about finding a readership for her in English.

Tess Lewis’s question: The Japanese have a deep and enthusiastic appreciation of translators who bring foreign works into Japanese. Are they equally appreciative of translators who bring Japanese literature to foreign readers? What are some of your experiences with this wonderful cultural trait?

Japanese people always seem impressed with foreigners who understand and can speak their language. I wish I could say that I have personally benefited from this tradition, but I think it’s more that I have been warmly welcomed and encouraged to continue doing this kind of work. Despite translators’ elevated status in Japan, I don’t know whether it’s actually any easier to make a living in the profession. Of course, there are many more books published in translation there, so there is more work to go around. But I can’t say if that respect translates to any more financial security.


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