Translator Relay: Stephen Snyder

By Stephen Snyder

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. John Balcom passed the baton to Japanese translator Stephen Snyder. Snyder has translated works by writers such as Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, Miri Yu, and Kafu Nagai, and his translation of Natsuo Kirino's Out was nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery novel. He is also a professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College.

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

I lived in Japan for several years as a child but did not learn the language.  I started studying Japanese while finishing a Masters degree in English literature at Columbia University.  Since that time, I have lived in Japan for a total of about six years and have taught Japanese literature at the University of Colorado and now at Middlebury College.  The western suburbs of Tokyo are, in many ways, my second home.  This is significant since many of the writers I have translated live and work there (Kenzaburo Oe, Akira Yoshimura, Natsuo Kirino), and some of the works I have translated—Kirino’s OUT and, most recently, Otaro Maijo’s Ashura Girl—are set in that same area and have a strong sense of place.  There is something particularly satisfying about translating a work in situ; as I was translating Kirino’s novel, for instance, I could go out for a walk and see some of the settings she had used.  This significantly enriched my process and gave me a greater sense of connection to the work—though I realize it was a somewhat rare opportunity.

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

There is a scene in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor in which Root, the housekeeper’s son, is trying to think of palindromes for a school assignment.  Palindromes are, of course, untranslatable by definition, and so translation became a form of creative substitution—as it can often be.  I mention this particular passage because the final version was the result of a collaboration with my editor at Picador, David Rogers.  David and I searched for various possible palindromes and then debated their merits.  If translators are “invisible,” editors are doubly so, and I want to mention the important role they play in creating successful translations—perhaps particularly when the original is “untranslatable.”  David, in fact, came up with the most appropriate substitute palindrome for a novel that is deeply concerned with mathematics.  For the final palindrome cited in the scene—which in the original had no thematic relation to the novel—he proposed “I prefer pi,” an example, I think, of a translation for an untranslatable phrase that is in fact a considerable improvement on the original.

Do you have any translating rituals?

None in particular.  Since much of my time is spent teaching or on administrative chores, time for translation usually has to be found in the interstices.  One of the things that has attracted me to translation is that, unlike other forms of research, it can be accomplished effectively in shorter blocks of time with less need for preparation or sustained periods of concentration.  So I generally translate wherever and whenever I can, with as little fuss as possible.  (The advent of electronic and online dictionaries in recent years has made this all the easier.)  I work in various places and postures, at any time of the day or night.  I have done a great deal of my translating recently on airplanes, but I prefer a desk in front of a window in our home with a view of the Green Mountains.  I would like to think that working there could become a ritual, but it doesn’t seem likely.

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?

I am partial to a metaphor that Valerie Henitiuk unearthed in an early anthology of Japanese literature where translation is compared to “squeezing a jellyfish.”  Even without being exactly certain how it was meant, the metaphor works on a variety of levels.  It expresses for me both the difficulty of coming to terms with elusive meaning in a source text—meaning that tends to slip away the harder you try to grasp it—and the sense that translation can often be a process of “massaging” language to loosen it up and make it more flexible.  (“Massage” being perhaps another unlikely but apt trope for translation.)  I like the tactile nature of the jellyfish metaphor—and it’s sheer strangeness.

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

I recently completed a translation of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, which was the fourth of her works I’ve done. Prior to Ogawa, I had never translated more than one book by any one writer, so I have become interested in the problem of developing a consistent, recognizable—and repeatable—voice in English for a writer I greatly admire.  I am also fascinated by the question of how to introduce an author who has an established reputation and over twenty books in print in Japanese to a reading public that knows little or nothing about her. At a minimum, there are the questions of which books to select for translation and in what order to introduce them.  The fact that the order for publishing in translation does not always reflect original publication order seems to disturb some readers, but that change is inevitable given differences in markets and literary cultures.  In consultation with Ogawa’s agent, editor, and with the author herself, I am currently trying to select a fifth work for translation, and there is something exciting about reading or rereading these novels with an eye to the way their appearance in English may expand the understanding of Ogawa’s achievement. 

John Balcom's Q: Translations of Chinese novels are often edited quite drastically by US publishers.  In your experience to what extent do American editors intervene in translations of Japanese fiction? 

The situation can be similar with Japanese fiction, particularly when the publisher is a commercial press where editors are most conscious of market potential.  Perhaps the best-known cases of activist translation practices and radical editing processes involve Haruki Murakami’s novels.  His Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for instance, was published in three volumes and came in at over 1500 pages in the original.  But Jay Rubin has discussed how contract constraints forced him to cut the novel in English by nearly a third and rearranged sections to make the text “less chaotic.”  The effect of this reframing was then extended when the German translation was done not from the original but from the English version—sparking considerable debate about the dangers of “English imperialism.”  The controversy is all the more interesting, however, in light of the fact that Murakami is himself a renowned translator of American fiction, is very fluent in English, and actively participates in, or provides informed consent to, this editing process.  As a translator, he is well aware of the forces that inevitably reshape a work as it moves across cultural boundaries.

I have on occasion had similar experiences with editors cutting or aggressively editing my translations, and the degree to which this happens is always directly proportional to the perceived commercial potential of the work or the visibility of the venue. The greater the expected sales or the prestige of the journal, the greater the likelihood that the editing process will involve considerable reshaping.


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