Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

Interviews

The National Book Award Interviews: Yoko Tawada & Margaret Mitsutani

"We’re living in a world where both languages and people are constantly in flux. In this novel, I wanted to focus on a small group of people making their way through that world."
Portraits of Yoko Tawada and Margaret Mitsutani

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Scattered All Over the Earth came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation.

Yoko Tawada (YT): Countries sometimes disappear from the map of the world. Ukraine, for example, is now fighting to keep from being “disappeared.” Japan once absorbed Korea and forced the Koreans to speak Japanese, so one might say that, officially at least, the Korean language was temporarily erased. On the other hand, new languages are coming into being. Many migrants struggle to make themselves understood in a mixture of languages. We’re living in a world where both languages and people are constantly in flux. In this novel, I wanted to focus on a small group of people making their way through that world, to write about the bond of friendship that holds them together in the midst of all this movement.

Margaret Mitsutani (MM): I have been translating Yoko’s work for over twenty years. We were fortunate to find fans of Yoko’s work among the staff of New Directions, which now publishes Yoko’s work in America. The first book of hers I did with them was Facing the Bridge (2007), a collection of three stories, followed by The Emissary (2018). So I suppose it seemed natural for me to translate Scattered All Over the Earth.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

MM: The most challenging aspect of translating this novel was creating voices for the six first-person narrators. Hiruko’s voice was especially difficult in that although she speaks her native language during the main part of the narrative, she also speaks English sometimes (usually very quietly, because she’s afraid of being sent to America, which has an under-developed health care system), and Panska (Pan-Scandinavian), her own home-made language that can be understood by speakers of all the Scandinavian languages. A character named Knut, who is a student of linguistics, sees Hiruko on a TV program about people whose countries have disappeared, and is utterly fascinated by this homemade language. So, I knew that Panska would have to sound interesting enough to attract the attention of a budding linguist. Japan isn’t mentioned at all in the novel (it’s sometimes referred to as “the land of sushi”), but it’s safe to assume that Hiruko’s native language is Japanese. I therefore tried to incorporate certain characteristics of the Japanese language, such as bringing the verb to the end of the sentence. One review said that, “Panska reads like a Japonic parody of Nordic syntax translated into a West Germanic language.” While I can’t exactly say that that was what I was aiming for, it seems like a good mixture. Also, Hiruko says that she doesn’t speak English very well, and I puzzled over how to show that. I didn’t want to have her speaking “broken English,” but in the end I decided to leave out an article here and there, especially when she’s excited. There’s no equivalent of the English article in Japanese, so that’s something Japanese speakers have trouble with.

WWB: One thing that is common to several of the titles on this year’s NBA longlist is that writer and translator have collaborated on several previous works, and the two of you are an example of such a pair. Margaret, do you collaborate closely with the author on these translations? What is it like to establish a longstanding relationship with a single author’s oeuvre? Some might liken it to a reader establishing a “relationship” with a beloved writer—in what ways is it different?

MM: Back in the mid-1990s when I was translating Yoko’s work for the first time, I remember making a few long-distance phone calls to Germany to ask her questions, but recently, we don’t work closely on the translations at all. This is at least partly because she lives in Berlin (and is often on the road, which makes her hard to contact sometimes), and I live in Tokyo. But even if we lived in the same city, I doubt we would collaborate closely. She knows enough about translation to realize that translating a text “just as it is” is impossible—that a text always changes through the translation process. So, she doesn’t mind it at all if the text changes, but she doesn’t want her translators to cut something out because it’s difficult to translate. For example, the Japanese language has a limited phonetic system, which creates endless opportunities for punning and wordplay that Yoko likes to exploit. This sort of wordplay is impossible to “translate,” because a pun based on Japanese homonyms obviously isn’t going to work in English. So, in these cases, I have to create something new that will work in English, as well as fitting into the context of the work. In this sense, translating Yoko’s work gives the translator lots of chances to be creative.

I’ve always felt that translating a text is the best way to get inside it. The relationship between reading a text and translating it might be a bit like driving a car and taking it apart to see how it works. Translators, I think, get very attuned to a writer’s stylistic quirks and habits—small things that readers probably don’t notice.

WWB: Separately, Scattered All Over the Earth has been described as “cheerfully dystopian.” Its dystopian aspects recall “The Far Shore,” a Tawada story we published in WWB in 2015, in which the entire Japanese archipelago is rendered uninhabitable by a contamination of a different kind when a fighter plane piloted by a teenager loses control and crashes into a recently reactivated nuclear plant. The Emissary, for which the two of you won the National Book Award, also deals with disaster in Japan. What is it about this theme that keeps you coming back to it as an author, Yoko?

MM: As Yoko is in Germany, I’ll try to answer your separate question for her (with reference to the question above, this is something I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable doing if I were one of her readers).

I know Yoko has visited Fukushima several times since the disaster in 2011, and have heard her talk about older people who have lost not just their livelihood, but their entire way of life. Working in the fields was how they got physical exercise, they had their own community, and had festivals and other gatherings for entertainment. Prefab housing puts a roof over their head, but yoga at the new community center is not going to replace the farm work they did, because it won’t give them the same sense of satisfaction. She has also said that, paradoxically, when she called her family in Tokyo just after the nuclear meltdown, they assured her that they were fine because they were nowhere near Fukushima, whereas people were much more upset about the threat of radiation in Germany. Taking these two things into account, I think it’s quite natural for a Japanese writer living in Germany to keep coming back to this theme. And as an American, I feel some guilt in this as well, because it was America that forced “Atoms for Peace” on Japan after the war, intentionally holding the first exhibition introducing the Japanese people to the wonders of nuclear power in Hiroshima.

Incidentally, the character Sede in “The Far Shore” is based on Prime Minister Abe, who was recently assassinated. Yoko made this name from the French pronunciation of the two letters that follow A and B in the alphabet.

Yoko Tawada and Margaret Mitsutani’s Scattered All Over the Earth is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

English

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Scattered All Over the Earth came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation.

Yoko Tawada (YT): Countries sometimes disappear from the map of the world. Ukraine, for example, is now fighting to keep from being “disappeared.” Japan once absorbed Korea and forced the Koreans to speak Japanese, so one might say that, officially at least, the Korean language was temporarily erased. On the other hand, new languages are coming into being. Many migrants struggle to make themselves understood in a mixture of languages. We’re living in a world where both languages and people are constantly in flux. In this novel, I wanted to focus on a small group of people making their way through that world, to write about the bond of friendship that holds them together in the midst of all this movement.

Margaret Mitsutani (MM): I have been translating Yoko’s work for over twenty years. We were fortunate to find fans of Yoko’s work among the staff of New Directions, which now publishes Yoko’s work in America. The first book of hers I did with them was Facing the Bridge (2007), a collection of three stories, followed by The Emissary (2018). So I suppose it seemed natural for me to translate Scattered All Over the Earth.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

MM: The most challenging aspect of translating this novel was creating voices for the six first-person narrators. Hiruko’s voice was especially difficult in that although she speaks her native language during the main part of the narrative, she also speaks English sometimes (usually very quietly, because she’s afraid of being sent to America, which has an under-developed health care system), and Panska (Pan-Scandinavian), her own home-made language that can be understood by speakers of all the Scandinavian languages. A character named Knut, who is a student of linguistics, sees Hiruko on a TV program about people whose countries have disappeared, and is utterly fascinated by this homemade language. So, I knew that Panska would have to sound interesting enough to attract the attention of a budding linguist. Japan isn’t mentioned at all in the novel (it’s sometimes referred to as “the land of sushi”), but it’s safe to assume that Hiruko’s native language is Japanese. I therefore tried to incorporate certain characteristics of the Japanese language, such as bringing the verb to the end of the sentence. One review said that, “Panska reads like a Japonic parody of Nordic syntax translated into a West Germanic language.” While I can’t exactly say that that was what I was aiming for, it seems like a good mixture. Also, Hiruko says that she doesn’t speak English very well, and I puzzled over how to show that. I didn’t want to have her speaking “broken English,” but in the end I decided to leave out an article here and there, especially when she’s excited. There’s no equivalent of the English article in Japanese, so that’s something Japanese speakers have trouble with.

WWB: One thing that is common to several of the titles on this year’s NBA longlist is that writer and translator have collaborated on several previous works, and the two of you are an example of such a pair. Margaret, do you collaborate closely with the author on these translations? What is it like to establish a longstanding relationship with a single author’s oeuvre? Some might liken it to a reader establishing a “relationship” with a beloved writer—in what ways is it different?

MM: Back in the mid-1990s when I was translating Yoko’s work for the first time, I remember making a few long-distance phone calls to Germany to ask her questions, but recently, we don’t work closely on the translations at all. This is at least partly because she lives in Berlin (and is often on the road, which makes her hard to contact sometimes), and I live in Tokyo. But even if we lived in the same city, I doubt we would collaborate closely. She knows enough about translation to realize that translating a text “just as it is” is impossible—that a text always changes through the translation process. So, she doesn’t mind it at all if the text changes, but she doesn’t want her translators to cut something out because it’s difficult to translate. For example, the Japanese language has a limited phonetic system, which creates endless opportunities for punning and wordplay that Yoko likes to exploit. This sort of wordplay is impossible to “translate,” because a pun based on Japanese homonyms obviously isn’t going to work in English. So, in these cases, I have to create something new that will work in English, as well as fitting into the context of the work. In this sense, translating Yoko’s work gives the translator lots of chances to be creative.

I’ve always felt that translating a text is the best way to get inside it. The relationship between reading a text and translating it might be a bit like driving a car and taking it apart to see how it works. Translators, I think, get very attuned to a writer’s stylistic quirks and habits—small things that readers probably don’t notice.

WWB: Separately, Scattered All Over the Earth has been described as “cheerfully dystopian.” Its dystopian aspects recall “The Far Shore,” a Tawada story we published in WWB in 2015, in which the entire Japanese archipelago is rendered uninhabitable by a contamination of a different kind when a fighter plane piloted by a teenager loses control and crashes into a recently reactivated nuclear plant. The Emissary, for which the two of you won the National Book Award, also deals with disaster in Japan. What is it about this theme that keeps you coming back to it as an author, Yoko?

MM: As Yoko is in Germany, I’ll try to answer your separate question for her (with reference to the question above, this is something I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable doing if I were one of her readers).

I know Yoko has visited Fukushima several times since the disaster in 2011, and have heard her talk about older people who have lost not just their livelihood, but their entire way of life. Working in the fields was how they got physical exercise, they had their own community, and had festivals and other gatherings for entertainment. Prefab housing puts a roof over their head, but yoga at the new community center is not going to replace the farm work they did, because it won’t give them the same sense of satisfaction. She has also said that, paradoxically, when she called her family in Tokyo just after the nuclear meltdown, they assured her that they were fine because they were nowhere near Fukushima, whereas people were much more upset about the threat of radiation in Germany. Taking these two things into account, I think it’s quite natural for a Japanese writer living in Germany to keep coming back to this theme. And as an American, I feel some guilt in this as well, because it was America that forced “Atoms for Peace” on Japan after the war, intentionally holding the first exhibition introducing the Japanese people to the wonders of nuclear power in Hiroshima.

Incidentally, the character Sede in “The Far Shore” is based on Prime Minister Abe, who was recently assassinated. Yoko made this name from the French pronunciation of the two letters that follow A and B in the alphabet.

Yoko Tawada and Margaret Mitsutani’s Scattered All Over the Earth is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Read Next

japan-ghosts
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]