From desert to snow to the gentle warmth of late fall in Tokyo, I have experienced a lot of weather in the last couple of weeks. And a lot of jet lag. My body clock may never recover, to be honest. I am not meant for this jet-set life; there’s a reason I’m a freelance translator and not, like, the head of an international house of couture. (I imagine they fly a lot? I don’t know. I work at home; I’m very out of touch with the world.) So I’m more than happy to settle into Tokyo life for the next few months. Especially happy to pick up on my Tokyo bookstore life and get all the brand-new manga that I’ve been watching appear from my Toronto apartment.
But there is still a backlog of books to deal with before we get to all that juicy new stuff. Like this lovely bilingual collection of stories released earlier this year by the Japan Society! I ordered it straight away, but since its arrival, it has languished in the shelf of unread books because of the many other books in the queue before it, the general overwhelming busy-ness of the last couple months of my life, and a vague sense that this was not the book I wanted to read at that time. Sometimes, a book will seem like the perfect book for the moment on paper, but when you actually pick it up, it feels wrong in your hands somehow. And when that happens, I always respect what the book and the moment are saying and turn my attention to a different book. If you’re not in the mood for that particular book, you end up not appreciating it and really wasting everybody’s time.
Never fear, however. Heaven’s Wind’s moment arrived earlier this fall when I was suddenly faced with a lot of interpreting work on rather short notice and needed to prepare for it. I don’t know what the process is like for other people, but I have a kind of three-pronged attack to prepare for an interpreting job. The first part is to become the interpretee’s best stalker: watch every interview they’ve ever given, read any and all articles about them, find their social media feeds, etc. The second thing is to read/watch everything they have ever done that I can possibly get my hands on. And the third is to immerse myself in Japanese however possible. So that means no English TV shows or podcasts in the weeks leading up to an interpreting job, and finding new ways to ensure that I speak a good deal of Japanese every day. The latter is pretty easy when I’m in Japan—I just get really chatty with every J-person I meet and problem solved. But it’s a bit trickier in Canada. So I do things like shadow dramas or radio shows or read out loud to myself.
So when I was looking for ways to increase my spoken Japanese during this last bout of prep work, I spotted this collection of five stories amongst the unread books and thought it might just do the job perfectly. And it did! So for the first time in Brain history, I can assure you that this is a book that reads well out loud! Even if you are a less-fluent J-speaker/reader, you will be able to smoothly read this lovely thing out loud thanks to the generous use of furigana readings for all the kanji. No need to look up any pronunciations! This was a deliberate choice on the part of editor and translator Angus Turvill to make the stories accessible to readers of all Japanese levels, just one way in which the book welcomes readers.
Another way is the left-to-right setting for both Japanese and English pages (instead of the vertical reading for the Japanese, which is the default for literature). This allows the Japanese and English to be on facing pages, with a layout that keeps the corresponding sections on the same facing pages, making for easy bilingual comparison. Turvill also includes a section at the end, detailing his translation choices and how the differences between the English and Japanese languages force a translator to make choices that are not necessarily encoded in the original text. It’s all great stuff if you are studying to become a translator, and as a professional myself, I found it really interesting and enlightening to see the nuts and bolts behind someone else’s translation decisions.
But in the end, this is a collection of stories and the stories are, of course, what matter the most! “The Otter” by Kuniko Mukoda is the story of a man who has a stroke and his drama-loving wife. It’s a quiet look at a life together and the unburying of a painful past, but the passage in which he realizes his wife reminds him of an otter, sly but captivating, is like a punch in the head in the best way. There’s a sparseness to Mukoda’s writing that leaves space for the reader to really feel and relate to her characters.
“Ball” by Natsuko Kuroda was harder for me to get into in a way, but it’s lingered long after I finished it. Tamie is an awkward child who other children are uncomfortable around, and Kuroda’s telling of the ball fad that swept Tamie’s school and her own subsequent theft of a ball is written half in the child’s voice and half in a third-person narration, moving easily between the two in a way that Japanese allows but English generally does not. But Turvill manages to keep that same wandering, child-like pace in his English translation, and I was in awe of how expertly he managed this, and really all the translations. He’s one of my favourite Japanese translators for the balance he manages to strike between fidelity to the original text and devotion to readable and natural English.
“Summer Blanket” by Kaori Ekuni and “The Child Over There” by Mitsuyo Kakuta are similarly expertly handled and similarly excellent in the original Japanese. “The Child Over There” particularly intrigued me with its dip into local mythology and the treatment of a would-be mother’s grief at the stillbirth of a child. The last story in the book, “Planting” by Aoko Matsuda, was actually originally published in the tsunami relief volume put out by Waseda Bungaku (which also included a couple of my stories), so I’d read it before, but it was a treat to encounter it again here in this new context years later. The rhythm of this story with its short sentences and the constant use of the verb “plant” is honestly so compelling, and the whole thing just sinks deep into your brain in both English and Japanese.
The book gets an extra gold star from me for being a collection of stories by women authors that bills itself simply as a collection by “Japan’s leading contemporary authors.” In the introduction, Turvill acknowledges briefly that “all of them happen to be women,” and I love that he does not do that deeply annoying thing of ghettoizing them by referring to them as leading women authors, as if women cannot play on the same field as men.