For the last few years, every October, I’ve been working with an author from Japan for a week or so as their voice in English, interpreting at the big public events for the Toronto International Festival of Authors, but also over lunches or signings or random encounters on the street. I know other kinds of interpreting are different and involve far less contact with the client, but the kind of interpreting I do is generally quite intensive, involving many hours of basically just hanging out with an artist for every hour I am on stage with them performing.
But for most of the year, I am translating, sitting alone in front of my computer with my books, puzzling out the best way to say in English what the artist is trying to say. So the sudden intense human contact that comes with interpreting can be jarring, but in a good way. Like a sudden flare in the sky that illuminates all the reasons why I do the translations in the first place. The ability to reach people, to cross language and culture and make a reader feel something new, to make them think in a new way, to offer them a bigger world in the pages of a book—that’s what we do when we translate, but sitting alone in our respective translation hovels, we rarely see the readers who are having all these feels, who are living in a changed world because of a work we translated. But interpreting is a chance to see firsthand the effect of art in this world. Interpreting for the artist is when I get to really see the effect of translation, and it gives me fuel and motivation to return to that work.
It’s the human contact part of this equation that is so satisfying, and of course, in this the Year of Plague, it’s that human contact that we all must go without. My October event is no exception. This year’s Japanese guest at TIFA is Kawakami Mieko, and longtime readers of these brain battles will know that I am a big fan of her work, so I was very excited to learn that she would be coming this year to promote her first full-length novel translation into English, Breasts and Eggs. And then everything went online, and now we are all speaking into the Zoom void. (I gave a lecture on translation this summer, and it was eerie. Most participants had their videos off to save bandwidth, so I felt like I was alone, telling my computer about all my translation thoughts.) So although the event will still happen, like everything else this year, it will be different. No signings, no seeing the flash of insight on a listener’s face, no hotel lobby coffee getting cold on the table in front of me while I interpret for a media interview.
One thing that is not different, that can’t be different if it’s me interpreting, is the descent into stalkerdom to prepare. I am busy reading up on Kawakami, listening to podcasts and interviews (including one I myself did with her years ago!) (but the article it was for got cut…), reading everything I can by and about her. Including her 2015 novel Akogare which I picked up immediately when it came out, read part of, and then put down for reasons that are lost to the sands of time now. When I started Ms Ice Sandwich translated by Louise Heal Kawai, I had a jolt of déjà-vu, certain I had read these words before but not exactly sure where. And then I remembered the aborted attempt at Akogare and pulled the book from the back of my shelf where it had been languishing.
Although “Ms Ice Sandwich” is published in English as a novella, the tale of Mugihiko (the nameless narrator gets a name in the second act) is actually the first shorter section of a novel. While Mugihiko’s fixation on the supermarket sandwich lady and his developing friendship with Hegatea (Tooti in English, for pertinent reasons) takes place in the fourth grade, the second chapter “Ichigo Jam kara Haha wo Hikeba” jumps ahead a couple years to grade six, when both Mugi and Hegatea are on the verge of adolescence and all the baffling confusion that comes with that. And Hegatea is the narrator now, living alone with her dad after her mother died when she was still a small child. She’s thick as thieves with Mugi now, hanging out at school and their regular Friday movie nights at her house with her film critic dad.
Whereas “Ms Ice Sandwich” focuses on Mugi’s relationship with his dying grandmother and his compulsive drawing of the supermarket sandwich lady, “Ichigo” examines Hegatea’s relationship with her father and her dead mother and her coming to terms with loss and her own place in this world. Mugi and Hegatea are no doubt drawn to each other because of their complimentary losses that separate them from the other kids their age—she has lost a mother, he has lost a father—and the whole novel is something of a meditation on what it means to live when someone else is dead, the longing we feel for the things that could’ve been, the futures we could have lived, the people we could have loved. There’s a yearning in these pages that’s both deeply childish and profoundly old at the same time, as if we spend a few decades in the middle of our lives not puzzled and taken up with the problems of life and death, before sinking back down into them.
Kawakami somehow perfectly captures the inner narrative of these children, as they talk to themselves and wonder how the world is the way it is. And the way they talk to each other, the way they flit between adult and child in the liminal space of early adolescence, is painfully perfect, sending me back to my own self at twelve. I think the thing that made my heart crack in two was how Hegatea sleeps under the Christmas tree in the living room, the Christmas tree that has been standing in the living room since her mother was still alive. It’s such a perfect detail and expresses so much about the world she lives in, the things that are on her mind however subconsciously. There’s a strange beauty in Hegatea’s half of the book, and I wish we could see the whole thing in translation so the two halves could play off each other the way they were clearly meant to. Ms Ice Sandwich is brilliant, but in the end, it’s only half a book.