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Q/A with a translator: Terry Gallagher

by nickmamatas

Here at Haikasoru, we are thrilled with Self-Reference ENGINE, one of the most innovative works of science fiction, in any language, published in recent memory. We’ve already interviewed the physics consultant and gave the world a sample by publishing A to Z TheoryM with our friends at Strange Horizons, and now we’re pleased to offer you this brief Q/A with translator Terry Gallagher!

A bit about Terry: after a fifteen-year career as a foreign correspondent and financial editor in Tokyo, Bonn, and New York, Terry Gallagher returned to a road not taken: translation. For over a decade now, from his home on Cape Cod, he has been working mainly for financial institutions. He first met Toh EnJoe in January 2012, and joined the celebration when the author won the Akutagawa Prize. That night, Toh EnJoe told him that of all his published works, it was Self-Reference ENGINE, his very first full-length work, that he was most anxious to see published first in English.

While still a journalist, Gallagher translated two stories for the ground-breaking anthology Monkey Brain Sushi, one of which was republished in the Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women. His first translation of a novel for Viz Media was Be With You, by Ichikawa Takuji, which was followed by its manga version. Then came many short stories, in two single-author volumes – The Stationmaster (Poppoya) by Asada Jiro, and ZOO by Otsuichi – as well as other anthologies. As an editor/researcher, he assisted author Martha Sherrill with Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain, the tale of the man who rescued the Akita breed from all-but-certain extinction. His personal heroes are Han Shan and Marcus Aurelius.

Q. Do you read much science fiction? What novels or stories would you compare SELF-REFERENCE ENGINE to?

A. At different times in my life, I have read a fair amount of science fiction. As I translated Self-Reference ENGINE, I was very impressed by the breadth and depth of Toh EnJoe’s reading, and general knowledge, but I have to say it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I think the works it is closest to are those of the Japanese writers like Kunihiko Kaneko and Project Itoh, not yet household names in the West, that Toh EnJoe is closest to. The Japanese edition of the book closes with a commentary by editor Atsushi Sasaki, who compares SRE to works by Greg Egan, Ted Chiang, Chohei Kanbayashi and Tobi Hirotaka, but I have not yet had a chance to read those writers.

SRE is truly post-modern, in that it seems to subsume much of Western and Japanese literature. It is science fiction, but it’s also bigger than that. The text makes allusions, some explicit, some deeply hidden, to writers from Arthur Conan Doyle and Freud, to Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft. The construction of the narrative plays tricks that remind me of authors such as Italo Calvino or John Barth. Several of the stories are reminiscent of Kafka, and Flatland, and even The Little Prince. In a way, I think the book that SRE most closely resembles is not science fiction at all, it is straight-up science writing: Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. But EnJoe, a PhD physicist himself, has chosen to use the language of fiction rather than expository science writing. Something I’ve heard about, but haven’t read, is the Change series, by S.M. Stirling. Those books deal with a world-altering Event that seems comparable to some of the things that go on in SRE.

Q. Around the office, we often hear that some text makes more sense in Japanese. Sometimes though, as in the case of Toh EnJoe’s story “Endoastronomy” in THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE, we heard that it made more sense to bilingual readers in English! In which language is SRE best understood, and can you give us an example of a tricky part of translation?

A. Well, one of the key phrases of the book is one that neither Japanese nor English readers are likely to have encountered before: in Japanese, 巨大知性体, which I have rendered in English as “giant corpora of knowledge.” I’m fairly sure Toh EnJoe is the originator of this term, which seems appropriate to the age of Google.

The names of various giant corpora of knowledge reflect the profound breadth of Toh EnJoe’s imagination. One is Yggdrasil, whom I learned from this book was the Tree of Life in Old Norse mythology, connecting the nine universes. Others are Sarutahiko – a name from ancient Japanese mythology – Hildegard von Bingen, and Pentecoste II. I think you get the idea. I spent a lot of time poring through Wikipedia as I was working on this.

My Japanese friends who have read his work in Japanese tell me they find the language of the book quite strange, not normal Japanese. Classic postwar Japanese writers like Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata are said to be easier to read in English translation because some things that can be left ambiguous or diaphanous must be made clearer in English, for reasons that have to do with the pure mechanics of the language. For example, English sentences must have subjects, but Japanese sentences do not suffer that limitation. So the translator working from Japanese into English sometimes has to make compromises that, for better or worse, end up “adding clarity.” It’s a terrible thing, as my grandmother used to say. People say that Haruki Murakami’s work in Japanese reads as if it were translated from some other language. In an interview earlier this year, Toh EnJoe himself said that his own work, in Japanese, also reads as if it were translated.

We all bring our own subjective experience to reading, and I cannot really tell you whether other bilingual readers will enjoy this book better in Japanese or in English. That’s kind of a hypothetical question for most people, who really have no choice. The value of translation is not that it says “A=B.” The value of translation is that it says, “Let me give you something that is something like this other thing that you can never have.” Much as I strove to make the translation a “carbon copy” of the original, just in a different language, there is no disputing the fact that the two are different.

In the Japanese original, the chapter headings, the table of contents, even the title of the book itself, are all in English. I can’t really address how that makes a “normal” Japanese reader feel. Maybe they think it’s cool, maybe they think it’s pretentious, maybe they think it’s just normal. My friends are perhaps more accustomed than most Japanese to dealing with things foreign, but even they find that a bit unusual. But Japan is all about inside/outside, uchi/soto, domestic/foreign. And this whole book seems to be very attuned to things that are going on outside Japan, in both form and content.

In the first few pages of the translation, there is a passage that reads:

“Once upon a time, somewhere, there lived a boy and a girl.”
“Once upon a time, somewhere, there lived boys and girls.”
“Once upon a time, somewhere, there lived no boy and no girl.”
“Once upon a time…lived.”
“Once upon a time.”

The Japanese is:


Even if you don’t read Japanese, you can see the repetition of the patterns. I think it is fair to say that in the original Japanese, this passage is pure word play, and as a translator I can barely begin to convey, in English, what is really going in here in Japanese. All I can tell you is what it says, and even that, less than perfectly. The author is messing with the conventions of storytelling, and the conventions of grammar, to mess with his readers’ heads, to shake them and say, “This book is going to be like nothing else you’ve ever read.”

Another example would be Chapter 15, entitled “Yedo”, which I hope at least some readers recognize is the old name for Tokyo. A smaller number, however, are likely to realize that the name of the protagonist, Hatchobori, is a section of Tokyo even today, redolent with historical and sociological associations. Yedo is the fifteenth story in the book, and its plot actually revolves around the factorization of the number 15, and mind games that play on 15 in both mathematical and linguistic ways that I fear I may have utterly failed to convey in English. But what can a poor translator do? Just try to give a glimpse through a smudgy window at what lies on the other side.

In the story “Freuds”, it is no coincidence that there are 22 dead Freuds under the floorboards: that is the number of chapters in the book. Mathematics is Toh EnJoe’s second language. English is his third.

Editorial note: you must read the “stories” in this book in order, because the book is disordered.

Q. SRE is a non-linear story about a non-linear, shattered, time-space continuum. Did that provide any special translation challenges?

A. Well, the non-linear nature of the story in SRE was not really a problem. As a translator, I just try to break it down, sentence by sentence, and tell the reader what it says. But the non-linear nature of the time-space continuum within the stories qualifies as a huge challenge. The story Traveling is the one that deals most explicitly with forward/reverse travel in time, in the form of a joystick that controls the movement of spaceships in dogfight hijinks that that traverse time as well as space. The human pilots may be shooting themselves in the tail. And they only think they are controlling the spacecraft. Really they are the pawns of the giant corpora of knowledge that are masterminding wars where the various sides locked in conflict are citizens, not of neighboring territories, but of parallel universes. This was quite confusing to me the first several times I read it. As I translated each chapter, I sent the drafts to the author, who read them and gave me his feedback. I then did a rewrite and sent this to you (Nick Mamatas at Viz), and did another rewrite incorporating your comments.

The story “Coming Soon” is written like a screenplay for a pastiche of surrealist films by different directors. Names and ideas may carry over from one section of this story to the next, or refer to other stories in the book. But does that mean they point to the “same” characters? Maybe, maybe not. I think that is the point that Toh EnJoe is making about story-telling. The perennial narrative that is our consciousness is not linear. It loops back, repeats itself, varies, and shoots off in different directions. Then it may loop back again and explore another avenue. This book may be like that.

Late in the process of drafting the translation, I made a decision to give the book a “narrative present” tense, aligning it with the “present” of the reader, and at the same time making the story in a way ideal, or abstract, like Plato’s Cave. I had done the same thing with “Endoastronomy”. We usually use the past tense to tell stories in English when we are relating something meant to be understood as “actual experiences.” But the present tense has an immediacy, a vibrancy, an excitement.

Q. The chapters can be fruitfully read as independent short stories, to a greater or lesser extent. Do you have a favorite chapter? Tell us a bit about it.

A. There are several chapters that I like “best,” for different reasons. I like the framing story involving the innocent love triangle between Rita, James and Richard. It pops up in several chapters in the book, sometimes in disguise. It may be the closest thing to a conventional “story” in the whole book, and it reminds me vaguely of the Back to the Future movies, but on a whole different level of discourse. Perhaps because I myself live near the beach I like Echo, which is the story of a neglected slab of metal corroding on a beach that is actually an old computer to which a Nobel-prize-winning scientist transferred her consciousness, and then disappeared into the depths of cyber-silence. And I like “Infinity”, in which Rita and her dying grandfather play a game of weekly riddles, ultimately revealing that we are each at one with the universe. I like “Ground 256″ because this tale of mayhem in the form of persistently intrusive objects that spring up spontaneously overnight from other dimensions reminds me of what seems to be happening on my hard drive. I also like “Sacra”, which has an ending that’s kind of like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the astronaut ends up in a lonely but comfortably appointed place to die. Perhaps not apparent at first glance, the title of this chapter is a pun on the Japanese word sakura, for cherry trees, cherry blossoms, which were dear in samurai culture as a symbol of the transient nature of life.

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