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Q/A with a translator: Terry Gallagher

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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A Week of Links!

It’s been quite, eh? Over at the Haikasoru Week and lots of fun was to be had.

The brand new Tow Ubukata novelette “Two Hundred Below”, a Mardock Scramble adventure, went live on Tuesday.

Wednesday saw this neat and insightful review of both Rocket Girls and Rocket Girls: The Last Planet.

And on Thursday, we had a short essay on Japanese science fiction by me.

Oh, and speaking of me, and speaking of the end of the week, the World SF Blog also encouraged Beatrice.com’s Ron Hogan to publish my interview with Cathy Hirano and Jim Hubbert. Ms. Hirano translated Dragon Sword and Wind Child and the forthcoming Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince for us, and Mr. Hubbert has been quite busy: he translated The Lord of the Sands of Time, The Next Continent, and The Ouroboros Wave for us. Gotta catch ’em all!

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Mardock Babble-A Q/A with translator Edwin Hawkes

We’ve gotten some nice notices and comments about Mardock Scramble and especially the smoooooth translation by Edwin Hawkes. So I thought some of you might like to hear his thoughts on all things Japanese, science fiction, and in translation.

Edwin is a pretty smart dude, and chatty too, so make yourself comfy and watch out for the occasional spoiler if you’ve not yet read the book! Here we go:

Q: So you’d read Mardock Scramble in the original Japanese before we had even contemplated translating it. What did you think of the books, and their place in Japanese SF?

A: Hmm. I seem to remember our original conversation when you first contacted me going something like this:

Nick: “Hi. I hear from our mutual acquaintance [SF writer Charles Stross—NM] that you translate from Japanese. Do you like Japanese SF?”

Edwin: “Yes.”

Nick: “What’s your favorite?”

Edwin: “Mardock Scramble.”

Nick: “Uh, we’ve just acquired that. Would you like to translate it?”

Edwin: “Yes please.”

It all seems such a long time ago, now!

I read the original back in 2005, so after it had been out for a while and made their mark. So I didn’t experience first-hand the media furor and controversy in Japan over the uncompromising portrayal of child prostitution, but I was aware of it.

In terms of the work’s “place” in Japanese SF? I’m not sure it slots easily into the canon, insofar as there is one in Japanese SF. Mardock Scramble‘s not hard SF, not quite urban fantasy or cyberpunk, and not quite your standard near-future dystopia, either. More to the point, it’s not quite “Adult SF” but also not quite “Light Novel” material, but draws heavily from that tradition: breathless dialogue, snappy half-sentence paragraphs, strong on plot and characterization. I wouldn’t quite say it was a game-changer, but it certainly opened up intriguing new possibilities for Japanese SF to explore in the future, as it proved pretty conclusively that you could have a book conceived on a massive scale, and one that is ambitious in unusual ways at that, and yet still have a big commercial hit on your hands.

Q: I wonder if you could give us a little insight into how the trilogy was received, or at least consumed in Japan? Here in the US, if I published a book that ended in the middle of a gunfight, I’d be ragetweeted to death by angry fans—thus our 800-page piece of furniture with writing in it.

A: Haha—well, in Japan you’d be ragetweeted to death if you dared to publish in such a bulky format! I mean, how is anyone supposed to fit that doorstop in your jacket pocket so you can slip it out easily during your commute on the crowded Tokyo subway?

I’m being flippant here, but there’s actually a strong element of truth in that. Books are, still, I think, seen as more consumable in Japan; they’re there to be bought (cheaply), read (voraciously) and then discarded (carelessly). I’m wildly over-generalizing, of course, but Japanese books are certainly less objets d’art than they are in the West. If you visit a Japanese home, even a highly literate middle class home where reading is prized as an activity, you’re unlikely to see the bookshelves upon bookshelves of accumulated literary flotsam in the way that you would in my home, or those of many people I know! And the mindset is contagious, trust me. My father, who’s due to retire from his job as professor at a Japanese university in a few years, has no idea what he’s going to do with the books that he’s acquired over the years there, and will probably just end up throwing most of them out. Even the books he’s translated himself!

Also, if you’re referring to the fact that Book 1 ends on a cliffhanger then I’m not sure you’re drawing an entirely fair analogy. Bear in mind that it’s fairly common for a longer book to be split into sections in Japan; the fact that a publisher chooses to do so doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily sees the book as anything other than a coherent whole. Western books translated into Japanese are split into different volumes if the length justifies it; War and Peace may appear in three volumes in Japan, but that doesn’t mean it’s thought of as a “trilogy” in any meaningfully different sense from the way it’s viewed in the West. It’s just a massive book that happens to be split in three parts. Sound familiar?

Regarding the reception of Mardock Scramble, one thing that’s interesting to note is the interval between publication dates of the three volumes: they had a month’s interval between them when they were originally published in 2003.

Fast forward three years to 2006 and the publication of the prequel Mardock Velocity (an equally dark and delicious work, by the way, charting the backstory of Dimsdale-Boiled and descent into the abyss) and you’re looking at an interval of exactly one week between publication of the three volumes.

Quite a difference, huh? And I guess you can imagine why—who wants to wait that long? I guess the publishers decided, after the stunning success of Mardock Scramble, that they could ramp things up a little quicker. But they still felt it worthwhile to publish in three separate volumes…Interesting, no?

And before anyone suggests it: no, it’s not (just) so they can sell more books! Small paperbacks are pretty cheap in Japan, and I’d say that the cost of all three volumes are roughly equivalent in cost to the single English edition (bargain that it is!) The Japanese expect—and get—bang for their yen!

Q: What do you think are some of the greatest cultural difference between Japan and the US as reflected in Mardock Scramble‘s plot, structure, etc.?

A: (Semi-spoiler-alert:) Well, take, for example, the scene set in the casino. That section was (as I’m sure you remember all too well) probably the toughest-going section of the translation, and took me the longest to get it so I was satisfied with it. Not because it’s technically difficult—in that sense, it was actually probably the easiest section—but because it was so important to try and capture that sense of uphill struggle, of a seemingly never-ending and virtually unwinnable battle for the protagonist. All without making it repetitive or boring to read! I’m still not convinced that I entirely succeeded on this point and would welcome feedback from your readers, by the way, good or bad!

The reason I cite it as a cultural difference is because I imagine this sort of scene as being one that’s more readily accepted by Japanese readers, as long as it’s good. Probably because of reader expectations: the serial novel plays an integral part in modern Japanese literature. Whereas in English the serial novel more or less died with Dickens. Yes, there are notable exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions, and no longer really a mainstay of English-language literary culture.

So not only is there more tolerance for length per se in Japanese novel, there’s an acceptance of the idea that a novel, a scene, a story, a paragraph—whatever—can go on for as long as is needed. At first this can be frustrating from the perspective of relatively homogenized Western tastes, but if you embrace it, it’s actually quite liberating and even thrilling: the sense of really never knowing what’s going to come next, because nothing has to be bound by convention or preexisting aesthetic boundaries.

Q: How did you end up in the translation business?

A: Just fell into it, really. It never really occurred to me that I wouldn’t end up as a translator in one capacity or another. I was born in Kyoto, which is quite a big city (pop 1M+), but not quite big enough to have the international infrastructure of, say, Tokyo or Osaka; there’s no big expat community, and you really do need Japanese to get around. All my friends were Japanese or half-Japanese, and bilingualism was the order of the day; we never really thought about about it. One of my earliest memories was speaking Japanese to a visiting (Western) friend of my parents and being puzzled that they didn’t understand me…

Add to that the fact that my father is a translator, it was kind of inevitable. I’ve never done it full time (although it damn well felt like it during this book!), but I can’t imagine ever not doing it either; it’s a compulsion as much as a job, particularly when the source material is as exciting as it is here…

Do you folks out there in Internetland have questions for Edwin? Leave a comment and I’ll make sure he sees them and answers a couple!

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Report from Japan: Meeting Otsuichi!

Our friend and translator Nate Collins was in Japan last month, and wrote this little essay for us…no, for you! about meeting Otsuichi in the flesh. Translators often feel a special responsibility for the authors whose work they bring into a new language, so Nate, the translator of Summer, Fireworks, And My Corpse, was very thrilled at the opportunity to meet our own “strange one.” Let’s check out what he has to say!

Last last month, during a trip to Japan and with the gracious help of Nick and Masumi, I was able to meet Otsuichi-san.

I was to meet him in the headquarters of his publisher, Shueisha, in Jimbou, Tokyo. The walk from the train station to my meeting took me through several glorious blocks of back-street used book stores — the area reminded me most of London’s Charing Cross Road, although what sets Jimbou apart from London, or anywhere else that I’m aware of, is that not only is it the used and new bookstore center of Japan, it’s the home to many major Japanese publishing houses — including the two associated with VIZ Media, Shogakukan and Shueisha.

The result is an entire neighborhood that lives and breathes the printed word from conception to consumption. I had boarded the train excited to meet Otsuichi-san, but as I hurried past the rows of bookstores and their sidewalk displays, this now wasn’t just a meeting — it was a pilgrimage.

The streets of Jimbou, or one of them at least.

I made my way into the spacious and modern lobby of the Shueisha building, registered at the desk, sat on the long, comfortable couch, and fought the urge to grab the latest issue of Shonen Jump from the magazine rack. I was here on business. I was wearing a sportcoat. Must remain professional. A small gallery of rare Naruto goods and artwork sat in an open room adjacent to the foyer, mocking me.

After what might have been a few hours, but was probably just a few minutes, I was met by Hakui-san, Otsuichi-san’s editor. She looked not much older than me (I’m 28), wore dark-rimmed glasses and a subdued flower-print blouse. She greeted me warmly, and we exchanged bows and handshakes, and she ushered me to a meeting room on the mezzanine.

The room was large, with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows giving full view of the Tokyo skyline, and a long wooden conference table that could comfortably seat forty, although today there were only three of us. Otsuichi-san was already waiting. He was slender, but not small. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved gray and black striped shirt, and stood unassumingly with his hands clasped behind his back. We sat, and Hakui-san ordered us coffees and clicked on her tape recorder, insisting that this was, above all else, an informal meeting.

Shueisha HQ, home of many “informal meetings.”

We started to talk, with Hakui-san guiding the conversation, and we talked for nearly two hours. My speaking abilities are nowhere near my reading comprehension, and both Otsuichi-san and his editor were patient and attentive. Otsuichi-san himself was genuine, modest, and mild-mannered. For much of the meeting, he was taciturn — his personality seemed to be more that of an observer than a participator — but he was friendly, and seemed truly interested in what I had to say. It was hard to believe some of the darker scenes in SUMMER/BLACK FAIRY TALE came from such a good-natured person.

Hakui-san asked me about my process of translation, and I did my best to instill confidence in my work. She then asked me what I liked best about SUMMER and BLACK FAIRY TALE, and I said, to an increasingly self-conscious Otsuichi-san, that I enjoyed his use of narrative point-of-view — in particular, the use of certain characters’ viewpoints and the false assumptions they make to lead the reader to the same wrong conclusions, but all without being dishonest to the reader, and never tricking the reader. Even the more fantastical elements are grounded in logic and are internally consistent. Keeping the misdirection intact without losing its integrity was one of my biggest challenges.

I also said that I admired his ability, in just a few short sentences, to vividly paint the image of a scene in the reader’s head, and how much of a boon that was to me as a translator. Providing the literal translation of every word results in stilted prose devoid of its original feeling and intent, so it is most important for me to be able to see what the writer was envisioning as he wrote each scene. Sometimes it can be difficult to do so, but with Otsuichi-san’s prose, it was easy.

I felt the three of us hit it off right away. I got the impression, although it might be impertinent to say, that I found a kindred spirit in Otsuichi-san. We have a lot in common — he’s from a small rural town in Fukuoka Prefecture, located in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four major islands, and I’m from a town of 25,000 in Iowa. He told me that the town in SUMMER, FIREWORKS, AND MY CORPSE, was heavily based upon the village where he grew up.

We both seem to have the same inexplicable embarrassment about our published work. Otsuichi-san admitted that not only does he never read his own published books, he feels ashamed to see them on the shelves in a bookstore. I told him I was the same way, and although I’m always glad to see my translations out in the wild, so to speak, I’ll never pick them up and flip through the pages. It’s irrational, since both he and I will read the finished product several times during the editing process, and I know that I’m extremely proud of the work I submit, but as soon as our work becomes published and exists in reality, we can’t read it. His attitude toward his own success seems a mixture of both heartfelt gratitude and utter bewilderment at its existence.

Nate and Otsuichi, trying not to look too embarrassed.

Also, we both enjoy video games — Japanese role-playing games in particular — and he perked up when I mentioned growing up on Super Nintendo games like Final Fantasy 4 and 6 and Chrono Trigger. We both lamented the current state of the Japanese game market, and how it’s been surpassed by the West. In his free time, Otsuichi-san likes to watch video game “jikkyou douga” (“live recordings” — game playthroughs with the player’s real-time comments and reactions recorded onto the audio track, known as “Let’s Play” videos in the states), and he recommended me an obscure Japanese role playing game that has seen a recent surge in popularity through Japan’s “NicoNico” streaming video site. (A PlayStation game that, sadly, has never been translated into English: “Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke” [literally “Cross Over My Corpse and Go”]. And yes, it’s really good!)

After what felt like no time at all, it was time for Otsuichi-san to go. We took photos and exchanged books — I gave him a copy of one of my father’s novels (Stolen Away) translated into Japanese, and he gave me a copy of one of his most recent books. Now fully in fanboy mode, I got him to sign a few books for me — including my copy of SUMMER, which will sit on my bookshelf, where it will be treasured by me, if never read.

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