SBP Blog

Exclusive Interview: Award-winning translator Hiroaki Sato on literary translation and 'The Silver Spoon'

Thomas Joel - Friday, January 26, 2018

Fresh from winning one of the two 2017-2018 Japan-United States Friendship Commission Prizes for his English translation of Kansuke Naka's classic Japanese memoir The Silver Spoonwe sat down with renowned translator, poet and author Hiroaki Sato to discuss his particular approach to translating literary works from Japanese into English.

Hiroaki Sato is a prolific, award-winning translator of classical and modern Japanese poetry into English. American Beat poet Gary Snyder has called Sato "perhaps the finest translator of contemporary Japanese poetry into American English."

Hiroaki Sato has received several translation prizes. Among them are the PEN America prize, with Burton Watson, for From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry (1981); the Japan-United States Friendship Commission translation prize for Breeze Through Bamboo: Kanshi of Ema Saikō (1997) and, this time, for The Silver Spoon (2015). He has written columns for a dozen publications, among them The Mainichi Daily News (“Here and Now—in New York”) from 1984 to 1989 and for The Japan Times (“The View from New York”) from 2000 to 2017.

What do you like and dislike about the process of translating literary works?

This is a question I have never thought about!
One thing you may have had in mind in asking this question was the differences between literary and nonliterary works. While working for the Japanese trade agency JETRO for 44 years (1969-2013), I did a good deal of translation of non-literary writings as part of my work there. One thing I translated for a booklet was the Gettysburg Address, and I remember it was nearly impossible to translate.
I’m sure there are already a number of masterful Japanese translations of the address. What I found hard to translate about it was the tone and language of Lincoln’s words. Of course, you may say that the address isn’t really a nonliterary work. Yes, it is a literary work of the highest order!
I like translating a literary work for the simple reason that in most cases I choose what I translate. In such cases, you begin by accepting the way the whole thing is presented. That was not the case with Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima.
I took it on as a translation, but once I started on it, I noticed many problems with it, beginning with the fact that Inose’s original biography wouldn’t make it as a biography in English.
To start, it was lopsided: for example, one quarter to one third of the book was given to Mishima’s paternal grandfather whom Mishima practically ignored in his writings, in contrast to his paternal grandmother.
The book ignored or skipped many parts and aspects of Mishima’s life—many of his essays, novels, short stories, travelogues, his readings of foreign literature, his interest in foreign countries, his interest in things other than literature, etc.
You don’t have similar problems with novels, stories, essays, and poems.
What inspired you to translate The Silver Spoon into English?
To be honest, I don’t remember. I started translating it soon after arriving in New York City in 1968 with my sponsor. (In those days, I think, the U.S. rule on foreigners coming to this country may have been that you couldn’t come here on a one-way ticket without a sponsor.)
I did the same with other works: the love poems of Takamura Kōtarō (Chieko and Other Poems, 1980) and the short Zen story of Mori Ōgai (Hanshan and Shite, 1971).
I don’t remember exactly why I chose them for translation, either, except that I must have liked them when I read them as a student at Doshisha University, in Kyoto, in the 1960s.After a dozen chapters of the translation of The Silver Spoon were published in the Doshisha English Department’s English magazine, in 1971, I left it aside for many years, leaving most of the memoir untranslated.
Also, until many years later, I didn’t know that Peter Goodman (Stone Bridge Press founder and publisher) had worked on it with his Japanese teacher at Cornell, Etsuko Terasaki, and it was published by my first publisher, Chicago Review Press!
In your introduction to The Silver Spoon you say that you have “tried to remain faithful to the original translation” and that, as a result, “this translation in many places will not read well.” What challenges did you face when translating the work? Were there any particular difficulties in maintaining Naka’s writing style and voice, and if so how did you tackle those difficulties?
As Sōseki Natsume pointed out, Naka was, at least in The Silver Spoon, stylistically sloppy: the use of punctuation, paragraph formations, his use of kanji, etc. I wrote "I tried to remain faithful," etc., but in some places I had to break my own rule.
Other than that, one question I had to deal with was how much to explain certain things, though this is not limited to The Silver Spoon. One way to do this is to incorporate a bit of information in the text, as the late Burton Watson did, unobtrusively. As you know, Peter devised an ingenious way of giving the notes.
This book is now a century old. Why do you think people still read it?
We’ll see how The Silver Spoon will do in the United States (and perhaps in other places). In Japan, for some years now, there have been several paper editions out by different publishers—other than Iwanami, its original publisher—suggesting its continuing popularity.
A story of a sickly crybaby, becoming a healthy boy (while continuing to love playing with girls!), growing to become a young loner who visits his aunt who protected him as a weakling with ever unflagging good heart not long before her death (that is my favorite scene, and I’m still dissatisfied with my translation of the aunt’s inquiry when the narrator shows up—she can barely see), then ending with the narrator falling in a transient, fragile one-sided love with a visiting beautiful woman—this story remains a fresh breath of air transcendent of ages, or so I think.
For modern readers, there is also, I imagine, a good deal of nostalgia for bygone days—for the latter part of the idealized Meiji Era when Japan was rising in the world, before it plunged into a darker era that ended in a catastrophic defeat in war.

Like our blog? Please share it!


Subscribe to the SBP Mailing List

New Releases

Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan

Going to Japan? This unfussy modern guide guarantees you keep it polite and get it right!

China Smart

Essential essays on all things Chinese that inform and entertain travelers, students, and anyone working or living in China

Forty-Seven Samurai

One of the most spectacular vendettas ever: the history and haiku behind the mass-suicide featured in the 2013 film 47 Ronin

Oh, Tama!

A deeply eccentric novel about lives and connections—and a cat of course—in 1980s Tokyo: witty, offbeat, and strangely profound.

Tag Cloud

china history gaijin pot japanese music holocaust hitler zen author talk new york events danica davidson osamu tezuka IBPA eating in japan damian flanagan publishing Children's Books the japan times guide the fourth string huffington post book publicity monk wife no longer human criterion kimba the white lion book hoarding 47 samurai Japanese art 2020 Olympics society bushido diy mfa publicity how to travel in japan a shameful life photography chinese literature verticle journal of a zen monk japanese instrument what do in japan Chinese history Art/Design event hiroaki sato osamau tezuka learning shamisen internment rebecca otowa controversy association of jewish libraries min kahng buddhist swastika religion japan memoir the millions stone bridge press performance travel manners non-fiction zazen traditional japanese instrumenet jing liu japanese craft brad hawley tea garden ripe mangoes china smart Japanese holidays chinese Children's Literature author signing dazai a memoir of sensei and me doris bargen stone bridge cafe paul mccarthy peace wanderlust buddhist state of belief japan guide japanese to english memior Christianity in Japan 47 ronin japan books monk Asian Studies japan food Travel japanese classic kinokuniya event american shamisen china where igo how to order in japan author event forty seven samurai hate classic japanese drunk jungle emperor oh tama center of east asian studies Chinese culture ancient symbol gallery awa living in japan japan manners disney bowing in japan matcha Japanese aesthetics japanese bath janet pocorbba tk nakagaki Chinese New Year jared cook japanese customs journal' monks wife seppuku japanese travel buddhism welton gaddy review the hidden writer japan today manga expat in japan musical Coming of Age Day takuma sminkey ancient symbols World War II chapters VIZ forest gander kyodo news japan trip tea my year of dirt and water amys guide to best behavior in japan sensei and me etiquette book talk polite tomoko aoyama otakuusa foreword indies japan book review manners interfaith 4k japanese people hitlers cross tracy franz why we write podcast the buddhist swastika buddhist priest donald richie blurb walt disney Chiune Sugihara bookstore book book signing Chinese Astrology Tokyo Olympics comics book reading green tea foreword reviews juddhism Korea photography traditional japanese music award evil monks wife osaka japanese manners kansuke naka astro boy lions roar japan travel etiquette larry herzberg japan etiquette trip journal henry kiyama classic poetry janet pocorobba summer vacation behavior finalist university of chicago lucille cara benjamin franklin awards ritual Alexandra Johnson death UCLA tokyo giajin will eisner hiaku washington dc holden caufield Ukiyo-e namethetranslator traditional japanese instrument book award michael emmerich Olympics japanese translation haibun osamu dazai Shoah alan moore travel to japan understandind china through comics politics and prose the inland sea Year of the Dog japanese book travel Japan drinking in japan chinese comics Anime/Manga/Comics translators podcast japan times nara swastika amy chavez japan ravel yukio mishima janet pocrobba reviews nazi journal of a zen monk's wife peace symbol nichi bei weekly, naomi hirarahara memoir the silver spoon diymfa eastern and western philosophy Spirituality japan visitor the japan society Spring Festival Christianity manga biography kyoto new york PEN AWARD traditional graphic novels Second World War suicide japan restaurant japanese cutlure learning in japan china vacation writing comic history Japan japanese culture fantasy literature haiku film classic literature ibpa publishing university pulitzer prize gratitude in japan shun medoruma japanese etiquette mark gibeau announcement book review koun foreword indies award kris kosaka japan custom amys guide to bes tbehavior in japan lesley university nhk dirt and water WWII The Colorado Review do it right and be polite Japanese literature year of zen Basho's Narrow Road japanese instruments History zen monk in japan keanu reeves fred schodt awards Poetry China benjamin franklin award gaijin donald keene illustration japanese books in english diary Korea best behavior in japan four immigrants Culture purification international book award 2019 zen monk japan travel guide visitor travel literature dark horse World War Two ex pat literature japanese books manji student teacher china book 1960's Japan book blurb hippocampus magazine japanese history buddhist symbols zen monks wife' jun hazuki t.k. nakagaki astrology anime rachel manley tricycle magazine travel etiquette shamisen performance japan travel books expat a mejiro novel zen monk wife 1960s Korea classic japanese literature memoir, tracy franz, zen monk, buddhist how to author tour black jack memoir writing Interview shaimsen journal of a zen monks wife in japan ningen shikkaku sensei the asian review of books koto author poetry of consciousness hitler symbol frederik schodt luke patitsas new release japan behavior asian review of books china travel japan vacation kyoto journal shamisen Basho expert AAS Okinawan literature pottery Translation forewrod reviews indies poet Language a memoir frank beyer world literature today the lion king mieko kanai nova scotia catcher in the rye simba book tour pacific rim review of books alan brill foreigner in japan japan culture william f sibley budhist swastika in the woods of memory leonard koren forty seven ronin literary prize wife eli lieberman suehiro maruo new books china guide the fourth string a memoir of sensei and me Nikolas Bunton literary review huffpost gaijinpot book reviews hooked cross literature miswest book review japan book japanese asia china What You Don’t Know, What You Need to Know— A Past & Present Guide to History, Culture, Society, Language tourist