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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.

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