Bridging the literary world

Author Philip Gabriel deserves more than being the unsung hero of the literary world


FANS OF Nobel prize winners Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the ShoreKilling Commendatore) and Kenzaburo Oe (Somersault) are probably familiar with the name Philip Gabriel, as he is the man who translated the works of these Japanese authors into English.

Gabriel is also an author in his own right, having written Mad Wives and Island Dreams: Shimao Toshio and the Margins of Japanese Literature.

He is currently a professor of modern Japanese literature, and department head of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona in the US.

For his work, Gabriel has received the 2001 Sasakawa Prize for Japanese Literature, the 2001 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for Translation of Japanese Literature, and the 2006 PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize for Kafka on the Shore.

In an email interview, Gabriel talks about his work and what goes into it.

What was the first translated book you read, and what did you think about it?

“[The] first one I read translated from Japanese was Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, which I read in a class in college. I had never read a novel like it before, and like many of my generation who went on to study Japanese literature, it was the impetus to read more.

“I thought it read like poetry at times, focused more on setting and nature than characters, and cared little about closure.

“I was fascinated by all these aspects – it all seemed so different from what I was used to – and I immediately read more of Kawabata and Japanese literature in translation.”

Have you ever come across a book that was not translated as well as it should have been?

“I have occasionally run across books that seemed quite stiff and unnatural in translation, and could do with more editing.

“Early drafts tend to be like this, and when I see these translations in print, I feel bad that the editors didn’t insist on going over the English a few more times.

“In the end, translated books have to read smoothly in English, but that’s not always the case.

“I should mention, though, that I am more often blown away by the translations I read, by how fluid and natural they seem, and this is an impetus to me to do better myself.”

How did you end up becoming a translator for Japanese novels?

“[I] was part of a small reading group of Japanese and US teachers in Nagasaki. We met every week to read translations of modern Japanese literature and compare these with the original text, often line by line.

“I started to think I could try my hand at translating and later, after I won a national translation contest in Japan, I began to actually do so.”

How was your first attempt at translating a Japanese novel?

“My first full-length novel was Masahiko Shimada’s Dream Messenger, which I worked on while I was writing my dissertation in Japan … I had grown interested in his work, and was quite excited.

“I recall getting back the first edited pages of the draft, covered in red with pointed comments and corrections everywhere, and feeling dejected.

“But as I studied them, and worked more with the editor, I feel like I improved a bit and grew more confident in translating.”

As an author yourself, does that give you a unique perspective, and perhaps more respect, for another author’s work?

“I admire anyone who creates something out of nothing, which is what novelists do.

“Staring at a blank page, or blank screen, can be frustrating, even painful, and because I’ve experienced this myself, I have the utmost respect for anyone who has written a novel, who has struggled day after day to find the most appropriate, telling, and moving words and phrases.

“I hope this makes me take my work as a translator more seriously.”

Translators are seldom given due credit for their work. Do you think that is fair?

“No, it’s not fair, and translators should certainly be given more credit – their names on the covers of books, for instance, as well as royalties. Neither of these happens regularly, as far as I know.”

Recently, Murakami’s Killing Commendatore was nominated for the Worst Sex in Fiction award.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of it, frankly. Wasn’t an earlier book of his also nominated for this, too?

“He does write some surreal sex scenes sometimes, for sure … I’m not sure how to comment on this, though I would say that his characters sometimes seem more frustrated and confused by sexual encounters than fulfilled, so for them, the sex is not always the best.”

What advice would you give to budding translators ?

“If you translate full-length novels you’ll be spending many months with them, day after day, so my advice is to choose authors and books you love, whose style and storylines hold you spellbound.

“Of course, you want to get the translation published eventually – the point being to share the story with others who can’t read the original – but that shouldn’t be the only priority.

“You need to grow as a translator, honing your understanding of the original language, and your own skills as a writer. That should be your day-to-day concern.”

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