Readers Don’t Need to Be Babied: A Conversation on Translating Japanese Literature

This year Japanese popular literature superstar Tomihiko Morimi was translated into English for the first time—and the second time! Yen Press released Penguin Highway on April 23 and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl on August 13. Translations were handled by Andrew Cunningham and Emily Balistrieri respectively.

Penguin Highway is the story of a boy, Aoyama, who takes “the most notes of any fourth grader in Japan. Maybe in the world.” He researches his first crush and his environment, and when penguins start appearing around the suburb where he lives, he and his friends investigate.

The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl is set in Kyoto, as many Morimi works are, where a college student struggles to find romance on a road paved with fantasy and angst. After spending nearly a year trying to get the girl of his dreams to notice him, can he finally get a date?

Translators Balistrieri and Cunningham got together to discuss their experiences translating Morimi and their impressions of his work.

Emily Balistrieri: One thing, I think, is interesting is that, so these are the first two novels of his to be translated, but in terms of style, they’re about as far apart as you can get. Penguin Highway in Japanese has always been my go-to recommendation for Japanese learners, since the fourth-grade protagonist makes it easier to read, while the first time I read Night Is Short in Japanese a few years ago, I really struggled. Despite the novels’ differences, though, I think it’s still clear that Aoyama is a Morimi guy, from the way he thinks and, well, loves. Is there anything you paid attention to specifically when crafting his voice?

Andrew Cunningham: I certainly did an unusual number of drafts on the first couple of pages. Aoyama is a bit of a snot, but you don’t want him to be unlikable. I tinkered a bunch until I found the right balance. The wrong tone on the first page of a book can really set readers on the wrong path, so I always spend extra time on them. Generally, though, this is a case where Morimi’s own voicing is so distinctive that I found I was instinctively locking into the right way to translate things. Like, I realized after a while that Aoyama was only using one word as a strengthener, and combed back through the translation to make sure they were all the same…and I’d translated taihen as “extremely” every time without even noticing the pattern. It just felt right.

The Night Is Short has that exact same delicate balance of tone, only twice, for two very different voices. How did you approach that?

EB: The style of Night Is Short is pretty much peak Morimi in the sense that the style in this (and Tatami Galaxy, which hasn’t been translated yet but has a fantastic anime adaptation, as well as Taiyō no tō, Koibumi no gijutsu) is what people usually think of when they think of him. Not that every work of his fits into this scheme, obviously, but broadly he has this mode and then his spooky spirited away/supernatural mode, which you can see in titles like Kitsune no hanashi, Yoiyama mangekyō, and Yakō.

So this mode features these “rotten” university students, with what I feel are hearts of gold, and their various attempts at trying to get the girl. They tend to think in this sort of complicated or at least over-the-top way, which was once called “fuguing” by a mentor at a translation workshop I attended. I liked that term, so I sort of latched on to that idea, but the less roundabout answer is that lots of Morimi protagonists have this sort of voice, and I’ve been doing samples and tinkering with it for years now, so my main task is to just push it and get it to the point that it’s as fun to read in English as it is in Japanese.

Then for the girl’s voice in Night Is Short, she was actually sort of too similar to him in some ways (in the ways that would have been easy to render in English), but different enough in other ways that I tried to simply compare her to him to take away or add things as necessary. And I tried to make her sound a little more proper, I guess you could say, since she does speak more politely.

AC: She has a kind of giddy enthusiasm that always comes through, while he has a somewhat world-weary cynicism. It’s pretty telegraphed when the narrators change, but I think you could open your translation to any given page and know very quickly who was speaking.

EB: Oh, I’m glad you feel that way. I think some people felt they were too similar. But yeah, her character is almost too child-like.

AC: But it definitely gives her that sort of wonder and curiosity that is the driving force in all of her adventures.

EB: Speaking of Morimi protagonists, I wanted to ask you if Aoyama’s obsession with breasts was annoying to translate.

AC: I was certainly acutely conscious of how differently Aoyama’s interest in breasts would play culturally speaking. I definitely made a conscious choice to use the word “breast” as the most scientific sounding term for them, to emphasize that his interest in them is purely scientific and he’s completely unaware of anything sexual about it (which is what Americans tend to be bothered by). Then the subtitles of the [Penguin Highway] film adaptation I saw used “boob” the whole time, and that seemed to defang it in an entirely different way that worked just as well, so maybe I just overthought it!

EB: Yeah, to me, I felt like well, he’s getting to be the age that he’ll start noticing these things more and more. So it didn’t strike me as that bizarre, but also he thinks about them in a pretty specific way that is endearing and very in character. I like the choice of “breasts.”

AC: What did you think was the single greatest challenge with your book?

EB: Chapter three, definitely, which is hard to speak to now because my editor changed a few things, but there were some terms that I had to really think about, and then the guerrilla theater production. But actually, the script for the play the students at the university put on went more smoothly than I thought. I was going to try to get feedback on the draft from my sister and her husband, who are both in the theater world, but they were busy and I ended up being satisfied with what I had.

AC: Reading the play in English, I got the sense that that was the section you most enjoyed translating. There was a real zeal to it.

EB: It’s just so ridiculous. What about for you? I also wanted to ask about the onēsan (the lady Aoyama likes never gets a name) and shōnen (what she calls Aoyama), if that wasn’t the hardest part.

AC: I think I got lucky there, since I tried “the lady” first, and it worked, and nobody disagreed. And even the movie subtitles did the same thing, so I guess sometimes there is just a right answer.

EB: Yeah “the lady” is what I would have gone with for her, too. But I feel like “shōnen” could go more ways. “Kiddo” seemed perfect to me.

AC: “Kiddo” came less from the Japanese and more from the lady’s personality and voice. It just seemed like the word she would use to humor him. The biggest headache, though, was the reality warping around the unidentified floating object the kids are observing, which they call The Sea. The blocking gets very specific and occasionally not what you expect, so I had to reread a bunch and make sure I wasn’t messing things up and really understood what was going on.

EB: I remember thinking, as I read your translation, that it was probably a lot to think about. Was there anything that was particularly fun?

AC: All the sections where Aoyama is winding up his bullies by impassively refusing to get mad at them were great. Morimi talks about how Aoyama was the hero he wanted to be as a child, and I definitely relate.

EB: Yes, Aoyama is one of my favorite protagonists of all time.

AC: Another thing that’s unique about Penguin Highway is how little of the book is actually specific to Japan. It’s as if childhood makes things immediately more universal. But The Night Is Short is chock full of extremely Japanese things, and some of them are pretty obscure even for readers familiar with Japanese culture. How did you approach those aspects of the translation?

EB: Well, looking at the finished product, I see that my editor approached many of them with stealth or not-so-stealth glosses. Personally, I wanted to explain a little less in many places. I feel like readers don’t usually need to be babied as much as we think they do? I read a story translated from Korean recently that had a few footnotes, but I didn’t end up looking at any of them until I reached the end where they all were. If I wanted to, I could have Googled at any time, but I was enjoying the flavor of things and understanding well enough through context.

On the other hand, there are things like the padded coats in the hot-pot scene of The Night Is Short where you need to know that, rather than “some style of Japanese clothing,” it’s a padded coat. It impacts the action. So that’s how I tend to balance it.

AC: Yeah, there’s always a struggle between “I know all this! Let the readers Google!”; my knowledge that it can be frustrating to see a cultural reference you don’t know; and the need to anticipate what an editor will change. I’d always rather do the gloss myself…

EB: I guess up until now I haven’t had to do much glossing like that, so I was somewhat unprepared for how much they would add. It also depends on editorial style. I’ve been doing some other projects with a lot more back and forth, which has been refreshing.

Still, for things like street names, I think it’s silly to assume that any reader in Wisconsin (where I’m from) would immediately be able to picture a street in New York City from its name, or would be upset and stop reading if they couldn’t, but then say that it’s too much when coming from somewhere a little further afield.

That’s another big difference between Penguin Highway and most of Morimi’s books. Penguin Highway is deliberately almost placeless, whereas The Night Is Short is very much set in Kyoto.

AC: Having actually lived in Kyoto for several years, there’s also a gap between how native English speakers talked about Kyoto stuff living there and what would make sense to a reader. Like, we all called it “Kamogawa,” but do you add “River” in there? And do you call it the “Kamogawa River” redundantly or the “Kamo River” instead? It’s inherently a nightmare.

EB: I wanted to ask you, since Penguin Highway won the Nihon SF Taisho, which is often said to be like a Japanese Nebula, if you had any thoughts about doing this versus the extremely hard sci-fi Seiun Award–winner by Gengen Kusano that you translated recently.

AC: I actually did Last and First Idol and this one back to back, so that was a challenging couple of months. My feelings are that we should probably be translating a lot more things that win these awards, but that can’t happen if people don’t buy them.

EB: Word. I also really hope we can bring over more Morimi, too. The Night Is Short might be a little off-putting to people because of the stalkery way the guy pursues the girl, but when you hit the emotional climax (or at least what I consider to be the emotional climax) in chapter four, where he mulls over what a “correct” way to start a romance could possibly be—I feel like that’s the kind of thing people need to see today, almost. So it’s kind of a push-pull with the current zeitgeist, but I hope people survive the push to get pulled in.

AC: I think the intent is that he can’t get close to her until he addresses the negative aspects of his own behavior, but it isn’t lamp-shaded very explicitly. Some readers certainly seem to only feel comfortable if a book is straight-up preaching its moral, but I think Morimi is generally more fascinated by the process of self-improvement and self-discovery than judging his protagonists. He definitely allows them to be human.

EB: What Morimi book are you most eager to translate next?

AC: I don’t know! I really loved The Eccentric Family but I also really don’t want to figure out what to do with that character everyone just calls Nidaime so…

EB: As long as you don’t leave him as “Nidaime,” I think almost anything is fine! I’m really eager to get his epistolary rom-com, Koibumi no gijutsu, out, but I think we need Tatami Galaxy first, so I’m kind of focused on those two. He was up for the Naoki Prize with Nettai earlier this year, which is a book about a disappearing novel and the book club that tries to get to the bottom of its mystery—totally genius—but I also kind of feel like it should just come later. Basically, I’m chomping at the bit.

AC: The dizzying variety of writing styles in Koibumi would make it a real show-off piece for any translator. Which of us should translate it? We’ll have to settle this with a faux electric brandy-drinking contest.