Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Presenting Allison Markin Powell, literary translator from Japanese

This month, Nicky Harman interviews Allison Markin Powell. Allison is a literary translator and editor and publishing consultant who translates fiction, nonfiction, biography, essays, and manga from Japanese.

Can you tell me a bit about contemporary Japanese literature? What's the most exciting trend that you can see?

One of the most exciting things about contemporary Japanese literature, as far as I’m concerned, is the current tide of women writers of various ages.  From my unofficial research, the data appear to show that female writers have won at least half of the most prestigious literary prizes in recent years, and in what may be a more revealing facet, they are selling just as many books as male writers—and in all genres, be it mystery or fantasy or horror, or plain old literary fiction.  But what concerns me is that this relative parity within the Japanese publishing landscape is not being reflected in English translation.  When I look at the titles and number of books published in English, the imbalanced proportion (26%) is similar to what exists among fiction that is originally written in English.  Whereas I’m excited that there are new as well as overlooked Japanese women writers who are finding a readership abroad—such as Sayaka Murata, Yukiko Motoya, Taeko Kono, and Yuko Tsushima, to name just a few—it’s disappointing to see what appears to be a Western distortion being imposed on such a robust harvest of literature.

I notice your comment in a previous interview in World Literature Today that the biggest challenge for you is finding the voice. You said: "...before I even agree to translate a work—I have to hear the voice in my head first and feel confident that I will be able to convey that in English." I'm full of admiration, by the way, I often don't find the voice until I've finished the first draft and am revising it! Could you tell us about a book where you were particularly pleased with the voice you found for your author...or were surprised at the voice you'd found...or struggled to find the voice because it was very different from your own? 

Oh, yes, hearing the voice is crucial for me, a prerequisite for the way that I translate, or perhaps the way I read….  Several of the writers with whom I work have such a talent for creating characters, and for developing an intimacy between them and the reader.  But I also think that, as a translator, matching your style to the writer is just as important.  I have done sample translations in the past and realized that I’m just not suited to translate certain writers—their style feels contradictory to my own, or I can’t find the right register—I think it’s important to acknowledge that.  But to get back to your question, I’m lucky that I’ve now translated three books each by two of the authors I work with, and that has enabled me to feel considerably more comfortable with finding the voice (or voices) for each book, and to become familiar with their idiosyncrasies.  I just translated a “side story” to Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (the first of her books I translated), and it was such a pleasure to encounter her characters again.

Do you find that as a translator you do a lot of extra-curricular work to pitch work to publishers and/or promote your translations after they've come out? If so, do you enjoy it and why do you think you end up doing this kind of promotion?

I do a tremendous amount of work outside of actual literary translation, but I think this is true for many, if not most, translators.  The structure of the Japanese publishing industry is quite different from that in the U.S. or the U.K., so I do put a lot of effort into making connections.  I always say that the publication of a successful literary translation is like lightning in a bottle—so many factors need to be just right in order for this thing to occur.  Agencies in Japan function differently—their efforts are primarily focused on selling foreign rights into Japan, rather than in the other direction—and there are very few, if any, American or British editors who read Japanese.  I do enjoy doing this kind of matchmaking and editorial but it takes me away from the translation work.  I wish there were more hours in the day—I might even consider hanging out my own shingle.

In your 2017 WLT interview, you mention drawing up a list of Japanese writers who have not been translated but deserve to be. Has there been progress, for them or others, in the last two years? 

Yes, one of the collectives I’m a member of—Strong Women, Soft Power—we collaborated on that article, with help from a couple fellow translators.  There was a fantastic response from editors, and I believe that four out of the ten on our list have now been published.  But that was only two and a half years ago, so I’m hopeful that number will grow.

And finally, what's your current book, can you tell us about it?
I’ve been co-translating a massive project called Lady Joker, a thriller based on a true crime that occurred in Japan in the 1980s—a kidnapping-corporate extortion heist—that is absolutely fascinating.  But the book is 1,500 pages in the original and requires a tremendous amount of research, so it’s taking my co-translator Marie Iida and me much longer than we expected to complete it.  This is my first experience with co-translating, though, and I am thoroughly enjoying it—I think this project lends itself well to teamwork, and I’m very pleased with the division of labor—it’s delightful to work with Marie.  Look for Lady Joker in 2020 from Soho Crime!

Friday, 19 April 2019

Viewpoint: Mona Dash

Viewpoint invites authors to write about anything they want, as long as it's of interest to readers of Asian Books Blog.

Here, Mona Dash talks about leaving her native India, to save her child's life. Her son was born with a rare, genetically inheritable disease, SCID (severe combined immuno-deficiency). After his diagnosis, she set out for London so he could be given specialist treatment. She has written about her experiences in the memoir, A Roll of the Dice: a story of loss, love and genetics. This publishes next Monday, April 22.

Mona still lives in London, where she combines motherhood, and work in the technology sector with writing fiction and poetry. Her work includes the novel Untamed Heart, and two collections of poetry, Dawn-drops and A certain way.  In 2016, Mona was awarded a poet of excellence award in the upper chamber of the British parliament, the House of Lords.  Her work has been widely praised and anthologized. In 2018, she won a competition established to encourage and promote British Asian writers, the Asian writer short story competition, for her short story Formations.

A Roll of the Dice describes the ups-and-downs, the shocks and support, the false starts and real hopes of a mother with a sick child. Mona humanizes the complexities of genetic medicine, and writes her story of genetic roulette without self-pity. Her memoir contains valuable information for couples facing infertility and complicated pregnancies, for parents of premature babies and of children with SCID.

So, over to Mona…

Monday, 15 April 2019

Writing with Heart, Humour, and Honesty: An Interview with M SHANmughalingam

Award-winning author Dato’ Dr M SHANmughalingam—or Dato' Shan, as he is affably known—had his first solo collection of short stories launched by no less than HRH Sultan Nazrin Shah, the Sultan of Perak and Deputy King of Malaysia, just last October. His book cover carries HRH's endorsement and the book a Royal Foreword, for good reason: Shan is a national treasure of storytelling. The vibrant volume, evocatively titled Marriage and Mutton Curry, hit number two on the MPH bestseller list in Malaysia.

When I started reading Marriage and Mutton Curry, what struck me most was how warm it was, even as it delves into stories of the Jaffna Tamil community with incisive truth. Always honest, but always just as kind, Shan deftly navigates topics as broad as the Japanese occupation, red tape and diplomacy, colonial legacies and cultural intricacies of his Malay(si)a. He weaves references to Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner into the context of Malayan schoolboys and bureaucrats with equal parts unflinching irony, pointed humour, and joy. To quote Gillian Dooley’s review in Asiatic (Vol. 2, Dec 2018): “There is no sentimentality here at all: compassion, yes, but clear-eyed candour”.

Dato' Dr M SHANmughalingam (Picture courtesy of Epigram Books)

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Tsundoku #3 - April 2019

Welcome to issue 3 of Tsundoku – a column by me, Paul French, aiming to make that pile of ‘must read’ books by your bed a little more teetering - fiction, non-fiction, photography and kids...and so...let’s start building your tsundoku pile for April….let’s start with new fiction...

Hideo Yokoyama’s fat detective novel Six Four was a massive sensation both in Japan and internationally a couple of years ago. Now Yokoyama is back with Precinct D (riverrun), a collection of four short stories all set in 1998 Tokyo and each one following one police officer faced with a difficult choice to make.

Introducing Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami is a Japanese novelist, short story writer, essayist and filmmaker. He explores human nature through dark themes of disillusion, drug use, murder and war, giving his work a surrealist, sinister air.  He is perhaps less well-known internationally than he deserves to be.  Singapore-based Piers Butel, who writes on culture and travel, here urges you to read him.

Scenes of staggering violence, a cast of misfits and outsiders, a twisted world that seems familiar but also deeply disturbing and a feeling that things probably won’t end up all right. The novels of Ryu Murakami are not always easy to read, but with drumming heartbeat-fast plots, cinematic sheen and a unique style, you won’t have time to be bored.

500 words from Sylvia Vetta

British freelance writer, author and speaker, Sylvia Vetta, is on her fourth career after teaching, running a business, and having a high-profile role in the antiques trade in England. In 1998 she began freelancing writing on art, antiques and history. She then took a diploma in creative writing, which led to the publication of her first novel Brushstrokes in Time.

Sylvia's husband, Dr Atam Vetta, is Indian, so she knows that chance encounters can change lives, and she is interested in cultural exchange. Her own experienced influenced Sculpting the Elephant, which concerns the relationship between British artist, Harry King, and Indian historian Ramma Gupta.  When Harry trips over Ramma their lives change forever, but can their love stand the strain of crossing cultures? Their story becomes entwined with the life of a maverick Victorian who mysteriously disappeared in the Himalayas while in search of the emperor who gave the world Buddhism, but was then forgotten for the next 2000 years.

So, over to Sylvia...

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Indie Spotlight: The Imperial Alchemist - AH Wang

As the new contributor to the Indie Spotlight, I'm thrilled to introduce my first guest, AH Wang who has been inspired by ancient Taiwanese history and mythology to write The Imperial Alchemist - a gripping archeological thriller with a difference, to delight fans of Indiana Jones and anyone interested in the history of this fascinating land. 

In this post she gives us some background to the book and the inspirations around it....