A Writer’s Insight: David Boyd and Lucy North

David Boyd and Lucy North’s collaborative translation of Hiroko Oyamada’s story, “Egg Man,” appears in the spring 2021 issue of The Southern Review. Here, they discuss the process of cotranslation, the complexities of Hiroko Oyamada’s stories, and what work they might like to see translated from Japanese in the future.

Shakirah Peterson, Editorial Assistant: Can you walk us through the translation process for “Egg Man”? What was it like to collaborate with one another?

David Boyd: It’s not a particularly short story, but “Egg Man” contains only two paragraphs. Lucy and I decided to translate one paragraph each, on our own, then share. When we brought the two halves together, we went over the story multiple times. We refined our reading of the story as we went. Every pass came with new discoveries, which I guess is pretty typical with Hiroko Oyamada. Your understanding of her writing can change pretty dramatically on the seventh or eighth pass.

Lucy North: It’s hard to recall, but I think I was the one who suggested that we translate the story together . . . ? It had been recently published in a special issue of Bungei on feminisms in Korea and Japan. We worked on it for well over a year, though we did at times decide to leave it just to sit for a month or so. I am fascinated by the way that some elements in the narrative only became clear to us at the very end, literally as we were being edited by The Southern Review.

SP: Were there any allusions or references to Japanese culture in this story that may have been difficult to capture for unfamiliar English speakers? If so, what approaches or procedures did you take to translate them effectively?

LN: This is a story about a Japanese person abroad in Korea, supposedly enjoying some “touristic” experiences. In the first part, she is taken to a Chinese medicine street market; in the second, she goes off solo to find some reputedly amazing noodles. We felt that the story was a brilliant interrogation of the idea of what is foreign as opposed to domestic, and also a subtly humorous rendition of what it is often like to be a tourist abroad: you are supposed to desire special, exotic experiences, whilst what you encounter is often bland, confusing, chaotic, and quite ordinary. But the imagination can do strange things…

DB: I completely agree. I really love the way this story plays with expectation and reality.

SP: Do you think there are any unique challenges in translating from Japanese to English more broadly?

LN: Japanese is so very different from English that translation from one language to the other (especially from Japanese to English, I would argue) inevitably involves a huge amount of creative decisions, along with what can seem like major compromises and sacrifices. With Japanese-to-English translation, there is always the issue of how much “extra” to put in, just because in the Japanese text there will be so much that is already understood. It is sometimes hard to define what “extra” is across the linguistic divide.

DB: My personal preference is to provide the minimum. Of course I agree with Lucy. This particular language pair requires plenty of compromise and sacrifice. At the same time, adding something extra likely means eating into the story’s openness. With “Egg Man,” for example, so much of the story is about what isn’t understood. You have to make sure you don’t overstep. As we went over the story, I think we omitted more than we added. That felt right.

LN: Yes, this story is open—in a good sense—leaving the reader confused in a way that echoes the confusion the narrator feels.

SP: Hiroko Oyamada’s writing style is distinctly subtle and casual. Do you find this style common in other Japanese works?

DB: Personally, I think Oyamada is worlds apart from her contemporaries. Her style is completely her own, and I’ve never really considered her writing casual. So much of what she’s doing exists beneath the surface, out of view . . .

LN: Oyamada’s texts are generally intricately worked. Oyamada often writes very long paragraphs. The writer Kikuko Tsumura has described this as a “wall of prose.” This has an interesting effect on the reading experience. It counteracts the usual tendency to see “events” in the narrative as “steps” in a story that progresses in a linear way. It requires the reader to pay more attention to the ways in which the individual sentences work with (and often against) each other. Everything seems of equal importance, and yet probably is not. There are also times when the prose takes on a garish, nightmarish quality.

SP: What are some untranslated works that you would like to see in English?

LN: I’d like to see works from earlier decades in Japan’s modern period, works that reflect early experiments with language and narrative modes. Some of these have been published in academic collections, and I’d like to see them republished and available more widely. They would round out readers’ perception of “Japanese literature,” which to my mind is becoming overwhelmingly contemporary and story-based. I’d like to see new translations of Toshiko Tamura, Fumiko Hayashi, Midori Osaki, and Fumiko Enchi.

DB: Exactly. I’d like to see more fiction by those writers, especially Midori Osaki. Lucy and I feel the same way about this. I’d like to see the return of some twentieth-century authors who have been translated into English once or twice, and then left behind. The publishing world clearly favors new authors, but there are so many great writers out there who deserve another chance. Above all, I’d like to see new translations of Kanoko Okamoto and Kenji Nakagami.

SP: Are you working on any other translations?

DB: We’re currently working together on Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi for Penguin Random House in the US and Harvill Secker in the UK. That should be out next year. Other than that, I just finished my first manga: Minoru Furuya’s Ciguatera. I’ve also been putting the finishing touches on another Oyamada novella for New Directions. When I’m done with that, I’ll be working on Toh EnJoe’s Harlequin Butterfly for Pushkin Press. That one also won the Akutagawa Prize, around ten years ago.

LN: I’m working on some short fiction by Natsuko Imamura. My translation of her Akutagawa-Prize-winning novella The Woman in the Purple Skirt is about to come out with Penguin Random House in the US and Faber in the UK. I’m about to make a start on translating Mayumi Inaba’s To the Peninsula, which I recommended in an article for LitHub, written with my Strong Women Soft Power colleagues Allison Markin Powell and Ginny Tapley Takemori.

SP: Where can we read more of your work?

LN: I’d like to direct readers to Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kono, which I produced while I was still a graduate student. New Directions published it in 1996, and reissued it in 2018. It has recently been published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, which I think means that it’s been accorded the status of a classic.

DB: We both have translations in the first issue of the annual journal MONKEY: New Writing From Japan, which came out late last year. Anybody who wants to find more Japanese literature in translation should really start there. It’s the kind of journal that you can read from cover to cover. It’s a really special magazine, with new work from Mieko Kawakami, Hideo Furukawa, Aoko Matsuda, and so many other great writers.

David Boyd is an assistant professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has translated Hideo Furukawa’s Slow Boat, Hiroko Oyamada’s novellas, and is cotranslating the novels of Mieko Kawakami.
Lucy North is a British translator of Japanese prose. Her works include Toddler Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kōno and Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami. Her translation of Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt is forthcoming this year.

Shakirah Peterson is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She writes across all genres: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is originally from Los Angeles, California, where she earned a BA in communication studies at California State University Long Beach.

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