Collective Conversations: An Interview with Strong Women, Soft Power

This month’s Collective Conversation features three-woman powerhouse translators of Japanese literature by women: Strong Women, Soft Power. This month’s questions were provided by the Boston Translation Collective. 


L to R: Lucy North, Allison Markin Powell, Ginny Tapley Takemori | ©Jonathan Armstrong/ The Documentist

Can you talk about what it’s like to be a three-women group of translators translating and promoting the works of Japanese authors who are women in this particular moment in time (Trump, internationally, literarily)?

It’s tremendously exciting and necessary. We formed our collective in January 2016, so we’ve already been through a number of “moments.” Primarily, we wanted to be able to address the zeitgeist that was happening in the Japanese literary world, where there was a crescendo of women writers who were publishing exciting work and winning awards for it. We were surprised to realize that a lot of them were not being translated into English, so that was our immediate charge. Since then, we have continued to evolve. One of the advantages of our collective is that we live on different continents, which enables us to keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in Tokyo, New York, and London. And the attention to women writers and women translators has only seemed to increase, so we feel well positioned to respond to editors’ interest, and to help shape the conversation about Japanese literature in translation.

In Boston our activity is mainly reading current work to each other in private homes, and only recently we’ve branched out to organize public events. Your group seems to have taken the opposite tack, and to have focused on public events. Are you also planning to develop the workshop model for translators to meet and discuss their work among themselves?

Yes, our first activity was a public reading in London during the 2016 Book Fair, and we followed up with an article for Lit Hub and then a day-long symposium in Tokyo in November 2017. Lucy and Allison have also been involved in planning and moderating translation slams featuring Japanese women writers.

One of the sessions at our Tokyo symposium was a demonstration of the workshop model (based upon the one run by Barbara Harshav in New York City), presented as a way to build community, wherever you are or what languages you work with, among literary translators—building communities was one of the themes of the symposium. As for the three of us, we often send our work to each other, to sound things out and get feedback. It’s not the same as being in a room together and reading it out loud, but it is an invaluable part of our collective, and we have the benefit of all working from the same language.

What plans do you have for your collective longer-term? 

For one thing we intend to organize more events. Seeing as how we have held a reading in London and a symposium in Tokyo, hopefully the next locale will be New York, although we are still discussing what format this will take. We are excited to host more translation slams featuring Japanese, since it’s such an excellent medium for demonstrating the challenges we face, which are quite different than those that many translators from European languages deal with. For instance, the complexities and ambiguities of the Japanese language require a number of decisions by the translator, often from the very first line, and there are the intricacies of so much culture that is embedded in the language. Other possibilities are a workshop format, and of course further panel discussions and readings. We are also working on a book project—we’ve already begun to sound out authors and publishers.  

Have you attracted more translators since the forming of Strong Women, Soft Power, or do you prefer to keep the group at three?

While we feel that our collective should be limited to just the three of us, we actively collaborate with other translators to promote Japanese women authors, and are eager to include them in our events and other activities, especially when we have the opportunity to consult with and help plan literary festivals. We’re always open to suggestions and ideas for ways to advance the conversation. 

Are you all translators of prose? How wide is your latitude of genres, styles, generations, in translation?  

So far, we have been translators of prose and manga, but given the variety of prose (or types of prose style, which is different from ‘genre’) that exist in Japanese, that’s a wide category. The differences relate also to when things were written––Japanese prose styles have evolved dramatically, and that’s even before we get to the unique styles and voices created by individual writers. Ginny has translated stories written from the late 19th century, when writers, aware of their rich linguistic heritage, were still trying to work out whether they wanted to write these things called ‘novels’, and Lucy has translated a little from even earlier. While we are fascinated by and focused on translating modern and contemporary texts—and that is what publishers and readers are most often after—we are keen to promote overlooked Japanese writers who have come before, conscious that the inevitable and continual rewriting of literary landscapes can mean that readers in English who are new to Japanese literature are left without some of the leading lights. We are definitely interested in filling out the picture. 

As for what we have each actually translated, it runs the gamut from literary novels, novellas, and short stories to YA and children’s fiction, thrillers and noir to biographies and memoir and, what we’re quite excited about lately, essays.

What are some of the translation issues unique or particular to translating from Japanese into English–linguistic, cultural, political, power relationships, etc.?

We think the days when publishers in the UK and the US, and indeed in Japan, relied solely and automatically on academics for advice on what to publish in translation, and for pronouncements on translation, are fast fading: there is a general opening out to a new generation of non-academic, or ex-academic, independent translators, who once might have been viewed askance, perhaps especially in Japan, precisely because they are not affiliated with an institution. These people are not only are very able, but also have their ears to the ground, and make it their business to be aware of shifting tastes and preoccupations in Japan, and in the countries of readers. Perceptions are changing: translators are no longer being viewed as automatons who are there to produce the text, but as taste-makers and -changers in their own right, and there is more and more a direct route from translator to publisher, or author to translator, even in Japan. So these past few years have seen the emergence of the translator as a force. Part of this has involved the shifting of tectonic plates in the Japanese publishing world.

We also think that we are a particularly interesting moment for writing in Japan. It is a pretty incontestable fact that women now dominate the literary scene. It was noted with pride that the last authors who were shortlisted for the Naoki prize were all women. At the same time, there have been a number of gender-related ‘incidents,’ debacles and even scandals, in Japan recently, all of which illustrate the unfair pressures and contradictions women in Japanese society are put under on a daily basis. There is also a widespread sexualization of women in society and in the media, which exists alongside a reluctance to talk about or even acknowledge sexual violence perpetrated on women, and inadequate and out-of-date rape laws.  And yet, it is also undeniable that ‘speaking out’ (often equated with giving offense) remains as difficult as it ever was: tactfulness (i.e., silence) is a virtue in Japan. This may go some way to explain the irony, the subtlety, the ‘hyper-realism,’ the comedy and oddness and stylization and exaggeration seen in much contemporary Japanese literature—tendencies that often fall under the convenient rubric of ‘quirkiness’ for western commentators. This combination—of incredible talent, an openness towards women writers, deep-rooted and prevalent assumptions about gender, and societal pressure towards discretion and/or silence—is now actually, ironically, an extremely productive and creative one, and, for good or ill, it means that we will continue to see very interesting writing being produced in Japan, particularly by women.

If you could start your group all over again, is there anything you would change? Or knowing all that you have learned from launching Strong Women, Soft Power, is there something you would tell people who want to start new groups, or people who maintain other groups?

We couldn’t be happier with the way that Strong Women, Soft Power has come to fruition.  Collectivism does seem to be in the air at the moment, and it’s such a great model of support for people who work independently. Perhaps the best advice is to find people with whom you’re compatible but who have different strengths, and to not be too rigid about what the collective needs to be—we’ve found it helpful to be flexible as things move forward. Also, as we’ve already mentioned, while it is more manageable to restrict our collective to just the three of us, we are continually talking and collaborating with our colleagues, and we have heard that SWSP has inspired other translators to collectivize. Our view is that a rising tide lifts all ships—the more discussion and focus there is on Japanese women writers, the more work there will be for all of us translators. It can only benefit all of us, as long as we take a collaborative approach.

You write that “We intended to start a discussion, and it seems we have succeeded.” Which of Strong Women, Soft Power’s achievements are you particularly proud of?

Since our Lit Hub article highlighting 10 works by Japanese women we felt ought to appear in translation (many of which have since been picked up for publication) and our SWSP symposium in Tokyo, in which we highlighted both the lack of translations of Japanese female authors in English and the current boom of women authors taking the Japanese literary world by storm, various people in the industry—from publishers to journalists—have shown an interest in women writers. The Japan Times even published a series of articles devoted to the subject. We are now considering how best to take this forward, discussing with Japanese publishers how to promote their women authors as well as recommending specific works to English-language publishers. 

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