Dreams, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Translating the Science Fiction Worlds of Izumi Suzuki
by David Boyd
On April 20th, 2021, Verso Books will publish a collection of seven science-fiction stories by Japanese writer Izumi Suzuki (1949-1986) under the title Terminal Boredom. Six translators worked on the book: Daniel Joseph (“Women and Women” and “Terminal Boredom”), Aiko Masubuchi (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”), Helen O’Horan (“That Old Seaside Club”), David Boyd (“You May Dream”), Sam Bett (“Night Picnic”) and Polly Barton (“Forgotten”).
The work of bringing an author into a new language is typically carried out by one translator, or maybe two. In this sense, Suzuki’s introduction into English—a sextangulation of her voice—is highly unusual.
For the most part, the six of us worked on our stories alone. Once we finished our drafts, we shared what we had with Daniel Joseph, who read our translations against the Japanese and provided feedback. Joseph’s feedback was not intended to impose any kind of stylistic uniformity. Instead, he helped us fine-tune our interpretations of Suzuki’s voice. Ultimately, each translator retained more or less full control over their own story.
I spoke with each of Suzuki’s translators to ask them about their stories and their approaches. These conversations took place over the phone during the summer of 2020, after we had completed our initial drafts, but before we received feedback from our editor at Verso, Cian McCourt. What I had hoped to learn through these calls was whether the six of us had had more or less the same experience in translating Suzuki—or if our work had led us down radically different paths.
We began our work with the same basic knowledge of Suzuki as a writer:
Born in 1949, during the Allied Occupation of Japan, Suzuki came of age in the sixties. When she finished high school, she worked briefly at a factory before she started acting, modeling and writing. By the early seventies, she had carved out a space for herself in the male-dominated world of Japanese science fiction. We had all read what the critic Mari Kotani wrote about Suzuki: “It is not an overstatement to say that the age of women’s SF—wherein women discover and reconstruct femininity—began with Izumi Suzuki.”
We also knew that even though Suzuki was fond of setting her stories in far-flung and futuristic worlds, she tended to return to deeply domestic themes, often focusing on fraught relationships between men and women.
As Daniel Joseph has written, “In a world of ready interstellar travel, we seldom leave [the familiarity of the city]. Suzuki is fascinated with how the fundamental struggles of everyday life persist regardless of what new technologies infiltrate our lives.”
Terminal Boredom opens with Daniel Joseph’s translation of “Women and Women” (Onna to onna no yo no naka, 1977), the first line of which reads:
“This morning a boy passed by my house.”
In our own world, nothing could be more banal—but the second line throws everything into question:
“When I told my sister Asako about it, she just said, ‘Dummy, you know there aren’t any boys around here.’”
In the paragraphs that follow, we are walked through a history nothing like our own—that of a society of women that has relegated men to ghettos—before we arrive again at the narrative present knowing exactly as much about men in this world as our young narrator does: precious little. The story is filled with markers of uncertainty, but over the course of the story we come to better understand this world without men.
Over the phone, I spoke to Joseph about his own reading of the story. When I asked if he read “Women and Women” as a utopia or dystopia, he told me that the difficulty of making that call could be described as one of the story’s “greater joys.”
What would a world without men look like? “This question guides the story,” Joseph says, “but it’s hard to say exactly where Suzuki lands in the end—which is by no means a bad thing.” Toward the end of the story, the narrator is directly exposed to the dark potential of boys, but the story never points us toward any sort of moral evaluation.
“Maybe that’s what makes Suzuki’s stories so interesting,” Joseph says. “Almost none of them have any big message to take away. We’re left to draw whatever inferences we choose from the characters and scenarios and emotions she’s presented us with.” For Joseph, this is what separates Suzuki from the “golden-age writers” of anglophone science fiction, such as Asimov or Clarke, who turned to the genre in order to explore its “logical possibilities.” As Joseph sees it, Suzuki seems much more invested in her characters than in the worlds they inhabit. Hers is a deeply personal, subjective mode of science fiction—very much the opposite of so-called “hard sci-fi.”
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (Kemuri ga me ni shimiru, 1979), translated by Aiko Masubuchi, exemplifies Suzuki’s predilection for the character-driven story. The premise is simple enough. A man and a woman who had some sort of relationship in the past run into each other. But the two are clearly not on the same page as to what that relationship was. As Masubuchi puts it, the story is about “two characters who aren’t meeting each other emotionally.”
Reiko, the woman, is dealing with depression and has turned to drugs to feel better. These drugs affect time in a couple of ways, Masubuchi says. They clearly affect Reiko’s perception of time, but they also make her age with incredible speed. The drug fulfills its promise—Reiko feels great—but the cost is obvious.
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” begins and ends with the man’s perspective, but Reiko narrates the middle section of the story. In her dreams, the man is known by a name not typically given to men: “Jane.” As Masubuchi reads the story, the man may not be “Jane” to anyone else—but, in Reiko’s eyes, he is. According to Masubuchi, this change in perspective posed one of the greater challenges when translating the story. When the man appears as Jane, “his sentence endings in Japanese are generally indicative of a female persona. I tried to emulate these inflections through word choice.”
Masubuchi found that she could introduce a similar energy into the English by adding dialogue tags (which Suzuki often omits). While Masubuchi wrote a number of generic tags into the text (e.g., “Jane said”), there were cases in which she opted for something more suggestive, such as “Jane purred.”
Masubuchi took special care to preserve the emotion in the story. “When I first read ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,’ I didn’t really stop to think about what was going on. Once I really got into the language of it, it hit me in this devastating way that it really hadn’t the first time around. I hope I managed to capture the depressiveness of it all… I tried to be sensitive to the ways that depression plays with time, and the expansions and contractions of time that occur throughout the story.”
“Narrative haziness” was the first thing Helen O’Horan mentioned when I asked her about “That Old Seaside Club” (Omoide no shīsaido kurabu, 1982), another story that deals extensively with drugs and addiction. “Once I had my own interpretation, I had to make sure that I wasn’t ruling out other possibilities… but I personally feel strongly that the narrator is the only addict in the story.”
O’Horan felt that successfully translating this story was not a matter of “digging deeper” to arrive at an “accurate reading.” Rather, she had to follow the contours of Suzuki’s sometimes imperfectly defined world. This meant “living with the story” for some time. As O’Horan put it to me in an email:
“This process of living with and absorbing the text, from as many angles and in as many contexts as possible, was how I built my understanding of the story. So one day, I’d just sit with the dialogue, read it aloud and see what came up. The following day, I’d form a different interpretation based on a very meticulous reading of only the final few pages, for instance. Then the next day I’d speed-read the whole thing through. It wasn’t as formal as that in practice, but that’s an approximation of the ‘field work’ that fed into my ‘master construal’ of the text, which informed its eventual translation.”
“That Old Seaside Club” is one of several stories in Terminal Boredom that relies heavily on music. Its characters whistle and hum, forget and remember lyrics. In this story, which has deep connections to memory and nostalgia, Suzuki uses music to provide some clarity in an otherwise hazy world.
When translating the story, O’Horan wrestled with lyrics that Suzuki had borrowed from a few pop songs, including the 1965 France Gall song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son.” While Serge Gainsbourg’s original lyrics promise that love doesn’t exist only in songs, in “That Old Seaside Club,” Suzuki offers a dark interpretation of the line: “This isn’t real, it’s just a song.” At first, O’Horan thought about building some sort of bridge between Gainsbourg’s line and Suzuki’s, but the compromise was ultimately too much. In the end, O’Horan felt that she had to remain faithful to Suzuki’s radical translation.
Music played a major part in my translation of “You May Dream” (Yū mei dorīmu, 1981) as well. Suzuki often named her stories after pop songs, some of which would be clear even to anglophone readers (such as the Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”). “You May Dream” shares its name with a song by Japanese rock group Sheena and the Rokkets that came out in 1980, one year before Suzuki’s story.
In “You May Dream,” two young women have a complicated relationship—and one that is further complicated by the fact that one of them has just been “randomly selected” to be cryofrozen. In the world of this story, the Population Department runs a lottery to put people to sleep for a hundred years. It doesn’t sound great, but there is a silver lining: Before going under, you can have your consciousness transferred into the mental world of another person (as long as they’re willing to have you).
Typically, we’re told, transfers occur between family members and lovers. Apparently short on options, the narrator’s friend asks the narrator, who says yes without giving it much thought. As soon as her friend arrives in her consciousness, her dream world descends into chaos, eventually transforming into a nightmare. The fusion of their mental universes—their opposite personalities—has apparently triggered some sort of cataclysmic event.
On the surface, what happens in the story has very little to do with the love song “You May Dream” (except for a single line, spoken in English, “For you, I’ve reserved a dream”), but I kept the song playing on repeat while I worked on the story, allowing Suzuki’s point of reference to guide my choices.
As in Masubuchi’s translation of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” my main concern was capturing the emotional devastation that pervades the story. I can’t say for sure if listening to a song as bubbly and hopeful as “You May Dream” affected the final translation, but it had a strong influence over my mental state as I worked on the text.
“Night Picnic” (Yoru no pikunikku, 1981), translated by Sam Bett, is one of the odder stories in Terminal Boredom. As Bett sees it, the story is a parody of the mid-century sitcom, but set in space—“so there are no Joneses to keep up with.”
In an abandoned city on the surface of the moon, we follow a family of four—mother, father, daughter and son—as they prepare for a picnic, going out of their way to act the part of a nuclear family. As Bett points out, the story contains several nods to John Varley’s “Picnic on Nearside,” which appeared in a Japanese translation by Maki Ono less than a year before the publication of “Night Picnic.” “Both plots focus on a lunar picnic, but other compositional choices, such as a teenage female character described as having been a teenage boy just days before, demonstrate Suzuki’s penchant for harvesting choice artifacts from the pop cultural landscape she called home.”
What makes the story so fun, Bett says, is that each family member has his or her own idea of what it means to “act human.” Bett gave a lot of thought to how he would have the humanoid family on the moon signal their humanity. In his view, their speech and behavior had to be “familiar enough”—and, at the same time, “off enough”—to register as a charade.
To this end, Bett decided to “fuzz the grammar.” The idea came to him when he was translating a scene in which the father and son are having an awkward conversation about dating. The son tells his father how he wants to have his heart broken one day. Somewhat reasonably, the father explains that he would need to be in a relationship for that to happen, but by the end of the conversation, they’ve concluded that Junior should try asking his sister out.
“The dysphoria,” Bett said, “hit so hard that it made me hypervigilant of other jarring moments in the text. In Suzuki’s original, this is mostly established through gratuitous references to Western brand names, books and movies, many of which are deeply confused. But nearly fifty years later… the forced nature of these name-drops falls flat. Rather than impose substitutions, I generated weirdness elsewhere, tweaking the phrasing to ensure the reader knows that something is awry.”
Bett proceeded to plant “tells” in the translation, as reminders of the suspect nature of this not-so-average family. “I’ve never made a move like this one before,” Bett said, “and I’m not sure I’d try doing it again, but I think it’s true to the spirit of the story.”
According to Polly Barton, a “permanent intoxication” runs through “Forgotten” (Wasureta, 1977). “It’s a world that would be intolerable if not intoxicated.” As translator, Barton sought to preserve the story’s “confusion.” It was, after all, a confusion that served a purpose within the narrative. The reader does not know who or what to trust.
There was a balance to be struck. Barton had to approximate that sense of confusion while also making sure that her readers were not “hopelessly lost.” As Barton says, English can be an exacting language. Prevailing opinions of style place considerable emphasis on consistency and clarity. Barton aimed to add “signposting” where English demanded it, but not to such an extent that it would undermine or cancel out the playful elements that made “Forgotten” enjoyable to read in Japanese.
“Forgotten” touches on colonialism and space war, but—as with many of Suzuki’s stories—the real focus is the relationship between the two main characters: a man and a woman. In this case, the man happens to be an alien.
For Barton, Sol, the alien boyfriend, may have come from another planet, but his dynamic with the narrator is “typical teenage drama.” The two characters can be seen as opposites: Sol is completely devoid of human affect, while the narrator is hyper-emotional. As Barton puts it, “she’s constantly falling so that he has to lift her up.” When working on the dialogue between the two characters, Barton gave special thought to Sol’s voice. Similar to Bett in “Night Picnic,” she had to do something to signal alienness. “I sort of think of Sol talking,” Barton says, “in the way that people who can’t translate dialogue translate dialogue.”
When going over her translation with Daniel Joseph, Barton says Sol became increasingly staid— “more Sol.” His lines were stripped down and deprived of anything emphatic or exclamatory. The final results look like this:
“But Terrans aren’t entirely a lost cause. In some cases, the limitation placed on their lives gives them a powerful energy. That’s especially true of women. Their field of interest is terribly narrow. They’re primitive and strong…”
Sol: “What is it?”
Emma: “I feel so lonely.”
Sol: “That feeling will go away when you learn to trust me completely.”
“Despair is an incredibly deep, clear emotion. In a way, it’s similar to the very peak of psychic disengagement. That’s why it’s not really accompanied by sadness.”
In “Terminal Boredom” (Zettai taikutsu, 1984), the last story that Suzuki wrote before she died, Joseph found something noticeably more “eighties.” The story is replete, he says, “with the nihilism and unvarnished capitalism of the decade.” As one might expect from the title, “Terminal Boredom” is a bleak story. The question at its core: “Do you want to tune out?”
The couple at the heart of the story are alike in many ways: “We were similar… Two years ago I’d been happy about it. Not only did we have the same sign and the same blood type, but we were even the same height and weight. Now I’m an inch taller, though.” Unsurprisingly, the characters—both of whom are deeply apathetic—also sound more or less the same on the page. Disrupting that fundamental sameness, however, Suzuki makes occasional use of gender-suggestive linguistic markers to differentiate between the characters. This was not an option in English.
Joseph had a choice to make. He could either do more to distinguish between the characters than Suzuki had, or less. In his final translation, Joseph decided to let the characters’ voices blur a little more than they do in the original. He felt that adding too much color to one or both voices would have eaten into the story’s main themes of assimilation and indifference. As so many of Suzuki’s narrators and characters are bursting with emotion, he wanted to make sure that the writer’s final story—about two kids bored beyond belief—stood out for its paucity of emotion.
While the seven stories that make up Terminal Boredom constitute distinct worlds, it seems best to think of them as parallel worlds with undeniable connections. In our work, the six of us wrestled with similar—if not identical—issues. Each of us felt very strongly about preserving the emotions, ambiguities and tones running through Suzuki’s stories. To an extent, we developed different voices to fit the needs of each story, but all of these voices begin with—and belong to—Suzuki.
When a single translator has absolute control over an author’s voice, the audience is at the mercy of that translator. In this sense, having Suzuki voiced by six translators may be an advantage. As Bett said to me in an email:
“My sense of this whole project is that we each found a way to embody Suzuki’s voice, and because we each focused on conveying what was there… [the book] speaks to her dexterity in a way that perhaps a single translator could not have achieved.”
My hope is that the readers who pick up Terminal Boredom will listen for the different voices that make up the book, rather than tune them out. To truly appreciate Suzuki’s writing, as Joseph put it, “one has to let go of sci-fi as a vehicle solely for ideas and tune into everything else surrounding them, the other dimensions of what Suzuki is doing in the stories. It’s not about the line drawing, but everything that fills it in—the colors and the shading.”
David Boyd is Assistant Professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has translated novels and stories by Hiroko Oyamada, Hideo Furukawa, and Toh EnJoe, among others. With Sam Bett, he is co-translating the novels of Mieko Kawakami.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 13, 2021