Such a Close Form of Reading: A Conversation with Allison Markin Powell
by Sevinç Türkkan
The idea for this interview emerged when Sevinç Türkkan reconnected with Allison Markin Powell in NYC on August 22, 2019 at the Women in Translation Month reading organized under the aegis of the PEN America Translation Committee. Little did they know that Hopscotch Translation was going to be home for this interview, which took place over email due to the pandemic.
Sevinç Türkkan: I would like to begin with your latest accolade, the 2020 PEN Translation Prize you received for The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami. How did you choose to translate this book and what went on in the background, from the moment you decided to translate it till the award’s arrival?
Allison Markin Powell: Thank you very much! I feel so lucky to have been able to attend PEN’s award ceremony, which took place on March 2, 2020, and to have celebrated in person with the nominees and other award winners, just before everything shut down. The Ten Loves of Nishino is the third of four books by Hiromi Kawakami that I’ve now translated. At this point, the decision about the next book of Kawakami’s that ought to be translated tends to happen in consultation with the author, her agent, and her editors in the US and the UK—and fortunately I get to be a part of that conversation. The Ten Loves of Nishino seemed like a natural progression from Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop, the first two of her books that I translated, although all of these fall into one of the two distinct strains of Kawakami’s fiction—the realist one, as opposed to her surrealist fiction, which has mostly been brought into English by her other wonderful translators.
Translating The Ten Loves of Nishino was such a pleasure. Like sliding on a comfortable pair of slippers, I loved being able to slip back into Kawakami’s prose. And although one of the challenges of this book was creating distinct voices for each of the ten women who narrate the interlocking chapters, having a familiarity with the author’s writing style made that somewhat easier. I did, however, find that translating each woman’s story seemed to finish with a gut punch—I remember feeling like I’d been knocked off my feet, over and over again.
Needless to say, I’m thrilled that the book was well received, and I’m so honored to have been awarded the PEN prize. I was surprised though, because Kawakami’s writing is quite subtle, and not everyone appreciates her character-driven plots where not much happens. I’ve grown accustomed to the time it takes for her books to find their readership, so it’s very rewarding that this one was recognized early on.
ST: How would you describe your translation style and practice? Are there any particular challenges involved in translating from Japanese into English?
AMP: Well, I don’t have any formal training as a translator, I basically just started doing it (which, by the way, is the advice I would offer anyone who wants to translate) so I guess you could say that my style and practice are pretty organic! But, to be sure, my approach is relatively straightforward: I usually just dive right in, working slowly, and I tend to aim for a relatively clean first draft—I don’t do a ton of revising. Although I will say that the beginning is always the hardest part—finding the voice and the rhythm of the text. Another translator once said that, no matter the length, you end up having to go back over the first ten percent of whatever it is you’re translating—that’s how long it takes to hit your stride, which seems to bear itself out.
There are many challenges to translating Japanese! Structurally, there is the syntax, which is more or less opposite to English, but very often the most difficult thing about translating from Japanese is what is not being said. So much of the culture is embedded in the language, so I have to decide whether something needs a gloss or a slight embellishment. And Japanese permits a much greater degree of vagueness than English, which demands more specificity.
ST: Whose work has had the most influence on your translation practice?
AMP: Having acknowledged my lack of training, I might say that it’s the authors I’ve worked with who have had the most influence. Each one is so different, and the effort involved in representing their varying styles of writing forces me to evolve and adapt my own translation style. Translation is such a close form of reading, I’ve also found that it affects how I read anything.
For instance, I’ve been working closely with the author Kanako Nishi for several years. What I find so fascinating about her writing is how deceptively simple it is. The sentences are not overly complicated, her style isn’t necessarily extravagant, but she chooses her words very carefully. This means that, in translation, I need to be as thoughtful about using a particular word choice here because often she will deploy it to different effect later. This has helped me to stretch and reach, to be more creative and daring. Also, she has been choosing to write about certain subjects that don’t get much light in Japan, and thus not in translation either, so that’s been stimulating.
ST: How would you describe your relationship with presses and editors? How do you reach out to them? What happens once your translation is accepted for publication?
AMP: I worked in publishing for a long time, so a lot of my contacts go back years, and in that period I’ve seen the literary translation sphere change quite a bit. There are many more players, especially small and independent presses, and even the big trade houses are more actively interested in publishing literature in translation. But the vast majority of the books I’ve translated have been initiated by either the agent or the publisher. I do have passion projects that I submit to editors—that is part of the inspiration for one of the collectives I’m a member of, Cedilla & Co., to actively insert ourselves earlier into the process of publishers’ acquisition of translation projects—but it’s much different to shepherd a book or an author on your own as a translator. I mean, we’re not agents, although I do sometimes end up filling the gaps, since many Japanese authors don’t have agents.
ST: You have consistently worked with small presses. Is there a specific reason for this? How would you describe this experience?
AMP: I guess that’s just the way it shakes out. The authors I’ve translated aren’t big blockbuster names, so it’s the smaller presses who have been willing to commit to publishing their work. Small and independent publishers give a lot of attention to each of their books, which is wonderful, but their capabilities are limited by their relative size, as well as the sheer number of books that are published in English. When I have worked with larger publishers, I’ve definitely noticed that there can be more heft, that they are able to get the book into more places (literally) and sell more copies.
ST: In Fall 2019 you organized a workshop-panel on translation contract negotiation at ALTA. What advice would you give to novice and emerging translators when they negotiate contracts with publishers?
AMP: I’ve been deeply engaged with advocacy for improving contract terms, and educating and empowering translators about negotiating contracts for several years. I had experience from my time in publishing, so I was familiar with vetting contracts, although as translators our position still lacks much in the way of leverage. For advice, I would say that you should always consider the contract a publisher sends you as an opening gambit—it’s a starting point to begin negotiating your relationship. There are resources available—the PEN model contract, and perhaps more importantly, there is a checklist that enumerates the most relevant points you should pay attention to—and even better, the Authors Guild now has a Translators Group and their own long-awaited literary translation model contract. Once you have published, consider joining them as well, as they have lawyers on staff who can review your contracts and offer advice. Reach out! No matter what, there is a community out there who can help you understand your rights. We all have a responsibility to each other.
ST: What’s next for you? Will you be translating any more works soon?
AMP: I have two books coming out in 2021: Soho Crime is publishing Lady Joker: Volume One by Kaoru Takamura, which is a co-translation with Marie Iida; and the Feminist Press is publishing Black Box by Shiori Ito. I’m terrifically excited to see how both of these are received, as they are quite different. Lady Joker is a corporate thriller, based on a true crime from the ’80s that was never solved, and it delves into various aspects of Japanese society that are never talked about. And Shiori Ito is the de facto symbol of Me Too in Japan, and Black Box is much more than a rape memoir—it’s a manifesto for tearing down the systems that failed her and countless other women and girls.
I’m still working with Marie on Volume Two of Lady Joker—it’s a mammoth undertaking! And I’m extremely eager to get back to working on Saraba! by Kanako Nishi, for which I received an NEA fellowship (and which is still looking for a publisher). It looks like I’ll have plenty to keep me busy in 2021.
Allison Markin Powell has been awarded grants from English PEN and the NEA, and the 2020 PEN America Translation Prize for The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakaami. Her other translations include works by Osamu Dazai, Kanako Nishi, and Fuminori Nakamura. She was the co-organizer and co-host of the “Translating the Future” conference, served as cochair of the PEN America Translation Committee and currently represents the committee on PEN’s Board of Trustees, and she maintains the database Japanese Literature in English.
Sevinç Türkkan teaches comparative literature and translation studies at Oberlin College. Her translation of The Stone Building and Other Places by the Turkish writer, journalist, and human rights activist Aslı Erdoğan was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 20, 2021