Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Literary Translator Juliet Winters Carpenter

LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

JWC: I translate mostly from modern Japanese, although I have also worked with the classical language and kanbun (Sino-Japanese). Genres include romance novels, mysteries, and thrillers; historical novels, oral history, and science fiction; folk tales and picture books; academic writing; short stories, essays, and memoirs; modern tanka, haiku, and free verse; anime (subtitling) and a made-for-TV documentary (subtitling and dubbing); a graphic novel; Buddhist philosophy (Zen and True Pure Land Buddhism); books on various aspects of Japanese art and culture; song lyrics. I have never translated a play for publication. I think it would be rewarding to translate a play and then see it performed on stage.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

JWC: My dream of becoming a literary translator began at age 17 when I was a senior in high school. I had already started studying Japanese a year earlier and loved it. For my senior term paper my English teacher encouraged me to write about Japanese literature, and I read everything I could find in the school library (not all that much!). The experience of reading two different novels by the same author woke me up: in one, the writing was incredibly beautiful, but in the other, lame. I couldn’t understand how the same person could have written them both—and then I realized it was the translator that made the difference. As I explored more, I came to admire the translations by Edward Seidensticker in particular—they were so elegant, so right, in English. The little Japanese I had acquired was enough for me to know that this was no mean feat. I went to the University of Michigan to study with him and always kept the goal of being a literary translator in mind, though it seemed a very remote possibility as for years I struggled with the language.

But after finishing grad school I had a lucky break: the celebrated novelist Abe Kobo needed a new translator for some reason, and his publisher (Alfred A. Secret Rendezvous, Kobo Abe, coverKnopf) was soliciting sample translations from his latest work. I sent mine in and it was picked. Not only did I have the amazing privilege of starting my career with an internationally known writer, Masks, Fumiko Enchi, coverbut my translation, Secret Rendezvous, won a prestigious award: the 1980 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. I soon did a second novel, this time by Fumiko Enchi (Masks). Where Abe was avant-garde, she had a classical bent; both were mentioned regularly as potential Nobel laureates.  I am happy to say that my first two translations are still in print. I can only marvel at how blessed I was starting out.

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

JWC: It is surprisingly hard to put into words what it is that I love about translation. Slipping into another world and making it mine. Discovering the music and rhythm of a text and reproducing it in my own way in English. Feeling an intimate connection to the author. Experiencing the joy of having pieces fall into place, when I feel I have done justice to the ideas, style, tone, voice, language, and flow of the original—or come as close as I possibly could. Discovering deeper meanings that a more casual reading would miss. Learning things about language, people, and the world that I never knew before. Playing with words and sentences. Writing and rewriting, coming closer and closer to a semblance of truth.

I often think about singing as a form of translating. I am a member of the Kyoto City Philharmonic Chorus, and we are currently working on Verdi’s Requiem. The process of understanding and working on that—or any—great piece of music is very similar to the process of doing a literary translation. Both require time, faith, patience, skill, and artistry. Both involve continual discovery and end, if properly done, in exhilaration, the transcendence of self.

What do I love the least about translating? The fear that someday it will all end. I don’t want it to stop.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

JWC: Recently I have been translating the works of Minae MizumuraA True Novel, a recasting of Wuthering Heights set in Japan and the A True Novel, Minae Mizumura, IntralingoU.S., came out with considerable éclat. It was runner-up for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award and winner of the 2014 Next Generation Indie Books Grand Prize for Fiction, and recently I received the American Translators Association’s 2014 Lewis Galantière Prize. In February 2015 I will become the first person ever to have won the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature twice. It is all a bit overwhelming.

The translation of A True Novel was supported by the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, a national program to encourage the translation and dissemination of Japanese literature around the world. In preparing the final draft I collaborated closely with the The Fall of Language, Minae Mizumura, Intralingoauthor, who knows English extremely well (although not well enough to translate her books herself). Gaining firsthand insights into how a major author approaches her material, what she sees as important in structuring a scene or building a character or making a shift in tone, was eye-opening. Working together to realize her vision in English was a joy. I am happy to report that another book of Mizumura’s will be out soon, translated by Mari Yoshihara and me. The Fall of Language in the Age of English is a delightful, thoughtful meditation on the history of language, translation, and writing, and on the key role of national literature in this age of English dominance.

Juliet Winters Carpenter (, a prize-winning translator of modern Japanese literature, has translated more than 60 Japanese works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she grew up in Evanston, Illinois, where she first studied Japanese in high school after her interest was piqued by a trip to Japan in 1960 with her father. She studied Japanese literature at the University of Michigan and the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo. After completing her graduate studies in 1973, she returned to Japan in 1975, where she became involved in translation efforts and teaching. She is a professor at Doshisha Womenʼs College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, where she teaches translation at the undergraduate level as well as in master’s and doctoral programs. She is licensed to teach koto and samisen. She and her husband Bruce Carpenter have three sons and two granddaughters.

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