A Conversation with Wendy Uchimura

By Tony Gonzalez, Atsugi, Kanagawa

Tony Gonzalez is a cofounder of Bento Books, a publishing company that focuses on contemporary Japanese fiction. He interviewed Wendy Uchimura about her recent translation of The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom by Manabu Makime, published through Shueisha English Edition. Wendy lives in Yokohama.

The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom

Tony Gonzalez: Many literary translators have a separate but related day job. Is that the case with you? How did you get your break into novel translation?

Wendy Uchimura: I do a variety of translation work, both in-house and freelance, as well as proofreading and editing. There are several fields I work in and I find it helps continually hone my skills. I’ve been interested in literary translation since I did my MA in Advanced Japanese through the University of Sheffield, which made me think it would be an interesting challenge to translate a book. The opportunity to do that came up after attending a Translation Day event in Yokohama in 2012 that was run by SCBWI. Yoshio Kobayashi from Shueisha Creative was there and put a call out for people to write book synopses for possible translation. That became the Shueisha English Edition project, which has released a number of works, including my translation of Manabu Makime’s The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom!

If The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom was your first novel translation, how did you find the experience? If not, how was working on this novel compared to others you’ve done?

This was my first novel translation. I’ve worked on large documents before, so I knew there would be a lot of graft work involved in creating the draft and getting the right context and style, all in addition to the actual creative process of translation. I found it was like running a marathon, as there is a certain pace you have to keep and you are your own timekeeper. There was a whole range of emotions I went through too that I didn’t expect. Some days I would really enjoy translating, and then other days I would agonize for hours over word choices and how to describe scenes so that readers would be able to follow what was going on. After the book was released, I did mention to other more seasoned literary translators how I’d felt during the translation process and they confirmed that it can be a real rollercoaster ride (in an overall good sense, of course!)

From the SCBWI Japan Translation Group’s interview with Yoshio Kobayashi, I understand that Shueisha English Edition is using a low advance/high royalties payment scheme. I’m curious as to your thoughts on that, and whether it’s a model that you think is good, bad, or neutral for literary translation?

I think because I have my ‘day job’ I personally don’t mind this type of scheme. I’m not fully dependent on receiving money, so if the royalties come in, that’s great, but I’m also just happy that a great title has come out in English for more people to read. In general, with Shueisha English Edition they seem to be quite careful in selecting books that are going to be of interest to English readers, so that should theoretically balance out for everyone. I know that if there were higher advances probably more books would be translated, however that would then have to be balanced out by putting a higher price on the book, so there would be fewer readers. When I think about it that way, I think this scheme leans more towards being a good thing for literary translation. More readers means that hopefully more translated novels will appear.

I see that The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom tries to stay very close to the source material, with extensive footnotes to explain aspects of Japanese culture and history that might be confusing to Western readers. How did you and the editors arrive at that decision?

The author Manabu Makime uses a lot of cultural and historical references in his work, so something integral would have been lost if that information was cut out. There’s something fascinating about Japanese castles, Japanese school life, and everything in-between, so I hope that readers can feel more part of Ryosuke’s world through the explanations. If it encourages people to find out more about some of the aspects introduced in this book, that’s even better! I thought I knew a lot about Japan, having lived here for nearly 17 years, but through this work I learnt new things too.

One particular editorial decision we had to make was about the title. There was actually already an English title for this book written on the Japanese edition: The Great Shurarabon. But even in Japanese shurarabon has no meaning. I suggested the word boom instead of bon as there are a lot of loud noises in this book, and the very talented editor Amelia Beamer was the one who suggested breaking up the words to give it some pizazz. And so it became The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom!

YA is currently considered one of the hottest genres in fiction publishing in the West, but books translated from Japanese generally have relatively limited mass-market appeal. Do you have any perspectives as to how we might work toward breaking out of the otaku niche that Japanese YA fiction seems to often be shunted into?

This may be a simplified view I hold, but it seems as if Japanese literature is split into either highbrow classic and contemporary literature or manga. Unfortunately, that means that Japanese YA fiction gets labeled more as something otaku would be interested in. It would be nice to see more translated Japanese works from various genres appearing in the West, as writers here seem to be able to portray things and approach subjects through writing that make you stop and think. It’s like looking at something from the other side of a fence and seeing, say, an everyday occurrence in a new, exciting light. The marketing of such works is probably going to be key to getting more Japanese YA fiction out there in the mainstream.

Do you have any valuable experiences from translating The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom that you would like to share? Was there anything you would have done differently? Did you face any unexpected challenges? Any directions you would like to head in the future?

From a translator’s perspective, the most important thing I learnt was not to stick to one style of translating. When I first approached this work and tried doing it in my usual style of working straight from the text into English, something just wasn’t clicking. It wasn’t until I separated myself from the source text by creating a rough first draft in-between the source text and what would have been my original first draft that I could see the story as it would be in English. The difficulty I had here was that it takes courage to break away and try a new translation style, especially when you’re working against a deadline. But once I switched over, it felt so much better—the sentences flowed, I was more creative. I wished I’d done it sooner. I guess this is a big difference between business translation and literary translation.

As I mentioned above, too, pacing yourself is essential. To a certain extent, you have to be strict on yourself and stay focused by setting sub-deadlines for each chapter and within that, the number of pages you need to get done every day.

I’d definitely like to translate more books and, while I hadn’t considered it up until now, YA fiction is an interesting area for me. I hope I get to translate more works like The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom, which I think works well as both a YA novel and an urban fantasy.

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