By Melek Ortabasi, Vancouver
Stephen Snyder translated Kanae Minato’s novella Confessions, winner of a 2015 Alex Award. He responded to this interview by Skype.
Congratulations on the Alex Award for your translation of Kanae Minato’s Confessions. The award was “created to recognize that many teens enjoy and often prefer books written for adults, and to assist librarians in recommending adult books that appeal to teens.” Were you surprised to hear of the award?
Yes, surprised; it’s a pretty shocking book for someone of my generation. It may not be that shocking to you.
Oh, I don’t know. It’s very tight and exciting, plotwise. I couldn’t put it down! But I found it pretty jarring myself.
Even so, one could regard the novel as rather mild by today’s standards; in any case, it certainly deals with social issues that young people commonly struggle with in post-industrial cultures: bullying, identity formation, parental neglect/abandonment, academic pressure, and so on.
But it’s an unrelentingly grim tale and not one of several key characters come out looking good. How do you personally feel about 12-18–year-olds, the age range cited by the Alex Award, reading the book?
I do feel kind of conflicted about it, especially since an adult perspective dominates the work. I don’t want to give too much away, but this is not your garden-variety adolescent fantasy about how stupid grownups are. It profoundly questions adult authority in general, in particular the mother-child relationship and the teacher-student relationship. The vindictiveness of the teacher, the central character in the novel, is something that struck me as a bit beyond the pale; there is no trust left there by the end. In this book, adults have the last laugh and don’t hold back even when dealing with middle school–age children. In a way, the tight plotting and the excitement it generates mask the horror of the content.
Does the author know about the award, and what was her reaction? I was a little surprised to find out that, like the central character in the book, she was once a schoolteacher . . . Given the genre and the middle school characters, I guess I assumed as I was reading that she was a younger author. But then again, her insight into the tween/adolescent psyche is definitely that of a more mature person.
Oddly, I’ve never met the author; I don’t think she knows about the Alex Award, either. I haven’t even had email contact with her. It was mediated through the publishing company, who had bought the foreign rights; they didn’t really seem to know her either. Up until now I’ve always been introduced to authors and worked with them to some extent on my translations. For example, I see Yoko Ogawa, an author I’ve translated several times, once a year.
Confessions reminded me a bit of another book you have translated, Natsuo Kirino’s Out—at least in terms of its dark topic and blunt style. Do you have a thing for the thriller/mystery genre? Or did something else draw you to the book?
How I got into this project is more a testament to the vagaries of being an established literary translator of Japanese in the US than an indicator of my own literary taste. The backstory of how and why how the book got picked up as a candidate for translation into English reveals much about the contemporary international publishing business. I have a research project on this topic that’s been brewing for some time, and I almost think I’ll devote a chapter to Confessions.
We know that translations do not have a big market in the US; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was the only translated novel that made it onto the New York Times bestseller list for a long time. Then came Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2005. This is not a great work of art; it’s a good thriller and as we know sold very, very well. As a result, several major presses decided they would form imprints specializing in the murder genre. So off the editors go to find other “foreign” thrillers that fit the Stieg Larsson bill. Mulholland (part of Little, Brown) is one such imprint, and the editor, Wes Miller, began looking for properties that he could acquire and found Confessions, since it was a bestseller in Japan. He also saw the 2010 film adaptation, which had a limited release overseas and was actually quite good—it was nominated as Japan’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. Then he eventually approached me. I had translated Out, which actually led to other projects as well—given its similarity to Confessions I guess I was a logical choice.
Confessions has won awards in Japan, and was made into a movie, as you mentioned. How would you describe the book’s position in the Japanese market?
Confessions is entertainment more than anything else; the mystery/horror genre is a major strand in contemporary popular literature. As far as precedent for this sort of dark, graphic, and cynical novel, I would cite Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies (1980). It’s an old book now, but it was very influential in establishing a more “gritty” modern Japanese literature. Along with Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, Murakami sought at the time to shatter the static aestheticism of postwar Japanese literature (think Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s other Nobel Prize winner). This blackness, though, has found its most popular expression in gleefully cruel novels like Confessions.
The genre also seems deeply connected to film. I would guess that the US vogue for J-Horror—an example would be the American remake of the 1998 film Ringu—has something to do with your translation winning the Alex Award. In what way does the book address a US audience, do you think? This perspective can often change when a book travels across borders, I find.
We were talking about lost innocence in America at the beginning; that loss pervades Japanese youth culture as well, so this may be one of those cases where the book didn’t need to transform its basic identity a whole lot.
Interesting. Could you give me an example of a project where your translation was addressed to a completely different public from the one it was originally written for?
Yes: Asura Girl, by Otaro Maijo, was strongly recommended to me by an editor at the elite Japanese publisher Shincho. Even though it has a middle school setting like Confessions, it’s much edgier as a literary text. However, US literary presses had no interest, so VIZ Media ended up publishing it. And in a way it fits into that niche for American manga readers.
Why don’t we finish our conversation with some tantalizing tidbits on the attractions of Confessions? One of the most distinctive things about the book’s structure is that each chapter is a monologue from a different character, told directly to the reader. Sometimes it is presented as spoken language, and sometimes it’s internal. It strikes me that this was probably pretty difficult to render into credible, smooth English.
Minato does a good job with the different voices in the novel; the framework is somewhat reminiscent of the various testimonies presented in the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon. It was pretty interesting to give an English voice to characters of different ages and genders. There’s the psychopath middle schooler, a cross between a vulnerable child and a wise, bitter soul. There’s also the mother of another disturbed student, who is beautifully done. She seems to care for her child, but is really motivated by status. And finally, there’s the teacher—whose wrath at the murder of her child knows no limits.
You’ll have to read the book to meet all the other quirky, twisted characters! Steve, thank you so much for your time—I’ll let you get back to work now. Your insight is most helpful for other translators who’d like to do more in the field, like me.
Likewise a pleasure!
Stephen Snyder is Dean of Language Schools and Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is a prolific and multiple award-winning translator of a wide range of modern and contemporary Japanese literature.
Melek Ortabasi is Associate Professor in the World Literature Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. She has coedited with Rebecca Copeland a book of translations of Meiji period women’s writing, The Modern Murasaki, and looks forward to doing more literary translation.