[Japan Studies Now—Inter-University Center Lecture Series]
Conundrums of Literary Translation

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  • Lecturer: Juliet W. Carpenter (Professor, Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts)
  • Date: Wednesday, May 13, 2015, 6:00-7:30 pm
  • Venue: Iwasaki Koyata Memorial Hall, International House of Japan
  • Language: Japanese (without English interpretation)
  • Organizers: International House of Japan, Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, and Nippon Foundation
  • Admission: Free
What is translation, and what is a literary translation? Are they somehow different? How does a translator recreate an author’s voice in another language? What does it mean to be “faithful”? After a half century of translating, Professor Carpenter is still looking for answers to these and other questions, but she will share with us her insights gleaned from translating authors as diverse as Abe Kobo, Enchi Fumiko, Watanabe Jun’ichi, and Tawara Machi, with particular emphasis on her recent prizewinning translations of one of the most provocative and brilliant writers on the scene today, Minae Mizumura: A True Novel (Other Press, 2013) and The Fall of Language in the Age of English (Columbia University Press, 2015), done in full collaboration with the author.

Juliet W. Carpenter

Photo: Juliet W. Carpenter
Professor Carpenter first came to Japan in 1960, accompanying her father. She began her study of the Japanese language while in high school and continued at the University of Michigan, obtaining B.A. and M.A. degrees in Japanese language and literature there under the direction of Edward G. Seidensticker. In Tokyo in 1970 she completed the academic-year program at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. She taught at Kobe College and several universities after returning to Japan in 1974, and she has been a member of the faculty of Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts since 1980. Secret Rendezvous, her translation of Kobo Abe’s Mikkai (her first published translation), was awarded the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature in 1980. Among her many other translations are Salad Anniversary (Sarada kinenbi) by Machi Tawaraya and Above the Clouds (Saka no ue no kumo) by Ryōtarō Shiba (a work that presented an uncommonly large number of translation challenges, co-translated with two others). For A True Novel, her English rendition of Minae Mizumura’s Honkaku shōsetsu, she won the prestigious Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature a second time in 2015.

*This lecture series is part of the Nippon Foundation Fellows Program at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies.



Since her 1979 translation of Abe Kobo’s Mikkai into English as Secret Rendezvous, Professor Carpenter has been a leading figure in the world of Japanese literary translation. She discussed specific examples of proper names and other expressions encountered in the works she has translated that present special problems for the translator, and explained how she has dealt with them.

Literal translation will not produce an interesting novelカーペンター写真

First of all, Professor Carpenter noted that there are “irreconcilable differences” between the Japanese and English languages, and because of this, attempts at literal translation of Japanese into English are likely to be virtually unreadable. When consulting the dictionary, she said, it is important not to simply swallow the equivalents offered there, but to use one’s own sense of what might be an appropriate translation to produce more readable solutions. There are, however, times when literal translation can be quite effective. For example, if you have a unique expression like “chasing the bullet train on a bicycle” and go ahead and translate it literally, it will sound fresh to the ears of English readers, and can help increase their interest in the novel. As Professor Carpenter emphasized, “Fiction cannot be dull.”

Working with editors
As an example of Japanese expressions that are difficult to translate into English, Professor Carpenter cited the word engacho and related a story about how she once translated it as “cooties.” She thought this was the perfect translation, but her editor said, “This is an expression only Americans will understand, and you’d do better to simply delete it.” Professor Carpenter was adamant about keeping it, since she thought as a translator that it was interesting, and managed to overcome the editor’s objections and keep the phrase in the book. “Even so, I think the editor is probably still unconvinced,” she confessed, to laughter from the audience.

How bold can a translator be?
Next Professor Carpenter touched on the issue of prose style. She pointed out that there must be a balanced approach to how faithful one tries to be to the style of the original. She sometimes eliminates repetitious use of words, difficult terminology, or attempts to reproduce children’s speech patterns or regional dialects. Instead, she tries to find ways of making children sound like children in English, or uses an introductory phrase like “In his rich native dialect…” to suggest a regional accent. She also said that there are times when Japanese personal names can present problems in English, such as a female character in Tsujihara Noboru’s Jasmine named 登(と)枝(え), which when romanized becomes Toe, and makes English readers think of their feet. Using an accent, Toé, gives a better idea of the pronunciation and makes the name look somewhat less bizarre as a result. A very bold example is taking the name of Aoi no Ue (Lady Aoi) in the Tale of Genji and rendering it as a completely different name, Akane, for the text of a stage play based on the classic novel in order to make it easier to pronounce in English. One might wonder how far a translator should go with some things, but Professor Carpenter argued that much should be permitted in order to produce readable English prose.

Even structural changes are sometimes necessary
In some cases, in order to aid the understanding of the reader, Professor Carpenter has consulted with the original author to suggest changes in the text in the process of translation. She says this has been both an honor and a pleasure. For instance, when she was translating Mizumura Minae’s Honkaku shosetsu (A True Novel), in the original the main text was preceded by a 160-page novella. For the English edition, Professor Carpenter suggested the order be reversed, because she was concerned that English readers might give up before they got to the main text of the work.

After the talk, there were numerous questions from the audience, which was clearly quite interested in the issues of literary translation.


*I-House has started a series of forums in collaboration with Nichibunken to deepen the understanding of contemporary Japan from various perspectives.