Jonathan Kiefer discusses the delicate art of translation with Michael Emmerich, English translator of Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto
Here’s what it means to be a literary translator: If you haven’t heard of Banana Yoshimoto, you probably haven’t heard of Michael Emmerich. If you have heard of Banana Yoshimoto, you probably haven’t heard of Michael Emmerich. The former is a hip, ethereal, superstar Japanese fiction stylist; the latter is her English translator. If Banana becomes as big in Britain and the United States as she is in Japan, it will be because of Emmerich, but unless he too renames himself for a piece of fruit, who will give a damn?
“A nice thing about being a translator is that you don’t have to worry about that stuff too much,” Emmerich says. “You don’t have to worry about being a really public figure. You can just do what you love.” It’s hard to know whether his Zen attitude comes from a longstanding affinity for Japanese culture or from having no illusions, but in either case it serves him well.
Make no mistake: as translators go, Emmerich is a hot shot. He didn’t seriously study Japanese until he got to college, but by graduation he had translated one of Japan’s most revered writers to great acclaim. That’s impressive for an English major.
“It didn’t make sense to take East Asian studies,” Emmerich recalls. “I’d have to study economics, and that didn’t interest me at all.” In 1997, while still a Princeton undergraduate, Emmerich read several stories by Japan’s first Nobel laureate for literature, Yasunari Kawabata, and decided to make a senior thesis of translating them. His advisor, Joyce Carol Oates, was enthusiastic and supportive; so were the various literary magazines which soon published some of the stories, and Counterpoint Press, which published all of them, as the collection First Snow on Fuji, in 1999.
“The reviews were terrific, and a couple said very kind things about the translation itself, which is unusual,” Emmerich says. “So after that I started getting requests from publishers. One such request was Banana Yoshimoto’s Asleep, which was published in 2000.”
Last August, Grove released his translation of the newest Banana book, Goodbye Tsugumi, a wistful but transformative tale of the burdened relationship between a young woman and her cousin, an invalid “who had been going through her rebellious teens ever since she was born.” In a deceptively compact volume, the book furthers Yoshimoto’s human insights, and her radiant, searching style.
“I don’t think she really has the right image in the U.S. yet,” Emmerich says. “I don’t think she has the right image in Japan either. She’s a pretty experimental, sophisticated writer. She’s writing carefully, and creating her public image carefully. I’ve been trying to make it clear how smart she is.”
Still only in his mid-twenties, Emmerich is now about as on the map as a translator can hope to be. He is therefore entitled to make sweeping romantic pronouncements about his craft:
“A good translation is one that translates meaning, not words. Meaning is alive, words are dead.”
“When you read a scene it could take five minutes. To translate it could take eight hours. Reading gives you an intense emotion. Translating gives you that same emotion for eight hours. It’s ten times, a hundred times, more intense than reading!”
“Translating is always going to be much more than you hoped.”
“The translator is of course always blamed for everything.”
Such assurance is almost mandatory for Emmerich’s highly detailed and fundamentally speculative work. When reading something that really excites him—whether it’s the lucid cleanliness of Kawabata or the moody dreams of Yoshimoto or something else—Emmerich can’t resist starting to translate immediately. He has also been known to exhaust himself in pursuit of a single correct cadence.
He seems undaunted by the responsibility of cultural ambassadorship, and concedes that translation is a kind of hyper-nuanced literary criticism. “Ultimately translators have to rely on their own instincts,” he says. “We try to create feelings and scenes in one language that approximate as closely as possible the feelings and scenes we live as we read the book we are translating….Rhythm is very important. The rhythms of language. Getting things to connect.”
Emmerich has what he can only describe as a “tendency to try and sneak into the spaces between words.” His dark, inky voice shimmers whenever he inserts a Japanese word or notion into an English sentence. Yet, he says, “I’ve never felt translating literature from Japanese is automatic. The words are so far apart. The texture of the language is so different…it’s some hazy realm that’s bordered by the two languages. When I was growing up I had no idea that that space between languages existed.” He grew up on Long Island, and can not account for what drew him to such a notably foreign language in the first place.
“My parents were travelling,” he says. “When she was pregnant, they went to Japan. There’s probably no other answer that means anything. For some reason Japan has always interested me most.” Emmerich confesses that he has, in fact, wanted to be a translator for nearly as long as he can remember. When they were children, he and his sister Karen once planned to learn seven languages so they could speak a different one on each day of the week. It didn’t happen, but probably came a lot closer than similar plans in other families. Karen is also a translator now, currently living and working in Greece.
Last summer, Michael left for China, “from whence he’ll come back, no doubt, with another language under his belt,” his sister observed at the time. He stayed with a non-English-speaking family and studied Mandarin. Such monkish immersion is no doubt elemental to his success, and to his comfortable obscurity.
The people who have heard of him, including his family and many admiring colleagues, will occasionally ask Emmerich if he’d like to try a novel of his own. But translation beckons. “You get excited as if you were writing your own stuff,” he explains. “You are writing your own stuff. I have no interest in that. This is what I do.”