Spirited Away: Translating Hideo Furukawa

by Hart Larrabee

Nagano-based translator Hart Larrabee reflects on his experience at the July 2012 summer workshop at the British Centre for Literary Translation. Those who are considering attending this year’s workshop (applications are due 7 May 2013) may also wish to read descriptions of the 2010 and 2011 workshops that were written by Ginny Tapley Takemori and Alison Watts for the SWET Newsletter, Nos. 126 and 130.


Last summer, from 22 to 27 July 2012, I attended the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer program in literary translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. The program has hosted workshops in a number of language pairs for more than a decade. 2012 was the third year for the Japanese-English workshop, which is supported by the Nippon Foundation.

The basic format for BCLT summer workshops is that a practicing translator, in partnership with a writer-in-residence, guides a group of participants in translating a sample of the writer’s work for presentation at an all-program gathering on the final day. What distinguishes the BCLT program is the directive to produce a consensus translation.

Translators often work alone, and translation can appeal to people who like it that way. Literary translators, whether aspiring or accomplished, are more often sustained by the love of their craft than by its earthly rewards, and they can be deeply protective of how they interpret and render a text. The consensus translation format is a recipe for animated discussion, negotiation, and open disagreement (sometimes sympathetic and genial, sometimes prickly and antagonistic).

Our workshop leader for 2012 was Michael Emmerich, Assistant Professor of Premodern Japanese Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reprising the role he played in 2011. Our workshop author was Hideo Furukawa, whose Beruka, hoenai no ka? (Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? ベルカ、吠えないのか?) was released in English, as translated by Emmerich, in October 2012. Our workshop texts were drawn from Furukawa’s Umatachi yo, sore de mo hikari wa muku de (馬たちよ、それでも光は無垢で), which might be translated as And Yet, Horses, the Light is Still Pure. (Oddly enough, we never discussed, much less reached a consensus about, the title of the work! I’ll call it Horses here.) Much of the novel revolves around Furukawa’s experiences visiting his home prefecture of Fukushima a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011.

Here, in journal form, is an account of the week as I experienced it.

Day In

The night before it begins I step off the bus—after a longish ride from Heathrow through rolling, horsey countryside punctuated by small towns whose inebriated residents had tumbled out onto the sidewalks from overflowing pubs—and tug my jacket close. It’s colder than I assumed it would be. Not raining. Just cold. Why are the few people out and about wearing nothing more substantial than t-shirts? Approaching the dorm, I notice there are rabbits everywhere. They seem warm enough, but kind of twitchy. After picking up my key I enter my bare dorm room, really little more than a monastic cell. The duvet on the bed looks awfully thin.

Feeling hungry and too wired from travel to sleep, I go down to the kitchen common room where I meet another early arrival, a freelancer from the UK who will also be taking part in the Japanese-English workshop. Conscious of the difference in our ages, I feel guarded against his earnest enthusiasm. Later, he proves surprisingly diffident in session despite almost always opening a clear path through the fog. Clueing me in to the Tesco (gas station and convenience store) down the road, he leads me out for provisions.

On the way back, carrying a turkey salad for now and some yogurt for morning, I step gingerly to avoid the enormous slugs crossing the sidewalk at their peril—otherworldly megafauna emerging from the late-night mid-summer gloom. As we approach our dorm, we find some of the inadequately attired young women from the Tesco parking lot now swimming in a sea of howling young people, brash and shining in the gleam of taxi headlights, queued to enter the campus union for something that promises to be very loud. This seems to have scared away the rabbits.

Day 0

I walk around campus trying to find an Internet connection so I can get some work done before things begin. Foolishly, I have brought with me a sizable load of pay-the-bills work with looming deadlines. The route from the Beatrix Potter idyll around the dorm to the contemporary academic building where our sessions will be held seems straightforward enough on the campus map. In practice, the route leads through an angry brutalist landscape punctuated with shadowy underpasses, elevated walkways, spindly metal railings, and angled staircases that repeatedly spit me out off-course and bewildered, a parkour fever dream of raw concrete and decaying surfaces begging to be launched from, vaulted over, plunged into, and ricocheted through. I finally arrive at the academic building thoroughly disoriented. I find an open door, but no Internet access. I had forgotten it was Sunday. This explains why nobody is around. I’m already losing track of time. I give up and go back to my cell to do what I can offline.

Outside the window I see a Japanese couple admiring the wildflowers behind the dorm in the gauzy morning light. It strikes me that this might be our author and his wife. I later learn that it is.

I work through the day until it is time for registration and drinks at 16:30. All participants are mixed together and nothing readily identifies those from the Japanese-English workshop. The folks from other language groups are nice enough to chat with—everyone so excited to be here, so full of hope and promise—but I catch myself furtively looking over their shoulders and edging away. It is a great relief to stumble upon Elmer Luke, an accomplished editor joining our workshop as an observer from the Nippon Foundation.

                       Author Hideo Furukawa

Nervous mingling in the lobby leads directly to an all-program assembly. After opening remarks, each writer reads from the text that his or her group will work on during the week. Furukawa leads off. Later he will say this was his first public reading from Horses, but this seems inconceivable. Modulating tone and rhythm, at times percussive and explosive, his voice builds in volume and velocity. Head leaning in, he hunches close over the page, body rocking back and forth, lunging at the words, flipping pages with hands that struggle to keep up with the all-but-unintelligible flood, reaching crescendo in a screeching zaaaaaaaaaaa za za zaa before plunging to a whispered hush. The authors who follow him (somewhat reluctantly) are all wonderful in their way, but the aftershocks of Furukawa’s mesmerizing, physical performance, acutely visceral and deeply embodied, linger palpably. It had been too early to talk about losing track of time.

The readings are followed by our workshop’s first classroom session, just 30 or 40 minutes squeezed in before dinner. Barely enough time to go around the circle and do introductions. Just enough time to grow edgy as abstract anticipation about the wonderful week to come is replaced by the real faces and voices I’ll be spending it with. Who are these people and why am I among them? There are eleven of us. Some are fresh out of university while others, like me, graduated decades ago. Some are already published, others not. English is the first language for most, but not all. Some people are quiet, while others are assertive. Michael makes it clear that there are few rules for how to proceed—no firm template for group translation or magic formula for making it work in practice—and that even if there were, he would really prefer we work it out for ourselves. As a warm-up, he introduces us to the concept of homophonic translation, creating a rendering in one language that approximates the sound, rather than the meaning, of some source text. Our assigned task for tomorrow’s session is to perform a homophonic translation into Japanese of the phrase, “This is translation.”

Dinner is outstanding, all the more so compared with Tesco fare. Everyone from all language groups eats together. Food is served in courses on proper white china and proper white tablecloths with real butter and plenty of wine. The menu is a blur as is the conversation. It stays light so late here. Jet lag is playing games with my head and I still need to put in a few hours of work to clear backlog before I can sleep.

Day 1

Breakfast is held cafeteria style in a venue shared by participants from all summer programs underway at the university, not just the literary translation workshops. The place is swarming with high school students who seem to be studying French or Italian, and their feisty instructors. Fortunately, the paper coffee cups here are bigger than those in Japan.

During the morning session we present our homophonic translations. Inexplicably, we are asked to read them out loud one after another. Given that the exercise is predicated on similarity of sound, and that the meaning of homophonic translations tends to be somewhat nonsensical or forced, I find listening to eleven variations on the theme of jisu izu toransurēshon, most recited by non-native speakers whose tongues and mouths are imperfect instruments for conveying subtle shades of Japanese phonetic nuance, to be teeth-gratingly annoying. The day is not getting off to a good start. This is the rendering I prepared (with a rough translation of meaning that is more coherent than the Japanese):

自巣居 ずっと乱擦れ 枝葉音

In my own nest / a constant mad rustling / the sound of leaves and branches

We are given a section of Furukawa’s text to start translating in pairs, everyone working on the same section. It’s only the first paragraph of a longer passage we will tackle that describes Furukawa’s arrival in Fukushima with colleagues from the publisher that supported his trip.



Working in pairs sounds easy enough, and I feel confident we’ll make quick work of it. Instead, no sooner do my partner and I face each other and take a deep breath than we come to a dead stop. How to start? Who goes first? Who is this person? How do we address disagreements? Resolve incompatible interpretations of what the Japanese says or suggests? Decide among different ways to express things in English? Language is a slippery tool for talking about language but it’s the only tool we have and we wield it differently—each blunt and awkward in our own way—strangers head-to-head in the confined space of our minds with no mediator’s guiding hand, just a ticking clock and an encroaching sense of panic. We cop out, deciding to work on the passage separately and then merge the two versions, picking and choosing and giving and taking in a tentative keep-the-peace balance that largely shirks the uncomfortable need to articulate why.

We come up with this:

We stopped the car at a convenience store in Shinchi-machi.

It was too early yet to use the term suspension of judgment. Inside the store there were more goods being sold than I had assumed based on my preconceptions. I had heard, for example, that cigarettes were one of things in shortest supply in the affected areas, yet there they were, on display and for sale. I had been worried that everyone would be running low on protective masks but with many types available, most in large quantities, clearly they were not out of stock at all. In the parking lot out in front of the store I stared out at the ocean with my three companions. We were still three kilometers away, and it was impossible to make out the shoreline.

The other pairs come up with versions that differ substantially in style and tone and voice. Everyone seems to have struggled, with the text or their partners or both, and the air in the room is charged. We spend the remainder of the day’s sessions, morning and afternoon—less coffee breaks and lunch—going over this same short paragraph again and again, debating endlessly. I am distracted by the “knowledge” (thank you Google) that handan teishi 判断停止 is an established translation for epoché, said to be an ancient Greek philosophical term for suspension of judgment. Neither suspension of judgment nor epoché fits the register of the paragraph, especially given that it echoes the narrator’s casual observation on the previous page that he and his colleagues were experiencing a touch of it as they reached Fukushima prefecture and approached the site of the damaged nuclear power plant.

Remembering that we have the author in the room with us—one of the few times this day when we will interrupt our sparring long enough to do so—someone asks Furukawa’s advice. He says that the most important thing about the word, which he surely spent less time choosing than we already had in debating, may be the way it echoes bureaucratic terms used in press conferences and reporting about the nuclear accident, words like reion teishi 冷温停止 (cold shutdown). Someone suggests “mental shutdown,” and for the first time the room nods in collective assent.

At some point during a coffee break or lunch, I ask Michael why he chose Horses for the workshop. I’m surprised when he says he didn’t, and that he thinks it to be all but untranslatable. He would have preferred a work of ordinary narrative fiction, but Furukawa had felt strongly about using Horses.

It is a difficult book to describe. It is a vivid, real-time play-by-play of Furukawa’s journey to Fukushima at a time when the wounds from the earthquake and tsunami were still wet and raw, the nuclear crisis seemed one small mistake from spiraling out of control, and neither industry nor government appeared up to the task of setting things right. Horses is a personal account of how, as a writer from Fukushima, Furukawa was impacted by and reacted to the events of 3/11 and immediately thereafter. (The book made it to press in just months, in July 2011.) But it is neither a work of journalism nor a memoir. Characters from another Furukawa novel join the author on his trip, weaving in and out of the story repeatedly and at length. Fukushima is known for horse-breeding and there is an extended section covering the role of horses in wartime, Fukushima’s political standing during the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Japan’s disastrous invasions of Korea, and the Soma Nomaoi—the mad scramble by mounted samurai to capture sacred flags in a centuries-old festival that came to symbolize how 3/11 threatened continuity and tradition throughout Tohoku. The killing of Osama bin Laden in early May 2011, while Furukawa is in Manhattan for a reading, prompts reflection on the meaning of 3/11 and 9/11. The book leaps back and forth in time, slipping between fact and fiction, but its broad structural confusion and relentless, breathless voice convey the truth of the time in a way no more polished work possibly could. It is not the sort of novel you will find on the shelves of an airport bookshop.

Our skittish and ill-tempered group muddles all day through what we started in pairs, getting no further than a rough consensus on that initial single paragraph. By the final presentation it will look like this:

We stop at a convenience store in Shinchimachi.

Mental shutdown? It had been too early to use the term, too soon. Inside were more goods on the shelves than I had imagined would be there—things for sale. Even cigarettes, which I had heard were one of the hardest items to find in the affected areas, were being sold as usual. And masks, which I was concerned would be hard to get, were plentiful in many varieties. In the car park in front of the store, I looked out toward the ocean. So did the others. Still three kilometers away, there was no sign of the shoreline.

In the evening, we hear a panel discussion by the workshop leaders from all language groups. All have interesting things to say about making a living as literary translators, how they got started, and the role of a translator. Michael comments that while writers may be encouraged to dig deeper within themselves, translators really need to break out of themselves. He also compares translators to cows—something about turning grass into butter. On this day, though, I am reminded that cows turn grass into something else more directly.

Day 2

Whether due to jet-lag, staying up into the wee hours staring into my computer screen, the general excitement of so much interaction with new people, the thin duvet, or the brilliant light that streams into my cell, I sleep fitfully and wake up early. Starting to feel a bit weightless. Maybe more coffee will help.

On the morning of the second full day we take a different approach to small-group translation in an effort to make more progress on the remainder of the first section, which carries on for a full two pages beyond that initial paragraph. We divide into three groups, each tackling one third of the remaining text. The idea is to get something on the page, however imperfect, within a set time limit before sending it on to the next group for further work. Ideally, each group will work on all three parts before we convene to compare versions, choose one as a base to work from, and then nitpick the details.

Before we begin, Michael also asks Furukawa to talk a little bit about the book, to give us more of a context for the passages we are working on. Furukawa talks about 3/11 as a world-changing catastrophe, about his need as a writer to respond by writing, to record the moment in all its transient fragility, and about how, just a year and some months later, the immediacy of then is already being lost in the everyday now—becoming a past examined from a critical distance rather than encountered live in the moment. He talks about how time shifted and stretched and blurred back then, and how Horses seeks to convey a fictionalized truth that rings truer than mere fact. In closing, he says that for us, dealing with this particular text in our workshop instead of something more accessible might, in a way, be our own once-in-a-millennium catastrophe. At least I think that’s what he says.

The first of the three remaining parts of the first section goes like this:



In my group, at least, the new approach seems to work. It is an enormous relief to be in a group of four rather than two. The time limit brings focus. Completely off-base suggestions are dispatched quickly (their passing marked with a moment of silence) or buried beneath a stream of alternate renderings. Soon a quick glance around is enough to trigger moving on, and we spend more time pushing each other to do better, or at least get through it. There is a certain animal tyranny in this—any one of us may be seeing something the others cannot but the format discourages the prolonged discussion that might give reason an edge over instinct. Still, it feels like progress.

One of the other groups, however, explodes. Feeling that his contributions are not being given due consideration, one fellow stands up, shouts angrily at his partners, and storms from the room. It is over in an instant (though a walking-on-eggshells quality lasts the week) and his partners say they were taken completely by surprise. In the afternoon, he rejoins us without comment.

Our group comes up with:

But there was a tower, maybe a thermal power plant. The car park was bathed in a clear light, like that of early summer. Just three hours after it had felt like winter, now it felt like summer. I thought time was wavering. Time was in disarray. The arc of the sky stretched blue, almost overwhelming. My shadow was cast sharp against the ground. Black. It was over ten degrees Celsius. Regular traffic was moving along Route 6, and customers came to the store one after another. I figured they were locals. “Let’s go,” I said to the other three. It was a few minutes after we left the convenience store. Travelling north, the destruction of the tsunami broke into view, like an ambush, on the east. Not appeared, was revealed. Together with scars from the earthquake. The map showed a river here, which suggested the huge tsunami had surged upstream. We turn right off of Route 6. Turning right at the intersection by Shinchimachi Town Hall, it finally hit us, all of us I think -- mental shutdown.

What did the tsunami destroy?

After lunch—plates of mixed sandwiches and falafel balls with cucumber dressing and sliced vegetables with hummus served buffet style in the lobby below, followed by strong coffee in big mugs—we bring our various versions together, throwing them on the screen for comparison. There is much to discuss.

One of the things Furukawa spoke about in the morning was his intentional use of non-standard pairings of kanji and readings through the use of rubi pronunciation notes alongside the text, a wonderfully economical way to pack more nuance into a word, and something he intends to pass almost subconsciously for a Japanese reader. An example above is reading 奇襲 (kishū; raid, sneak attack) as ふいうち (不意打ち; fuiuchi; surprise, catch off guard). There isn’t really any comparable device in English, and we become perhaps too fixated on trying to give such words life. (Months later I consider a possible parallel in the use of writing under erasure, as in “I think his translation is odious nuanced,” but such metadiscursive strikethroughs are more like ironic scare quotes that lay bare the underlying insinuation, or an archly defensive undermining of the writer’s ostensible intent, and in either case both attention-getting and lacking in subtlety.)

Late in the day, a non-native speaker of English who takes a prescriptive approach to its use suggests perceptively that our choice of article is wrong at the end, that the question is a general one, not about this specific tsunami but something more open-ended or philosophical. Furukawa confirms it to be so.

By the final presentation, the paragraph reads like this:

But there was a tower, most likely the thermal power plant. The parking area was bathed in a clear light, like that of early summer. Just three hours ago it had felt like winter, and now it felt like summer. Time is swaying, I thought. Time is in disarray, I thought. The sky was overwhelmingly blue, my shadow cast sharp against the ground. Black. The temperature was now above ten degrees. Ordinary vehicles were travelling up and down Route 6, and the store had a steady stream of customers. Locals. “Let’s go,” I said to the other three. It was a few minutes after we left the convenience store. On our right, to the east as we went north, the destruction of the tsunami appeared out of the blue, sudden as an ambush. No, not appeared—it was just there. With the scars from the earthquake. The map showed a river here, which suggested the huge tsunami had surged upstream. We turn right off of Route 6. It is at the intersection by Shinchimachi Town Hall that it finally hits us, all of us, I think—mental shutdown.

What does a tsunami destroy?

In the remaining two parts of this first section, Furukawa and his companions continue on through a scoured wasteland, horrible and spectacular in its ravaged emptiness, passing crushed and overturned vehicles filled with debris before arriving at a fishing port. Getting out of their car they walk along torn-up asphalt among ragged scraps of concrete and twisted steel. Searching for the missing, helicopters circle overhead. Carrion crows, too. On what was once a beach they find a purse and a hand mirror, and the ocean quiet and calm.

Where narrator Furukawa notes that he and his companions never saw any of the jintai no pātsu 人体の部分(パーツ) they had steeled themselves for, some of us are reluctant to use “body parts,” as if resisting the pull of a katakana false friend. And what difference does it make whether the itai 遺体 for which the helicopters are searching are called “bodies” or “corpses”?

I am excited about our progress and feel like we can get through this. We can redeem ourselves for the slow start yesterday and the blowup in the morning. My own bias as a translator is to over-fixate on the source, parsing out its structure to try and be sure I understand it fully before discarding or reworking it in the translation. The danger is that I become so enamored of the trees that I lose sight of the forest, that I neglect tone and register, missing the melody while overanalyzing the individual notes. Now that we’re finally rolling, the ideas caroming around the room are intoxicating and the adrenaline and the caffeine are surging and I lose sight of the ticking clock. The guy in the corner is agitated and combative. The woman across the room is visibly uncomfortable, arms crossed and eyes sullen. The fatigue and frustration are finally evident even to me. With a keynote lecture to deliver to all workshop participants in less than half an hour, Michael closes us down.

He speaks on the topic of translating Japanese into Japanese. I think this is a misprint in the program at first but his concern is a late-nineteenth century technological shift in Japanese publishing from books as pouch-bound assemblages of pages produced by woodblock printing to books bound and printed in the Western style. It is not immediately apparent how this relates to translation.

Michael elaborates, describing the “bibliographic translation” of Japanese from calligraphy to movable type and the changes imposed when texts created in the former were reproduced in the latter. Beyond the visual uniqueness of every writer’s hand, calligraphic expression allowed multiple ways to represent a given syllable, while movable type imposed limits, leading to the standardization of kana forms and the isolation of individual characters within regular square spaces. (A chapter on this topic appears in Michael’s forthcoming The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature).

My head still spinning with the events of the day, I struggle to follow. The main takeaway seems to echo something Michael has emphasized in the classroom: translation is throwing away. Complete fidelity to the original—its words, phrases, rhetorical devices, and raw forms—is impossible, and it makes little sense to fetishize it. We should not translate for the relatively few readers who can read the original. They do not need our help (though they may delight in the opportunity to take us to task for what they think we’ve missed). For other readers, the translation opens up a previously inaccessible new world. It’s all gravy.

What does a translation destroy? What is swept away? What is born in its place?

At dinner, I learn something interesting. Normally five full session days long, the program this year has been cut to four in an effort to avoid heavy traffic during the Olympic Games in London (our departure was shifted from the first day of competition to the day of the opening ceremony). Total classroom time, though, was left unchanged, with the lost hours simply added to the remaining days. This explains a lot. The relentless pace. The lack of downtime. How impossible it is to push the debris of the day off to the side and clear a course to a more cautious, more mediated self.

At night, I cannot sleep. I feel ashamed to have been so caught up in the tug and pull of the intellectual game that I missed how toxic the atmosphere had become and how just plain worn out everyone was. Furukawa deserves better from us. We still have two full days, but things are spinning out of control and I feel terribly hollow. Tomorrow should have been the middle session of five, a kind of safe window to summit in daylight, leaving plenty of time for everyone to descend safely. Instead, the presentation is 36 hours away, we have four messy paragraphs in lieu of a plan, and we are losing people. Given the mood in the room today, someone had said, it was easier just to say nothing. It was not supposed to be this way.

Day 3

I wake up obscenely early and run a load of clothes at the campus laundry. After tossing them in the dryer I head to breakfast and run into David Karashima, the senior program coordinator from the Nippon Foundation who is overseeing our workshop. He says Michael has contracted a nasty gastrointestinal flu and was up all night turning inside out. Yikes.

I leave to run the dryer again and when I come back to the cafeteria I find others from our group who have trickled in. Everyone seems a bit shell-shocked, apprehensive about where we are and what the day will bring. We talk. Furukawa arrives with his wife. He listens patiently and compassionately. We are grateful.

Many cups of coffee later, we are in class and Furukawa takes control, with David also helping to run the day in Michael’s absence. Furukawa lays out an ambitious master plan for our presentation, identifying two more sections of the book to add to the one we have mostly finished. He describes how he sees them fitting together. He reminds us that translators, like writers, often have to work to deadline. Ours is approaching.

Furukawa reads aloud the section we have already done. He talks about its rhythms, how in places it suggests the 5-7-5 of haiku, with two bounces and a twist. He implores us to think less about the meaning of words and more about the overall dynamics. Inserting the kanji for kishu beneath the reading fuiuchi foreshadows the violent imagery used as his group approaches the port—he compares the destruction to an air raid or a nuclear wasteland—which then yields abruptly to the small, quiet, and mundane: to circling birds, a woman’s everyday things, and a placid sea. Can we capture this rhythm and convey the essence of a tsunami through a sudden textual assault that leaves an uncanny tranquility in its wake? We go through our translation again. We read it out loud over Furukawa as he reads the original. This is eerie, but effective.

Our next target for the day is a passage in which Furukawa recalls some of the news coverage in the wake of 3/11. The first two episodes are from television. He describes footage of a visit by the president of TEPCO to the governor of Fukushima to apologize for the accident at the nuclear power plant. The governor talks about how the leak of radioactive materials has forced more than 6,000 children to take refuge outside the prefecture. His voice trembles with sadness and pain, crying without shedding tears. Then, his voice firm, he tells the president of TEPCO that he can forget about ever restarting his nuclear power plants in Fukushima, either the damaged Daiichi plant or the undamaged Daini. Narrator Furukawa sobs while watching the news.

The second episode involves a nameless man at a shelter in Tamura who speaks up when the prime minister makes his first visit to refuge facilities in Fukushima. When the prime minister turns to go after just ten minutes on site the man calls out, “ Are you leaving already?” His voice, clear and strong, carries throughout the shelter. Seconds pass and he calls out again in the same measured voice, “Are you really leaving already?”

I remember these episodes vividly, and the stir they caused, from my own hours spent anxiously in front of the television during those uncertain first weeks.

Time is running short, and the third episode is the only one we will actually translate:


In the final presentation, it will look like this:

What comes next I didn’t see on TV. I read it in the paper. On the 25th of April the city of Koriyama announced it was going to remove the top layer of soil from the grounds of twenty-eight kindergartens, elementary and middle schools. Disposing of the soil in which radiation had accumulated. I didn’t know it when the story ran, but I soon learned the heavy machinery had moved into the elementary school where I spent six years. I picture it: bulldozers tearing up my school grounds. Tearing up, tearing away.

We stall by late morning, when scheduled editing workshops begin that carry through the afternoon session. The opportunity to hear from publishers and editors who actually deal with works of translation is fascinating, and a hugely important part of the workshop program overall, but today it feels like we’ve been pulled back from the brink of a meaningful advance.

I spend the lunch hour in the classroom. I check YouTube for the coverage of the man in the shelter, and I find it. It is not as I remembered. It is better. Which is to say it is devastating. The man standing in the corner of the gymnasium opposite the entrance calls out to the prime minister and his sizable entourage as they sweep out. He reels them back. He never steps from his cardboard enclosure. The prime minister is drawn to him. The man never raises his voice, but his eyes are like steel. He and his wife are from a different village than the residents the prime minister had been visiting with on the other side of the gymnasium. They’ve been there a month. They had been told he was coming. They had waited. Patiently. Does he have any idea how it felt to be passed by? The prime minister mumbles apologies and excuses. He didn’t know they were there. He’s very sorry. He meant no harm.

Furukawa and his wife are in and out of the classroom during lunch, too. They sit in a back corner, behind me and out of sight, but I am acutely conscious of their presence. I cannot stop crying as I watch the video over and over. I try to do so quietly, and mostly get by with shuddering and sniffling. I cannot very well just stand up and leave as if running away. And what right do I have to be so affected by this clip? It isn’t as if I lost my house or family or friends or hometown to the shaking and the waves and the radiation. It isn’t as if I grew up in Fukushima. It isn’t as if I went to the affected areas to volunteer, or wrote a book to record those days, or did anything to help beyond a Red Cross donation. But I do remember how it felt to watch it all play out in the news, the helplessness, the fascination, the persistent offers from well-meaning relatives in the US to escape Japan and take shelter with them.

A confession. 3/11 fell during a period of low motivation for me. When the rattling and swaying began I was at home in Nagano, at my computer in my study on the second floor. I was at my computer, but I was not working. All too often during those grim unproductive months, I was tethered to the dopamine drip of strategy games. I played with the sound off: no rat-a-tat-tats or thumping beats, just the illusion of incremental, forward motion. The house moved much as it had during the Chuetsu Earthquake that hit Niigata in 2004, with a sudden violent shaking that did no visible damage. At least not on my turf. A friend tweeted that the Japan Meteorological Agency was predicting a 10-meter tsunami. Sure, I thought. I wasn’t going to fall for that. I remained upstairs until my wife got home some hours later and turned on the television. She had been driving when the quake struck and had not noticed it at the time. She shouted for me to come down and we watched together. Mesmerized. Horrified. We watched the helicopter shot of the tsunami sweeping across coastal flatlands, swallowing the homes and the farms with their plastic-covered greenhouses (and, surely, their people and animals, too). We watched the rooftop shot of roiling black waters spilling over an embankment, carrying ships like bathtub toys into city streets. And we watched the hand-held images of houses piling into each other, smashing like balsawood models as they washed inland toward cameramen who soon fled in a blur for higher ground. We watched. Over, and over, and over.

During the last coffee break of the day, I bring my laptop down to the lobby. I offer to share the video with some of the other translators from our group. Five or six of us gather around. We watch. Nobody says anything. I see one tear fall just beyond the spill of hair shielding the bowed face of the woman in front of me. It falls faster than I would have expected, had I been expecting it. Around me, there is a stagger of heaves and a collective sigh. I snap the laptop shut. One person stands and then another. Eyes cast mostly elsewhere and unmet, we shuffle off as if from a funeral, slowly spreading apart despite how closely we had huddled just moments before.

The evening is ostensibly free, but the BCLT has put together a program with a reading at the Millennium Library in downtown Norwich followed by dinner on our own. Tumbling out of taxis, we arrive early and soak up the sun and blue sky from the steps between the library and the Church of St. Peter Mancroft. The reading is by Rosalind Harvey, from Down the Rabbit Hole, her translation of Fiesta en la madriguera by Juan Pablo Villalobos. It is a strange book, about a precocious little boy with an extensive collection of hats who wants a pygmy hippo for his private zoo. The son of a Mexican drug baron, he is being raised in a palace-fortress among prostitutes, servants, dealers, hit men, and the corpses their activities generate. The boy employs all sorts of grown-up words—sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic, and devastating—in describing his thoughts and surroundings. Harvey smoothly incorporates all the off-register vocabulary in an unmistakably child-like voice. It’s brilliant. How invigorating to be reminded that literature in translation can work, after all.

After the reading, those of us from the Japanese-English workshop head to a tapas bar for dinner. Word has gone round that Furukawa now has the flu, too. This is awful news, but it feels like we’ll manage somehow. Quote of the night, delivered innocently by an American—the only other member of our group also now living in Japan—joining a conversation about the music then playing in the bar:

“Tom Waits? Is he big in Japan?”

How delightful to see these people in three dimensions.

Day 4

Unable to sleep, I am up early and take a walk around a lake that I discovered the other day, hiding in plain sight in the nature reserve that borders the campus. It feels good to move, and the misty chill makes the promise of breakfast coffee that much more inviting. The adrenaline is running so high I’ll need the caffeine to calm me down.

We are all a bit anxious about whether Furukawa will recover enough by evening to take part in the presentation. Michael, thankfully, is back, though he seems kind of woozy. We have less than four hours of session time before we must submit our presentation text, and set out to complete the last section, a memory relayed by a character from another of Furukawa’s novels:




 同じ毎日じゃない、特別な一日だ。風景のことを語れば、その日の(そら)のことを語れば、鳶が飛んでいたんだった。四羽、旋回している。それは四種類の円で、一つも同心円としては描かれていなかった。地上には妹がいた。今は妊娠している妹だ。俺とは(とし)が九つ離れた妹だ。だから七歳だった。小学生で、ランドセルを背負っていた。黄色かったことを憶えている。そのランドセルの色彩が、小鳥のカナリア色をしていたことを俺は鮮やかに思い出す。時間から判断したら下校途中だったはずだ。もちろん林道のそんな人けも(まば)らなところに通学路は設定されていないから、妹は勝手に遊び うろついていたんだ。森の(けもの)ごっこでもしていたのかもしれない。そして俺のところに来た。妹は集団下校をすることはなかった。妹はもう何年も前から言葉を発していなかった。四歳から口を利いていないんだ。たぶん「しゃべらない」と戦闘的に決意して、それを貫いていた。でも、これは特別な一日だった。俺は十六歳の特別すぎるあの日を思い出してるんだ。視線を上げれば旋回する四羽の鳶がいた。そこから下ろせばランドセルを背負った妹がいた。炭焼き小屋のそこに来ていて、俺をじっと見ていた。俺が拳を鍛練して、その併せて八本の左右の指先を凶器じみたものに変えようと足掻いている(さま)を。無言だったよ、もちろん。それから歩を進めて、俺のところに来て、それでも無言だったよ、もちろん。





Whew. This is the text Furukawa read at the opening all-workshop gathering, and it is not easy. Fortunately, after the library reading David had divided the text into sections and assigned each of us four or five lines to work on overnight. We combine all the snippets and then hash out a final version. What is different this time is that Elmer does an edit over lunch, after which we must try to convince him to reinstate what he has cut or to rework what he has changed. It is illuminating to see the sort of changes an editor makes, working without access to the original and concerned primarily with how the final product works in English. Nothing builds cohesion like a common adversary and having Elmer as a foil helps both in creating a somewhat more polished text and in getting us to think like a team for our presentation.

But even before we pass the text over to Elmer, we are working differently today. We take turns as scribe, quickly pounding the suggestions flying around the room into the computer and up onto the screen, adding and revising and deleting as a consensus builds or options narrow. Michael chimes in occasionally to offer guidance, but by and large the one at the keyboard directs the stop-and-go, deciding when to push a little harder, when to solicit a show of hands, and when to say “good enough” and move on. During my turn, as my fingers stumble on the unfamiliar keyboard and my brain succumbs to fatigue, someone offers to spell me and I can tell this is more from compassion than annoyance. So different from where we began.

Handing in the translation, rough as it feels, lifts an enormous weight. We have a little time to figure out how to deliver it, and decide that each of us will read a paragraph or so in turn. Reciting it out loud as we practice leads to scribbling in some last-minute adjustments, and the passage is presented like this:

Picture this, he said.

I was sixteen. Not driving yet. Not yet, but soon. Soon, illegally of course, but not yet. My bike was my only way of getting around. So I cycled everywhere. Every day. I would ride through the woods, along logging roads, and then into the marshland. I rode right through. Through the wet. Every day, at the same time. This was training, after all. I rode that bike to the charcoal-burning shed, in the hills. My family knew where I’d be. I had no business with the shed itself. It was the open area outside the shed I was interested in. There I had collected lengths of bamboo of a certain thickness, together with brushwood and straw. All part of my training. I had this wooden box that served as my training equipment. Sometimes I would fill it with dry gravel. Other times I would pack it with pebbles from the stream.

The purpose? To toughen up my hands. The tips of the eight fingers of my two hands, not counting my thumbs. To turn them into lethal weapons. Over several years I did this. I forget how many.

I would listen to the sounds of the box. To the crunch, or to the jab, ja-jab, jab of my fingers stabbing deep into the pebbles. Like I said, I’d been doing this for years.

But this day when I was sixteen? This day I remember.

It wasn’t an ordinary day; it was somehow special. I remember looking up and seeing hawks. Four of them, wheeling, circling, each on its own. Then, when I looked down, there stood my sister. She’s pregnant now. She’s nine years younger than me, so she had to be seven then, attending elementary school. She had her knapsack on her back. It was yellow.

The yellow stands out in my mind. Canary yellow. She must have been on her way home from school. Her way home, needless to say, didn’t include this barely travelled road through the woods, so she must have come here to play, hang out on her own. Maybe she was making believe she was a forest animal, who knows. Anyway, there she was, suddenly where I was. My sister always walked home alone.

She hadn’t said a word for years, not since she was four. I think she resolved to stop speaking as an act of aggression, and she stuck to it. But this was no ordinary day; it was special. I was sixteen. The four birds circled above. And then, out of the blue, here was my sister, knapsack and all, standing by the shed, staring at me.

She watched as I performed my routine, struggling to toughen my hands, to render my fingertips lethal. Didn’t say a word, of course. She stepped toward me. Still didn’t say a word.

She takes my hand. My left hand.

She strokes my palm, and then rubs each of my fingers.

“Hard,” she slowly says. It took her dozens of seconds to get this one word out. It took all of the physical strength in her little body just to say it. “Hard.” It took so much strength that her knapsack slipped down her shoulders. I was stunned. I was so taken aback that it was a minute or so before I could say anything at all. And then I began. Mumbling. Something about us being born. Something like, “Us, the three of us siblings, all of us. We got born.”

Furukawa presents with us. We all line up at the front of the auditorium, each person reading in turn from left to right. Standing on the far left, facing the wall rather than the audience, he reads the passages in Japanese as we read them in English, changing his volume and tone to match the idiosyncrasies of our deliveries. An incredible performer, he carries us all. We’re done.

The other language presentations are polished. Some are hilarious. A couple of groups offer multiple versions of the same excerpts, first in some reasonably standard version of English and then reworked completely using wildly different character types or regional accents. How did they do it? In these same short four days? Is it something about Japanese, or our text, or us (our aptitudes or personalities) that caused us to struggle so hard to produce something that, despite our relief in getting through it, does not really seem to do the original or its author justice?

From left: Elmer Luke, David Karashima, Hart Larrabee, and Michael Emmerich.
At center foreground: Chie and Hideo Furukawa.

The presentation is followed by cocktails in the sculpture garden at the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts: cool summery drinks on a beautiful grassy lawn under ethereal sunshine, standing among strange and monumental figures. Taking pictures of each other, our smiles are genuine. A formal dinner in the glassy café overlooking the garden closes out the official program, and people then trickle over to the campus bar.

After last call, when there is no longer any point in hovering by the door but it still feels too early to leave, everyone gathers on the concrete steps that face the cafeteria. I join the group late, slipping into the conversation on the lowest step, but I am not the last to arrive. A girl with a yellow knapsack on her back­—a canary yellow knapsack on her back—appears on the step above me. She does not take my hand—my left hand—but she does break her silence. Seeing her there, hearing her speak, evokes something powerful, an appreciation of and for the moment that a cynic would attribute to sleep-deprivation and sensory overload mystic would attribute to transcendental revelation. Seeing her tears, someone up above and out of earshot interrupts, trying to be funny: will she really miss us that much? The spell is broken and the girl with the yellow knapsack is gone.

I wake in a breathless panic at 3:30 AM. It shouldn’t have been straw. Sure, the kanji is 藁 and everybody knows that means straw but straw comes from grain grown in fields and the charcoal kiln—definitely a kiln, maybe a shack, but certainly not a shed—is near a marsh and a river so surely it should be reeds and then what about . . . I cycle through half a dozen ways the translation is dreadful. It will be more than a week before I can sleep through the night without flashing back to the workshop and the text and what more we could have or should have done.

Day Out

Before breakfast I take one last walk around the lake. The surface is smooth, with a thin mist rising like steam from fresh-baked bread. Completing the loop, passing the rabbits nibbling on thistle but just before the patch of wildflowers, I run into Furukawa and his wife heading out for a walk of their own. We said our goodbyes outside the bar the night before, but it feels like providence to meet them again, renewed in the morning light, to say thank you and farewell one more time.

A handful of us who are heading to the station at the same time gather outside the dorm and shuffle slowly to the bus. There isn’t much left to say. Everything that matters has either already been said or would be diminished by the saying. I ride to London with another from our group. She catches up on real-world work while I furiously type incoherent notes that will later become a marginally less incoherent essay. At the station in London we say goodbye and it is over.

What does a workshop destroy? What is swept away? What is born in its place?


Eight months later, it seems too early to tell. There is no real (or seemly) comparison between the violence inflicted on people and property and community by a massive tsunami and what a translation does to an original work of literature, or the effect of a weeklong workshop on its participants. Yet surely both can be watershed trauma in their way.

Group translation on the BCLT model is not how most of us work, and having experienced it I think few would choose to adopt the approach as a mainstay. It does push us into uncomfortable territory, though, forcing us to break out of ourselves, and I suspect (hope) this makes us better translators. Everyone in our group contributed something meaningful. Nobody was right all the time. Working directly with the author, especially a writer as physical as Furukawa, was inspiring, and in writing about the week I find myself channeling (however imperfectly) his voice.

I still don’t know exactly what to make of Horses. A tangled heap of debris gathered in the wake of catastrophe, it is daunting in its density and haunting in its detail. It is something of a shambles, though I say so with great admiration and affection as it resonates deeply with my experience living in Japan during the period it covers. Indeed, the book now indelibly colors my memory of those months.

Surely Horses can be translated, though by definition it will not be the book Furukawa wrote. As a record of what 3/11 was before it began turning into memory, into the past, it really must be.


Editor’s note: The next BCLT summer workshop will be held 21–27 July 2013 and led by Jeffrey Angles, Associate Professor of
 Japanese Literature, Language and Translation Studies at Western Michigan University. This year’s event will be an advanced workshop for translators who have taken part in a previous BCLT summer workshop or have equivalent experience in literary translation. Applications will be accepted through 7 May 2013. See the BCLT website for further details and application procedures.

(Originally written for the SWET website, April 25, 2013)

© 2013 Hart Larrabee