The Colorless Room: An Interview with Ryan Choi

L.S. Popovich: In a body of work as fragmented as Akutagawa’s, with hundreds of pieces still untranslated, how did you choose specific examples for your upcoming book In Dreams: The Very Short Works of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa?

Ryan Choi: I came to the concept of the book haphazardly, starting only with the idea of translating Akutagawa’s debut story, “Old Age,” which hadn’t been done before. Then, while moving through his body of work, I kept finding these compelling flash-length works, which—again—hadn’t been done before, and were plentiful enough to fill a book. With these filters in place, the decisions on what to include or exclude became simple. 

LSP: How did you arrive at the decision to translate Japanese literature? 

RC: I began studying the language in high school and continued in earnest through some of my college years when I also—relatedly—became interested in literature and writing in general. Despite this, I consider myself largely self-taught and have no degree in the field, much less an academic post, as many literary translators do (as a matter of fact, while doing my earliest work, I was employed as a delivery driver and warehouse worker). I spent about half a year studying abroad in Tokyo, during which time my Japanese speaking abilities peaked, and—I’m sorry to say—have since eroded from lack of use into something just vaguely passable in conversation. These days, I’m mostly detached from contemporary Japanese culture and people from Japan. My relationship with the language is strictly literary—or, so to speak, private—and I do, for the sake of translation, prefer it this way, or at least don’t feel it necessary to be speaking the language regularly, if at all. But that’s just me; writing is writing and speaking is speaking, and though they’re undeniably related, they do retain a degree of independence, as evidenced by the fact that a person who is mute is no less capable of reading and writing than someone who is not. When I first started translating—this was sometime after I left Japan—I didn’t have the goal of publishing, or the expectation that my efforts would lead anywhere; in some sense, it was little more than an experiment rooted in my boredom at the time, and yet I found more and more that I enjoyed the whole process, that curious mix of creation, investigation, and puzzle-solving. After I finished my first set of translations (which was of Jun Tsuji’s poetry), I sent them out to some literary journals just to see, and—to my surprise—the response was encouraging, and so I went on with translating poetry, and soon branched out into prose, while some editors, very flatteringly, even began to solicit me. Eventually—re the Akutagawa material—I had collected enough pieces to form this book that I was lucky enough to have accepted for publication. On the surface, I proceeded through all of this almost by Pavlovian response. Not being one to beat a dead horse, if I had never had my work accepted in the first place, I likely wouldn’t have continued translating.  

LSP: Charles De Wolf’s and Jay Rubin’s translations of “Cogwheels” and “Spinning Gears” respectively almost read like different stories. To what extent do you impose stylistic choices when working from a language as idiosyncratic as Japanese? 

RC: Every language has its own idiosyncrasies. I don’t believe that Japanese, in a vacuum, is any more idiosyncratic or difficult than English—grammar-wise, that is. The Japanese native finds English just as strange as the English native finds Japanese (e.g. for the former, “Why do I always need pronouns?” and for the latter, “Why do the pronouns keep disappearing?”). However, when it comes to systems of writing, you could argue that going from English to Japanese is a steeper hill to climb than the reverse because of the tremendous number of Kanji and two syllabaries that must be learned (while, as a point of contrast, this same hill—going into Japanese—may not be nearly as daunting for the reader of Chinese). Written symbols aside, syntactically and morphologically speaking, English and Japanese—relative to each other—are worlds apart, and one of the effects of this distance on the process of translation is the increase in gray space between the two—i.e. the number of defensible interpretations of a sufficiently complex sentence—compared to language pairs whose syntactical structures hug each other more closely. In my case, the process of translation inevitably begins as a great big mess. It takes a lot of time for me just to learn how to read whatever it is I’m translating; while reading through something for the first time, I’m already looking up words and references and taking notes and doing a very rough mock-up in English. Only after mastering the original do I feel comfortable leaving it behind and allowing myself—within reason—to drift and work on my words alone. It’s only through this long, laborious process that an authorial voice emerges. I don’t hear the voice from the start. It’s discovered and chiseled over time. I’m not familiar enough with the works and methods of De Wolf and Rubin to compare the two, but it’s not surprising that their versions sound so different from each other. Ask two painters to paint the same scene and you’ll get two remarkably different results. In the end, every translator has their own feel for rhythm and sound, just as every painter has their own feel for color, line, and shade, and a translation too can be judged in more than one way—if a reader has no knowledge of the original language they take the translator at their word and judge the translation on the basis of the text before them, as in the parable of the man in his colorless room, learning of color only through books by people with direct experience of them. 

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa(芥川龍之介)

LSP: Did Akutagawa employ more than one style? Why do you think he never wrote a full-length novel? 

RC: Like all great stylists, Akutagawa’s style is instantly recognizable. In this sense, he had a singular style, but one that he applied diversely—in the manner of Borges (another exclusive master of the short form, who also happened to admire Akutagawa’s work)—to everything from weird tales and journalism to historical fiction and autobiography. He was seen widely as one of the best read men of his generation; his literary and intellectual interests were extremely eclectic, spanning many genres, countries, and eras from the ancient to the modern. I can only conjecture as to why he never wrote a full-length novel. But most writers—which includes translators—find a style that fits their obsessions and tendencies, their lifestyle and even physiology. Speaking of the latter—and again this is pure conjecture—it’s often been commented upon by his critics, as well as by himself, that Akutagawa was a man of frail health, both physically and mentally. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t have the constitution or attention span to write full-length novels, and therefore, instinctively, was drawn to shorter forms. Obviously, he was a conscious writer of short stories, but I don’t know that he consciously set out to be a short story writer, if that makes sense. There’s a good chance that he was doing simply what was natural to him, like a spider spinning his web. Despite much time spent translating him, however, I didn’t look too deeply into Akutagawa’s life, focusing on the texts themselves and doing research only as needed; so there could well be letters or diaries out there that indicate an unrealized wish on his part to have been a novelist.  

LSP: You have also translated Sanki Saito, Takahashi Shinkichi, and Jun Tsuji. What future collections would you like to publish, and will they include these or other authors? 

RC: As far as translations go, I have a manuscript of Sanki Saito’s poetry that no book publisher seems to want. I would love to have this published as a book (since it was the first full work I ever completed), but I’ve given up on the prospect. I’m working on some Korean-language poetry (the first installment of which can be read in The Nation), and—quite possibly—a second volume of Akutagawa’s writings, which may include as a coda a selection of his little-known poetry (some translations of which I have published in Two Lines). It’s doubtful I’ll do standalone books on Jun Tsuji or Shinkichi Takahashi, even though reader responses to my translations of them have been positive. A publisher would need to convince me.  

LSP: What authors are still unknown in the West or lack sufficient translation? 

RC: I must confess that I don’t read literature in Japanese other than what I’m working on. I’m sure there are many authors out there and it’s only a matter of time before they make it over to English. There are a finite number of works from any era, and over time this number should approach zero with all the translators out there sharking around for new opportunities. 

LSP: Edith Grossman said: “literary translation is both an act of criticism and an act of creative writing.” Do you find yourself criticizing the work when you translate it? 

RC: Inevitably one’s opinions creep in, but not to the extent of it becoming a nuisance, at least not for me. But clearly for Grossman it was an issue worth mentioning. I can’t say I exactly know what she means here without reading the full context of the quote, though I’ve never thought of myself explicitly as a critic in my translation work, and haven’t really taken notice of such a tendency. But perhaps I’ve just been oblivious of an aspect of the art that’s apparent to everyone else. Certainly, or so it seems, doing a collection like this Akutagawa one, as opposed to a novel (which I’ve never done before), involves selecting and arranging the originals into an order that didn’t exist before. I suppose this act of selecting and arranging can be regarded as a form of criticism; of imposing one’s tastes. I also don’t think it’s such a great travesty for a translator to make improvements to the original (and this is definitely a form of criticism). Whatever the case, I feel rather boringly monolithic in my approach overall, most of the time being bogged down in primordial worries about whether a sentence reads well, or about using a comma versus a semicolon (even though the latter, by the way, doesn’t exist in Japanese), or about when to break a paragraph. Does this count as criticism too? I can’t say that it doesn’t. And so, it would appear that Grossman was onto something (which doesn’t, however, seem limited to literary translation proper). 

LSP: Michael Emmerich describes translation between typographically diverse languages as entering “a highly abstract plane, rather like that of a mathematician, grammarian or logician.” How do you bridge the gulf of context to produce a very readable result? 

RC: We return here to the above-referenced spider and its web. How does a spider spin its web? The arachnologist will tell you one thing. But, as for the spider itself, who can say? At any rate, I think I see what Emmerich is saying. You can view languages as systems of logic and temporality that use certain universal operators (like NOT, OR, AND, IF THIS / THAT, etc.), and the order of these operators—i.e. syntax—is uniquely rule-bound in every language. On this score—and I talked a little about this above—some language pairs are “close,” and some language pairs are “distant.” Japanese-English is “distant,” compared to, say, Italian-French. And not all translators are wired the same—the thinking dynamic in a native speaker of both languages in a given pair isn’t what it is in someone who’s a native speaker of only one, or neither. This isn’t to imply that any one of these dispositions is superior to the others. I’ve commonly encountered assumptions that some people have about the superiority of having a native grasp of the source and target languages—this is erroneous, or, to say the least, not thorough. Just because someone has such a grasp doesn’t mean that they’ll be a good—or even mediocre—translator, even though native bilingualism confers certain advantages in terms of speed of comprehension and sensitivity to nuance and humor, among other things, but ultimately, to have potential as a literary translator, you must be an excellent writer in the target language, which is a skill that stands alone. The quality of the translator’s writing in the target language must be equivalent or superior to the quality of the original writing. In other words, in order to translate Tolstoy into English competently, the translator must be at least as good at English as Tolstoy was at Russian.  

LSP: Your translations have a timeless quality. How does contemporary translation of early Twentieth Century material differ from English translation of more recent Japanese literature? 

RC: I can’t speak to both sides of the coin. I have no professional experience translating contemporary works, and no aspirations to do so. I would say, though, as a whole—and to reuse a term from my answer to question three—the older the text is the more gray space the translator has to deal with. Beyond this, I can dash off three points for the reader to consider. 1) There are some substantial rhythmic, orthographic, and stylistic differences between the written Japanese of Akutagawa’s day and the written Japanese of today, not, however, to the degree that the two aren’t mutually intelligible (it’s not substantively different from the experience that a contemporary English reader has reading, for example, Mark Twain or Henry James). Because Akutagawa wrote in the early days of kanji and kana standardization, which happened gradually throughout the twentieth century, the modern reader encounters in his works characters and grammatical forms no longer in common use, but nothing that doesn’t have an explanation somewhere on the web (technology is a game-changer for the translator; I use it myself liberally). 2) On the legal level, early twentieth century literature from Japan is now in the public domain. This grants the translator much more power and leeway in interpretation with no one looking over your shoulder with the legal power to invalidate your creation. With contemporary works, there are copyright issues to deal with, and living authors and their agents to appease. 3) Another thing to ponder when rendering works from earlier times is how appropriate it is to use words and phrases that draw their meaning from technologies that didn’t exist at the time—for example, if you were translating a work of fifth-century literature, how apt would it be to use the word “robotic” to describe a man who moved about in a stiff way? 

LSP: The trend in contemporary Japanese fiction seems to lean toward slice of life, light novels replete with pop references, and a straightforward, literal style. Do you think this is an evolution of Japanese literature or a product of American interpretation? 

RC: That trend—let’s call it “naturalism” for lack of a better term—has been present in Japanese literature for a very long time. You could say that Murasaki’s Tale of Genji is a kind of slice-of-life novel about the amorous—or otherwise interpersonal—affairs of the aristocracy of the time. And I’m not sure that this is even a notably Japanese thing (didn’t both Proust and Joyce do their own complex versions of slice-of-life?), and not a universal aesthetic tropism. But I see that the operative word in your question is “light.” So perhaps the distinguishing factor between Proust and Joyce and Murasaki, on the one hand, and the literature described in your question is one of style—one goes down as easy as water while the other demands more chewing. Undoubtedly, what “goes down easy” sells better (and so it follows that more of it is on the market). Fast food sales outpace fine dining sales any day of the week. But I think the type of literature you’re referring to falls into the category of “fast casual,” meaning restaurants like Shake Shack or Chipotle or BurgerFi that provide “fast” service and food that’s a step up from McDonald’s or Burger King, and in a venue that’s—often—sustainably designed with the leanings of a certain type of consumer in mind. But to return to your question—and pleading ignorance yet again—I haven’t read nearly enough contemporary Japanese literature to say that the light, slice-of-life style is the one dominant trend in Japan. Publishers—which are fundamentally businesses—have probably discovered, as the restaurant industry has, how much profit growth is to be had in this “fast casual” space. Publishers elect what makes it into English, and I doubt their choices are an accurate sketch of a country’s literary scene as a whole.  

LSP: What is Akutagawa’s most important work in your opinion? 

RC: I’ll take the easy way out by saying that you need to look at the totality of his body of work. You read Akutagawa for his style and craft and his inimitable synthesis of old and new forms. But the fact remains that people are also captivated by Akutagawa the personality and his life that ended in suicide. This makes him similar to a Mishima, or a Hemingway, or even the Beats (minus the suicide), where the popularity isn’t just based on the writing style but on the lifestyle too. There’s a tendency to romanticize the lives of people like Akutagawa, especially by people who are experiencing their own angst and sense of non-belonging in their time.  

LSP: What do you find most rewarding and most challenging about the endeavor of translation? 

RC: The rewards are like those that come with the completion of any hard work. But the negatives, by far, outweigh the positives. I wonder about the mindset of people who devote their lives to literary translation, and about whether—or how long—I’ll go on doing it myself. As much as I enjoy it, I often joke about hanging it up whenever I finish the next thing. Unlike most other arts, even when you’ve achieved a degree of success, the job of the literary translator is still thankless and comes with near zero recognition or financial reward, and there seems to be this sense as well—which could be my own imaginative ego—that you’re supposed to revel in being an unsung hero (I’m thankful indeed but shocked that you’re even interviewing me). But I understand some of the reasons for the underclass status of the translator: literary translation is seen popularly, and is legally classified, as a “derivative art” at best (though is it any more derivative than landscape painting?), and because many readers want to believe that in reading translations they’re reading the words of the original author, publishers go to great lengths to provide for this experience in the design of the book covers and jackets of translated literature (of course, countless examples to the contrary do exist, and I love these examples for what they stand for). The translator has very little power in the world of publishing, and some would say that that’s rightly so as a peddler of ‘derivatives,’ and that it’s best not to make a stink when there’s someone out there willing to do the job as a ghost who won’t complain. Because of this reality, I would stop short of urging up-and-coming translators (particularly those who wish to do commercial work on contract for big name publishing houses, as opposed to directing your own projects) to demand more from their publishers, in the way of bylines and pay, for a publisher will sometimes humor a surly author but never a surly translator.

Ryan Choi is the author of the forthcoming book In Dreams: The Very Short Works of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (London: Paper + Ink, 2021). He has been a contributor to Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The White Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, where he was born and raised. Publications can be found here.

L.S. Popovich is the author of Undertones and The Arden. They have always been a cat person (a person who like cats, not a cat human hybrid). Every house needs at least one room completely crammed with books, so they believe. (Other rooms should contain scattered piles.) Their short stories and poems have appeared in Chrome Baby, Havok, Aphelion, Bull & Cross, Red Fez, Bewildering Stories, The Ansible, 365Tomorrows, Commuter Lit, Farther Stars than These and other secluded places on the Internet. Find them here.

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