In GAD We Trust – Episode 9: Japanese-English Translation + The Honjin Murders (1946) by Seishi Yokomizo [w’ Louise Heal Kawai]

In GAD We Trust

A seam of superb Japanese detective novels and short stories have crossed the language barrier in recent years, teaching even the most culturally ignorant of us to tell our honkaku from our shin honkaku.  And here to give us a sense of the work involved in making that happen is literary translator Louise Heal Kawai.

Louise will most likely be familiar to GAD fans as the translator of The Honjin Murders (1946, tr. 2019) by Seishi Yokomizo and Murder in the Crooked House (1982, tr. 2019) by Soji Shimada — both of which were released through Pushkin Vertigo in what we’re all hoping is an indication of more to come — and has been working as a Japanese-English translator for almost two decades on a range of novels, poetry, short stories, and more besides.

So, while her work on The Honjin Murders forms the backbone of this discussion, she also gives a glimpse into the rigours and difficulties of the translator’s art: how translators end up on particular projects, the artistic challenges of communicating culturally unfamiliar concepts, what can happen when words fall into obsolescence, why television dramas aren’t always the translator’s friend…and more, though I’d hate to give anything away.

As ever, a range of listening options await: you can open the audio in your browser here, find the podcast on iTunes here, on Spotify here, or listen below; as ever, I hope you enjoy it — oh, and apologies for the variable quality of my audio, it was a microphone problem that I think I’ve fixed now (though, really, you’re not here to listen to me, are you?).

Thanks are due to Louise for her time and efforts, to Jonny Berliner for the music, to you for listening, and to everyone who continues to contact me about getting involved in future episodes.  This podcast is currently booked to continue up until about December at present, and beyond that…we’ll see.

The short story project that Louise mentions in which Japanese writers reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here, Louise can be found on Twitter here, and if you want to buy a copy of The Honjin Murders to help stimulate the possibility of future Japanese translations, well, here’s your chance.

Next Saturday — more podcast!  The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie is going to join the Spoiler Warning Club…

11 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 9: Japanese-English Translation + The Honjin Murders (1946) by Seishi Yokomizo [w’ Louise Heal Kawai]

  1. Fascinating listening. This answered a lot of questions that came to mind the first time you did a piece on/with Louise. Very interesting to learn that the cast list at the start of The Honjin Murders was Louise’s idea as I had assumed this was part of the original in the style of Ellery Queen. Looking forward to seeing whatever it is that Louise is working on at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for another great episode. Between this and the last episode, it’s nice to get an idea of how things work behind the scenes in bringing the books we love. I had no idea how much effort and research translators put just to write accurate descriptions for the reader. With this and the inevitable creative/interpretive decisions the translator has to make, putting their name on the cover shouldn’t need a second thought

    Question for Louise: what was your strategy for learning kanji, and how long did it take you to be become reasonably comfortable reading (detective) books? I don’t know if my current process is productive in the long term: I power through a book in kindle, using its dictionary for nearly every third word. My reasoning is that if I see a term enough times, I will eventually memorize it (I know several radicals to make things easier, but not all). This feels more stimulating than trying to memorize a list of X kanji every day, and it worked for memorizing several words like 現場 and 密室. But do you think this a good strategy for wanting to be a proficient reader in the long term?

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was, in part, what inspired this conversation in the first place: I think we’ve become so used to books as a thing that we tend to overlook the work that goes into making them good — the translators, the cover design (hence my, currently very short-lived, Cover Stars “feature”)…we notice when these things are bad and overlook them when they’re done well. So it seemed time to talk about it, and even I wasn’t prepared for quite how much goes into it…!

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      • Hi Dorfer, I thought I would split my response into two separate topics…
        I think your approach to kanji learning is a very good one. In fact I wish Kindles had been around when I was first learning. However, there is also something to be said for the old-fashioned counting of strokes and searching (in my case in a paper dictionary but these days in ca be done online) using the radicals. Somehow that helped patterns to stick in my mind better. My son learned in Japanese primary school to write them over and over, which at first seemed crazy to me but then I realized that muscle memory is important too. I do still sometimes pick up a pencil and write just to get the feel of each part of a kanji. Good luck!

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    • Hello Dorfer (sorry – I don’t know if that is your real name)
      First of all thank you so much for your comments regarding putting the translator’s name on a book cover. I really should have mentioned that in the podcast too. Wow, I wish publishers were reading this. I ask every single time for my name to appear on the cover but the answer is always the same: “It’s not our company’s policy.” I think it’s from a long-held belief that the public would avoid a book if it was obvious that it was a translation – that they are somehow “too difficult.” Recently some publishers have rethought this and some of my colleagues are seeing their names on book covers. Alas, I am yet to see mine there.

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  3. I have to say this has been the best of the “In GAD We Trust” podcasts to date. Excellent questions, utterly fascinating insights into the art of translation and the subtleties and intricacies of Japanese language. The bit about adjectives conveying past tense also blew my mind! I loved learning about why she chose the Victorian flavored voice of the narrator in The Honjin Murders and that solves the mystery of that aspect for me, something I mentioned in passing m in my own review. Some of her choices were not lost on me, that’s for sure. I do hope we will have more Yokomizo books translated by Louise Heal Kawai. I thoroughly enjoyed both Yokomizo mystery novels I’ve read so far. Kosuke Kindaichi is one of my favorite detectives in the whole genre. With only two books to have left me so impressed this say a lot about the writer’s talent and Kawai’s equally inventive art.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, John — we aim to please. I loved the revelation about the Victorian-flavoured narrator’s voice, too, and the idea that the family in Honjin were deliberately speaking in a formal idiom as a way of communicating their “betterness” to the outside world. It’s possible to pick up on elements of this in an English-language work much more easily, but to learn of those sorts of aspects of a translation is brilliant.

      And, yes, I think we’re all excited at the prospect of any honkaku and shin honkaku form this point on, especially if Yokomizo and/or Louise are attached…!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Superb listening, as always. I loved how you were able to take us behind the scenes and walk through the commissioning and translation process (including the details of how to pick the right word). I have always wondered how exactly that worked and how some decisions were reached about just what to translate.

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  5. You asked pretty much every question I had about how a translation comes to be. Very interesting. I am curious what Louise makes of the genre overall. Did she walk into this book already having read in the vein, or was it new ground?

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    • Hi thegreencapsule (this is so awkward not knowing anyone’s real name….)
      As for the genre…As a teen I read all the Agatha Christie I could get my hands on, some Dorothy Sayers, but then moved out of GAD and onto more contemporary crime fiction. I always tended to binge read one author at a time: Ruth Rendell, PD James and Patricia Cornwell have been examples. (I notice there is a leaning towards female authors which I hadn’t noticed….) I read a huge variety of literary genres, but have always had a soft spot for crime fiction. I am open to good GAD suggestions of course!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the great set of questions, JJ, and thank you, Louise, for your insightful replies. Having committed the faux pas mentioned at the end myself, (something I will never do again!), I am pleased to hear about the talent and rigor involved in being a translator! I look forward to the unveiling of those works you tangled so tantalizingly before us here! 🙂

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