Translating Kawakami: An Interview with Sam Bett and David Boyd

Harvard Review talks to Sam Bett and David Boyd

Sam Bett and David Boyd are the translators of the Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2020. In this conversation with Harvard Review, they discuss their new translation of Kawakami’s novel, Heaven, the culture of adolescence, and the process of translating in tandem.

Harvard Review: Heaven is a novel that seems to be more about the culture of adolescence and less about the culture in which that adolescence takes place. Because of this focus on the insularity of the adolescent experience, the overall feeling of the novel was one of familiarity. For me it was a very relatable book; I feel like I grew up with people like the narrator (Eyes), Kojima, Momose—that I knew them intimately. As people who have of course also gone through adolescence, what was your connection to the story like?

Sam Bett: Whatever comes to mind when you hear “coming of age novel about bullying,” set that aside and think back to the pains of your own adolescent experience. Those pains, cranked up to ten, are what propels this book. When I think back on my experience of adolescence, I remember a looming physical sensation, almost like vertigo. The grown-up world was inaccessible and omnipresent. For a rather short novel, Heaven has a harrowing scale. It’s like the two main characters are exposed to the entire hemisphere, longing for shelter, and find it in each other. As adults, when someone makes us feel seen, I think what’s happening is they’re making us feel wanted in the same way that the friends we had as adolescents made us feel.

David Boyd: Sam and I spoke about this while working on Heaven. To me, some aspects of the text are clearly universal, but others are not. I was in more or less the same position as the narrator at that age. School was hell for me. That being the case, when I was working on the narrator’s parts, I had to do everything I could to keep myself in check. At points, I felt like I could see the narrator’s world too clearly—and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t overstepping and bringing too much of myself into the story.

HR: The narrative basically seems to cover a period of awakening for the protagonist. Sexually, socially, personally, we see him develop from kind of mute passivity into nuance, awareness, and finally agency. He navigates this process of growing up between two poles, the banality-of-evil-despot Momose and the martyr-saint Kojima, who gives herself completely to her pain and uses it to build both a shell and a shield. The narrator is neither, and it seems like his realization of that comes in the moment he gets the surgery and steps out of the world of adolescence into the world of adulthood. Do you think that the protagonist making a choice, instead of just passively accepting his life, broke the spell of adolescence for him? Do you think Kawakami is presenting this agency as the border one must cross to become an adult?

DB: As a reader, I don’t really see choice here. I see Heaven as the story of someone who has had his choices taken away from him. Of course, at the end, he makes a decision—a big one. That decision is his, and I don’t mean to take that away from him. Still, to me, what sticks out isn’t some grand action at the end of the book, but the many ways in which the narrator is acted upon by those around him before things reach that point. Novels are supposed to focus on characters who take decisive action, but reality doesn’t always work that way. I really enjoy that part of Heaven.

SB: After the narrator stands up for himself and Kojima, we do feel like a spell has been broken, but the redemption comes with a heavy sense of loss. I think one message of Heaven is that when we make choices—including choosing not to act—we always get more than we bargained for. This isn’t fatalism so much as the X factor, an inevitable bonus of disorder. If the narrator has anything like an epiphany, it’s that the bullies have no grand design. They bully just because they can. I think we get a sense of this from page one, but his realization helps him to release some of the pain, without erasing his experience or putting on a costume.

HR: This is a very different novel, in terms of gender, from Breasts and Eggs. Can you talk a little bit about the shift between the books and how you navigated that?

SB: I see Mieko’s approach to gender as an interrogation of assigned roles. Heaven is about the conundrum that inevitably results from saying yes to life: how can we love life on the one hand, and be so angry at the terms of our existence on the other? An interesting aspect of gender in Heaven is how comfortable the narrator and Kojima feel around each other, discovering a space where they can be themselves, while feeling no affinity for the other boys or girls in class. More than this, though, I think Heaven is concerned with conflicts between alpha leaders and omega loners. Among the harsher premises of the novel is that the two main bullies, Momose and Ninomiya, are also the smartest and most handsome guys at school. At least in American literature and film, we tend to depict bullies as monstrous Goliath types, loud and grotesque. In Heaven, however, the bullies are the kids that have it all, making them something more complicated than monsters, and more familiar.

DB: This book has so many parts that are never fully revealed, but they are present in some form. The painting that Kojima calls “Heaven” is one example of that, I suppose. We never make it there during the museum scene. There are so many other paths in the book that are only partially explored, and I really love that. When it comes to Kojima’s life at home and school, we know some things, but not everything. Kojima is the focus of so much of the book, but she’s never fully accessible. There’s something sad about that, but it’s also a big part of what makes the novel so special—at least to me.

HR: Let’s talk about the logistics of undertaking a translation project as a team. Are both of your hands on every word, do you somehow divide up the work? Is this your first paired translation project?

SB: Cotranslation is an endless learning experience. In a sense, every translation is a collaboration, but with a cotranslation there are at least two people sharing the decisions. A big difference from something like coauthorship is that there is an extant text, which gives cotranslation a sense of triangulation. Tellingly, the word “cotranslation” is still rare enough, or new enough to recent discourse, that it normally gets hyphenated, but I’d like to see the hyphen go away. We don’t divide the work, as that hyphen suggests, so much as share it.

Our method is that David takes the first pass at the dialogue (or passages that read like dialogue, like Midoriko’s journal entries in Breasts and Eggs), while I do a first pass on the surrounding narration. The hope is that by divvying up the text along preexisting lines, our personal idiosyncrasies will map onto endemic differences in style, for a final product that captures the varied rhythms of the original. Once we have a full draft, we scrutinize each other’s work, checking it against the original while gauging its efficacy and durability as English. So in that sense, we do engage with every word.

DB: This was my first cotranslation. I’d collaborated with other translators before, but I’d never really shared responsibility for the full work in the way that Sam and I do with Mieko’s books. As Sam said, there’s a method to how we approach this. We knew that we wanted to divide the work along preexisting lines. No matter which book we’re working on, I take the dialogue and Sam takes everything else. The division is the same, but what actually happens is different with every book. With Heaven, a novel that basically has two main characters, I felt like I was responsible for Kojima’s voice (primarily dialogue) while Sam was responsible for the narrator’s voice (primarily narration).

HR: This the second Kawakami novel you’ve translated. What are some lessons you learned from the first that you applied to this second novel and what are some ways that your process has evolved?

SB: Because of the way things were assigned, Heaven was actually the first novel we translated together. Readers will find Heaven to be more conventionally structured than Breasts and Eggs. In a sense, Heaven is high modernism, vivid and sincere, but with an indefatigability and broad-mindedness that belongs without a doubt to the current moment. Interestingly, the book was written over ten years ago, and is set in the 1990s, which speaks to its timelessness.

Looking back on Breasts and Eggs, I think the spirit of that novel is Midoriko. I’m sure that our experience with Heaven helped us bring Midoriko’s voice to life and set the tone for the entire book. Kojima and Midoriko are distinct characters, but they share a firm resolve and a desire to understand the world on their own terms.

DB: There are so many things that connect these two books, but—personally—it’s the differences that really stand out. Whether it’s a cotranslation or not, as a translator, I’m always worried about being too comfortable with an author I’ve already translated, or seeing stylistic continuities that aren’t there. There are so many sides to Mieko’s writing, and it’s important that we do justice to that. When we were working on the translation, we spoke about similarities that we’d noticed between the books. I think that our ability to have that kind of conversation guaranteed that we wouldn’t revert to the ways we’d done things in a prior project.

HR: What have you learned about Kawakami’s voice through your translation, and what were stylistic aspects of her writing that you strove to bring over? For example, from this reader’s perspective, the heavy aesthetic work appears to occur not as much on the sentence level as on the page or paragraph level. That is, Kawakami’s clear-cut, straightforward sentences blend together to create a potent atmosphere; it happens slowly, through accretion, almost like pointillism. Is this the case in the Japanese?

DB: I can see that, especially in Heaven. Mieko’s sentences have a way of coming together to form something larger, something that can be really hard to define. Even if the effect isn’t most obvious at the sentence level, that’s where a lot of attention and effort goes when translating. Mieko’s sentences often contain “too much” or “too little,” by English standards, and I’m happy to follow the structure of the original wherever possible. I suppose I’m worried, actually, that changing things at the sentence level would negatively impact the exact thing you’re talking about.

SB: One of the things that constantly impresses me about Mieko’s writing is her fearless eagerness to revisit images and settings. Readers of Breasts and Eggs will remember there being multiple scenes at a bathhouse, multiple scenes set on a Ferris wheel. Recursion is a hallmark of her style. We see it popping up in Heaven too. What prevents this from feeling repetitious is a tension that builds steadily and lasts, ultimately pervading the story. Maybe this sounds crazy, but her work reminds me of those spicy peppers bred not to be spicy. Have you tried them? Coolapeños. Bite into one, and you get this spacey feeling, where you feel the heat arriving, but it never does, and instead you’re left with almost a ghost of heat that’s difficult to shake.

HR: Finally, what’s next for the two of you?

SB: We’ve finished a third book by Mieko, due out next year from Europa. I’m working on an MFA in fiction at Bennington and writing my first novel, which centers on shark fishing and weed nostalgia.

DB: I’m currently cotranslating Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void with Lucy North. I’m also coediting a series of interviews with Japanese-English translators that should come out in some form later this year.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, is out now from Europa Editions.

Published on May 26, 2021