Motoyuki Shibata: All Stories About Travel

, 2011/05/09

I met Motoyuki Shibata several years ago in New York City at a reading by one of his friends—Haruki Murakami. I bowed, blurting out my clunky Japanese greetings, and Shibata replied in impeccable English. Since then we have met in Tokyo, New York and Sydney. In each city, Shibata seems perfectly at home. His specialty is American literature, but he is really a scholar of culture. He is also among Japan’s most revered, award-winning translators, having introduced Japanese readers to works by Paul Auster, Stuart Dybek and Thomas Pynchon, among others. We collaborated on two projects: A Japan portfolio for A Public Space, the NYC literary journal, and Monkey Business, an English language version of Shibata’s own magazine. Shibata’s translations also grace the pages of Paper Sky.

Roland Kelts: How has travel affected your work as a writer, translator and scholar?
Motoyuki Shibata: The first time I went abroad I was 20 years old. I had just entered my third year of university and I took one year off to go to England just to travel around, hitchhiking. I met a lot of people, and I think that helped me look more levelly at people, instead of looking up to them. I never looked down on people, of course, but before I went to England, English-speaking people seemed to be superior human beings. When I was a kid, the Japanese had this underlying assumption that there were three levels of people: At the top, Westerners. Second, Japanese. And the rest were at the bottom. Separate classes of human beings. So I traveled in England, and some people actually said to me that my English was superior to theirs. I didn’t speak English that well, but I could speak grammatically and clearly. It was just a small thing, but just having conversations on lorries [trucks] and just speaking to other backpackers at the youth hostels—I needed to learn that people are people. It might be something younger people in Japan know today by instinct. But I think you need to get in touch with actual people to really feel it.

R: Did that first trip give you confidence?
M: I think so. Of course, I wasn’t very fluent, in terms of language, but I’m not very fluent right now, either. But it helped me become more comfortable around non-Japanese people. And the reason I bring this up is that people sometimes talk about how new translations by Haruki or by me are different, and in what ways they differ from older translations. To speak very roughly, older translators used to think that Westerners were different, maybe superior, and certainly never inferior. So the people in their translations spoke very elevated or stiff language, and it was okay because they were different beings from us Japanese. But in Haruki’s translations, people speak normally in the Japanese language. And so Japanese realized that other people could speak like them, too.

R: Did Haruki’s translations change that? Did he start translating before you?
M: Yes. Some of the first writers he translated were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver and John Irving. And I and some friends from graduate school helped him with his first Irving translation, Setting Free the Bears. But Haruki had been translating for some four or five years before we came in.

R: Is it fair to say that the transition from Japanese translators who looked up to Westerners and rendered English into more formal Japanese to more colloquial, even slang translation was Haruki?
M: Before that you have to look to Kazuko Fujimoto, who translated Richard Brautigan. American people are always surprised to learn that Brautigan and Vonnegut are big influences on Haruki.

R: And big influences in Japan.
Right—compared to Roth or Updike or Bellow. And that’s because of Kazuko Fujimoto. And that was the first time I realized that the language in Japanese translations could be alive and very contemporary.

R: What about your first trip to the US?
M: It didn’t really have a big impact on me. I went a bit late. I was 27 at the time and already married, and I went with my wife to see my brother. So I wasn’t going on my own without knowing anybody and having everything be new. But I saw a very interesting aspect of America. My brother was living in the mountains of Oregon. He was running this sort of hot springs retreat. They had lots of cabins, and city dwellers came for the weekends—weekend hippies. And my brother was growing vegetables there.

R: In Eugene?
M: Outside of Eugene. He said it was really easy to hitchhike in the Indian reservations. He actually looked like an Indian—with long hair, a mustache and beard. So I saw a very informal West Coast version of America. Not like Los Angeles. No one smoked, except marijuana, and no one drank, either. Before that he was running a natural food restaurant in Eugene, and it was a co-op. There were several owners.

R: Why do you think you and your brother became so focused upon America and American culture?
M: I think it was music. We didn’t know much about movies, but we started listening to American music when we were about ten or twelve. And there was always this sense that something interesting was going on ‘over there.’ When we were kids, over there meant the center of Tokyo. We grew up in Kamata, which is at the far edge of Tokyo. But as we grew up, we became disinterested in what was happening in Tokyo. So the place where interesting things were going on was overseas, outside of Japan. It could’ve been Germany or Sweden, but America in Japan is an almost generic noun for all Western nations.

R: Did you think that America would provide bits of Germany, bits of Sweden?
M: Not really. But it’s true that some Japanese think the terms ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) and ‘Americajin’ (American) are synonymous. We still tend to be like that, I think.

R: You decided to focus exclusively on American literature.
M: But that was a coincidence. I went to England when I took a year off because I thought it would be safer to hitchhike in England than in the U.S. Everything was sort of a coincidence. One of the big reasons I went to England was because I took a course in American literature and our professor said we should use an English-English dictionary instead of an English-Japanese dictionary. And he recommended Taisei-do [?] Books in Shibuya, where they used to sell foreign books. And I went and looked but couldn’t find any dictionaries. Instead I found Anthony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan, and a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, instead of to the galaxy. So I read that book and thought it would be interesting to go to England. My decision to study American instead of English literature was because I met this wonderful professor of American literature. When I was at Todai, the professor of English literature was an alcoholic, and he just didn’t come to class. He showed up for the first class and assigned reports. And I was assigned a report the first week. I did my report, and he showed up ten minutes before the end of class and said, “Okay, Shibata, let’s do it.” I said, “But there’s only ten minutes.” So he said, “Okay, let’s do it next week.” He didn’t come back. But the professor of American literature, professor Ohashi, was just the best. Everything was really new, and even when the book itself wasn’t that exciting, the way professor Ohashi discussed the book was very exciting. And it made me wish I was like that. I wanted to do the same thing. I still remember the books we read in my first class, Dreiser’s American Tragedy and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. We read them in the original English. We were undergrads reading English language texts like Sister Carrie, 400 pages, American Tragedy, 700, Gatsby 200. Thirteen-hundred pages a semester. I couldn’t do that with my students now.

R: Why not?
M: Well, they have other things to do. Their English proficiency isn’t high enough. Plus, I’m not authoritative enough. If professor Ohashi said, “Do it,” we did it. But that was a different generation, and I have a different personality. Also, students today are not inhibited or cowed, and that’s a good thing.

R: Why haven’t you lived for longer periods in the US?
M: Well, I lived in New Haven for a year. But I already had a teaching job here, so I took one year off and knew I had to leave after a year. I was already married and speaking Japanese all the time with my wife, so it didn’t really feel like I was living in the US. I was at Yale, living on campus.

R: When you’re traveling, are you able to translate and write as easily as you do at home in Japan?
M: Oh, even better.

R: How so?
M: Well, let’s say I’m in a park, or in an open air café, and I’m translating something, and people are talking around me. In a Tokyo park, they would be speaking Japanese, so I would be catching all of their comments and that would interfere with my translation work. But if I’m overseas, I would be hearing English conversation, and if I don’t concentrate, I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Just sounds—like nice background music.

R: So you can be freer from distraction. I definitely feel that in reverse when I’m working in Japan. When I’m in the US, I hear everything, and it’s all distracting.
M: Sure. I enjoy working at home, but whether I’m in Japan or overseas, I love translating in parks or in spacious, roomy outdoor spaces in nice weather. I just use notebooks—no laptops.

R: Do you use a PC at all?
M: Not with translation, except when I translated Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and had to do a lot of research on the Internet. My wife usually transcribes my handwritten translations on the computer. She just reads my notebooks. She makes a few mistakes, but with Mason & Dixon, if she made any mistakes, I wouldn’t have known. It was just so complicated. So I did it on the computer on my own. But it’s so much easier on my eyes to use paper notebooks. When you use Japanese word processors, you always have to choose which characters to use, and that’s very distracting. I much prefer working by hand.

R: And you still don’t have a mobile phone?
M: No. If you don’t have many friends, you don’t need a mobile phone. Maybe it’s similar to resisting being photographed, as I do. The great thing about living in cities is that you can stay anonymous. I feel uncomfortable if somebody knows me and I don’t know them. It’s a kind of asymmetry I don’t like. Of course it’s nice when somebody talks to me on the train and he or she tells me they love my translations. It’s very rare, but it’s really gratifying. But my writer friends tell me that to become known is to get more of those kinds of friendly approaches—but also more hostile approaches. They both increase ten times.

R: I often learn of American writers through you. You had a great professor, Ohashi, in the beginning, but you’ve also continued to focus on America. So many years later, why do you think American fiction still absorbs you?
M: Well, once you get to graduate school, it’s very hard to switch disciplines. If you’re brilliant, you can switch either way, of course. But I wasn’t that good, and once I focused on American literature, it would have been hard for me to switch, even if I didn’t like it. But I liked it. And Japanese scholars of foreign literature tend to mimic the personality of the culture they are studying. So people focusing on British literature tend to be conservative and respectful of organizations and traditions. And among scholars of French literature, egoism seems to be the rule—it’s considered polite to be egoistic and selfish, because everyone is.

R: And scholars of American culture?
M: Very individualistic. They don’t care about organizations and institutions. Kind of selfish, but not the way scholars of French literature are. Individualistic, I would say—and they don’t pay attention to what people at the top say. They don’t follow authority.
If I had studied British literature, my personality would have changed. More respectful of authority, more conservative, and I would have been a bit uncomfortable with that. Since I studied American literature, it allowed me to be more individualistic and disrespectful of authority.

R: You’ve done quite a lot of translating for this publication, Paper Sky. What has that been like?
M: The only rule is that the story I translate is about traveling. But I soon realized that all stories are about traveling, in a certain sense.

R: How so?
M: In a story you go somewhere most of the time, or someone comes. One of the stories I translated for Paper Sky is Guy Davenport’s story about Kafka visiting some town to see airplanes, and in the audience is Wittgenstein, and he sort of stands out. So that’s traveling. Name your favorite stories. For example, “The Fall of the House of Usher”—in a way, the narrative travels to this very weird house. Or take “Bartelby the Scrivener.” He doesn’t go anywhere, but it’s also about this new aspect of the metropolis, and how nameless and anonymous in a frightening way you can be. Maybe I’m using the term traveling in an expansive way, stretching it.

R: Do you get comments on your translations to Paper Sky?
M: It’s hard to get comments about what you’re doing in magazines instead of books. But sometimes young people who are trying to become translators find my work in Paper Sky helpful. They compare it to the original and say, “Oh that’s how you do it.” That’s why I like the bilingual format of Paper Sky.

R: Speaking of travel: What would be your three favorite destinations?
M: Depends on the seasons. I like to avoid Tokyo in the summer, and would prefer to go to Australia, Melbourne or Sydney. I like speaking English, and I feel uncomfortable in places where they don’t speak English or Japanese. And nobody speaks Japanese outside of Japan. So Australia has good food, a nice climate. It seems like a logical choice. For autumn, I would love to be in New York. I love New York City. I love its sense of the past. When I’m in Washington Square, I think about Henry James’s New York. If you look at the architecture,it hasn’t changed that much since the 1930s. New York has a much greater sense of tradition than Tokyo. Also—and maybe this is what’s both exciting and tiring about New York—I feel people there are trying to be what they want to be, and trying to invent themselves. You feel that strongly in Los Angeles, too, but there, it’s almost a joke. You take a taxi and every driver has some kind of screenplay or is an actor.

R: What makes it less of a joke in New York?
M: They’re not just talking about it in New York. They’re actually living it.

Shibata is a professor at The University of Tokyo.



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Motoyuki Shibata
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