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Translation Exchange: Interviews
Tower of Babel by Bruegel
James Garza is the winner of the open category of the Stephen Spender Prize 2019 for poetry in translation. James, studying for a PhD at Leeds, talked to the Translation Exchange about creating such a beautiful winning entry, as well as how translation can be perverse at times.

How, when and why did you learn Japanese?

First of all, thank you for the opportunity to give an interview. I’m flattered! I started learning Japanese formally in the early 2000s as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. I had a number of language instructors, but I suppose I studied the most with Yuka Matsugu, who was finishing a PhD in linguistics at the time. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and I still ask her opinion on language issues. In fact, we emailed back and forth a number of times to discuss the text I ended up translating (“Going Home” [Kiro] by Itō Shizuo) for the 2019 Stephen Spender Prize.

The answer to this kind of question often involves a list of university degrees, and I wish it didn’t have to be that way. Nevertheless, it’s a big factor in my case. I did an M.A., then moved to Japan as an assistant language teacher on the JET Programme. I picked up more Japanese this way and eventually passed the highest level of the JLPT (Japanese-Language Proficiency Test). This is less a boast than a way of defending myself when people finally hear me speak Japanese! Something else that is true: by that time, I was no longer an assistant language teacher, and I would not have been able to study half as much had my wife, Erin, not been the main breadwinner at the time. There is often a hidden labour behind these kinds of pursuits. It is no small thing.

I wanted to learn Japanese to be able to read Japanese literature in the source language. There was an inkling that being able to read the Japanese would unlock another way of enjoying the “same” book I had read in English translation: a kind of two-for-one. (These days, I would probably say: how fortunate we are that the source text and target text are not the same book!) But it was also a case of capitalizing on what I thought then were my aptitudes—as a freshman or sophomore, I realized I was performing better in my language classes (Spanish at the time), so I added another language. My relationship with Japanese, and the way I use it, are probably deeply coloured by this.

My first attempts at translation from Japanese—I mean, as an exercise other than simply trying to comprehend a particular text—were on some very short stories by Hoshi Shin'ichi (1926-1997), who was a prolific science fiction writer. I wasn’t really pleased with the final results, but I still like the stories.

And, maybe most important of all, I liked the process.

What is the secret to a good translation?

I wish I knew! My employment prospects might look a little more secure. The truth is, I don’t know of any translation strategy that guarantees a positive outcome. The best answer I can give would probably involve reframing the question: what is involved in describing a translation as “good,” and for which readers? People have a prodigious ability to be dissatisfied, and if someone wants to knock you down a peg, they will find a way to do it. The existence of so many different conceptions of translation, plus the different ways that critics and readers evidently rank these approaches, would seem to ensure that it will always be possible to point out how a specific translation falls short of hitting this or that mark. So perhaps there are as many ways of mistranslating as there are of translating.

That said, I am not really interested in arguing that translation is impossible. The notion of untranslatability is curious to me—the fact that it should be such a big part of so many people’s ideas of translation, I mean. If perfection is (by definition) impossible to achieve, then translation is hardly the only human endeavour where we confront our own fallibility! We have that quotation, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but no one really says “Art is what gets lost when we try to make it,” or “Music is what gets lost when we play it” (I suppose you might say this if you were in a really bad band). And yet modern theorists of poetry and translation have seemed particularly hung up on the distance from perfection that their object of study travels on the way from conception to execution. Doesn’t everything we do fall short of perfection? And aren’t there some activities where this involves much higher stakes?

My point is: poetry gets translated, and sometimes a translated poem will work for you. When a literary text or literary translation does work—and I think as readers, we can all point to at least one text that just does it for us—it’s worth asking why.  

I think Jonathan Culler does a good job explaining some of the tensions involved in answering this why. If literature is a kind of performative utterance—that is, neither true nor false in the same way that a proposition is, but rather appropriate or inappropriate, felicitous or infelicitous—then how do we determine this felicitousness? Given a line of poetry, we might ask “what it does, how it fits in with the rest of the poem, and whether it works felicitously (happily) with the other lines,” as Culler writes in Literary Theory. But at the same time, we might ask how well the poem itself works as an example of its type. For instance, if a poem is presented as a sonnet, does it “comply” with enough conventions of that form to “succeed in being a sonnet, rather than a misfire” (Culler)? In this view, the success of a literary utterance might involve “its relation to the conventions of a genre” (Culler).

I think this tension between creativity and normativity is one of the most fascinating things about literature—and about translation. Culler writes that “[l]iterature is a paradoxical institution because to create literature is to write according to existing formulas […] but it is also to flout those conventions, to go beyond them”. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that different readers will favour different kinds of norm-breaking and normativity over others. All of this contributes to a situation in which it is difficult to predict the reception of a translation—and we haven’t even touched on the fact that our ideas of excellence are sometimes “compromised by non-literary criteria” (ibid., p. 50)!

Maybe all of this is a long-winded way of saying “you can’t please everyone all the time.” But a theory of translation that aims to have practical consequences should be robust to the possibility of disappointment. It seems to me this is one place where serendipity is found. Perhaps the best we can do at the moment is to specify, through our research, which features tend to work for which readers, under which conditions. In the meantime, amidst the many different standards to judge the success of a translation, the work must go on! In order for translation to thrive (as part of our lives, as a viable part of the book market, as a way of paying attention, as a challenge, as a conundrum), the work must go on. But not just the work—the talking about the work, the making it matter.


What is your particular area of research?

For my PhD here at the University of Leeds I’ve been grappling with some problems posed by the intersection of translation and literary response (as studied in real readers). It’s a very chewy area—not just theoretically, but in terms of methodology, too. The empirical component of it, and all the lovely numbers that come with it, has especially forced me to stretch. Essentially, I designed several surveys to test the effect of translation style on real readers’ responses to a small corpus of Japanese poetry in English translation.

Until the 1970s, most research on literary reading lacked an “objective method of validation,” as Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon write in their book Psychonarratology (p. 5). Since then, researchers in empirical studies in literature (ESL) have tried to determine whether literary processing is principally text-directed (this is known as the formalist position) or reader-directed (this is the conventionalist position), based on observations of actual readers.

Given the widespread characterization of reading as an intensely subjective activity, we might expect to see a huge diversity of response. And yet the results in ESL are generally interpreted as supporting the formalist position. In other words, a lot of agreement among readers has been reported. I thought one of the reasons for this might be the nature of the populations enlisted in previous studies: mostly undergraduates. The problem of representativeness is one that we would do better to acknowledge. (The American psychologist Quinn McNemar wrote in 1946 that the “existing science of human behavior is largely the science of the behavior of sophomores.” We should be able to say we’ve made some progress on this front since then!) So I did my best to expand my sample beyond students and give diversity of response a greater chance to emerge (if it’s really there).

The project has also been a great opportunity to stop and consider if previous test instruments were really measuring what researchers thought they were, and to try to come up with ways of improving these measures, if possible. Some questions I wanted to try and answer: what kind of correlation, if any, is there between a reader’s impression of a text’s “literariness” and their enjoyment of it? How is this affected by variables like age and attitudes toward poetry? Does foreknowledge that a text is translated influence readers’ evaluations, and if so, how? I don’t want to leave this as a cliffhanger, but I’m currently writing my results up!


How did you select your source text?

There was a strong element of chance in this. In the previous year’s contest (2018), I had a long prose poem commended by the judges. For the sake of variety, I knew I wanted to do something different. Ironically, I ended up choosing a writer whose verse has sometimes been described as prose-like. Maybe I can’t escape it! I’d also gotten it into my head that I should submit only translations of female writers this time around. However, the six or seven such poems that I was working on weren’t really coming out the way I’d hoped. In the end, along with one poem by a male writer (Itō Shizuo), I managed to send in two translations from the Italian of Patrizia Cavalli. But to make a long story short: if I hadn’t checked out a particular anthology from the university library, and if I hadn’t been leafing through it out of frustration (frustration with how badly I felt my other Japanese translations were going), I might never have decided on a poem by Itō Shizuo. I can’t claim to have had a deep familiarity with the poet beforehand. But the moment I read “帰路” [Kiro], I had a stronger intuition that I could translate this poem than some of the others. Still, I persisted for a while in trying to redeem the time I’d sunk into those other poems before I finally relented. Translating is sometimes perverse like that.

I’m interested in what can be done in the way of “poetically viable translation,” Barbara Folkart’s term (in her book Second Finding) for a more “writerly” view of translation. This approach is focused “on the text-to-come and on the processes involved in making a derived poem out of the raw material provided by the target language” (Folkart). “[W]hat good to the target-language reader,” she asks, “is a poem with the wit and music leached out of it by a pedestrian and repetitive approach?”. Thus, she places emphasis on “doing as the first writer did, rather than repeating what he did”. This outlook strikes some critics as veering too far from what most people would consider to be translation, falling instead perhaps in the territory of an adaptation or a “poet’s version.”

But I see no reason why we shouldn’t study adaptations or poet’s versions. Again, I think the important thing would be to ask, what is involved in describing something as a translation in our society, and why? Even if you don’t consider such texts to be translation, you’d need to at least keep them in mind as limit cases! Yes, it is tough to deny the role of replication, but as Emily Wilson remarked around the time her translation of the Odyssey came out, “All translations are composed of words that are 100% different from those of the original.” Maybe acknowledging this is way to move beyond the fixation on loss.

I should make it clear that I didn’t particularly have Folkart in mind when I translated “Going Home.” But there is a Robert Frost quotation that I do often have in mind when I translate poetry, and which resonates with Folkart’s emphasis on instinct and intuition. Frost’s quotation goes: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” For some reason, in the face of everything I said earlier about the difficulties of predicting reception, this quotation comes to mind when I translate. At some level, I know it’s deeply inconsistent. Even if some translation of mine satisfies me (in terms of some set of minimal expectations I bring to it as a reader), there’s no guarantee it will satisfy anyone else. And by the same token, just because some translation doesn’t satisfy me doesn’t mean it won’t satisfy someone else. But I want my translations to satisfy me first. I’m not sure I would do them if I couldn’t allow myself that possibility—however remote it might sometimes feel.


How do you see the future of translation within the UK?

Translation matters if we make it matter. This applies especially in the midst of circumstances arrayed against language-learning at various levels. At their best, contests like the Stephen Spender Prize are one way of making it matter. How many contests actively encourage younger learners to participate? What changes might a commitment to public engagement at these levels bring about in terms of demonstrating the value of languages and the humanities more generally? We can’t allow these things to be easy to dismiss: the fate of the humanities is tied up with languages. When the consequences are so plain, how can translation afford not to be both a “discipline” and a “cause” (to borrow the terms of a recent article by Tim Parks)?

I’ve said that translation matters if we make it—but in another sense, translation has always mattered. For a great many people, translation is an everyday fact of life, a part of making their way through the world. In this sense, creative translation is the tip of the iceberg. Naturally, I think creative translation is something worth doing for its own sake, but its added value, I think, particularly for younger students, may be the way it connects to so many issues just under the surface. Also: have you seen the winning and commended entries for the under-18s in the Stephen Spender Prize? If those entries and commentaries are any indication, the future is bright.

Interview by Rebecca Smithson

You can read James Garza’s translation of “帰路”  [Kiro], or Going Home by Itō Shizuo, below.

Click here for the original Japanese and James's comentary on his translation on the Stephen Spender website, and here to listen to James reading 'Going Home' at the awards evening.

James Garza - Going Home

It sways up ahead 
its rhythm my rhythm 
in the dark, this small 
yellow circle splashing 
dully on the pebbly road. 
Oh my solemn friend: 
Take me home. My eyes 
are sore and happy to be 
your prisoner in this field 
of restless winds. There's 
something eager in the dark. 
I speak to it. 'This light in my 
hand is our poem, it answers 
to no-one else.' In the glow 
the furrows in the road seem 
carved of a deeper dark, yet 
the grass is greener than green, 
and I hear it, the rustle in 
the colour, and I hear it, 
the way home