For someone who moved to Niigata Prefecture at the age of 21 with hardly a solid grasp of the Japanese language, Polly Barton has accumulated her fair share of literary accolades. Currently based in Bristol, UK, the British linguaphile won an English PEN award for her translation of Where the Wild Ladies Are — Aoko Matsuda’s contemporary retelling of Japanese ghost stories — and was awarded the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for her first original work, Fifty Sounds.
Barton’s forthcoming translation of Akutagawa Prize-winner Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, a dark and comedic tale of one woman’s search for meaning in the workplace, marks Tsumura’s debut novel in English. The book, which recently won a PEN Translates award, is inspired by the Osaka-born writer’s own experiences with workplace harassment and will be available this November.
1. In the first chapter, the unnamed protagonist says, “I’d left my last job because it sucked up every scrap of energy I had until there was not a shred left.” It’s well known that Japan has an extreme work culture, so much so that there’s an official term for people who die from overworking. As a translator, what’s the best way to approach a text that is so entrenched in a specific cultural phenomenon?
I personally see it as more of a spectrum. I think that there’s a real common thread that runs between the working culture of Japan and the working culture of Britain and, from what I can tell, the US as well. It’s this obsession with productivity and busyness, and establishing your sense of worth, as a person, by how little time you have to do anything. That’s obviously global capitalism, but it’s also become internalized, and we actually seek it in many ways. Over time, it’s become more and more a part of our actual identifies.
Something that I found interesting about translating [There’s No Such Thing] is that Tsumura avoids going into the specifics because she wants to give a sense of [the work culture] in a more immediate, felt way, rather than as this specifically, culturally located phenomenon. I think that way of looking at it was really really interesting to work with as a translator. Ultimately, I think it’s the more interesting book for dealing with it in that way, rather than a “this is Japanese working culture, we have a problem,” sort of thing.
2. The novel has been compared to Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, hailed for its cutting commentary on the social pressures that single women in particular face in Japan. Is gender a core theme in There’s No Such Thing?
Initially, when I was trying to pitch this book to a UK publisher, I remember someone asking me, “Is this a feminist book?” The narrator is a 36-year-old unmarried woman who has had some issues with work, but clearly had very strong feelings for her initial job and devoted her life to it. That is already a kind of feminist statement within the Japanese context. She doesn’t feel like she needs to get married and become a mother and a housewife in order to have a fulfilled life. Her thoughts about what constitutes a fulfilling life are all related to work. I think that’s subtly subversive in some way. Of course, it probably doesn’t read that way to a Western reader.
I’ve translated work by Matsuda Aoko quite a lot and when I’m working with her stuff, I’m constantly aware and thinking about the feminist dimension to it, which I wasn’t with [There’s No Such Thing]. At the same time, I wouldn’t have translated it if it wasn’t compatible with a kind of feminism.
3. This is Tsumura’s first novel to be translated into English. Did lacking a predecessor make the process easier or more difficult for you?
My instinct with this is that it made it easier because I could really go in there and create a voice that feels quite specific. To me, it feels like an accurate translation of the Japanese voice into how [the narrator] would speak if she was an English-speaking person, to the extent that that even makes sense to say. I’m also aware that it’s quite an individualist take on it, and maybe if there was another translation of her work out there, I might have felt a bit more nervous.
Before [There’s No Such Thing], I translated a short story by Tsumura for Granta and that was the first thing of hers ever to be translated, which feels extraordinary to me given how prolific she is and how brilliant she is. But I guess that’s just the state of our translational world.
4. Often, the number of women authors in translation trails far behind the number of male authors being translated. Are there any Japanese writers you’d like to see translated into English?
Yes, there’s a lot. It’s not just modern people either. At the moment, I’m working with a number of other translators and we’re doing an anthology of stories by a science fiction writer called Suzuki Izumi. She’s a really seminal writer of science fiction but has not been translated at all. My sense is that there are a lot of people like that.
5. Last year, you were awarded the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for your first original work, Fifty Sounds. The book has been described as “a personal dictionary of the Japanese language.” Can you tell me more about what that looks like?
It’s made up of 50 semi-discrete entries. Each one is a sound of “the 50 sounds,” a direct English translation of gojuon, but each one of those quote-unquote ‘sounds’ is an onomatopoeic word. So the book is kind of engaging with the idea of Japanese onomatopoeia as the symbol of a particular type of language learning, which is the opposite of textbook-based [learning]. I went to Japan at the age of 21, not speaking any Japanese, and very much learned it in a quite hands-on, in-the-field sort of way. The book explores onomatopoeic words like zara zara or boro boro, and each one of those words is used as a starting point to explore either a particular episode from my linguistic journey or else something more abstract, a thought around language learning or something like that.
6. Lastly, what’s the best translation tip you’ve received in the course of your career?
If you’re translating food — a description of food or the name of a food — remember that it still has to sound appetizing.
Fifty Sounds will be available on August 24, 2021. Pre-order here.