Mirroring Words | Yuki Tejima on Kanto

Mirroring Words

Yuki Tejima takes us through the process of literary translation and offers a peek into her curated shelves in Tokyo

Interview Danielle Austria
Images Yuki Tejima

Mirroring Words | Interview with Yuki Tejima
Yuki Tejima’s reading picks to start the year featured Japanese authors like Kanako Nishi, Asako Yuzuki, and Risa Wataya. Header: Yuki Tejima

Hello, Yuki! How’s your day so far? Describe your current scene.

My day has been coffee-fueled, as is the norm in my life. I’m currently sitting at a desk in Los Angeles, looking out of the window at cloudless blue skies as far as the eye can see. I’ve spent the morning translating a Japanese novel for a literary translation mentorship I’m currently participating in. No matter how frazzled I feel about all of the moving parts in the every day, I feel grounded when I sit down to translate the words of an author I admire. In the afternoon, I’ll switch over to a copywriting project for a long-time client, which calls for a different type of focus (and a fresh cup of coffee).

An overview for our readers: You are currently a translator and writer for clients in Japan and the US. Previously, you taught musical theater in a well-known performing arts school in Okinawa and even wrote and directed a popular weekly drama. Did we miss anything? 

Maybe all of the years of feeling lost? Until very recently, it was difficult to describe to people what I do for a living. I used to feel insecure about having done so many different things in my career and wondered for years when I would find My Calling, as they say. But now, I’m grateful for the experience of translating shampoo bottle labels and real estate brochures, of taking the train to upstate New York (when I lived in NYC) on a snowy day to interpret a 20-minute parent-teacher meeting for a Japanese mother, among other interpreting assignments. I had no idea what I was doing then, or where it would lead, but now, especially in literary translation, I see the value in every experience. My literary translation mentor says she always told her translation students to ‘go out, fall in love, have your hearts broken!’

For you, what is the role of a translator?

It differs depending on the type of translation I’m doing, whether it’s commercial or literary translation, but my hope is to always bring truth to the text, in whatever way it is required. With a literary text, I think about how truthful my translation is to what the author is saying, versus what words are on the page. For commercial translation and copywriting projects, I feel much more confident with the outcome if I’ve had the chance to touch, eat, and experience the garment, food, or destination I am writing about. It is not always possible, especially in a pandemic, but I’m grateful to be able to work with clients who feel the same way.

What sort of text do you usually work with for your translation projects (or client work)?

Currently, I am translating a novel and a short story by two Japanese authors, which is a great joy. But as a freelancer, I often have several projects going at once, which means I’m also translating multiple television scripts from Japanese into English, as well as writing copy in English and Japanese for a global fashion brand. I feel blessed that I get to work with words all day long because it wasn’t always this way.

“My messy library tells a story that only I can make out, about which books helped me when, which books I stumbled upon at a used bookstore at just the right time, which ones my father passed down to me.”

Paint us a picture of what translation work is like. Do you straightaway sit down with text and start translating? Or do you follow a series of steps—I assume from research to final draft?

With literary translation, I’m still trying to figure out my process – I have nothing beyond praying that what I’m doing is working. 

With television scripts and other translation texts, which I have been doing for about 15 years, I have a tried-and-tested process that seems to work for me. First, I sit down and crank out a very direct translation from Japanese to English, in one sitting if possible. I don’t stop to look up kanji I don’t recognize or words that need defining – I save that for the rewrite stages. This first draft is something I would never show a soul, for fear I will never work again, but it’s where I try to capture the rhythm, voice, pace of a piece. I then put it away, hopefully until the next day if the schedule allows for it. The next day is the main event, the rewrite. This is where I go back and look up every word I do not know, research for context, check facts, and pore over the English text to try to make it flow. This stage takes several days, possibly weeks, depending on the text. By the time the final draft is done, I’ve nearly memorized the text and will go to bed with these words swimming above me like a cartoon thought bubble.

You’ll soon be transitioning from commercial copy to literary translation. How are you preparing for this change?

Literary translation has always been a dream of mine, one I never thought I could pursue. Now that it seems to at least be a possibility, I am learning so much from the global literary translation community, which is made up of extremely smart, sensitive, articulate people who have lived in and know worlds that you don’t. My mentorship has been wonderful, of course, but there are so many resources, talks, lectures, books, knowledge out there about how to communicate with other translators, editors, and publishers, how to find and pitch to a publication, how to negotiate fees, how to manage your schedule. It may seem hard to find if you don’t know where to look, but translators are working extremely hard to share this information as widely as possible. I’m not the most outgoing person in the world, so dipping my toes into the community of international translators has been intimidating, but I’m astounded by the generosity of translators who have made time to share their wisdom and experience with me. 

It has to be said though that you’re not entirely new to literary translation. You shared on your website that you received an award from the Japanese Literature Publishing Project in 2021. For which piece is this, and where can we read it? 

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project, hosted by the Japanese government, holds an annual international translation competition from Japanese into English (and another language, which differs every year), and in 2021, I translated an essay by the legendary writer Seiko Tanabe, as well as a short story by the illuminating Hiromi Ito. The pieces can be found here and here. This year’s competition is now open for submissions, for anyone who is interested. There is not just one way to become a translator, and this was a wonderful experience that has encouraged me to knock on more doors.

This Kanto issue is dedicated to personal libraries. I’ve been following you for months now through @booknerdtokyo, where you give the most well-thought reviews mainly on (but not limited to) Japanese literature. I’m dying to see your collection! Can we have a peek at your library?

Of course! Though I am in dire need of new bookshelves. The stacks on my floor are starting to topple over, and I have lost track of the books I own. 

Yuki’s personal library in Tokyo. “There is no art and especially no science to the arrangement of my books. One thing I love to do is to create a shelf for each project I’m working on.”

Is there an art or science to the arrangement of your books?

There is no art and especially no science to the arrangement of my books. One thing I love to do is to create a shelf for each project I’m working on. If I’m translating a novel that takes an unflinching look at female friendships, for example, I create a shelf of novels that feature strong female protagonists and friendships of all types, and memoirs and personal essays by powerful voices that inspire me to reach for the deepest layers of the story. Whenever I feel lost during the translation process, I walk over to the shelf and stare at the books, flip through a few pages. And then I get back to work.

What is the upkeep like? Do you throw or give away old books, or just keep adding to them? (Some hardcore book lovers resist the idea of de-cluttering.)

I’ve moved eleven times in my adult life, half of them international moves, and that has helped me to ‘manage’ my book collection. Put another way, nothing else seems to work. The books that I throw or give away barely make a dent in my bookshelves, and it is only when I am faced with the cost of shipping books across the world that I become serious about determining which ones I cannot live without. Everything else must go. Otherwise, it appears, everything stays.

Ultimately, how does your personal library fit into your overall way of life? Is it a respite, a mirror, an escape? 

My personal library is all of those things and also, my security blanket. I feel comforted knowing that so many people have already done the scary thing I am attempting, writing and translating. During the pandemic, my library has ballooned, and I’ve lost count of my unread books. But my messy library tells a story that only I can make out, about which books helped me when, which books I stumbled upon at a used bookstore at just the right time, which ones my father passed down to me. Every so often I like to sit down and take inventory of the books I own, to see which ones speak to me at that moment, help me wake up to another day, etc.

Are there certain types of stories or books that you’re attracted to? Or do you read everything?

I read in English and in Japanese, many books of which are not translated. Living in Tokyo, I tend to scoop up new novels and essays by authors I revere, most of them women. I love stories told by women because they have helped me understand the Japanese mind in ways English books did not as a Japanese-American growing up in LA. I’ve never studied Japanese literature, so much of what I read has been a self-education of sorts. I go into the bookstore or library and choose books with covers, titles, or authors that seem to speak to me. I am less able to keep up with new English releases, but when I’m back in the US, I stock up and naturally exceed the luggage weight limit on my flight back. My inspiration comes from the community of readers I regularly check in with through my Instagram account. There is a wealth of knowledge there, and I trust the people I’ve been following for years. 

What’s something non-Japanese readers should remember or understand when they read Japanese literature?

I’m thrilled to hear the word ‘quirky’ less, which seemed to define all of Japanese literature a few years ago. There are writers in Japan that write ‘quirky’ stories, but rarely is an entire country’s literature quirky. It moves me to see someone talk about how a specific book or author affected them, rather than Japanese literature as an entire ‘genre.’ It is not the fault of the readers, of course. As more translated literature becomes available from Japan, I’m eager to see how readers connect to their favorites and hope they don’t feel they have to read every translated Japanese book to get a feel for Japan. People in Japan don’t and can’t read every book published in their country. They find their favorites, like in any other language. 

Filipinos are no strangers to Japanese literature. Haruki Murakami is widely recognized here. We also get the works of Yoko Ogawa, Banana Yoshimoto, and Yukio Mishima in our bookstores. Beyond those established names, who else should we start reading?

One of my most enjoyable reads in recent years has been Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, translated by Polly Barton. Matsuda writes prolifically and cannot be pigeonholed, and this collection of short stories is a wonderful example of that. Please also read Polly’s magnificent book Fifty Sounds about how she encountered Japanese and her path to becoming a literary translator. It will make you want to read anything she ever translates. Another book I look forward to reading this spring is The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart by Chesil, translated by Takami Nieda. She is one voice among many Zainichi voices that I hope to read in the coming years, and the novel is written from the perspective of a 17-year-old ethnic Korean girl born and raised in Japan. I am also thrilled about this year’s publication of Erika Kobayashi’s Trinity, Trinity, Trinity, translated by Brian Bergstrom. There are some fantastic first-time English translations coming out this year that differ widely in voice and spirit, and for that I am grateful. •

Mirroring Words | Interview with Yuki Tejima
Yuki recommends Erika Kobayashi’s Trinity, Trinity, Trinity.

Follow Yuki Tejima’s bookish adventures @booknerdtokyo and her translation work at booknerdtokyo.com.

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