ZOO by Otsuichi / Translation by Terry Gallagher

By September 15, 2009


There are eleven stories in ZOO, each one more twisted than then the proceeding one. Award-winning horror novelist Brian Keene calls the collection “Bradbury-like.” We like that. Throw in a little science fiction and dark fantasy, and you’ve got a beguiling brew of psychological weirdness from Otsuichi, one of Japan’s hottest young writers. The book is available today (Sept. 15). Pick up a copy on your way home from work or school. You won't regret it.

A lot of Haikasoru readers are interested in the process of translation. As we all know, translation is a tricky business. It’s not just a word-to-word equation. Translators have to wrestle with neologisms, cultural currency. and ever-changing Japanese hipster colloquialisms to produce an English equivalent that sounds like what the Japanese author would write if they wrote in English. Terry Gallagher is one of the best Japanese-to-English translators in the business and we were fortunate to nab him for our ZOO project. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the art of translation.

Do you do any warm-up exercises before tackling a translation assignment? In other words, what sort of prep work is involved when translating a novel from Japanese to English? I know, for example, you had access to the ZOO movie before you started your assignment.

I do like to watch films or TV clips or YouTube or whatever, related to the books I work on, if they’re available. That was the case with Be With You [by Takuji Ichikawa], and there were two films based on short stories from the Poppoya [The Stationmaster] collection. Watching them helps flesh out the characterization, and the landscape/settings—at least for my own mental image. You can never have too much information, even if ultimately it doesn’t have a direct effect on the translation. I also do Internet research on the authors and their work, both in Japanese and to see what else is already available in English. My translations are always based on the text in front of me. I want to say “solely” on the text, but that is an unrealistic ideal.

Having access to the ZOO film was especially interesting, because each short segment was done by a different director in a different style. So it was an extra-added dimension of insight into what’s been going on in Japanese film lately.

As mentioned, you've previously translated a romance novel and a collection of short stories by Jiro Asada for VIZ Media. Can you talk about how these assignments were substantially different than working on ZOO.

These different projects could scarcely have been more different from one another, but that’s exactly what makes the whole business so interesting: the different varieties of language, different outlook on life, different thrust of the original work. I listen to music while I translate, and my music collection is always on shuffle, a giant salad of different genres: world, jazz, classical, new acoustic. The only rule is, “no words I can understand.” My tastes in reading are equally catholic: tentacles in all directions. It’s the mix that gives it a pulse.

The ZOO project was particularly interesting because it mixed so many different elements even within itself: the cute, the appalling, the introspective, the truly gruesome. For over 100 years now, Japanese culture has thrived and grown by voraciously taking in elements from all over the world and giving them its own spin, very post-modern. Otsuichi fits right in with that curve, and for that reason I think Western readers will find him unique.

Were there any particular challenges you faced while working on the ZOO stories?

Of the several literary translation projects I’ve worked on, ZOO was probably the farthest removed from my personal taste. But I can be a professional about that. In the end, “invisibility” is a certain ideal that translators aspire to. You want to erase yourself. It’s about the work, and the choices the author has made. So, I had to work hard at finding language that seemed suitable for the ZOO stories that wasn’t necessarily the kind of language that comes most naturally to me. It had to be simple, but powerful.

Each of the ZOO stories contains a twist. Did these twists present any problems for you? For example, were you cognizant of revealing too much too soon?

The plot twists are a very important narrative device in the ZOO stories, an indispensable aspect. Otsuichi creates a certain setting, generally bizarre in some way. Then he creates expectations that derive from that setting, and then he messes with them. Without spoiling too much, I can say the whole book could have been titled “Death Does the Twist.”

Things like that are not a translation problem. The translator is always relying on the author to handle those issues in the way the author sees fit. Some plot elements that will be crucial to the ending are telegraphed early in a story, but the translator’s job is very straightforward: to render the story in English so that it recapitulates the original Japanese as closely as possible.

Otsuichi plays around with his narrative voice in each story. How well do you think those voices were captured in your translation?

If you’re asking me if I think I did a good job, all I can say is, of course I do. And all the feedback so far has been good. Now it’s up to the readers to decide.

You’re right, the narrative voice is different in each of the ZOO stories. That variety is a strong element of the collection’s appeal. And the fact that Otsuichi achieves this with relatively simple language is a sign of his skill. His concerns are primal, they’re visceral, but there’s also a strong, implicit psychological angle that I think people will readily relate to.

Suddenly there's a lot of interest in Otsuichi in the United States. After your experience translating ZOO, can you explain why this author has captured the attention of English-language readers?

Otsuichi is unique among Japanese writers, and I can’t think of another writer like him anywhere else today. But he deals with universal themes: family, longing, death, the drive to survive. The ways he writes about these things will appeal especially to horror fans, and they won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’m sure a deer standing transfixed on the highway, unable to decide whether to advance or retreat, would tell you at a certain moment that the headlights are fascinating. And then, WHAM!

I presume you mostly read Japanese fiction in its original language. But what's it like for you to read Japanese books in English? Can you turn off your translation super powers and enjoy the experience? Or are you hypercritical?

You mean like “suspending my disbelief?” I enjoy reading Japanese, and I’ve been doing it for years now, but it’s still harder work for me than reading English. I enjoy reading the work of other translators. I read more Japanese literature in translation than in the original, and I generally do so with great admiration. I like the fact that other people are working hard to make this literature approachable for a whole new swath of the global community, and I like seeing the approaches other people take in bridging some technical issues between the two languages: the different use of tenses, the things that are left unstated in Japanese, the details that must sometimes be filled in to have the English sentence make sense. I seldom close-read another translator’s work with the translation in one hand and the original in the other, but I sometimes like to try to imagine the original Japanese as I read an English translation.