Michael Emmerich Interview Glossary

By Michael Emmerich, as a supplement to the Interview in Calque 4. Entries are listed in order of appearance in the interview.

Kawabata Yasunari
(1899-1972) Modern Japanese literature burst rather than blipped onto the American literary world’s radar screen for the first time in the latter half of the 1950s. In 1957, Knoph published Kawabata’s novel Snow Country (Yukiguni) in a very beautiful, somewhat tame translation by the recently deceased Edward G. Seidensticker. This happened to be the year that the 29th P.E.N. Congress was held in Tokyo—the first time it was held anywhere in East Asia. “One of the unforgettable faces at the conference was that of Mr. Kawabata,” Elizabeth Janeway wrote in an article in the New York Times. “Delicacy and distinction any reader of ‘Snow Country’ would expect, but Mr. Kawabata’s countenance, under a gray-white mane of hair, expresses also a withdrawn, ascetic strength that makes one think of a small and thoughtful lion.” The small, thoughtful lion became the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. His “House of the Sleeping Beauties” (“Nemureru bijo”), also translated by Seidensticker, is one of the most disturbing—icky is, perhaps, a better description—works of fiction I’ve ever read. The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto), once again translated by Seidensticker, who was awarded the National Book Award for Translation (much regretted) for this work, is perhaps his best-known novel.

Yoshimoto Banana (1964-) The critic Masao Miyoshi describes Yoshimoto’s work in these fiercely enticing terms: “Her output is entirely couched in baby talk, uninterrupted by humor, emotion, idea, not to say irony or intelligence. No one could summarize any of these books, for they have even less plot and character than Murakami [Haruki]’s unplotted and characterless works. There is no style, no poise, no imagery. I have read, or think I have read, all the books she has published, but I don’t remember.” This is the sort of review that makes me want to run out and buy the book. And so I did. Alas, she turns out to be a brilliant writer with a subtle sense of humor, plenty of emotion, a keen sense of irony, and intelligence to spare—a terrible disappointment. The name “Banana” is one she selected herself, after the flower of the banana plant. Yoshimoto’s best known work, even today, decades later, is her first: “Kitchen” (“Kitchin”). One of my favorites is “Moonlight Shadow” (“Muunraito shadou”), which was included in the book Kitchen, translated by Megan Backus, and which I retranslated in 2003. Unfortunately my own translation, published by Asahi Press, is only available in Japan, or from Amazon.co.jp, if you can manage to find it.

Takahashi Genichiro (1951-) One of my favorite writers! An active participant in the student protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he spent time in jail, never graduated from college, and worked for Toyota. (I think it was Toyota . . . don’t quote me on that.) He’s written in various places about how he lost the ability to write, or even speak, when he was thrown in jail, and how it took him a decade to recover. His mind-bogglingly wild, wacky, and painfully brilliant first novel Sayonara, Gangsters (Sayonara, gyangutachi) is the only one of his works to be translated into English so far, apart from two excerpts from two novels included in the 1991 anthologies Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices. Sayonara, Gangsters is the only one of my translations that I regularly reread.

Akasaka Mari (1964-) Born in the same year as Yoshimoto Banana, Akasaka couldn’t be more different as a writer. When she was in junior high, her parents shipped her off all by herself to learn English in California, where she had a breakdown. She returned to Japan, not bilingual, but nonlingual—much like Takahashi. Eventually she recovered. For several years she edited an erotic art magazine called Sale Second (Sale 2) that was devoted to “bondage and thought.” She began writing fiction of her own while she was working as an editor, making her debut in 1995. She has been nominated for all sorts of awards, including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novel Vibrator (Vaibureetaa), which was also made into a road movie.

Matsuura Rieko (1958-) Matsuura Rieko is one of Japan’s most provocative and least prolific authors. Since her debut as an author in 1978, she has published only six books of fiction and three collections of essays. This wouldn’t be a particularly small number for an author writing in English, but for a Japanese writer it’s astonishing. Matsuura is best known in Japan for three works: a collection of three linked stories called Natural Woman (Nachuraru uuman), the novel The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P (Oyayubi P no shugyō jidai), and another novel A Dog’s Body (Kenshin). She isn’t known in English. Fortunately this situation is going to change: Seven Stories Press will be publishing my translation of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P sometime in the nearish future.

Kawakami Hiromi (1958-) Kawakami Hiromi taught biology in high school for a long time. Then, in 1994, she submitted a story to an on-line literary competition and took the prize. She stopped teaching and kept writing. She’s a wonderful prose stylist with a penchant for fantasy (technically she debuted with a single science fiction story that she published in 1980) and a knack for describing food. As far as I know, the only works of hers to appear in English are “The Kitchen God” (“Kōjin”), which appeared in Zyzzyva #71 in a translation by Lawrence Rogers, and “Mogera Wogera,” published in The Paris Review #173 in my translation. I’m currently translating a breathtakingly good novel of hers called Manazuru.

Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) Regarded by many as the great granddaddy of modern Japanese literature, the author of Ukigumo, “the first modern Japanese novel” (which has been translated by Marleigh Grayer Ryan as Japan’s First Modern Novel: ‘Ukigumo’ of Futabatei Shimei), Futabatei was himself a brilliant translator of Russian fiction. From 1899 to 1902 he taught at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages. He also published the first Japanese textbook for students of Esperanto, as well as a Japanese translation of L.L. Zamenhof’s Unua Libro. A very interesting man, wonderful writer. He got modern Japanese literature off to a great start, and it’s been going strong ever since.

Murakami Haruki (1949-) Everyone has heard of Murakami Haruki.

"Kagekiyo" One has too few chances in the U.S. to see nō plays, but fortunately many have been translated, and translated well, and they often read very well. Arthur Waley’s versions are still well worth reading, and Royall Tyler’s translations—both those in the Penguin Classics Japanese Nō Dramas and the more experimental efforts in Pining Wind and Granny Mountains—are even better. The introduction to the Penguin volume will tell you all you need to know about nō. It’s not known who wrote the thrilling, action- and poetry-packed warrior play “Kagekiyo,” which is based on an episode in The Tales of the Heike, but whoever it was, he knew what he was doing. See the literary magazine Conjunctions #38 for my translation.

Yamada Taichi (1934-) Yamada has been writing scripts for television dramas since 1970, sometimes as many as three or four a year. He’s also written plays, collections of essays, and novels. His novels feel like they were written by an experienced author of TV dramas: they’re tightly constructed, fast-paced, and suspenseful. Yamada is known in the English-speaking world for a gripping, intense trilogy that deals with supernatural themes: I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While (Tobu yume wa shibaraku minai, translated by David James Karashima), In Search of a Distant Voice (Tōku no koe o sagashite, translated by me), and Strangers (Ijintachi to no natsu, translated by Wayne Lammers). Only the last of the three has been published in the U.S., by Vertical Inc.—Faber & Faber did the first two.

Murasaki Shikibu (late 10th-early 11th centuries) A 1928 review of Blue Trousers, the fourth volume of Arthur Waley’s glittering (literally: the covers were gold) six-volume translation The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) suggested, correctly, that “In future generations, for an Englishman or an American not to have heard of The Tale of Genji will be inexcusable.” Of course, people do inexcusable things all the time. The whole history of the human race is, I sometimes think, inexcusable. The real error, then, is not “not to have heard of The Tale of Genji,” but not to have read it. Or rather: not to have read it at least twice. It’s excusable, perhaps, but such a waste. Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji. She also wrote The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu (Murasaki Shikibu nikki). 2008 has been declared, somewhat randomly, based on the diary, the one-thousandth anniversary of the creation of the tale. What better time to read it, or read it again?


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