Interview with Juliet Winter Carpenters

Interviewed By: Julia Chin

        As an English and Japanese double major, I naturally gravitated towards Juliet Winters Carpenter for an interview about her work as a Japanese-to-English translator. After taking up the study of Japanese language and literature through her graduate degrees in America, Carpenter moved to Japan in 1975 where she continued her work as a literary translator, a professor at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, and a music instructor of traditional Japanese instruments such as the shamisen and koto. In 2013, the government-sponsored Japanese Language Publishing Project republished Japanese writer Mizumura Minae’s A True Novel (originally Honkaku Shosetsu in the Japanese) in its English translation done by Carpenter, and it is this book, a remaking of Emily Brontë’s immortalized Victorian novel Wuthering Heights (1847), about which I have come to interview Ms. Juliet Carpenter today.


How and why did you first begin Japanese language study; furthermore, how do you feel that your personal interests have led you to the occupation of a professional translator?

I began Japanese language study at age 16 in the summer of 1964. Prior to that, I had had some French, from fourth grade through two and a half years of high school. My interest in Japanese was piqued during a trip to that country in 1960 with my father, and when my school (Evanston Township High School) offered a nine-week course in Japanese with scholarships, I signed up. It was exciting and mind-blowing and I never looked back. Other personal interests are a love of reading and a general fascination with language and books. An encounter with a Tanizaki translation by Edward Seidensticker opened my mind to the challenges and possibility of being a literary translator, and from age 17 that was always my goal—though it seemed vaguely impossible, as I still knew so little Japanese. 


A True Novel’s English translation was published  in 2013 as a fruit of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP). How did you initially come to be involved with JLPP and, in your own words, how might you describe the literary, cultural, or global aims of JLPP after engaging with this initiative?

The initial person who responded to the JLPP offering of Mizumura’s novel Honkaku Shosetsu was having trouble completing it; after several years, she was less than halfway through. I was called in to do the second half, and eventually ended up taking over the whole project. My contact at JLPP (I had done two or three other books for them) urged me to take on what seemed like a daunting task that had already slain one translator, but I loved the book and literary challenges excite me, so I said yes. JLPP seeks to make fine quality Japanese literature available in fine quality translation, underwriting not only Anglophone translators but those writing in a variety of languages, and helping also with the publishing.


Did you read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and/or Mizumura’s A True Novel fully before beginning translation, or did you dive into the story as a novice reader would with a fresh set of eyes? Was there any reason behind your decision to do so?

I had read Wuthering Heights before, but it didn’t seem necessary or particularly advisable to reread it before beginning the translation. Mizumura’s work is her own creation, and that’s what I needed to work with. Nor did I read the entire book first—I actually started with the second half, as explained in question 2, and went back and read the first half later. This wasn’t a problem partly because of the unusual construction of the book—the I-novel Prologue goes on for about 175 pages, taking up the bulk of the first half. I could tell this was a novel of distinction from the first chapter I read, plus the JLPP people had chosen it, and my friend there was most enthusiastic, so I leaped right in.

How do you feel that an artistic product, such as a novel, requires a different sort of translation than, for instance, a political speech broadcasted on television?

To translate a novel, you have to have read novels and have an appreciation of how things like point of view function. You have to love the beauty of a sentence or an image and think how it can or can’t be transmitted in English. You have to think how to convey character through dialogue and decide to what extent the reader needs help in understanding cultural nuances. You have to be able to think like a novelist in general, and specifically, like the novelist whose book you are translating. To translate a political speech, you have to be able to think like a speech-writer. So the real question is, what’s the difference between writing a novel and writing a speech?


What challenges did you face while undertaking the English translation of Mizumura’s work? How long did the whole project take you?

I first met Mizumura in May 2010, and we worked on the book right up till the end. It was exhausting but exhilarating. The translation of A True Novel was challenging for one thing because I already had a full plate: I was chair of the English Department at my college, and I was working with a team of Buddhists on the translation of a difficult Buddhist text and commentary as well as translating Clouds above the Hill, a mammoth multivolume historical novel by Shiba Ryōtarō. (Those books came out in 2011, 2012, and 2013.) One of the challenges of Mizumura’s text was the prevalence of English. We distinguished those words by setting them in italics, but some of them had to be changed in the wider context of English usage. Another challenge was introducing the literary concepts of a “true” novel and an “I” novel for readers with no background in Japanese literature, and various cultural aspects of the story. I remember I wrote an entire page about Karuizawa that’s not in the Japanese—but it was essential that readers have some understanding of the resonance of that place in Japanese culture. Another challenge was reproducing the many voices of the characters and keeping them distinct—I enjoyed translating the children’s songs that come up in volume two, and of course the ghost scenes in Oiwake.


In translating A True Novel, how much contact did you have with the author, Minae Mizumura? In your translations more generally speaking, do you feel that your goal as a translator is to remain as true to the original as possible and largely verbatim or is it your intention to create a new piece of work that can truly be viewed as an almost independent and distinct novel from its Japanese counterpart?

She and I worked very closely together. She invited me to her summer home in Oiwake so that I could get a sense of the place, and that was very helpful. I spent a week there, and we worked from morning till night. Our procedure is for me to come up with a draft which I send to her. While she is looking at it, I let it rest and work on other things. By the time she is ready to go over it with me, enough time has passed that I can look at it again and make my own revisions. Then we get together and go over it page by page, line by line, word by word, comparing our notes and revising as we go. We do this again and again. She always gives me the final word but has many insights, comments and suggestions that are invaluable. I am extremely fortunate to have had the window into her mind and how she sees her own literary creation. 

As for my goals as a translator, “as true to the original as possible”? Absolutely. “Largely verbatim”? Heavens no. Every translation is indeed a distinct novel in its own right, but I do try to convey the spirit of the original and, when possible, the form—if sentences are long and wandering, I try to make mine the same, and if they are clipped, I go for that rhythm. Rhythm and tone are much more important than word-for-word similarity. There was some question as to whether the prologue ought to be an epilogue in the translation, but in the end we kept the order as in the original. I do feel such structural changes are perfectly legitimate, however, if they work better in English. In this case, we decided against it. Sentimentality is another trap—what works perfectly well in Japanese can be off-putting in English


Finally, what is your favorite aspect of this story? If you have read or roughly know the plot of Wuthering Heights, what are your feelings towards Mizumura’s remaking of this Victorian classic, and what is one thing you believe it has to offer for both Western and Japanese audiences, either respectively or separately?

They are both a good read! I had the chance  to read sections of WH in my translation classes and loved the poetry of it—I loved the way the author created the mad scene before the heroine gives birth, for example. Both novelists create a layered text with multiple narrators—Mizumura’s adds even more to that complexity. Both are all-absorbing, “juicy” novels that depict a storm of emotions and also a changing society, with great attention to detail. Mizumura creates such a vivid picture of so many kinds of Japanese people and the sweeping changes their society has gone through.