When you read the final page of Hiromi Ito’s The Thorn Puller and put the book down, you walk away in a daze at what she’s accomplished, as if you’ve just witnessed a trapeze artist invent a new way to perform a mid-air triple somersault. The semi-autobiographical book is truly the work of an agile and clever mind. Ito is a highly regarded poet in Japan, and she’s managed to transmit her well-known funny and brash style into the book. The Thorn Puller is full of pain and hardship, but also humor, as its stressed-out narrator shuttles across the globe to take care of her two families – her husband and daughters in California, and her ailing parents in Japan.
The book, which deservedly won major prizes in Japan, is now available to Anglophone readers (Stone Bridge Press, December 2022) thanks to the superb translation of Jeffrey Angles, a poet and professor of Japanese language and literature at Western Michigan University. Professor Angles agreed to answer a few questions that Great Lakes Review had about Ito’s book and his work as a translator.
Angles: Thank you for having me to talk with you today!
You’re a poet in your own right and, in fact, you’re the first non-native writing in Japanese to win Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature. Sincere congratulations, that’s quite the achievement. What’s your background, and how did you come to be so deeply involved in Japanese language and literature?
I’ve always been a pretty avid reader, but when I was a 15-year-old kid, I had the good fortune to be an exchange student in southwestern Japan. Since I hadn’t traveled much, even small things fascinated me. I started reading Japanese literature in translation while there, and I was lucky enough to happen across some of the great modern authors, Natsume Sōseki and Nagai Kafū. They wrote about what it meant to live as an individual and test the constraints of Japan’s modernizing social order, and as a teenager who felt ill at ease with my own society, their themes appealed to me. Reading in translation only whetted my appetite to read Japanese literature in the original.
It’s quite a leap to go from reading Japanese literature to translating it. Can you tell us how you came to translation?
Sure! By the time I went to graduate school in Japanese literature, I was reading enough in Japanese to know the Japanese literary world was thousands of times larger than what was available in English. I am especially interested in contemporary poetry and queer literature, and I found very little of that work from Japan had made it into English yet. Around that time, I read an interview with Toni Morrison in which she commented that when she started writing, she decided to write the books she wanted to read but couldn’t yet find. That struck me. I decided I would translate the books I wanted to read but couldn’t yet find in English. As a graduate student, I felt optimistic and motivated. I felt like an activist supporting queer and women writers who hadn’t yet had the platform they deserved.
My first translations were of modernist writers from the early twentieth century, but soon, I also tried translating contemporary authors, such as the brilliant poets Mutsuo Takahashi and Chimako Tada, who were eager to develop a personal relationship with me as I worked on them. I am grateful that at such a formative age, I had the great fortune to study with these two geniuses, learning not just about their completed work but also the processes, experiences, and personalities that went into them.
Could you describe your translation process? For instance, what time of the day do you sit down and translate, how long do you stay at it, how do you juggle your translation with your duties as a professor and your own writing? Et cetera.
I wish that I had a slick answer to give you here, but actually, I’m always struggling to find enough time in the day. Even while I’m in meetings at school, I feel the tug of the writing I want to be doing. There are simply too many things to translate! Too many things to write! I never have enough time, so I’m constantly trying to steal little bits of time here and there to give to the projects that are calling me like sirens, luring me out, deep in the sea.
The Thorn Puller is a wonderful and entertaining book, full not only of the travails of its protagonist, but of Japanese folkore and snippets borrowed from other writers, monks, manga artists, and singers. It’s really quite the assortment of flavors. How would you yourself describe this book and its charms?
On the surface, The Thorn Puller is a novel about a first-generation Japanese immigrant to California who is trying to manage the needs of her aging parents in Japan, who expect her to be a caregiver, and the needs of her aging husband in California, who expects her to place him and their children first. In other words, this book is about living between two countries and cultures, each with their own expectations and cultural assumptions regarding family. It describes the pain of feeling trapped by one’s roles and responsibilities while still knowing that there are other ways to live. In many ways, the book draws upon the author’s own experiences, although she fictionalizes them at just about every turn.
One of the ways that she elevates what might be a very personal and somber tale to the realm of high literature is by weaving into her narrative snippets of texts, stories, poems, and quotations from others. The author describes this as “borrowing voices,” and it turns Ito’s narrative into a rich, polyvocal text that resonates, rich and beautiful, in the minds of readers.
Hiromi also fills the book with a good dose of humor—a good thing too, since it makes a potentially heavy tale about aging and family conflict extremely entertaining. There are moments when the narrator’s misadventures and troubles make readers laugh out loud. Her willingness to look at the complexities of life with a special blend of humor and tenderness is one of the major reasons the book won such a tremendous critical following in Japan. It won two of Japan’s major literary awards—something practically unheard of.
How did you come to be the translator of Hiromi Ito’s poetry and The Thorn Puller? And what kind of relationship do you have with her?
As I mentioned earlier, in graduate school, I loved contemporary poetry, and when I read Hiromi’s poetry, it blew me away. Hélène Cixous has written about her notion of écriture feminine—a kind of writing that emerges from the woman’s body and that sidesteps the conventions of the male-dominated literary world to produce something new and liberatory. In reading Hiromi, I felt like I really understood for the first time what écriture feminine might look like.
During the 1980s, Hiromi wrote in fantastically bold, unabashed terms about her body, pregnancy, childbirth, and women’s sexual desire. Staunchy male critics didn’t like her much, but she blew open the doors of possibility, rebelling against every expectation placed upon her. She even rebelled against her fellow poets who work with constrained diction, limited subjects, and established metrical patterns. In the 1990s, she separated from her husband, a famous postcolonial critic and literary scholar, and came to California to make a new start. In California, she made a new family and began to write about immigration and her experiences as a migrant, feeling like a linguistic and cultural outsider in her new home.
When I met her for the first time, I was a shy graduate student in love with her writing, and I had come to southern California to give a paper on her work at a conference. We spent the day together, and she introduced me to her family and friends, and afterwards, we went back to her home for a magnificent meal. There, I realized she was surrounded by a community of poets. In fact, Jerome Rothenberg, famous for his work in ethnopoetics, lives in her neighborhood and goes from her household like family, even to this day. It struck me as unbelievable that a great author like Hiromi was living in California, surrounded by well-known American writers, but she didn’t have a book of her work in English yet.
As our friendship and my understanding of her work deepened, Hiromi entrusted me with her voice. The result was Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito (2009). This first book was such a success that the publisher, Action Books, eagerly published another of my translations: Wild Grass on the Riverbank (2014), a long, wonderfully surreal, narrative poem about international migrants and weeds.
Now, Hiromi and I are close friends, and we know each other’s families well. We’ve visited one another countless times over the years and given readings together all over the planet. That has helped me a great deal as her translator to understand and reproduce her voice. Knowing how an author really does sound in English is a rare treat that not every English translator has!
The book first appeared in Japan more than a decade ago. Why did it take so long for an English version to appear?
In the book, there are lots of scenes where the narrator writes in searing, sometimes hysterically funny ways about her older husband’s many foibles, quick temper, and irritation. In the book, he is ticked off at the world, frustrated by his old age and impotence. Some of these scenes derived inspiration from fights with Hiromi’s real-life partner. Since he didn’t read Japanese, he never knew that she was writing about him in a novel serialized in a major Japanese literary journal, and she didn’t tell him, to spare him a great deal of embarassment.
When The Thorn Puller was published in Japanese, Hiromi gave me a copy and told me she thought it was the best thing she had ever written. She wanted me to translate it, but I had to wait, she told me, until her partner passed away. At that, we both laughed, but I could see that behind her smile, there was a deep care for him. Despite all his peccadillos and peculiarities, she loved him and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
What’s the state of contemporary Japanese literature? That is, what kind of writing is hot right now, and what other modern Japanese authors would you recommend?
Gosh, that’s a big question! The world of Japanese literature is so large that it is hard to generalize. There are roughly as many books published in Japan each year as in the United States, even though Japan has less than half the population of the U.S.! That’s a heck of a lot of literature.
There are lots of authors of speculative fiction who deserve a much wider audience, such as the endlessly inventive postmodern novelist Tomoyuki Hoshino and the bestselling sci-fi author Masakuni Oda, who I just started reading. Yoko Tawada is one of the most fascinating figures in the world of speculative fiction right now. Writing in two languages, both her native Japanese and German, the language of her adopted homeland, she has created an extraordinarily rich body of work that literally spans the globe.
At the same time, I also love realistic, down-to-earth novels and collections of poetry that allow you to slip into the inner world of an individual and live with them for a while. Kyoko Nakajima, a master of historical fiction, writes with a Tolstoyesque ability to plump the depths of human psychology. She is one of my favorite novelists. I might also recommend Yuko Tsushima, a brilliant, poetic novelist whose work often resonates with archetypal imagery and echoes of legend.
In the world of poetry, I am madly in love with the smart, funny, and homoerotic work of Mutsuo Takahashi, Japan’s best-known living gay poet. In fact, I’ve just published a translation of his brilliant magnum opus, a collection of over 150 witty, powerful, and deeply personal poems called Only Yesterday (2023) in English. This book captures the joys and pains of aging as a gay man better than just about any collection of poetry I’ve ever read.
But one voice which really ought to be heard in the twenty-first century is that of the ecocritical writer Michiko Ishimure, famous in Japan for her writing about environmental issues. Very little of her work has been translated into English, but what has been comes from academic presses and hardly circulates to the wider reading public. In Japanese, her work feels like wandering through a fever dream of a planet on fire. Refusing the city, she speaks to us from the harbors, from the mountains, from the rivers, calling us modern citizens home to the earth.
Translated fiction seems to be enjoying a boom right now. What advice would you offer anyone looking to get into literary translation?
Read a lot. Find the voices that are quirky, that are eccentric, that break new ground, that say important things in ways that you haven’t yet seen elsewhere. And keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading. One book leads to another. Eventually you will find a voice that cries out to you, that haunts you, and begs you from the page to translate it. That is the work that you should translate.
Literary translation takes a lot of time, so passion for a particular project goes a long way to sustain a translator over numerous revisions and re-readings. The biggest part of a translator’s time typically goes into the long period of polishing that follows the completion of the first draft. A translation will never really feel completely done, since there are always places that one could continue to improve, but according to the writer José Ortega y Gasset, this isn’t a fact that should make us miserable—it is also an argument for the splendor of translation. Translation is an art that strives for the impossible, that pushes us higher and upward, taking us into new realms of literature, rendering visible what was invisible to us before.