York professor translates Japanese into a productive career
A lineup of literature fans snaked out the door and into the hallway at the Singapore Literary Festival, eager to meet York University Humanities Professor Ted Goossen, who was in the middle of a six-week lecture tour to Singapore and Japan.
He is internationally known for making accessible to the English-speaking world the works of his friend and world-famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. Goossen felt a bit embarrassed by the excellent turnout that day in Singapore, and his wrist ached from signing so many copies of Murakami’s first two novels, an indication of how on fire the 69-year-old’s career is as a top Japanese to English translator. As a result, in addition to his 2015 lecture tour, he spent his 2015-16 university sabbatical adding to his literary translations from Japanese — a language which he has been studying for 50 years.
“Translating is very creative work. You want your reader to feel the way you felt when you read the original text,” says Goossen, whose native language is English. “You are not looking for an intellectual response so much as you’re looking for an emotive response. And so, if you feel beauty or anger or love when you read the original text, you’re trying to evoke that in your reader. If you are translating a novel that has different characters, you’re looking for a different voice for each character, and of course, you’re looking for the voice of the narrative itself.”
After being approached by Murakami through his New York agent, Binky Urban, Goossen worked with Knopf (Penguin Random House) on Murakami’s Men Without Women, an acclaimed collection of short stories published in 2017, and the upcoming Novelist As Vocation, a book of essays explaining his craft to would-be writers that Murakami initially wrote for the Japanese literary magazine Monkey. Due to the high demand for Murakami’s work, Goossen and fellow translator Philip Gabriel sped up the process by dividing the texts, after which Knopf editor Lexy Bloom harmonized the two halves. Murakami’s latest novel, Killing the Commendatore, is being handled in the same way.
“Translating Japanese literature is very challenging,” says Goossen. “There is no direct connection between Japanese prose and English prose. The two languages are so different; the grammars and the writing systems are entirely different, and yet, obviously given Murakami’s world-wide success, it’s not mystical or enigmatic. It’s communication, and you are trying to communicate to your readers in the same way that he’s trying to communicate to his readers.”
Goossen’s sabbatical also allowed him time to work on one of his passions, highlighting Japanese authors less well-known abroad in Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan, an English-language literary journal he co-edits with Motoyuki Shibata. Goossen and Shibata sometimes serve as each other’s second pair of eyes for their individual translation projects.
“One of the reasons why I’m able to be so prolific now as a translator is because Shibata — I call him Moto — goes over my translations. He is a brilliant translator of American literature into Japanese, and a great editor,” says Goossen. “I’m like a tight rope walker and he’s my net. A lot of translation is like being up on a tightrope because you can’t be too literal, but you can’t be too interpretive either. Moto lets me know if I’m falling off one side or the other.”
They meet every year and, while Goossen was on sabbatical, they launched Volume Six of Monkey Business in New York City at the 2016 PEN Literary Festival and began working on Volume Seven. Volume Seven launched in Fall 2017 and Goossen invited Shibata and a few of the authors to meet his students from his Japanese Culture, Literature and Film class.
“On three occasions over the past seven years, we’ve been able to link our Monkey Business launch events to my course, and the writers love it,” says Goossen. “They’re meeting all these fresh-faced, enthusiastic 20-year-old students who are interested in Japanese culture in one form or another, and are asked questions they don’t normally get from more experienced literary audiences. Many of those questions are very fresh and thought-provoking.”
Goossen, who began learning to read Japanese in his mid-20s, credits his translation work with motivating him to become more disciplined, ultimately culminating in a productive sabbatical.
“My sixties have been my most productive period, dwarfing the other decades of my career,” he says. “It’s not that I wasn’t working hard before; it’s merely that the combination of my reputation spreading and my skills reaching a certain level has enabled me to publish quite a lot. I don’t feel I’ve really peaked yet.”
By Ruane Remy, research communications officer, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies