Alexander O. Smith (translator of the Tomo story “Wings on the Wind” by Yuichi Kimura) has been translating video games and novels from Japanese to English since graduating from Harvard University with a M.A. in Classical Japanese literature in 1998. He is the founder of Kajiya Productions Inc. and is now based in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. His work has received the ALA Batchelder Award for Brave Story (Miyuki Miyabe) and the Phillip K. Dick Special Citation for Harmony (Project Itoh). Visit his website: www.kajiyaproductions.com
Can you tell us about your connections to Japan and how you came to a career in translation?
I became interested in the Japanese language after spending a few months of my last year in high school in a rural school in China, north of Beijing. My first exposure came, literally, via the menu on the airplane. I began self-study in the wilds of northern Vermont, culminating with a month-long homestay in Osaka during the summer before college. Fast forward six years to a 2-month internship at SEGA Entertainment in Tokyo while I was working toward a PhD in Classical Japanese Literature. I left grad school, and leveraged my internship and some subtitling experience into a localization position at the game company Squaresoft in Costa Mesa, CA in 1998. At the beginning of 1999 I transferred to the Square Co., Ltd. (now "Square-Enix") offices in Tokyo. I left the company three years later to found my own translation business, Kajiya Productions, by which time I had already branched away from games into novels, comics, and poetry.
What are the challenges and rewards of translating a short work such as Wings on the Wind?
Similar to a poem, a piece like “Wings on the Wind” is a challenge because of its brevity, and the attention to word choice that implies. In a longer, prosaic work, you may have room to add in bits of imagery or wordplay that are lost in the translation process, but a short form piece does not provide the translator with the luxury of more words. Add too much, and you endanger the succinct clarity of the original. So, you must proceed with utmost caution, trying to wring every last bit of meaning from your words in an attempt to do justice to the piece.
You have recently moved back to Japan. How does it feel to be back and what are you looking forward to?
Prior to this move I was in the US for five years, which is the longest I've been away from Japan as an adult. I'm looking forward to seeing those things that I had started to take for granted while living in Japan with fresh eyes: the people, the art, the language. I'd like to get back into reading Classical Japanese, which is something I haven't done since grad school, but I always enjoyed. Probably the thing I'm looking forward to most, however, is seeing how my kids rediscover Japan. They were both born in Tokyo, but have done most of their growing-up in the States. It will be a real adventure for them!
Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
At our local elementary school in Vermont, the kids made paper cranes to send to a charity that donated $1 to the Tohoku area for each paper crane they received. They received millions. I know that, for the kids here, learning about the disaster made a faraway place seem much closer, and making the cranes opened their eyes to how connected we are, and how easy it is to help each other. I hope their well-wishes—riding on paper wings—found you safely.