Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Hart Larrabee

Hart Larrabee (translator of the Tomo story “Anton and Kiyohime” by Fumio Takano) was born in New York State and majored in Japanese at Carleton College in Minnesota. He also earned postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and University of Hawaii. He has lived primarily in Japan. A full-time freelance translator, he currently lives with his family in Nagano Prefecture.
Hart Larrabee (right) with author Fumio Takano

Tell us a bit about your background and connection to Japan. 

I started college in 1985. I had decided to go to Carleton College in Minnesota, which had both a foreign language proficiency requirement and a strong emphasis on off-campus study. Although I had studied French in high school I never really took to it, something I attributed in part to the many English cognates that enabled me to stumble through by speaking as if I had marbles in my mouth. While planning what college courses to take, I decided I should find a language as far removed from English as possible, and preferably one with a different writing system to deprive myself the temptation of such shortcuts. It was the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII so Japan was in the news a lot, and since Carleton didn't offer Chinese at the time I decided to take Japanese. A fall semester course in Japanese aesthetics taught by an American designer of Japanese gardens, David Slawson, hooked me on the culture and I really enjoyed the puzzle of the language itself. I ended up spending my junior year in Kyoto, majoring in Japanese, and then spending more time in Japan immediately after graduation. 

What led you to work in translation?

After spending a couple of years as an artist's apprentice in Kyoto, I returned to the US to study communication at the University of Pennsylvania and then got an MBA at the University of Hawaii. Through an internship, this led to work with the organizing committee for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, then the Japanese Olympic Committee, and then the organizing committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Along the way I had picked up translation jobs here and there. When I decided to get married in 2002 and move to Nagano to live near my wife's family, freelance translation became my main occupation (although I have continued to work with international sporting events when the opportunity arises).

What attracted you to this story of Takano’s? Do you have experience with Japanese dance or Nagauta or Russian culture? Are you familiar with Ueno Park and some of the Tokyo settings in this story? 

Kyoko Ibe's production of Dojoji: A Forbidden Journey
The artist with whom I apprenticed in Kyoto, Kyoko Ibe, worked primarily in paper, especially handmade paper produced in Tokushima. Her studio produced a range of products (lamps, jewelry, stationery) as well as large-scale installations and other works of art. During the time I was there she embarked on a theatrical project: an experimental reworking of the Dojoji story in collaboration with a Norwegian dancer and a Japanese noh actor for which she created the sets, props, and costumes. I stitched together the paper kimono and long court trousers worn in the role of the shirabyoshi dancer, and went along on the Scandinavian tour as interpreter, stagehand, and one of two costumers to help dress the noh actor. 

Noh actor Akira Matsui in Dojoji: A Forbidden Journey
So the Dojoji story is one that resonates deeply with a formative experience from my early years in Japan and I was very interested in translating it when the opportunity arose. I hesitated, though, and by the time I responded the story had been offered to another translator. Fortunately for me, that translator was ultimately unable to take part so I got a second chance.

This was a challenging story to translate for a number of reasons. What were some of the trickiest aspects? 

Although the language used is pretty straightforward (with the notable exception of the nagauta), there is a lot going on. There is the love affair between Anton and Kiyohime, with its passion and betrayal, alternate realities, time travel experiments, Latvia-Russian relations, and even a little bit of Tokyo travelogue.

One of the biggest challenges is that as originally published in Japanese, the story was about twice as long as Tomo space restrictions would allow. The author, Fumio Takano, reworked the story to fit the space constraints, but we were pushing the limit and I needed to be acutely conscious of space limitations throughout. Holly Thompson, Sako Ikegami and particularly Lynne Riggs helped me tighten things up and offered numerous solutions more elegant than what I had originally come up with.

Finding a voice for Olegs was also tricky. In the original, he speaks Japanese fluently but in an adult or classroom register, not the voice of a typical teenager. There was really no good way to convey this nuance in the translation, and in my early drafts he seemed unnaturally stiff. I tried to loosen up his dialogue in the sections where he speaks with his uncle, but I suspect that any contrast with the way he talks when speaking with Kyuan is barely perceptible.

The nagauta sections were also fun to work with. The text itself comes straight from the Kabuki version of the Dojo-ji story, so I was able to find some existing translations and commentaries on the web that helped me confirm that I understood the original well enough. Since this wasn't an academic translation I was free to leave out bits that were distracting and try to shape the translation to best fit the story within the general framework of what was in the original.

Can you describe the translation process with this particular story? 

It was an enormous benefit to be able to consult with Takano about how to interpret particular passages, and to have her review the translation and make suggestions about how to address areas where I had questions. She was very engaged and I felt it was important to keep her informed of changes to the translation as it evolved. It was a very hands-on process, and it cannot have been easy for her to have other people mucking about with her story—especially given the need to make some adjustments for a younger readership and to carve away another 10% or so from the translation as our deadline approached.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?

I have really struggled to find something to say. I cannot possibly know what it is like to be you, in the aftermath of such upheaval. But I hope you won't let the disaster define you. It shouldn't dictate how you see yourself. The rest of the world may be quick to use the disaster as a convenient shorthand for deciding what to think, but I hope you won't let them set the terms. You can decide for yourself what your experience will mean in your life. Trust your family, trust your friends, and trust yourself.