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Borderless Book Club – Tokyo Ueno Station

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

10 December 2020

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of being part of all sorts of book clubs. I’ve read along with friends, with classmates from language courses, and with fans of Francophone African literature. I’ve been part of book clubs in French, English, and Italian. I suppose I could even say I was part of a huge, four-year book club during my undergrad in French and German at Edinburgh! As I’ve said before, I’m a book worm, there’s no doubt about that.

When normal life began to shut down back in spring, and it was no longer possible to meet at the local Italian bookshop, or listen to authors at BOZAR, Passaporta, Filigranes, or anywhere else in Brussels, I was of course delighted to get the invitation from Peirene to join the new online Borderless Book Club. Not long after the UK was put into lockdown, Maddie Rogers pulled together what was initially going to be a six-week programme to keep readers going while they stayed at home. Peirene invited several other presses to take turns joining Maddie on a Thursday evening to present one title and give the floor to the translator to tell us more about the book and their work. After the opening discussion, participants would be sent into breakout rooms to chat about the book. I have to admit that whilst the translator within me was excited to hear from the editors and translators, I was somewhat hesitant about the breakout sessions. Wasn’t it odd to chat to strangers online? Weren’t there unpleasant experiences with Zoom? I’m glad I took the plunge however. Whilst I haven’t made it to every session and have to guiltily admit I didn’t always manage to finish the books in time, I have thoroughly enjoyed the Borderless Book Club. Bitter Lemon, Charco, Comma Press, Fitzcarraldo, Istros, Nordisk, Peirene, and Tilted Axis have ‘taken’ me all over the world, into a variety of genres, and behind the scenes in ways no other book club did.

So, with notebooks full of fascinating insights (see my first blog post), facts, and reflections from translators and editors, I thought it was about time to start putting it all in order as a way of reflecting on my own literary translation practice. This post, therefore, isn’t a review of the book, or a summary of the plot. There are plenty of those elsewhere online. Rather it is my experience of last week’s Borderless Book Club with Morgan Giles and Theodora Danek around Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station. Think of it a way to capture the atmosphere of the evening – whether you’ve read the book or not.

Thursday 10 December – Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, tr. Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press

Last week was the final Book Club for 2020, and even though it was a dark, cold, wintery Thursday night (where I was at least), there was the usual warm welcome from the lovely Maddie Rogers at Pereine Press. Before diving into the conversation with translator Morgan Giles about Tokyo Ueno Station, Maddie invited Theodora Danek from Tilted Axis Press to tell us all a bit about the press. Set up in 2015, this indie press primarily focuses on Asian writers and is keen to publish their work in translation in a variety of Englishes. Theodora also explained that the press is strongly translator-led, finding many of its titles through pitches made by translators themselves. She was keen to hand the floor over to Japanese-to-English translator Morgan Giles to tell us more about how Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station made its way into English.

Morgan described her first encounter with Yu Miri’s work in a used bookstore in London where she was struck by strong titles, such as Men, Suicide. She immediately started reading the books on her way home on the bus, and when Tokyo Ueno Station came out in Japanese a month later (2014), she felt she had to translate it. Sensitive to Miri’s Zainichi background – an ethnic Korean in Japan – Morgan felt Tilted Axis would be the perfect home for Miri’s work, as did the author. It was interesting to hear about the discrimination and challenges Zainichi face in Japan, about how Miri experienced bullying as a child, and then abuse and harassment as an adult and author, with some critics even declaring that she shouldn’t be celebrated as a Japanese author. Morgan explained that this constant tension in Miri’s own life led the author to write books for people who don’t have anywhere to belong. A theme that is clearly evident in Tokyo Ueno Station, which portrays the life of Kazu, an elderly man who now lives among the homeless in the park at the Ueno train station.

Talking about her own personal passion for seeing this particular title translated into English, Morgan said she wanted to show a bit more of the reality of Japan, to go beyond what she often saw in the media, beyond the beautiful or wacky. Like societies everywhere, there are things people, herself included, would rather not see, like the homelessness in Tokyo Ueno Station. She added that this also helps shine a light on things in our own countries, things we’d rather ignore. A novel doesn’t give you the luxury of doing that, but rather gives you the experience of being inside someone’s head, in a way you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

Mentioning the appearance of the Japanese imperial family in the novel – a key point in the story when the homeless are moved out of the park for a day – Maddie also wondered about the other Japanese historical events, geography, and cultural references contained in the 168-page novel. Were they challenging to convey in the translation? Were extra explanations required in the English text? Morgan explained that Miri’s work tends to have a didactic element to it, it’s been researched and already contains a lot of details, meaning that her main challenge in this instance was to find a way to express all of the detail.

The conversation then moved on to Morgan’s work translating the novel with Miri. She had enjoyed an unusually close relationship with the author, being able to spend time together when Morgan moved to Japan. Miri helped Morgan to visit Fukushima, a key location in the book in both terms of plot and the dialect used. She enjoyed the amazing experience of visiting the area the main character Kazu came from, seeing the exclusion zone around the nuclear reactor, and even meeting a local priest who was the inspiration for another character in the novel. After having met the priest, Morgan realised she also needed to change the way the character in her English translation spoke.

There were a few main challenges when translating Tokyo Ueno Station. The first was the Fukushima dialect, which thankfully Morgan was able to consult friends from the area about. She was also meet Miri’s friend who had helped her write the original dialect. Morgan wanted to be careful with the translation of the dialect, feeling that when it doesn’t work well in translation it can strip away a sense of reality. She didn’t want to discard it entirely, so developed what she called a ‘casual, old person English,’ partly inspired by her Dad. A second challenge was the tight prose that Morgan felt was a by-product of the narrator’s emotional state, a man who never wanted to let his emotions through. Every word is measured, contained, creating a real sense of restraint until the final scene when Kazu breaks and the language also starts to fall apart. The structure – without breaks - wasn’t a particularly difficult challenge, Morgan explained. It’s informed by the narrative, with lots of conversations running into each other. The only part of the structure demarcation that she couldn’t find an elegant solution she was satisfied with were the onomatopoeic train sounds in the original Japanese that she feared would sound more like a cartoon in English than they did in the original.

Maddie then took a few questions from the keen Borderless Book Clubbers eager to know a bit more about Morgan. She told us about her own personal relationship with Japanese, a language she fell in love with when she had the chance to visit the country as a young teenager through a programme in linking her Kentucky hometown with Toyota and sister cities in Japan. She also shared how her experience of Japan and Japanese culture has given her a new awareness as she has worked on Yu Miri’s novels.

It was then time to ‘head off’ to the breakout rooms, a great opportunity to hear what others thought about the book and make some new friends all over the world. Maddie always does a great job of sharing a few links with interviews and articles in the invitation, along with a few questions to help guide the conversation if the group feels like following a few pointers. It was lovely to see a few new faces in my group last week who had joined for the first time, and to also chat with some ‘regulars’ I’ve seen on the screen and in the chat box, but not had a chance to meet in person before. We had a lively discussion about what we had expected from the book before starting it, and how our reading was perhaps slightly different. (Was it a ghost story? Or something else?) Not many of us were particularly familiar with Japan, so Miri’s work shed new perspectives. After running out of time (a good thing of course!), we were zoomed back into the main room to hear how the other groups had responded to the book, as well as the chance to ask Morgan one last question.

Once again, my Thursday night had flown by. Transported to Asia this time and encouraged to read beyond my usual favourites, I thoroughly enjoyed the session. It’s always fascinating to hear how other translators approach their work, to learn more about the various challenges that different genres, languages, and styles pose, and to hear how individual titles make their way into English. It’s also a delight to connect with so many fellow bookworms across the world – an average of around 50-60 readers each time – both new faces and regulars as the months go on.

Thankfully we were also given the great news that Borderless Book Club will go on in 2021! The fantastic new programme was published and includes two new presses – Fum d’Estampa, specialising in Catalan literature, and V&Q Books, publishing remarkable writing from Germany.

So why not join us? Every other Thursday, 8pm on Zoom. No charge. And don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, I admit I haven’t always finished in time. Just sign up for the Borderless Book Club mailing list here and you’ll receive the invitation every fortnight!

And if you feel like supporting Maddie and the team now that the arts funding has ended, why not buy them a crowdfund Ko-fi here.

Keep up the great work guys! I’m looking forward to January 2021.

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