TranslationGuy Interview with Terry Gallagher.
I had the chance to text recently with Terry Gallagher, translator for Self-Reference ENGINE, a book of 22 linked stories dealing with a future in which artificial intelligences have taken control of the universe by integrating themselves with the laws of nature, which they then screw up. SRE is the debut work (2006) of author Toh EnJoe, winner of the Akutagawa Prize last year, Japan’s top literary award. (I’ve edited down some of Terry’s responses to fit the format.)
Photo credit: Seia Tanabe.
Terry, when we met, you were a policy wonk/journo working the Japan beat. I had no idea that beneath that cool ‘90s technocratic facade beat the Lafcadio Hearn-iated heart of a poet with a soft spot for temple bells sounding on misty hills. How is it you’ve gotten to be such a literary translator? Is it the money?
Would that it were. While I was working in Tokyo as a financial journalist for Reuters, Alfred Birnbaum and I and two other translators put out an anthology of new Japanese literature called Monkey Brain Sushi, and that got some attention. Self-Reference ENGINE is my fifth book-length translation for Viz Media in San Francisco, and I have also contributed translations of shorter works for other anthologies. I have worked full-time as a freelance translator for the past 15 years, but mostly in finance. I continue to devote some of my time to literary translation as a change of pace, because it continues to present new challenges, and push me in new directions. I’ll let you figure out which side is Jekyll.
You sound like a really spiritual guy. That said, what’s the #1 mistake Japanese literature translators make? Please don’t pull any punches.
There’s a lot of exciting new translation going on, but if there is a glaring problem, it is that there is still not nearly enough of it. Right now, Japan is probably best known for anime/manga and Fukushima/tsunami issues, but those are just two of many dimensions. There is a lot happening in Japan that few people outside the country have much awareness of.
Those ignorant bastards! So what about you? What was the toughest part of doing this book, for example?
The toughest part of this book? Well, I’ve never read another book anything like it. The author is a Ph.D. whose research was in the “mathematics/physics of natural languages.” Self-Reference ENGINE was his first literary work, and evolved from ideas that occurred to him during his graduate studies. As a result, it deals with ideas from math, physics and linguistics that were not just new to me; they are really cutting-edge in terms of the current state of knowledge at the intersections of those fields. But the author is using the vocabulary of fiction to explore these ideas, rather than straight-up expository writing, and it is mixed with a lot of humor. Picture Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking duking it out inside the same brain, and mix in some George Carlin for good measure. And then stir in a pile of obscure nuggets from Wikipedia from the history of science and math, and mythology too for that matter, both Asian and Western.
Thanks for talking to TranslationGuy, Terry. Congrats on the success of a great translation project. Looking forward to reading it once I get my free copy.
My pleasure. That’ll be $15 for the book, please.
Toh EnJoe and Terry Gallagher will give a reading / discussion of the book at Books Kinokuniya (1073 Avenue of the Americas, NYC) on September 7 at 3 p.m.