“Leaving Any Cultural Differences Untouched”: A Conversation with Tana Oshima & A Translation Process – curated by Naoko Fujimoto

Tokyo Ueno Station was the National Book Awards 2020 winner for Translated Literature. Yu Miri wrote the novel and Morgan Giles translated it into English. Yu Miri’s works were translated into many languages, and I had a chance to interview her Spanish translator, Tana Oshima. She is currently a resident in New York City, where she also had her visual art exhibition.

Tana Oshima was born in Kanagawa, Japan. She is a Japanese to Spanish literary translator and a visual artist living in New York City. She has translated “Territorio de luz” (Territory of Light) by Yuko Tsushima, “Agujero” (“The Hole”) by Hiroko Oyamada, and “Tokio, estación de Ueno” (Tokyo, Ueno Station) by Yu Miri. She has self-published 9 mini comics in English. An anthology of some of her comics came out in February 2022 in Mexico. She is currently translating another novel by Yuko Tsushima, drawing/writing a graphic memoir, and writing an experimental novel. She also teaches and has two kids.


Naoko Fujimoto: How did you receive the opportunity to translate this fictional story?

Tana Oshima: I pitched it to one of my publishers in Spain. I hadn’t had the chance to read the book in its entirety, but I felt an immediate connection with both the author, Yu Miri, and the story. She is a zainichi Korean, that is, a Korean born in Japan. You and I we both know how Japanese-Koreans have been, and are, mistreated in Japan, to the point where they’re denied the Japanese citizenship even if they’ve been residents for generations. But what Yu recounted about her childhood when she was interviewed felt very much like mine as a mixed kid in Japan. In my days, there seemed to be nothing worse than being Korean or being mixed with Western blood, at least in a relatively small town like Shizuoka, where I happened to go to elementary school. So I could relate to her very much personally. But then the story she tells in Tokyo, Ueno Station is about the homeless in and around Ueno park in Tokyo. Coincidentally, I used to live near Ueno  in my twenties, and I could see all those homeless people in their cardboard tents all along the Sumida River. Most of them were people who didn’t have a home but tried to work and have a normal life—they showered, they washed their clothes in the river and dried them in the sun, they cleaned their tents, kept their shoes outside, they gathered with others to listen to a baseball game on the radio, and so on. Many of the things that happen in the book felt so familiar. Even that very first incident at the beginning of the book... unfortunately it happens too often in Tokyo. So for all these reasons I pitched this book to my publisher in Spain, and he was still considering it, when the book (its English translation by Morgan Giles) won the National Book Award in the United States. I think that helped him make the decision. 

NF: How would you describe this story within a couple of words or sentences? Impermanent (諸行無常/syogyoumujou), may be a key element in the story. Life is transient, which means we are working with our life choices – temporary or long-term solutions – and our life keeps moving.

TO: I think I would use one single word: suffering. It is definitely a very Buddhist book, in a way. Buddha’s teachings were all about removing, or soothing, people’s suffering, because he saw so much suffering around him. There’s much suffering in this story, too, and Buddhism plays a role in how people deal with it. However, despite all this spiritual awareness, there is no consolation. Not even death seems to put an end to the protagonist’s pain, which is probably the most hopeless thing one can think about. But there are also some hints of hope throughout the book, as though the energy of the living is trying to resist the weight of fate. There’s this strong sense of fate, the predetermination of a person to a certain destiny, that is very East Asian. People are meant to accept their fate, and this is what the protagonist does, while also raising the question of: What for? Why?

NF: In the book, there are many Japanese cultural words, such as Japanese Buddhist sutra. How did you approach translating them? And please tell me your translation process.

TO: Holy crap, translating those sutras was incredibly hard. There’s a scene in the story where a funeral is being held, and a Buddhist priest is chanting a sutra. The Buddhist sutras we see in Japan are in a very ancient form of Japanese language, right? For starters, unless they’ve been adapted to a more modern version, they’re usually written in all kanji (ideograms), with no use of hiragana or katakana (Japanese alphabets). It’s basically Chinese. Those sutras came to Japan via China, from India, and were originally in Sanskrit. Those words in Sanskrit were first transcribed into Chinese. We’re talking about almost two thousand years ago. When those Chinese transcripts of the Sanskrit sutras arrived in Japan a couple of centuries later, they were adapted to the Japanese phonetic system, but kept the same writing. So it’s like reading Chinese with a Japanese pronunciation. To make matters more complicated, some of the words are kept in Sanskrit. Throughout the centuries the sutras have been preserved in this ancient Chinese-Japanese form. This means that an average Japanese person today can’t read them without being told how to read them, let alone understand the exact meaning. I guess only Buddhist scholars and priests know what they really mean. It’s not like a Christian prayer, which any child can understand. For me, as a translator, the best thing I could think of was to look for an official transcript of those sutras, in this case the Amida sutra, into English or Spanish. But the search was pretty difficult because I didn’t know what passage of the sutra the book was referring to, and it wasn’t something that showed up instantly on Google. It took me several days to figure it out. (Of course I could have translated Morgan Gile’s version into Spanish, but I never do indirect translations). Finally, I found one official transcript in English from a Japanese Buddhist temple in Hawaii!

As for my translation process: I’d like to first talk about how I approach it, in general. Translating from Japanese to Spanish, or to any Western language I guess, is translating an entire culture. You can’t just translate the words. Translation should never be literal, but in this case both languages (and the universe they contain inside) are too far apart from each other, both linguistically and culturally. You couldn’t do a literal translation even if you wanted to. AIl tools like Google translate do a terrible job translating from Japanese, whereas they do a pretty good job translating from English to Spanish, for example. 

I am also an advocate of leaving any cultural differences untouched. I think literary translation is not, or should not be, about adapting one culture to another so the reader won’t notice all the differences in their complexity, but rather about making those differences very visible in a way that the reader can enjoy them and be surprised by them. The reader must feel and face the foreignness of the book they’re reading. Why spare them that feeling of strangeness? I have to say, in this regard, that American translations tend to make too many adjustments in this sense, adapting the Japanese culture to the American readers. I can’t help but see colonialism in this approach. There’s a long tradition in the United States of adapting a foreign culture to make it less foreign to Americans. This happens in the field of literary translation, too. We as translators are responsible for the way we represent the culture we are translating. 

Do we have the right to filter what parts of a different culture come in and what parts are left out? This is a question I’d like to raise. I’ve seen translations where some words or entire sentences have been removed, I guess to make the text more understandable and accessible to the Western reader. This may happen, of course, in all directions, but it can be especially harmful when a culture, or the peoples from that culture, are vulnerable to racism and prejudice, or are subjected to hyperexoticism and orientalism. When a Western translator adapts a non-Western text to the Western culture, they unintentionally reduce this non-Western culture to some basic traits, those that are common place to “the average reader” in the West. For example, let’s keep kimono as is, but let’s translate yukata as bathrobe because nobody knows what a yukata is, and footnotes are so annoying. Or let’s keep the ramen but leave out all the other tiny dishes nobody has ever heard about. In the end, a foreign culture becomes characterized by a few famously exotic traits —ie kimono, sushi, geisha, manga— that are oftentimes reinforced by the translator when they decide to make adaptations. This results in reductionism. And reductionism leads to stereotyping and prejudice, because cultural traits are been removed from their larger context. So I essentially disagree with making adaptations in a literary translation. I think translation in a postcolonial framework should resist this kind of practices.

When I translate, I try to transfer the whole Japanese mindset into Spanish language. A language is a cultural system, it contains a system of beliefs and a worldview. This is not easy to translate, but there are ways to carefully show those complicated systems of thought and belief through a Western language. It’s a matter of choosing the right words. For example, I hardly ever use cultural equivalents. If a Japanese character is drinking tea, I won’t change that for coffee. If there’s a famous saying in Japan, I won’t try to find a similar saying in Spanish. If there’s a mysterious animal in a story, as is the case in “The Hole”, by Hiroko Oyamada, I will chose not translate it as “creature” (I’m not saying that anyone did), because creature implies that it was created by God, but within the Japanese thinking, this animal might be itself a deity, and not a creation of God. It’s about trying to keep the richness of the cultural and linguistic nuances that every language holds within.

Japanese language has almost nothing in common with Spanish or English—verbs come at the end of the sentence, the subject is frequently omitted, cultural and social codes are ingrained in the speech in such a way that a man will speak differently than a woman or a child, and so on. Also, adjectives and adverbs work differently. For example, in Japanese you can say “the light was shining redly”, but you would have to say it otherwise in Spanish or English. Because of all these differences, translating takes a lot of time and dedication. It’s a constant decision-making. And even though I go sentence by sentence, I can’t really translate word by word. I need to read the whole sentence, maybe the whole paragraph, to catch the tone, the nuance, the intention and the context before I start translating a sentence. If a man is talking, but there’s no other clue of him being a man other than his way of speaking, I’ll need to find a way to show that in my translation without adding any extra information, if possible. 

The rest of the process is similar to any writing process: write, read, rewrite, re-read, edit, edit, edit endlessly (until you hit the deadline and you need to send a draft to your publisher). 

Also I don’t have a writing desk right now, so I write on my couch, with the Japanese book on one side, computer on my lap.

NF: There are many objects in the story, such as luxury exhibited paintings and homeless belongings under blue vinyl sheets. What was the most memorable object from the story when you were translating?

TO: The objects I recall as most memorable bear no weight in the story. For example, I liked the shoes of the old homeless lady and the slim cigarettes she smokes, or the energy drink she purchases from the vending machine. I like the sound of the water in the purification fountain by the temple, or the pebbles that sprinkle the air when a young man kicks the ground as he starts to run. I also liked the image of the women chopping vegetables in a kitchen, back in the village, when the protagonist’s aunt dies. I loved how the sound of the knives chopping reverberates across the entire house. Chop chop chop.

NF: What were your impressions of Ueno Station when you visited?

TO: When I was living in Tokyo I didn’t pay much attention to Ueno park. I used to go there for a walk because I lived nearby, but I loved Yoyogi Park so much better, I kept wishing Ueno park had the density of trees that Yoyogi has. I didn’t know that Ueno Park had such a rich history, and how important it was in saving lives during the Tokyo Air Strikes. This book has made me appreciate it more. It’s definitely a nice park, with lots of museums, ponds and green areas... Any big park is priceless in a city, and Tokyo is a very big, very urbanized city. Now the homeless have been evicted. I did see those blue vinyl sheets covering the tents of the homeless when I went to Ueno Park in my twenties, but it wasn’t much of a surprise—I think back then there were way more tents along the Sumida River, between Asakusa and Ueno, under the highway. I saw them every day as I went home from work. Anyway, at Ueno Park you could also see those Christian gatherings to help the poor that Yu Miri talks about in her book, some sort of outdoor soup kitchens to feed the homeless. My partner back then went to document those gatherings. There was a former yakuza turned into a Christian priest. He was all covered in tattoos, preaching and offering natto over rice to the homeless. There were huge lines of people waiting to be fed. And this clearly contrasted with those other people who were all dressed up to go see an art exhibition at one of the museums.

NF: What are you currently working on?

TO: I am now translating 寵児 (Choji. English title is “Child of Fortune”), by Yuko Tsushima, to Spanish. I translated 光の領分 (“Territorio de luz” in Spanish, “Territory of Light” in English) by the same author two years ago, so I’m already familiar with her voice and her universe. She’s an interesting writer, pretty raw and devastatingly honest about her semi-autobiographical characters, and she masterfully uses landscapes and natural phenomena to build up emotional states. She is romantic in the way she approaches literature, but utterly unromantic when it comes to intimate relationships and maternity. She demystifies motherhood to an uncomfortable degree. I would say that she doesn’t romanticize about anything but nature. Light, snow and water are key characters in her novels.

Other than that, I’m working on a graphic memoir about my childhood years in Peru, and I’m writing a novel, experimental fiction. Sometimes I feel like people have trouble seeing literature and comics, or visual art and comics, as one, and they’re surprised that I take comics as seriously as literary translation. But I do! I work from a place of hybridity, because of my mixed heritage, so I guess I lean towards hybrid forms.

Thank you! ありがとうございます!