Tidying in Translation

Jan 27th | World Literature

I’ll admit it– I love Marie Kondo. Her Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” has become my go-to when I just need to watch something positive at the end of a long day. I love her cheerful energy, her non-judgmental approach to messy houses (and lives), and the practical usefulness of her advice. But most of all, I love that the whole KonMari phenomenon has shone a bright, tidy spotlight on the art of translation.


Tidying Up with Marie Kondo


The Other Marie

First of all, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” features something very unusual: An interpreter who the producers choose not to edit out of the picture. Marie Iida, who has been interpreting for Kondo for three years, is the voice that English-speaking viewers will come to associate with Kondo’s quirky pronouncements. While never stealing the spotlight from the star of the show, Iida’s seamless consecutive interpretation amplifies and extends Kondo’s bubbly charm and thoughtful approach to sensitive topics. Interpreters’ disembodied voices often appear in documentaries, but it’s rare to have one featured so prominently and consistently in multiple episodes of a wildly popular series, always with her trusty interpreter’s notebook in hand. If you’re interested in learning more about Iida, I recommend checking out this lovely interview with her.


Marie Iida


A Blockbuster Translation

I was so pleased by this little bit of representation for linguists that I’ve decided to forgive Netflix’s decision to refer to her as Kondo’s “translator”, when in fact she’s engaged in the very different and extremely challenging art of interpreting. Of course, Marie Kondo’s books (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy) were translated into English by someone, or perhaps a group of people (I was unable to find the name or names of the translators, please leave them in the comments if you know them!). Released in the US in 2014, some saw their blockbuster success as a sign of things to come for translated book (see this article from Publishing Perspectives, and this one from Publisher’s Weekly, for example).


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up


Of course, self-help (or pop philosophy, however you prefer to describe the KonMari phenomenon), is a different beast from translated literature. For one thing, readers who would never dream of writing critical articles on literary diction are prone to picking apart the translator’s word choices in non-fiction texts, often without seeming to realize that’s what they’re doing. Case in point: the significant backlash among bibliophiles to Kondo’s suggestion that they should thin out their book collection, keeping only those titles which “spark joy”. This Guardian op-ed captures the thrust of one side of the argument: basically, that “joy” is too simplistic a metric by which to measure the value we get from having books in our lives.


Spark Joy


Lost in Translation?

The problem with this argument, as many others have pointed out, is that Kondo never actually said our belongings should spark joy. The feeling she insists we learn to cultivate is “ときめき”, pronounced “tokimeki”. The literal translation of this word would be “throbbing” or “palpitation”, a feeling of fluttering or excitement. “Spark joy” is a brilliant, creative translation, which conveys many of the connotations of the original phrase while having the punchy, concise quality necessary to make it the foundation of a self-help empire. We could just as easily, however, be debating the relative merits of assessing whether our possessions “give us butterflies”, “make our hearts race”, “cause palpitations” or “are ‘heartthrobs’”. The translator could have decided that beloved objects “inspire”, “arouse”, “create”, “excite” or “plant” joy, instead of “sparking” it. None of the above phrases are nearly as catchy and clear as the final choice of “spark joy”, but all of them capture slightly different elements of the original Japanese. Every translator knows that when you make a word choice, you are sacrificing many other potential collections of implicit meaning. Spend thirty seconds with a thesaurus entry for “joy” and you will get a feel for the incredible amount of thought and craft which went into the phrase “spark joy”, whether or not you like the final result.
Some argue that the intense (negative) focus on the word “joy” has racist overtones, and I have sadly seen plenty of reactions which definitely rely on gross stereotypes about Japanese people and East Asia as they scoff at Kondo’s approach. As a secondary offense, I would add that people like the author of the “pro-book” op-ed above are guilty of erasing the significant contribution of translation to the KonMari phenomenon. Don’t like all this talk about “joy”? Your first instinct should be to do some research and find out what might have been lost, gained or simplified in translation. As someone who does not speak or read Japanese, I will have to take others at their word when they explain what tokimeki means or how Shinto traditions have shaped Kondo’s methods. And whether or not I ever end up finally KonMari-ing my kitchen drawers, I know that watching the interpreter Marie Iida at work and spending hours googling “tokimeki” have “sparked joy” for me!

The World Cup & World Literature?

Jun 29th | World Literature

I have never been much of a sports fan, but since I moved to England I’ve started to understand the appeal of football, at least when things are going well for “our” team at the World Cup! When Asymptote Journal put out a call for reviews of great writing about the sport, I couldn’t resist the chance to contribute a plug for David Peace.
“Born in 1967 in West Yorkshire, England, David Peace is the author of The Damned Utd (2006) and Red or Dead (2013), a pair of strikingly poetic novels about British football in the 1960’s and 70’s. The Damned Utd follows the tale of Brian Clough’s ill-fated time as manager of Leeds United, while Red or Dead details the epic career of Bill Shankly, beloved Liverpool manager from 1959-1974.

Peace’s writing has more in common with the patter of a radio announcer during a match than the usual staid paragraphs of sports biographies. This intense, immersive stream-of-consciousness often verges on poetry, and will satisfy even the most football-phobic connoisseur of experimental prose.
Despite his literary stylings, Peace also has a sport-historian’s obsession with detail. Detailing nearly every goal of every game, these titles convey beautifully the massive cultural importance of football for the English public, especially in the working-class North.”
Discover more great football writers from Austria, Poland, Italy, Norway, Hungary, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru at Asymptote Journal.

What I wish I knew before I studied translation

Jun 21st | Translation News

When I was in high school, I became fascinated with the idea of translating books. Beyond improving my acquired languages, I had no idea how to go about making my dream of being a literary translator a reality.
When I started to do research, I found plenty in the way of anecdotes and personal stories, but very little in the way of practical advice. Now that I’m a few years down the road, I’ve written down some of the things I wish someone had told me me way back when!

“Literary translators come from a multitude of backgrounds. Many are authors first of all, for whom translation is a natural extension of their work. Others are literary critics or academics, who translate to give a wider audience access to the works they study. With the growing popularity and visibility of global literature in the English-speaking world, on the other hand, has come increased visibility of literary translation as an art of its own.
Like most artistic vocations, working as a literary translator in theory requires no formal qualification. Anyone with a good command of two languages and a writerly inclination can give it a shot. But a masters-level degree in translation is the fastest, most focused route into the profession. This is true whether you are coming straight out of undergrad like I was, or you left full-time education long ago and are looking to make use of your language skills in a new way.”
Check out the full article at Asymptote Journal.

Book Review: Little Beast by Julie Demers

May 8th | World Literature

One of my favourite things about translated literature is discovering stories which completely change the way I look at some little corner of the world.
Sometimes that happens when I read a book by an author from a language with which I’m not at all familiar. Other times its thanks to a book about a piece of history which didn’t feature in my school textbooks. In Little Beast by Julie Demers (trans. Rhonda Mullins), I found a whole new way of looking at the mind and soul of a little girl who isn’t quite the “girl” she’s supposed to be.
“Julie Demer’s Little Beast (translated by Rhonda Mullins) is a dark fairy tale, more Grimm than Disney, set in the forbidding landscape of wintery rural Quebec. The shape of the story is familiar. A child, an absent parent, a “curse,” fumbling adults to be outwitted, a quest, a return home. Demers never flinches away from her young narrator’s perspective and yet Little Beast slowly emerges as a tale about the end of childhood and the intersection between experience, self-perception, and cultural narrative.

“That was the year Mother couldn’t stand up without help: pregnancy had her by the jugular. The family had turned their backs on her because she and father had gotten caught up in the ultimate sin. Which is to say, they had touched each other’s difference […] A few months before the due date, she lay down on her back and evicted me like a common tapeworm.”


In order to achieve a nuanced and poignant examination of sex, gender and society, Demers focuses with unusual clarity on the particular qualities of a child’s internal narrative. Most strikingly, she captures the way in which a threatened child views the world with a seriousness equal to or greater than that of adults. She reminds us that children are in possession of a complete worldview, built on limited information but no less powerfully held for that fact. And perhaps more importantly, that we adults are the product of our own childhood fairytales, more than we would like to believe.”
Read the full review at Asymptote Journal.