The author and translator of The Nakano Thrift Shop chat to PEN Atlas about literary influences, food, the beauty of everyday life and the linguistic differences between Japanese and English.
Interview by Tasja Dorkofikis
PEN Atlas: Allison, how did you find out about this book and how did it come to be published in English?
Allison Markin Powell: The Nakano Thrift Shop is the second novel by Hiromi Kawakami that I have translated. The first one, Strange Weather in Tokyo (the US title is The Briefcase), was also published by Portobello Books. After its huge success – it was shortlisted for both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – the author’s agent approached me about which novel ought to be translated next, and Nakano is one of the author’s own favourites. In a twist, though, this book is being published first in the UK (Europa Editions will publish in the US next year), whereas the US edition of the other novel came out a year before the UK edition. At least the title will be the same this time.
PA: A bric-a-brac shop owned by Mr Nakano is the setting for this atmospheric novel. Mr Nakano is helped in the shop by two young people, Takeo and Hiromi, and occasionally by his artist sister Masayo. They form a community, they chat together, eat together, talk about everything and nothing. Kawakami-san, did you intend for the shop to be the microcosm of life?
Hiromi Kawakami: I did not consciously set out to create a ‘microcosm of life’, but by bringing together various minorities from within Japanese society and from among different generations, it became a kind of portrait in miniature.
PA: The shop is full of obscure and amazing objects not necessarily familiar to an English-speaking audience, from kotatsu heaters to Glico toys. Allison, did you need to do much research to find out about them?
AMP: Kawakami has a wonderful way of working these kinds of items into her writing in a very unobtrusive way. She is such a keen observer, and if you’ve spent any time in Japan, these are cultural touchstones (even if they come from pop culture) that read as familiar to me. Although I am grateful for the use of Google Images.
PA: Kawakami-san, your characters spend a lot of time together yet fundamentally find it hard to connect and understand one another. Their relationships are very enigmatic. Do you believe it possible to fully understand another person?
HK: It’s not possible, of course. And yet, I believe life is all about charging at such impossibilities. Loneliness and lack of connection is certainly one of the themes of this novel. However there are others as well. Such as what can be perfectly well and good about arbitrary things.
PA: Your writing is full of minutiae of everyday life. You make these moments memorable and infuse them with beauty. Does this reflect your own view on life?
HK: Yes, it does.
PA: The world invoked in the novel is full of nostalgia, with the characters surrounded by mid-century bric-a-brac and barely any modern items apart from mobile phones. Why did you set your novel in such an old-fashioned place?
HK: I think that, in the present day, these kinds of relationships exist in more places than one expects.
PA: Allison, are there any specific difficulties with translating Japanese into English?
AMP: For me, one of the challenges with Japanese is that the syntax is so different from English. Readers get the information in a different order and, depending on what’s happening in the book at that moment, this can have a significant impact on the reading experience. So I think about that a lot when I am working.
PA: How did you render the dialogue in this novel?
AMP: This was one of the trickiest aspects of translating this novel. Two of the characters, Mr Nakano and Takeo, have verbal tics, neither of which translate from Japanese very well. It required a bit of creativity to come up with solutions that would work consistently throughout the entire book.
PA: How closely did you work together on this book?
AMP: Not very closely at all. There were a few very specific questions that came up during the editorial process that required the author to weigh in. I did, however, refer at times to the French translation by Elisabeth Suetsugu, so if she’s reading this, many thanks!
HK: I have met Allison once or twice, and I’m delighted that she has found a true voice for my novels. I get questions from translators about certain words in my works, and I try my best to answer them. Generally, I just place my trust in their sensibilities.
PA: For foreign readers, The Nakano Thrift Shop could be seen as a portrait of an urban culture in Japan. Kawakami-san, how does Tokyo influence your writing?
HK: My writing is greatly influenced by place. It’s very true that Kichijoji, the neighbourhood in Tokyo where I live, has provided me with all sorts of inspiration, even beyond writing this novel.
PA: The novel contains mouth-watering descriptions of food. The reader can sense the heat emanating from gingered pork and the simmered fish and the sweetness of the cherry pies from Posy. Is cooking one of your skills?
HK: Whether or not I’m very good at it, I do love to cook.
AMP: There are actually many more descriptions of food in Strange Weather in Tokyo than in this novel. I am certainly not an expert in Japanese cuisine; in fact I am rather intimidated by the prospect of cooking it. I am quite content with eating it, for now.
PA: Allison, you set up a website called Japanese Literature in English. Could you tell our readers a bit more about this?
AMP: Thank you for asking. My site contains a database of Japanese literature that has been translated and published in English (just as the name suggests). This was something that I myself wanted – a resource that was very user-friendly – and so I decided to create it. It’s a bit of a challenge to keep it up to date – I’m afraid I’m behind on adding some important titles – but I welcome suggestions from anyone. It’s also a great way to interact with readers of Japanese literature, and other translators as well.
PA: And finally, Kawakami-san, where do you find your literary influences?
HK: All the books I’ve ever read.