When my mother-in-law died last August, she left me a
wonderful gift—the opportunity to finish translating my father-in-law Yoshi’s
novel from Japanese to English.
My mother-in-law did
not speak a word of Japanese, and neither do I. The rough draft I inherited had
been massaged from Yoshi’s broken English into her literate but turgid prose.
My job was to tease a novel out of this mess that remained respectful to its
Japanese roots, but would also excite an American audience. Though Yoshi and I
are both published novelists with a mutual understanding of fiction, making the
plot’s cultural nuances and characters’ thought processes understandable to an
American provided a number of challenges I’d never encountered before.
First was that I had to constantly remind myself that this
wasn’t my story. As a compulsive self-editor, and active critic of all I read
(from published work to works in progress from fellow writers) I had to remain
true to the vision that Yoshi had for the story. He is far better at crafting
suspenseful plots than I’ll ever be, but his characters think outside the
limited box of my American brain. Through a lot of internal dialogue they consider
possibilities that I would prefer left unsaid, but Yoshi insists are necessary.
We both understand “show, not tell,” but
it means something different to a Japanese audience. In fact, Yoshi tries to
use it to increase the level of suspense by having the reader consider the
possibilities, while I prefer the spare surprise.
Second, it has been hard for me to wrap my brain around
some of the things these characters
think. They consistently talk of things like “dark auras” when describing
people and “fulfilling their dreams” which to my American mind sounds cheesy.
Yet, I hear this same sentiment expressed when talking informally to Yoshi’s
friends. Also, the characters are far
more humble and easily embarrassed than their American counterparts. I know this
is a facet of Japanese culture, but it’s hard to figure out how to get an
American reader not just to understand, but to fuse with the characters and
feel these things.
We’re currently on the third draft—a process where I tend to
eliminate words and Yoshi tends to put them back in. He tells me he’s learned a
lot from me, particularly my use of “if-clauses” leading the reader to form
their own suppositions. From him, I’ve learned about pacing, and how to make
sure each small detail matters. But neither of us is totally satisfied. I still
think the book is stilted, and Yoshi thinks it’s too breezy. But perhaps this
is also part of the cross-cultural blues. How can we Americans put ourselves in
enough of a “Japanese mind” to fully appreciate the depth of this narrative,
which is more than a simple mystery/thriller. It is about the dilemma of trying
to free oneself from the constraints of thousands of years of tradition. That
alone is a concept that is totally foreign to an American mind. Meanwhile,
Yoshi and I continue to argue (politely, of course) about how much needs to be
explained, and how much the reader can figure out on their own.
Yoshi is 82 years old and finishing this book is his dream.
He wants it to be his final tribute to his wife, Gloria, the love of his life
for more than 40 years. This is what I need to remember on the days when we’re
both gnashing our teeth and spending over an hour on a single paragraph. Yes, I
may have given up a lot of time when I could be focusing on my own writing, but
I’ve also gained the ability to be even more persnickety about language. It’s
different when you have to find the right word for someone else’s thought, and
I’ve begun to gain a small glimpse of understanding into what it means to think
like a Japanese. Yoshi’s been in my life for 32 years, but it’s only been in
the past nine months that I feel I really know him.
We just came back from having dinner together. Yoshi says
he's hoping that this will finally be the best seller with movie potential. He
says he always feels that way about a book when he's in the process of writing
it, and then he's always disappointed. Here's the place where culture doesn't
matter. As a fellow writer, I totally
get this. But I tell him that whatever happens, it doesn't matter. The fact
that we managed to pull this off should be reward enough. Ultimately, it has to
be the process of "translating" what matters to you in a way that
someone else from whatever culture can get it.
This weekend, my husband and I went to see Beautiful (the Carol King story) at The Boston Opera House.
It was a cold night, and we planned to walk to dinner and then back to the theater, so I opted to wear this gorgeous cape made by my mom. I don’t wear it often, but it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Mom made this cape for me at my request many years ago. The inspiration: the cape Tim Curry wore when he played Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. Sure, he was a bad guy, but his cape was fabulous. I mean, no-one could make an exit like the Cardinal when he whipped that cape around.
We had a wonderful night—delicious dinner, gorgeous theater, and inspiring show. My mom used to play Carol King when I was growing up, but I didn’t know her story.
I was in nearby New Bedford, MA with my kids yesterday for their music lessons. Normally, I go upstairs with them in this wonderful old factory that has been converted to studio spaces, but yesterday was sunny and nearly 60 F (15.5 C) so I opted to stay outside in the sun. Eventually I decided to lie down and this is what I saw. It immediately made me think of Dublin.
I realized that I don’t look at the sky here as much as I did in Dublin. I always watched the rushing clouds and the changing color of the sky. If you’ve been following me long enough, you probably remember the many sky photos I posted.
Why don’t I do that here? I think it’s because the sky is a piece of nature I could always see, no matter where I was in Dublin. I could be surrounded by buildings and look up. Here in Southeast Massachusetts, I’m surrounded by nature. Somehow that has translated to me not looking up as much. I should change that.
When is told my family about this over dinner they all knew what I was talking about before I had even explained it. My daughter commented that we were always looking at the sky between the buildings at Clancy Quay (where we lived). It’s funny how this all became clear to me because I looked up yesterday.
Also, I miss Dublin.
#nature #rurallife #citylife
The weather was spectacular today. After school, my daughter and I took a hike in the woods and had fun taking photos with the setting sun. That’s me in the first photo. I balance-beamed out to the end of that fallen tree. (The ice was not safe). #nofilter #playoutside #nature
From Thursday to Sunday, I was at a writing retreat in Vermont. I find being among other book creators so inspiring that I often lose track of time and forget to go outside. Either I’m engaged in meaningful conversations about books or off on my own writing.
Today, between appointments and other commitments, I claimed a much-needed hour outside to hike, write, and reflect on my weekend.
#amwriting #nofilter #latergram
Just finished Finding Langston by @lclineransome Started bf bed last night. Had to finish this morning. Don’t be fooled by it’s slimness. It packs a whole lot of love and pain and beauty into 104 pages. Passing it to my daughter to read. #KidLit
Bog views from my walk today. #RochesterLife #nature
Went to see @katwrightkatwright @narrowscenter last night. Great show and excellent venue. Added bonus: I got to see @painternik9 show again. It’s a bit surreal to attend a concert and see illustrations from our book hanging in the gallery just outside the concert room. #FlyingDeep #livemusic
It was 20 degrees below zero F with the wind chill in New Hampshire yesterday. That didn’t stop my friend and I from taking a walk or our kids from going sledding and cross country skiing. One friend even snowshoed most of the way up Tenney Mountain. We were all fine once we bundled up. The sleds didn’t fare as well, though.
I’d like to say it’s much warmer back here in southeastern Massachusetts, but it isn’t. Brrrr. (That’s me in the purple coat, by the way).
Want to learn an instrument in the New Year? My son @dantecusolito is accepting students for guitar, ukulele, and bass. He teaches ages 5 through adult. All lessons happen at 88 Hatch St. (Hatch Street Studios) in New Bedford, MA. Please share this with anyone you know who might be interested.
Email email@example.com for more information. @southcoastlessons
It’s not all airplanes all the time over here. Sometimes @dantecusolito takes a break from building planes to build a ski bike.
Now if we would only get some snow...