TWO VOICES: Stephen Snyder on Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami, and the Business of International Literature

Posted on May 12, 2011 by Scott Esposito

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Early in this Two Voices event, translator Stephen Snyder made a bold pronouncement: Haruki Murakami would win a Nobel prize, and 1Q84, his blockbuster novel that many are comparing to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, would be the book to do it.

Snyder wasn't wholly going out on a limb. As he told the audience, he correctly predicted Kenzaburo Oe's Nobel prize in 1994. But more to the point of his presentation, Snyder has seen the intricacies of the publishing industry close up, and he has a strong sense of how tastes are made with regard to inernational authors.

Snyder comes by this knowledge in his role as the English-language intermediary to a Japanese phenomenon-in-translation that is currently sweeping the English langauge: Yoko Ogawa. As Snyder noted in his fascinating presentation, Ogawa has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her three books that are available in English, and she has appeared in The New Yorker more than once. Snyder stressed the great importance of the latter to a writer's success in English, calling Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker's fiction editor, "the most powerful person in publishing."

During this Two Voices event, Snyder related a very interesting anecdote with regard to his "awkward" role as a go-between for Ogawa and Treisman. Ogawa's first piece to appear in The New Yorker was a novella called "The Diving Pool." However, being a novella, it was much too long to appear as a story in The New Yorker, and Treisman X'ed out entire portions of Snyder's translation. (You can see slides of that on Snyder's attached PowerPoint--available soon--which he presented to the Two Voices audience.)

The publication of "The Diving Pool" in The New Yorker led to Ogawa--at that point a complete unknown in the English-reading world--being picked up and sold by Picador, paving the way for her huge success in this market. But later, when Ogawa was poised to place another story in The New Yorker, Treisman went so far as to ask her to replace her story's more enigmatic, Japanese ending with a clearer, more cheerful one, which she felt would play better to an American audience. Ogawa declined and the story was never published.

Because of experiences like these, Snyder feels very strongly that the Japanese authors he translates--and to a certain extent, most international authors--are being very consciously packaged and presented as a commodity on the international market. His best example of this is Haruki Murakami, who, has had hundreds of pages cut from his books and his language changed dramatically in the translation and packaging process.

This Two Voices audio offers an interesting opportunity to hear a publishing insider talk about how international authors are made, and how this affects the translation process. Snyder demonstrates himself as a dedicated translator in command of the facts, and he presents a forceful case. Give the audio a listen and decide for yourself what you think of Snyder's arguments.