Mariko Nagai on Japanese Books in Translation


Another Nobel Prize announcement came and went, and here in Japan, it has become an annual event of holding one’s breath: will he, or will he not, win this year? “He,” of course, refers to Haruki Murakami, and every year, as soon as the winner is announced, there is a collective sigh of disappointment. I am, unfortunately, one of those unpatriotic people who think that Murakami has a slim chance of winning the Nobel. But then, if Bob Dylan can win, maybe he can, too?

Whatever the case may be, there are equally talented writers who have not yet been translated who are just as interesting and innovative as Murakami. Here is a very subjective list of translated books that I think everyone should be reading, along with a list of books and authors whom I think should be translated (or, in some cases, retranslated).

The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (Canarium Books, 2015)

Translated by Sawako Nakayasu

Sawako Nakayasu, an award-winning experimental poet, put herself on the literary map again when she won the 2016 PEN Translation Award for The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, who Nakayasu calls “the least famous Japanese modernist poet.” Sagawa’s (1911–1936) poetry is full of startling imageries where the ground disappears as insects procreate in great number, where horses go mad, and women turn blue; it comes alive in English under the skillful translation by a fellow poet, Sawako Nakayasu. These two experimental poets are divided by 70 years – one is an English-to-Japanese translator of Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, the other a Japanese-to-English translator of Tatsumi Hijikata and Takashi Hiraide: a perfect match.

The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide (New Directions, 2014)

Translated by Eric Selland

The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide (1950– ), one of the most highly regarded contemporary Japanese poets and art critics, is a novel about a couple in their 30s who lead a quiet life, perhaps a bit too complacent after some years of marriage, and how their relationship changes with the appearance of a neighborhood cat who has chosen to befriend them. Because the novel is written in the past tense, we know, from the first page, that the cat is temporary, just like the house where they live and, perhaps, their lives. Only a translator with a keen sense of rhythm and the sound of the language could convey the lyricism of Hiraide’s writing, and with Eric Selland’s translation, the English version stays as true and pure as the original.

Poems of Hiromi Ito, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai (Vagabond Books, 2016)

Translated by Jeffrey Angle

The works of three major Japanese poets, Hiromi Ito (1955– ), Toshiko Hirata (1955– ), and Takako Arai (1966– ), come together in this single volume translated by Jeffrey Angles. Fierce and unflinching poems by Ito, weary and ironic poems by Hirata, and hypnotic vernacular poems by Arai engage the reader from the first page. Angles enters the minds of these poets and captures their particular rhythms–each section starts and ends seamlessly, so that the experience of moving from one poetic vision to another is not at all jarring. Still, one is aware that this is an anthology made up of three distinct poets’ works. The role of the translator here is to make sure these poets’ particular styles do not sound alike. Angle’s talent as a translator lies in that very fact: he can take on the skin of others and inhabit that poet’s writing from the inside out.

A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

Translated by Taro Nettleton

I wanted to focus on books that were published in the past two years, but I cannot help but introduce A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935–2015). Though Tatsumi never gained the same level of commercial success his contemporary fellow manga artists did, he was a singular voice of his generation. This book, an autobiography of the artist, received the 2009 Tezuka Award and, upon publication of its translation, the Eisner Award. Drawn only in black ink and with a heavy emphasis on white space (or ma, “the silence”), The Guardian says, "He drew ugly aspects of society, but with humanity; people are grotesque, but never disgusting. Taboos don’t exist, and the frankness of his subject matter is comforting." Taro Nettleton’s translation adds to the sparseness and silence with his astute translation, just as Tatsumi was an astute observer of modern society.  .

スウィートな群青の夢 田中庸介 (未知谷2008)

Sweet Ultramarine Dreams, by Yosuke Tanaka (Michitani, 2008)

The Japanese poet and translator Yosuke Tanaka is, without a doubt, one of the best poets of his generation. Though some of his poems have been translated into English by Jeffrey Angles, I would be interested in seeing this collection translated as well. Acrobatic turns of phrase, startling imagery, and a weary sense of humor all make his poems absolutely intriguing and singular. He is also an English-to-Japanese translator of (mostly) American poetry.  

苦海浄土 わが水俣病 (Kugai Jodo: Waga Minamatabyo) 石牟礼 道子 (1969)

Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow: Our Minamata Disease, by Michiko Ishimure (1990/2003)

This phenomenal book, which documents the voices of the Minamata disease patients, follows in the tradition of creative nonfiction books such as James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Full of the rhythmic dialect of the Minamata area, it takes someone with an ear for poetry to capture the sonorous experience of the original. Michiko Ishimure, a housewife with an interest in literature, documented the voices and stories of the common fishermen and children, who suddenly found themselves desperately sick and stigmatized, while the government and the Chisso factory denied mercury pollution. This book, when first published in Japan in 1969, brought the issue of Minamata disease to the mainstream and changed people’s views of the devastating effect of mercury poisoning on human bodies, and specifically on people who lived in Minamata. Though the book was translated into English by Livia Monnett and published in 1990 (Yamaguchi Publishing House) and republished by the University of Michigan Press in 2003, I cannot help but be saddened that it is now out of print and that it wasn’t published by a non-academic press. It is an important book that should be read and reread, so that we will think about what happens when we forget the consequences of disregarding nature and human lives in the name of progress and profit.

ねこに未来はない (Neko ni Mirai wa Nai) 長田 弘 (角川1975)

Cats Have No Future, by Hiroshi Osada (Kadokawa, 1975)

When I heard that Hiroshi Osada (1939–2015), a poet, translator, and children’s book writer, died last year, I thought of Neko ni Mirai wa Nai (Cats Have No Future), an illustrated book of essays. The title is taken from a quote by Osada’s wife, who said “cats have no future” in reference to the fact that cats lack the frontal lobe section of the brain, which limits their understanding of time and bounds them to the present. However, the title also seems to suggest the underlying message of the book: this world is becoming increasingly difficult for cats to live in, and if cats are losing their homes here, what about people? A work that is tender, pessimistic, funny, heartbreaking and prophetic — I hope it will be translated soon. Osada’s children’s books and poems for children are delightful as well.


Born in Tokyo and raised in Europe and America, Mariko Nagai studied English/Creative Writing - Poetry at New York University. Her numerous honors include the Erich Maria Remarque Fellowship from New York University, fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Akademie Schloss Solitude, UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries for the Arts, Yaddo, and Writers Center of Norwich, to name a few. She has received the Pushcart Prizes both in poetry and fiction. Nagai's collection of poems, Histories of Bodies, won the Benjamin Saltman Prize from Red Hen Press, and her first collection of stories, Georgic: Stories won the 2009 G.S. Sharat Chandra Fiction Prize from BkMk Press. Her other books include Instructions for the Living (Word Palace Press 2012),  Dust of Eden (Albert Whitman & Co, 2014), and Irradiated Cities (Les Figues, 2016). She is an Associate Professor of creative writing and Japanese literature at Temple University, Japan Campus in Tokyo, where she is also the Director of Research. She also serves as Co-Regional Advisor of SCBWI Japan.