Interview with Polly Barton

by Sacha Idell

Photo by Justin N. Lane

I find it difficult to start a conversation about translating Nao-cola Yamazaki without at least asking about her pen name in passing. It’s certainly quite striking in Japanese. Would you mind speaking a bit about any draw it might have, and how (or if) it colors your reading of her work?

It's funny, I definitely used to find it striking, but over the years I've spent reading and then translating her, I've become totally desensitized to its weirdness. The story goes that it ensues from her love of Coca-Cola (or 'Cola' in Japanese). But as Western readers I think we have to remember that this is coming from a literary tradition where pen names are, or at least were, permitted to be a lot more extravagant and 'literary' sounding than we might be used to—and of course, where Banana Yoshimoto looms large. The obviously fake pen name, in other words. So while the name 'Nao-cola' (which, incidentally, works better in Japanese because there's no c/k distinction, so the ever-so-normal name 'Naoko' and 'Cola' merge more seamlessly) is certainly irreverent and boundary-pushing, in the same way I feel her prose is, it doesn't seem quite as frivolous as it might to an English language audience at first blush.

Actually, one of the other stories in this collection not featured in the Arkansas International is a very tongue-in-cheek roman à clef account of her own life with key details substituted, and there the protagonist originally has a playful name inspired by her love of mineral water. Later in life, shortly before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, she adds a syllable to this name, transforming this to a play not on water but on earthworms. In short, a translator's nightmare. But a fun nightmare.

[I liked] the narrow path it treads between cohesion and total lack of it, piss-taking and poignancy.

The five stories we’ve published in Issue 2 of The Arkansas International all come from the same collection, Logic and Sensitivity Are Not Incompatible, which you’ve also translated more stories from. What was it that originally drew you to translate this collection?

Nao-cola was one of the first Japanese authors I really latched on to, and I've always loved the way she writes, but when I found Logic and Sensitivity Are Not Incompatible I thought, wow. I'd never really read something like that before, where so much of the collection's intensity comes from the unapologetic variety of the stories contained within it. I liked the characters reoccurring in unexpected places, and the narrow path it treads between cohesion and total lack of it, piss-taking and poignancy. It seemed to me like a total madhouse of a book, and I really respected that. 

Given that you’ve translated work from quite a few other Japanese writers, I’m curious if there are any qualities in Nao-cola’s writing that make her easier or more difficult to translate than some of the others you’ve worked with. Does the process differ at all to, say, your translations of Tomoka Shibasaki or Aoko Matsuda?

In my case I don't think the process ever really differs as such. For me it's all about locating and entering a certain headspace, and those are definitely different for each text. This collection was a real challenge for me because of the multiplicity of voices and tones that appear within it. I had to be aware of the overall balance and the interrelationships within the stories while translating each individual one, making sure to preserve both continuity and variation at the same time, recreating all the idiosyncrasies of tone in the original. I suppose I had to develop a whole family of headspaces. 

It’s my view that every tongue affords you the privilege of being ambiguous about certain things

An introduction to another piece of Nao-cola’s that was in Asymptote some time ago contains a few quotes about her obsession with vagueness—she even goes so far as to say she believes the “mission of the contemporary Japanese writer is to express ambiguity” and provides a few examples as to why Japanese might be uniquely suited to such a pursuit. I was wondering if you could speak some about where you might see that quality in her work, and any obstacles or intricacies it may have created during your translation process.

Funnily enough, I think that from a purely linguistic point of view, Logic and Sensitivity Are Not Incompatible is one of the least ambiguous works of Japanese fiction that I've worked on—the challenges stemmed from different places, I'd say, like brevity, poeticism, embedded cultural references, speech conventions, and so on. I guess ambiguity is always an issue with Japanese—most translators of Japanese will happily rave at you about the frustrations of going from a language that often doesn't really pay much attention to whether there are one or two or four or ten of something, and is also happy to omit subjects and objects as necessary, and can talk about people for pages without mentioning their gender. And yes, all of that can be a mighty pain, and can make for some jaw-droppingly beautiful prose too. But I also think that there's a tendency to go too far down this mystical tangent with Japanese, to fetishize this aspect of its linguistics too much. Ambiguity and succinctness are without a doubt features of the Japanese grammar and lexicon, as are the contours of the blank spaces left around what is said, but there are also plenty of incidences where in the reverse is true: where what sounds gently undefined in the English has to be really pinned down when it's converted into Japanese, so that it becomes clumsier and more mechanical, or where Japanese is very specific in ways that English can't be. It's my view that every tongue affords you the privilege of being ambiguous about certain things, of not needing to specify things, which is all to do with the architecture of the language, the way it has grown up and evolved around its channels of usage. I believe if we are going to have a really meaningful discussion about ambiguity, we need to start talking more about questions of value: how much omission, succinctness and ambiguity are tolerated, and esteemed, and deemed as poetic within the culture and conventions surrounding the language, rather than just how much capacity a language has for it on a purely grammatical level.

Fiction’s role of providing a space for representing ambiguity, uncertainty, and feelings that don’t easily fit into any ready-made boxes is crucial, I think

I would suggest that the most important ambiguity in Nao-cola's fiction is ambiguity less in a sheer linguistic sense, and more in a broader, existential one: the representation of the ambivalence of lived experience, and its (and our) failure to fit the moulds that are our unconscious inheritance. And in that way, the same thing could be said not just about Japanese fiction, but fiction in general. Particularly now when certainty, accuracy and dogmatism are becoming practically a requirement for public and even private discourse, fiction's role of providing a space for representing ambiguity, uncertainty, and feelings that don't easily fit into any ready-made boxes is crucial, I think. My sense is that applies to most places around the world. 

The stories in Logic and Sensitivity Are Not Incompatible often contain reoccurring characters in different configurations. Two of the stories from our second issue feature Ayumi Kandagawa, for example, who also pops up in other stories you’ve translated. What do you make of these interconnections, and has the repeated appearance of characters affected how you approach translating these stories at all?

Yes, there's a group of four friends from university, of whom Kandagawa is one, who appear in around about half of the stories in the collection. I see them as kind of gatekeepers. Or else ropes, helping to keep the collection (tenuously) moored to the ground. Not only do the stories that they appear in tend to be slightly more conventional than the others, but also my sense is that without them things might feel just too up in the air. One of the joys of my first read through this collection was discovering Kandagawa as a rock-licking girl in “Fossil Candy” after knowing her first as a woman in her twenties. I thought that was such a nice touch.

In fact, the title story that appears in The Arkansas International this time and which is the first story in the collection, has a "sequel" at the end of the book called “The Untouchable Apartment,” where we find out what happens to Mano and Kandagawa a few years down the line. It's included in Friendship for Grownupsone of the Keshiki chapbook series, which brings together my translations of three other stories from this same collection.

Could you speak a bit, given that you are from the UK, about your decision to translate these stories into American English? 

I have a big place in my heart for cracked doors now. I see them everywhere.

It was actually a request on the part of the people commissioning the translation. But I found it a fascinating experience. I'd done something similar before in less literary contexts, but it had always been in a 'just do your best!' kind of way, and I never really had any way of knowing how good that best was. This was the first time that I had a Real American Person checking my translation and striking out the lingering Briticisms. There were a few things he picked up on that really blew my mind, differences that I never had conceived of. Actually recently, for a couple of different projects, I've been working with an editor from the US, and that's really expanded my English-language mind, too. I still can't get over that “cracking the door” is a thing. In UK English, “cracking a door” conjures up violent visions of taking an axe or an angry foot to a door until it gives in to the pressure and breaks, so when I first saw my editor had changed something I'd written to “she cracked the door,” my eyes popped out of my head. I really enjoy those moments. Because so often the immediate reaction to those differences is a kind of outrage. I don't think I could have always admitted that, but it's true. And then you live with it for a while, and by the time the outrage subsides you find that underneath there's genuine affection growing there. I genuinely think there's a lot to be learned from observing that process going on in oneself, whether it's with US vs. UK English, or English vs. Japanese, or whatever. I have a big place in my heart for cracked doors now. I see them everywhere.

What projects are you bound for next? Are you planning on translating other books by Nao-cola?

I'd love to translate more Nao-cola, but there's nothing in the pipeline at the moment. I'm currently working on a draft for The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky by Misumi Kubo, which I was lucky enough to be given a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to do. And then I have a few other ideas...

Are there any Japanese writers you wish were seeing more translation into English? 

Oh gosh, lots! But I think that there are definitely authors who are almost immediately viable in English, and others who aren't, and lots of the people that I'd like to see translated fall into that second category. Which isn't to say that they're not doable, but I think that those kinds of projects require a heavy investment of creativity and time. In some cases, in order to be successful, they need for the translator to venture beyond the standard remit of what a translator is supposed to do, or at least, so I would argue. And of course, the majority of publishers would rather go for something safe which slots into a pre-established category and is guaranteed good reviews, rather than the more envelope-pushing stuff. Sadly, we're at a place where the translator more or less has to take these kinds of works under their wing and pursue them as a personal passion project if they're ever going to stand a chance in the world. But Misumi Kubo is definitely one of those authors, and now I'm translating her, which is amazing. That's why schemes like PEN/Heim, which provide translators with the means to work on projects that might not otherwise see the light of day, are so immensely valuable.


Polly Barton's translations of Nao-cola Yamazaki's stories can be read online (April 17) and in the print edition of The Arkansas International 2.

POLLY BARTON was raised in London and lives in Osaka. Aside from Nao-cola Yamazaki, she has translated a variety of Japanese literary fiction and non-fiction, including work by Aoko Matsuda and Misumi Kubo. She is a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant recipient. Her translation of Tomoka Shibasaki’s Spring Garden was published by Pushkin Press in 2017. More information can be found on her website,

SACHA IDELL is Prose Editor of The Arkansas International. His original fiction appears or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Electric Literature, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. He spent several years in Japan, and is translating a volume of selected stories by Kyūsaku Yumeno.