Bringing You Banana 

Wherever there's a cross-cultural literary sensation, there's also a little man or woman behind the curtain.

Here's what it means to be a literary translator: If you haven't heard of Banana Yoshimoto, you probably haven't heard of Michael Emmerich. And if you have heard of Banana Yoshimoto, you probably haven't heard of Michael Emmerich. The former is a hip, ethereal young Japanese superstar novelist; the latter is her English translator. If Banana becomes as big in the United States as she is in Japan, where her debut novel Kitchen has been through more than sixty printings since 1987 and spawned a phenomenon known as Bananamania, it might be because of Emmerich. But will anyone care?

"A nice thing about being a translator," Emmerich says, "is that you don't have to worry about being a public figure. You can just do what you love."

Make no mistake: as translators go, Emmerich is a hotshot. He didn't study Japanese seriously until he got to college, but by the time he graduated he had already translated one of Japan's favorite writers to great acclaim. Pretty impressive, considering that he was an English major.

If he'd chosen East Asian Studies instead while at Princeton, Emmerich explains, "I'd have had to study economics." As an undergrad in 1997, he read several stories by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata and decided to make a senior thesis out of translating them. His advisor, Joyce Carol Oates, was enthusiastic; so were the literary magazines that soon published some of the stories, and so was Counterpoint Press, which published them as the collection First Snow on Fuji in 1999.

"The reviews were terrific, and a couple said very kind things about the translation itself, which is unusual," Emmerich says. He started getting requests from publishers, including one involving Yoshimoto's novel Asleep.

"A good translation is one that translates meaning, not words. Meaning is alive; words are dead. When you read a scene, it could take five minutes. To translate it could take eight hours. Reading gives you an intense emotion. Translating gives you that same emotion for eight hours. It's ten times, a hundred times, more intense than reading." In that case, Emmerich says, "translating is always going to be much more than you hoped."

Then again, "the translator is of course always blamed for everything."

When reading something that really excites him, he can't resist starting to translate immediately. He says he has been known to exhaust himself in pursuit of a single correct cadence.

Speculative task that it is, fraught with the responsibilities of cultural ambassadorship, translation is a kind of hyper-nuanced literary criticism. It's far from easy. Emmerich's dark, inky voice shimmers whenever he inserts a Japanese word or notion into an English sentence. Yet "I've never felt that translating literature from Japanese is automatic. The words are so far apart. The texture of the language is so different." His work occupies "some hazy realm that's bordered by the two languages. When I was growing up, I had no idea that that space between languages existed."

Why Japanese? When his mother was pregnant with him, his parents visited Japan: "There's probably no other answer that means anything." When they were children, Emmerich and his sister Karen vowed to learn seven languages so they could speak a different one each day of the week. It didn't quite happen, but Karen is also a translator now, living and working in Greece.

This summer, Grove is releasing Emmerich's translation of Yoshimoto's latest, Goodbye Tsugumi, a wistful but transformative tale of the relationship between a young woman and her cousin, an invalid who has basically been going through her rebellious teens ever since she was born.

"I've been trying to make it clear how smart she is," the translator says of Yoshimoto. "I don't think she really has the right image in the United States yet. I don't think she has the right image in Japan, either. She's a pretty experimental, sophisticated writer. She's writing carefully, and creating her public image carefully."

As for his own public image -- he's off to learn Mandarin by living with a non-English-speaking family in China. That kind of monastic immersion is no doubt elemental to his success, and his obscurity as well.


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