I attended my first SWET (Society of Writers, Editors and Translators) event today, a brief talk by Japanese author Natsuki IKEZAWA (池澤夏樹) who was joined by Alfred Birnbaum, an American translator best known for his translations of Murakami Haruki’s work.

I first encountered Ikezawa’s work as an exchange student here in Tokyo, where we were assigned his collection of short stories 「マリコマリキータ」 to read one semester. The book, much like anything both written and Japanese, was a chore to get through, but the stories left a strong impression on me, and, as I would find later, were typical of Ikezawa’s work in that they explored the lives of Japanese characters living outside of Japan.

That was the last contact I had with his work until recently, when I discovered that one of the essays included in a translation contest I am participating in was written by him as well. So while I hardly knew him as an author or anything else, I thought it might be nice to meet him and see what he had to say about writing and current events.

I was also keen to meet Alfred Birnbaum, whose Murakami translations I am familiar with and much prefer to those of Murakami’s other translator, Jay Rubin. It turns out that Alfred was born in the States but grew up here in Japan, and has been translating Murakami (and others) since the 1980s. I didn’t get to speak with him as long as I would have liked, as he was cornered immediately after the talk by a very talkative Japanese fellow who had introduced himself during the Q&A portion as an employee of an American financial company. What relation that had to his question or the event I don’t know, but I suppose that when you’re work at a 外資系の金融機関 you like to tell people whenever possible.

Frankly, I was a bit irked by this fellow, who approached Birnbaum speaking–what else–English. I mean, we had all just sat through two hours of Ikezawa discussing a wide variety of topics in Japanese without interpretation, right? And Birnbaum is not just a translator but actually a very well-known one. He understands Japanese, and quite well, right? And, we’re in Japan, right? So what on Earth would make this fellow think he has to speak Engrish? This trend, not uncommen here in Tokyo, used to mystify me until I realized that it has nothing to do with any of the above. Mr. Banker simply wanted to speak English, and could care les about setting, tact, or the level of comprehension of the listener. Call me thin-skinned, but to me this just seemed, I dunno, just rude.

Alfred didn’t seem to mind, though, and responded to his curious questions (e.g. – “What do you think of the many recent Japanese movies like Kill Bill 2, Lost in Translation and Last Samurai?”) with only a hint of the irony they deserved. He seems like a really nice guy, but apparently translating literature isn’t the dream job I was thought it might be. It’s hard to find publishers for the work and they pay isn’t great. Well, now what am I going to do when I retire??

Anyway, the talk was good, and Ikezawa-san is clearly a very thoughtful and intelligent man. I apprciated what he had to say about Japanese literature (roughly divided into two types, “heartwarming” and “dokidoki-wakuwaku,” neither of which he finds terribly appealing) and also his recent leaning to the left politically. It seems he’s a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, and even travelled there in 2002 to photograph and write about the people he met there. He published a book based on this visit called On a Small Bridge in Iraq, and it’s available for download for free in English as well as French and German from his web site. It’s a moving portrait of the Iraqi people, and recommended reading for anyone, no matter what your polital stripe.

Natsuki IKEZAWA Alfred Birnbaum