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A Q&A with Louise Heal Kawai

Posted 1st Nov 2017

To celebrate the release of the latest in our Japanese Novellas series, Ms Ice Sandwich (from Haruki Murakami’s ‘favourite young novelist’, no less!)we caught up with brilliant translator Louise Heal Kawai. Read on to find out what Louise’s translating routine entails, which Japanese book in translation she’d most recommend and why if she had to be stuck in a lift, she’d like William Shakespeare to be in there with her.

Do you have a particular translating routine?

Read through and make notes. If a very long novel, reread sections before starting to translate. Usually procrastinate a while at this point. Finally, in order to overcome procrastination, count the number of pages in the book and divide by remaining days until the deadline. This never fails to terrify. After that it’s a matter of being strict with myself about reaching daily goals.  I work at a desk with a view over a bay which helps my eyes and mind to refocus and refresh.

What is your favourite word and why?

 I’ve always liked the French “La Crepuscule” for twilight. 

In Japanese, I use “onegai shimasu” a lot –  a useful phrase that very politely asks for  the addressee’s consideration, and can be tacked onto emails, letters, and verbal requests.

“Kuki wo yomu / yomenai” , literally meaning “to read the air / be unable to read the air” is an evocative phrase for a person’s ability/inability to sense the atmosphere or prevailing feeling around them and act accordingly  – kind of like “reading the room” but much more. There’s even an acronym KY (kuki wo yomenai) for someone who’s bad at this.

Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?

Stuck in a lift? No. Just no. But if forced, William Shakespeare. Theatre is one of my great passions, and I’d love to chat with him about acting and writing techniques.

What does being a translator mean to you?

The fulfilment of a dream I’ve had since I was at school. My two favourite classes were  English and French. And the best part of each class was creative writing and translation respectively. And now I’m combining the two. I never imagined it would be Japanese literature though.

If you could only recommend one book from contemporary Japanese literature which would it be and why?

Almost impossible to narrow down. I really enjoy Mieko Kawakami but as most of her work is yet to be translated, I’ll go with Hiromi Kawakami’s (no relation) Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell. I’m always completely caught up by the interior life of Kawakami’s characters. She has a gift for describing loneliness and turning the mundane into something extremely poignant, a talent that is most definitely shared by her namesake, Mieko Kawakami.

The brilliant Ms Ice Sandwich is out now. Get your copy on the Pushkin Shop (plus get 3 for 2 on our Japanese Novellas for a limited time only!)