If I had it all to do over again, I would do it differently. Of course, I didn’t know then what I know now.

I had been given the opportunity to translate Kirino Natsuo’s award-winning novel, Grotesque, and I was elated. It was the first time I’d been contracted to translate a novel. And it was my first experience working for a major trade press. The agent sent me a contract, and I scrutinized it as well as I could, based on ZERO experience with contracts. I consulted friends. They sent me to mutual friends who translated (in other languages). I consulted my older sister who had been a lawyer in a former life. She wisely sent me to the webpages of ALTA and PEN America. I was told to pay attention to the price per word, the advance, and whether or not my name would appear on the cover. I paid attention to all those things. But the one aspect of the contract I didn’t think much of was the deadline. I had a turnaround time of a year. That seemed doable. I’m a hard worker. I was going to be spending the year in Kyoto teaching at the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies. I’d have a reduced teaching load and would not be tasked with all the meetings and committee work normally assigned faculty. Besides, I’d be living alone so I could set my own schedule.

The optimism of inexperience!

I had not accounted for the disruption of making the transition from St. Louis to Kyoto; nor had I figured on the time it would take to adjust to a different teaching environment. I had also been naïve when it came to the sheer length of the work. At 536 pages, it was a daunting task. At first it seemed Sisyphean. No matter how many pages I translated in a day, I never seemed nearer the goal of completion. But what I had really not counted on was the brutal darkness of the novel. No one in the story is particularly likeable. All the characters are warped somehow, damaged. True, the narrator is almost beguiling in her evil. But after a while, after spending days on end with her, I just wanted to interact with someone . . . pleasant.

I remember midway through my year, two friends from the United States found themselves in Kyoto. They asked me to meet them at Mariage Frères, a French teashop, for afternoon tea and cakes. I longed to see them, but I was reluctant to leave my desk even for a short break. Fortunately, they convinced me, and I met them at Kawaramachi. We laughed and gossiped as we sipped our tea from fine bone china, our pinkies curled just so. It was refreshing, I felt I had stepped out onto a bright sunny plaza after years of being held captive in a dark basement. But the moment of lightness and laughter was short lived.

Copeland with completed manuscript.  Photo by Joe Angeles
Copeland with completed manuscript. Photo by Joe Angeles

Feeling the weight of the deadline, I dragged myself back to my desk and dictionaries. To compound the grotesquery of the experience, the house where I lived was behind the zoo. And the Kyoto zoo at the time, 2004, was a horrible place. (Personally, I think all zoos are pretty horrible. But this one was particularly so, with tiny exhibits and cages.) The house was behind the elephant’s enclosure. From my second-floor window I could see the elephant’s ear, when it faced north, and tail when it faced south. The enclosure was small. I don’t think the elephant got much exercise. If I squinted, I could see the monkeys climbing up and down the concrete “tree” in their compound. Living behind the zoo also engaged my other senses. There was a constant smell, needless to say. And all manner of bizarre noises filtered over the walls of the zoo, across the street, and into my second-floor room. A particular bird regularly made a horrific retching-like noise at all hours of the night. I will never forget the first time I heard the lion roar. It was just at dusk. I heard what I thought was a heavy iron gate scraping across concrete. It was low but loud and nearly vibrated the air in my room. But then for some unexplained reason, I felt myself tremble. My stomach knotted, and goose bumps sprouted on my arms. I realized at that moment that the rumble was not the sound of a gate but the anguished roar of a lion. I was terrified and devastated all at once. The king of the jungle chafed at the inhumanity of his captivity. And I, at my desk, felt chained by my deadline.

So there, in a second-floor room behind the zoo, asphyxiating on animal smells and recoiling from their agonized cries, I sat translating Kirino Natsuo’s dark and brilliant novel.

All of Kyoto awaited me. All of the amazing treasures of temples and gardens. I had never spent time in the city before and longed to take a day or two to sightsee. But I kept reminding myself of my deadline. I did not have time to spare.

Even as conscientious as I was, even as hard as I worked, as the deadline drew closer, I knew I would not finish in time. I sought an extension, which the publisher was generous to grant. Even so, I never felt that I had enough time with the translation. I wanted to linger over passages and allow the scenes to inhabit my mind a little longer. I suppose it is true of almost anything we do. We almost always think, when we are finished, that we could have done better. We always want to change a word here or there, erase, improve, reconsider. Today, when I teach my translation seminar I tell my students: “A translation is never finished. It’s simply published.”


Lion photo by Vijay Kumar Gaba on Unsplash