Communication is translation. We translate our inchoate thoughts and feelings into words. Sometimes our words fail. We can’t quite express what is in our hearts. But when we get it right, when the outside expression captures the inside moment, we feel relief, even joy.
Literary translation is similar. As we translate we grow familiar with the breathing of the author we imagine behind the text. Our words mingle and in a moment of pure alchemy a new language emerges. It is at this moment that I find translation most satisfying. Or, to quote from the poet Charles Simic: “To translate is not only to experience what makes each language distinct, but to draw close to the mystery of the relationship between word and thing, letter and spirit, self and world.”
The Story of a Single Woman (Peter Owen Publishers, 1992)
In this novel based on her own scandalous life in 1920s Japan, Uno Chiyo follows her heroine, Kazue, from birth to her mid-thirties. In search of some intrinsic meaning to her dissolute life, Kazue recounts one amorous escapade after another in a delightful, insouciant tale of female self-discovery.
Praise for The Story of a Single Woman
“The life of the pre-World War II Japanese woman was indeed a hard one by modern standards, as is so ably illustrated in this work by Uno. Not for the faint-hearted, this tale of self-discovery focuses on a young woman’s relationship with various men, showing how the individual can be subsumed by society (i.e., male Japanese society). Copeland has given us a fluid translation that reads correctly and helps to evoke time and place. Uno’s work is a boon to those who wish to study women’s roles in other cultures and is a testament to her role in her world, which has been substantial. Raconteur, author, magazine publisher, and woman of the world, she has made an important contribution to Japanese literature, and one hopes for further translation of her works. Essential for women’s studies collections and highly recommended as general adult fiction.” —Mike Heines, Library Journal, Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
“Choosing not to marry is still a suspect–if not radical–act in many segments of American society today, so just imagine what it would mean for a woman in 1920s Japan. In this autobiographical novel, one of Japan’s most prominent female novelists tells of Kadzue, who has always known she does not want to marry. Although she drifts from man to man in the manner of a Jean Rhys heroine, Kadzue is willful and self-assured. She seems to shrug off convention as easily as her lovers and still, unlike Rhys’ characters, keep her essence intact. This, more than her adventures, makes her story remarkable. Immensely popular in Japan, Chiyo is virtually unknown in the U.S. As a period piece giving insight into Japanese culture and mores, this one of her novels should interest Western readers; as a role model for Western women, however, its heroine, perhaps inevitably, falls short.” —Mary Ellen Sullivan, Booklist
“The translation by Rebecca Copeland (whose other volume on Uno is The Sound of the Wind, 1992; see WLT 67:2, p. 450) captures the engaging candor that is so much of the novel’s appeal. Uno’s literary strength is in her portrayal of the female rogue in the tradition of Moll Flanders. Even among more recent Japanese women writers, whose females still tend to be perpetual victims, Uno Chiyo is a singular voice for women who, for better or worse, please themselves.” —Celeste Loughman, World Literature Today
Grotesque by Kirino Natsuo (Knopf 2007)
Life at the prestigious Q High School for Girls in Tokyo exists on a precise social axis: a world of insiders and outsiders, of haves and have-nots. Beautiful Yuriko and her unpopular, unnamed sister exist in different spheres; the hopelessly awkward Kazue Sato floats around among them, trying to fit in. Years later, Yuriko and Kazue are dead — both have become prostitutes and both have been brutally murdered. Natsuo Kirino, celebrated author of Out, seamlessly weaves together the stories of these women’s struggles within the conventions and restrictions of Japanese society. At once a psychological investigation of the pressures facing Japanese women and a classic work of noir fiction, Grotesque is a brilliantly twisted novel of ambition, desire, beauty, cruelty, and identity by one of our most electrifying writers.
Praise for Grotesque
“Beneath this story lie deeper questions: of what drives women to prostitution, of the relationship between the individual and society, as well as unexpected philosophical considerations such as an examination of the sense of self, perhaps paradoxically heightened by being trapped in rigid social conformity. Above all, the book is an exploration of the roles of women in such a hot-house world and of the men who rule it. (…) This is a rich, complex read. Be prepared for a book utterly unlike anything we are used to in crime fiction: a long, densely-written work that resembles a Russian novel more than anything else.” —Jane Jakeman, The Independent
“Although her language is as spare and unsparing as that of her contemporaries, Kirino is separated from them by a determination to depict the psyches of her female protagonists in overwhelming detail. Her women are studied from every angle; via their relationships with family, each other, the men around them, the food they prepare and their daily working lives. This gradual, merciless exposure has the dual effect of creating emotional involvement with the characters while placing them in the greater context of Japanese society, so that the narrative becomes something other than the mere dismantling of motives behind a crime.” —Christopher Fowler, Independent on Sunday
“Grotesque is a vengefully mesmerizing obituary written in the voice of a woman who is often a total stranger to the women she envies. She views their lives through the covetous prism of her shortcomings, angrily re-dissecting memories shot through with corrosive emotions. (…) Of course, much of the narrator’s contempt for Yuriko, Q High School and everything involving them can be chalked up to the cruelty of the adolescent girl. But the deftness with which Kirino paints the portrait of this particular Dorian Gray is a crystal-clear insight into the mind of a lunatic. Kirino turns an unerring eye toward the vicious razors of the adolescent female mind.” — David Cotner, San Francisco Chronicle
“Kirino has entrusted her tale to an unreliable, manipulative narrator who couldn’t care less about the plot. She gleefully sabotages the story by all but revealing the identity of the double killer in the first few chapters and has little sympathy for any of the protagonists but herself. (…) Grotesque is not so much a crime novel as a brilliant, subversive character study. Kirino’s real concerns are social, not criminal; her true villain is “the classist society so firmly embedded in Japan” which pushes her protagonists along the road to prostitution. (…) Despite occasional sags in its overlong fabric, Grotesque is nevertheless a triumph. In its boldness and originality, it broadens our sense of what modern Japanese fiction can be.” —Benjamin Secher, The Telegraph
“Some of the story is told through the diaries of Yuriko and Kazue, but it is largely the bleak worldview of the nihilistic narrator that informs us of events. As the icy epitome of uncaring rejection she represents a grotesque denial of normal humanity’s affections and hurt. Kirino’s depiction of Japanese attitudes to women is pretty damning.” —Alice Fordham, The Times
“Grotesque is a powerful indictment of that society, its narrator’s spirit “painted with hatred, dyed with bitterness.” Kirino’s women speak from beneath the lacquered surfaces of traditional Japan, in voices that need to be heard.” —Janice P. Nimura, The Washington Post
The Goddess Chronicle by Kirino Natsuo (Canongate, January 2013; Grove/Atlantic, August 2013
From internationally bestselling crime writer Natsuo Kirino comes a mythical slice of feminist noir about family secrets, broken loyalties, and the search for truth in a deceitful world.
In a place like no other, on a mystical island in the shape of tear drop, two sisters are born into an esteemed family of oracles. Kamikuu is admired far and wide for her otherworldly beauty; small and headstrong Namima learns to live in her sister’s shadow. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is chosen to become the next Oracle, serving the realm of light, while Namima is forced to serve the realm of darkness―destined to spend eternity guiding the spirits of the deceased to the underworld.
As the sisters undergo opposite fates, Namima embarks on a journey that takes her from the experience of first love to the aftermath of scalding betrayal. Caught in an elaborate web of treachery, she travels between the land of the living and the Realm of the Dead, seeking retribution and closure.
At the heart of this exquisitely dark tale, Kirino masterfully reimagines the ancient Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki. A provocative, fantastical saga, The Goddess Chronicle tells a sumptuous story of sex, murder, gods and goddesses, and bittersweet revenge.
Awards on Translation
The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature
2014-2015 for The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Books, 2012), Donald Keene Center, Columbia University, New York, New York, February 20, 2015.
PEN Translates Award, English PEN
The Goddess Chronicle (March 14, 2013)
Praise for The Goddess Chronicle
“Kirino (Real World) wows with her latest novel. On an unnamed small island, two sisters grow up, just a year apart in age. Kamikuu, the eldest, is destined to be the island’s next Oracle, following in their grandmother Mikura-sama’s footsteps. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is taken from her family to begin her training while Namima, the younger sister, is left behind, having been told she is considered “the impure one.” When, years later, Mikura-sama dies, Namima learns her fate is not to take over her sister’s lofty position but to be the ‘priestess of darkness.’ However, Kamikuu’s younger sister has a secret: she has broken the laws of her tribe and is now carrying the child of an outcast inhabitant of the island. This betrayal only worsens Namima’s position, consigning her directly to the Realm of the Dead to serve the Goddess of the Underworld. Namima must undergo a journey, during which she encounters deceit and seeks retribution, before she can find peace. Kirino’s elegant writing brings Namima—a tragic, sympathetic heroine—to vivid life. Readers will devour this tragic story and be left transformed.” —Amanda Urban, Publishers Weekly
“Kirino’s retelling is a taut, disturbing and timeless tale, filled with rage and pathos for the battles that women have to fight every day, battles which have, apparently, existed from the moment of creation.” —Tan Twan Eng, The Guardian
“Kirino writes lyrically as she spins a magical and ethereal tale.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Kirino does a masterful job in creating a story that is both entertaining and education. It is an excellent novel that reveals what it is to be human through a society’s rich mythology.” —Todd Shimoda, Asian Review of Books
“The Goddess Chronicle, however, is an extraordinary re-telling of one small piece of a body of myth often overlooked in the West. The myths and rituals described in the Kojiki are part of the inspiration for Shinto as it is practiced—by millions of people—in modern Japan today. Kirino’s novel serves as a fascinating, approachable introduction to an ancient body of myth, thought, and ritual. Anyone curious about the history and traditions of the world’s tenth largest country would be wise to investigate it.” —Walter Gordon, Zyzzyva
“Everything in this novel is about opposites—life and death, love and hate, good and evil, yin and yang—but nothing is black and white. The Goddess Chronicles is proof positive that nothing in life (or death) has clean edges, no matter how hard we may try to impose them.” —Hannah Vose, Three Percent
The translation . . . captures the engaging candor that is so much of the novel’s appeal. . . . Uno Chiyo is a singular voice for women who, for better or worse, please themselves.
—Celeste Loughman, World Literature Today
Be prepared for a book utterly unlike anything we are used to in crime fiction: a long, densely-written work that resembles a Russian novel more than anything else.
—Jane Jakeman, The Independent
Kirino’s elegant writing brings Namima—a tragic, sympathetic heroine—to vivid life. Readers will devour this tragic story and be left transformed.