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Interview with longlisted author Yoko Ogawa and translator Stephen Snyder

Interview with longlisted author Yoko Ogawa and translator Stephen Snyder

Longlisted author Yoko Ogawa explores distant and future memories in her book, The Memory Police, and explains how Anne Frank inspired her, whilst translator Stephen Snyder talks to us about 'untranslatable' text.

Yoko Ogawa

What has it been like to be longlisted?

My first reaction was surprise.  Any news about a literary prize always comes as unexpected.  My head, as usual, was filled with the novel I’m working on now, so the experience was akin to having someone tap me gently on the shoulder, in the midst of my current preoccupations, to whisper to me about a novel written long ago.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book The Memory Police?

It’s a work that shows different faces to different readers.  I wanted it to be that way.  It’s a novel that intends to force encounters with memories lost in the distant past, to disrupt experience with nostalgia and a sense of loss; yet at the same time it’s a novel that might paralyze a reader with premonitions of the disintegration of a world that may come one day in the future.

The Memory Police meditates on totalitarianism and resistance – what was the inspiration behind exploring these themes in your work?

The Memory Police has its origins in Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.  I encountered it when I was a girl myself, and from it I learned that people can gain their freedom by writing.  Even as everything in her world was being stolen from her, Anne Frank was able to develop a heart that was so fully human.  As I wrote, she was always in the back of my mind.

The Memory Police explores losing memories and meaning, what do you think is important that the world should never forget?

I suppose I’d have us remember that we are all equal, every one of us, in the sense that everything that has life eventually dies.


Stephen Snyder

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It’s an enormous honour to be on the longlist, and it has been fun to celebrate (virtually) with Yoko Ogawa and all the other people who have had a role in bringing this book to English-language readers—Yurika Yoshida and Anna Stein, Yoko’s agents, and the publishers, editors, and marketing staff at Harvill Secker and Pantheon. It’s also a great honour to be on a list that includes so many extraordinary writers and translators.

What did you most like about translating The Memory Police?

The translation process was a great pleasure. Despite the prevailing darkness of the novel, it is a luminous book with many moments of intense beauty. The clarity and precision of Yoko Ogawa’s prose are joys for a translator, and the hours spent working on the translation seemed natural and organic, necessary rather than a chore.

Do you encounter ‘untranslatable’ words and how do you go about bringing across the meaning into English?

I am increasingly unconvinced by the whole notion of “untranslatability.” It seems to me that either everything is untranslatable or nothing is. But with respect to The Memory Police in particular, the theme and imagery are so universal and the language in the original so evocative and distinct that my sense is that there was nothing in Yoko Ogawa’s Japanese that could not be brought over in some form into English.