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The Pine Islands interview

The Pine Islands interview

‘Some of my translation heroes have been longlisted, shortlisted or have won, so I can’t help but feel a bit of an imposter’ In this final Man Booker International Prize 2019 longlist interview, author Marion Poschmann and translator Jen Calleja tells us what it was it was like to make the longlist. 


Marion Poschmann, author of The Pine Islands

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I was quite surprised. This is the first time that one of my books has been translated into English, so I didn’t expect anything like this.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book The Pine Islands?

The book tells the story of Gilbert Silvester, a university lecturer and specialist in the theological aspects of beard styles, who abruptly leaves his wife and randomly ends up in Japan. There he meets Yosa, a suicidal Japanese student, and unexpectedly ends up taking him under his wing. Gilbert, trying to find a justification for his own strange behaviour, comes to think of his trip as a kind of pilgrimage in the tradition of the famous haiku poet Basho and his travelogue A Narrow Road to the Deep North. Yosa, looking for the perfect place to end his life, follows another kind of guide, The Complete Manual of Suicide. They embark together on a tragic-comic journey to the legendary pine islands.

When I wrote this book, one of my questions was: what exactly is this reality that we are normally so certain of? How many of our actions are motivated by reality, and how many by irrational, subtle influences like dreams? So I found these two men in crisis, who meet each other and mirror each other under unusual circumstances. Both wish to leave themselves behind, because their life situations and even their personalities seem too limiting to them.  In this way, their “project of abandonment” also becomes an inner voyage.

How important is Japan in this story? Could it have been set anywhere else?

The book deals with the beauty of the Japanese landscape, the Japanese poetry tradition and the clash between the ancient and the modern in Japan. It also uses the Japanese Noh Theatre as a model for a part of the plot and was inspired by a longer trip to Japan, which I undertook in 2014, when I realized that Japan has a very particular relationship to suicide. So, it definitely had to be set in Japan. On the other hand, some of the broader themes, such as social pressure and the necessity to act on it, dependency in relationships, the abyss of subjectivity or the feeling of alienation could be explored anywhere in the world.


Jen Calleja, translator of The Pine Islands

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I am still in shock really; I keep giving people funny looks when they bring it up because it still doesn’t feel real. I’ve been like that since I found out, which was about seven in the morning having gone to bed before the longlist was announced. I had notifications on Twitter from people I knew and didn’t know wishing me congratulations and I was really confused. That was a strange day. I was chairing a panel at London Book Fair that afternoon on Maltese literature (I’m half Maltese) so it felt like I didn’t want to focus on it too much otherwise I’d be all over the place. Once the panel was finished I felt like I could actually appreciate it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think the novel was worthy enough to make the list, I just thought it was beyond the realms of possibility for this to come to pass, I hadn’t dared to even daydream about it. It’s the Man Booker International Prize! Some of my translation heroes have been longlisted, shortlisted or have won, so I can’t help but feel a bit of an imposter. I’m very proud of the translation though.

 What did you most like about translating The Pine Islands?

The book is so impressive in many ways, it’s funny and evocative and thought-provoking, so I enjoyed getting to re-read it multiple times and just appreciate it as a reader so deeply. I liked juggling the book’s different threads and layers, which are in dialogue with one another. Getting to recreate Gilbert’s voice - he’s self-conscious yet lacking self-awareness - and the book’s satirical core was incredibly satisfying too. Similarly to when I was translating the novel My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water by the Swiss author Michelle Steinbeck, I felt that the ‘palette’ of language in the book was about creating impactful, emotional resonance and imagery. The words or lines needed to ‘chime’ together on the page, or do their bit to build up to something you didn’t see coming. Marion is a poet, and you can tell when reading the novel.

 Did you and Marion compare notes on writing haiku in German and English?

The haiku were an interesting challenge. When I read the novel for the first time I thought to myself ‘Ha! Good luck to whoever ends up translating this!’.

There’s a couple of things to be said about the haiku in the book. The haiku attributed to Bashō and his mentor Saigyō in the original German novel by Marion are versions Marion made using translations by a range of Japanese to German and Japanese to English translators. She didn’t feel like the actual translations worked in the context of the novel. I could understand that, the idea that the poems might feel ‘plonked in’, to put it one way. I took the same approach to create those haiku in my translation. The Bashō and Saigyō haiku really only work within the fictional world and language of the novel, and those best equipped to translate Japanese haiku are poetry translators from Japanese. So read their translations!

I suggested having an acknowledgement in the back of the translation for the German and English translators of the Japanese haiku, so they’re credited at the end. Without them Marion and I wouldn’t have been able to create our versions after all.

For all the haiku it was really enjoyable to prioritise the image and sentiment in the translation while fitting to the required syllables. I also wanted them to be good in their own right, and be playful or humorous or accomplished - whatever they read like in the original.