Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Sam Bett is co-translator of Heaven.
Here, he details the creativity involved in the translation process and how he’s never made it past the first page of Don Quixote.
What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find translating fiction in particular?
Translation, as an art, presents a fascinating opportunity to respond both critically and creatively to a text. Translating fiction is as good a lesson in writing fiction as anyone could ask for. It’s like being on a bowling league while working, in the same hours, as the bowling alley mechanic.
What’s your earliest reading memory?
My mother reading me Frank L. Baum’s Ozma of Oz. I remember thinking: books can create a whole other universe?
What did you enjoy most about translating Heaven? What did you find most challenging?
Spending lots of time talking with David [Boyd, Bett’s co-translator on Heaven] about the strengths of Mieko’s language and how to do it justice in English was the most enjoyable part. This collaborative aspect, working with David and Mieko as a team, is also where I learned the biggest lessons.
Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?
A huge source of inspiration for us both in translating Mieko’s fiction has been pop music. We found it extremely useful to make lists of songs that we could reference, in terms of spirit and tone, as we discovered voices for these works in English.
Translating fiction is as good a lesson in writing fiction as anyone could ask for
Tell us an interesting fact about the book.
Heaven’s unflinching focus on bullying prompted public conversation of this major problem in Japan that has had lasting positive effects.
Tell us about a book that changed your life.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany gave me new ways of thinking about queerness, connection, and how real estate development can fracture a community.
What book haven’t you finished?
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. I’ve read the first page at least twice.