Stephen Snyder, translator of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Stephen Snyder interview: 'The Memory Police resonated with readers experiencing a new sort of reality'

The translator of our October Book of the Month talks about the impact of being shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022, the Japanese fiction boom – and why this 20th-century novel speaks to 21st-century readers

Publication date and time: Published

You were shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020 for your translation of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. How did it feel to be nominated for the prize, and what impact has it had on your career in the years since? 

It was a wonderful honour to be shortlisted. Yoko Ogawa’s work has been shortlisted for – or has won – several other international prizes, but this was a different order of magnitude in the English-language sphere. It was great fun to celebrate the run-up to the selection with Ogawa-san and her team –  although Covid prevented any in-person events – and the afterlife of the shortlisting for The Memory Police in online discussions and elsewhere has been wonderful to see.  

The Memory Police was released in Japan in 1994, yet the novel, in its translated form, did not make its way to an English-speaking audience until 2019. Despite this 25-year gap, The Memory Police feels contemporary, almost prescient. Were there any steps you took in translating the book to ensure this relevance? 

The relevance – both to the world as it learned to live with ‘fake news’ and contested online ‘realities’ and, later, to our slowly eroding existence in the pandemic era – came from the genius of the text itself. The translation is very faithful, and it’s only by odd historical timing that its appearance in English coincided with a period when the insights of the novel resonated so hauntingly with readers experiencing a very new sort of reality.  

Ogawa’s fascination with Anne Frank inspired the novel, and many critics compared both the content and tone of The Memory Police to other modern classics – Time magazine said that it ‘echoes the themes of George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude’. Did you draw inspiration for your translation from any of these sources (or elsewhere), or was Ogawa’s work on its own enough? 

I recognised some of the subtle influences that affect any writer – certainly the most direct ones in this case from Anne Frank – but the translation isn’t particularly dependent on any of them.  The influences on the translation are, in a way, more internal. Having translated many other works by Yoko Ogawa, I can see the way she returns to themes and motifs, where tone and mood are similar to other works for which I have previously created an English-language voice. These sources and experiences shaped the translation. But the world of the island in The Memory Police is unique, even among the texts that make up what Japanese critics sometimes call ‘Ogawa-world’. The text is hypnotic and propulsive, despite its quiet tone, and the translation and the translator were simply carried along by it.

Stephen Snyder, translator

The relevance – both to the world as it learned to live with ‘fake news’ and contested online ‘realities’ and, later, to our slowly eroding existence in the pandemic era – came from the genius of the text itself.

— Stephen Snyder

Can you tell us about a favourite scene or section from the novel, that you most enjoyed translating, and why? 

When Ogawa-san has been asked to read from the work, she has often chosen the book-burning scene in chapter 19. It’s wonderfully written, illustrating the bond between the narrator, who is a novelist, and the old man, and it describes a trek across the city that serves as the beautifully realised setting for the book. The unthinkable act in which they are participating is so perfectly ironic – and yet so emblematic of the central theme – that it would be hard to think of another scene that was more enjoyable or more moving to translate.

You’ve translated numerous titles by Yoko Ogawa, including novels, short shorts and essays. How did your working relationship begin, and how did it feel to bring the work of one of Japan’s most celebrated authors to an English-speaking audience? 

Our working relationship began somewhat by accident, when I was asked to translate the story ‘The Cafeteria in the Evening and A Pool in the Rain’ for a small literary magazine that closed its doors before the translation could appear. It was published instead by the New Yorker, which led to Diving Pool, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and the others. 

In the course of this work, I have met with Ogawa-san a number of times in Tokyo to discuss future projects, and she is always enormously gracious and supportive of our efforts – mine, her agents’, her publishers’ – to bring her works into English. It has been a great pleasure and a singular honour to be her translator. She has created an extraordinarily rich and provocative body of work (a larger percentage of which has been expertly translated into French), and much more of it deserves to be translated in the coming years.

How do you approach translation of Yoko Ogawa’s work and what is your working process like? Do you create a singular voice that runs through her body of work, or does your approach differ from title to title? 

I have been translating long enough – and I have translated a fair number of Yoko Ogawa’s works – that my process tends to be streamlined. I work directly from the original to a draft that I consider readable, and then I generally edit my draft once or twice before sending it off to the editor. The voice is generated by the individual work, and there is considerable variation depending on the subject matter (the stories in Revenge are quite different in tone from The Housekeeper and the Professor), but it is also true that both Yoko Ogawa and I have our prose styles with their own peculiarities, and some of those come through in any text. (I sometimes think that the similarities between our most natural prose voices has made it possible for me to render her work as well as I’m able to.)

Yoko Ogawa

The original Japanese title of the novel is 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na Kesshō), which can be roughly translated as secret or quiet crystallisation, a translation we see reflected in the French title of the novel. Some have said the English title creates expectations of a political novel when its true meaning is more subtle. How did you (and the publishing team behind the novel) arrive at the title The Memory Police, and why was there a decision to focus on the antagonists rather than the psychological process at the heart of the novel?

One of the very few adjustments I made in the translation is the one reflected in the title. The original text refers repeatedly to ‘secret police’ whose job it is to do ‘memory hunting’. For convenience and speed, I collapsed the two ideas, coining the term ‘Memory Police’. It was an editorial decision to use this term as the title, but one I support. I understand the change in emphasis, but I don’t believe the title masks the thematic content or creates expectations that aren’t borne out in the text. As we know, titles appear, context-free, before a reader encounters what lies between the covers, and their purpose (like the wonderful cover art for The Memory Police) is, in part, to bring readers to the experience of the work. In that sense, I think it’s clear that the new title was successful, in that it afforded a large number of readers that opportunity. Yoko Ogawa was consulted on the title change, of course, and approved of it.

As well as a translator, you are a Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College and Dean of the Middlebury Language Schools. How did your work with the Japanese language begin, and how does the translation of fiction intersect with your academic work? 

I started studying the Japanese language – out of a desire to read Yasunari Kawabata and others in the original – after undergraduate and graduate work in English literature. My original research in Japanese literature focused on the modern period – I wrote a book on Nagai Kafū – and narratological innovation during the rise of the novel in Japan. I was asked to translate Tsuji Kunio’s Azuchi Okanki (The Signore) while still a Ph.D. student, and have been translating contemporary fiction ever since. I have continued, off and on, with traditional literary research (and I dabble in translation studies), but translation has proved to be an enormously fulfilling aspect of my academic career and its major focus for many years.

Japanese literature is hugely popular in English-speaking countries. In 2022, titles translated from Japanese into English sold over 490,000 copies in the UK, making it the number-one original language for translated fiction sales in the country. What do you think is driving this boom? 

The short answer, I believe, is simply ‘quality’ – both of the literature in Japanese itself and of the work being done by an excellent group of younger translators who are helping to drive this ‘boom’. Contemporary Japanese literature is the product of a long, rich tradition combined with a unique literary sensibility and a strong domestic reading culture. Japanese writers produce thousands of novels and stories each year, only a tiny fraction of which are translated into English or other languages. The winnowing process isn’t perfect, but translators and publishers have done a good job of selecting and promoting writers whose works resonate beyond the domestic market, and Japanese women writers, in particular, have found readers around the world in numbers disproportionate to the readership for translated literature in general. 

Winners and shortlist mentions for this group from the International Booker Prize and, in the States, the National Book Award for Translated Literature (for the likes of Yoko Tawada, Yu Miri, Mieko Kawakami, and Yoko Ogawa) have helped a great deal as well. I used to argue that the extraordinary popularity of the works of Haruki Murakami gave an important boost to other contemporary Japanese writers, and his influence of course continues to be profound, but the reputations of and readerships for excellent writers such as Minae Mizumura, Sayaka Murata, Masatsugu Ono, Hiromi Kawakami, and numerous others suggest that Japanese literature has moved into a new phase of sustained creativity and global popularity that is extremely gratifying to see for those of us who have been observing the field for many years.

First edition of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa published by Kodansha, 1994

New data on sales of translated fiction also shows that readers of translated fiction are significantly younger than readers of fiction generally. Why do you think translated fiction generally is appealing to a younger audience? And do you think literary prizes such as the International Booker Prize play a part in this success? 

It doesn’t surprise me. Younger readers, younger people as a whole, are perhaps more aware of and attuned to cultural trends, if I can be allowed to generalise. The spectacular array of literary talent from around the world is something that would come to their attention more naturally through social media and other avenues.  

It bodes well that readers who have a long reading life ahead of them are discovering Han Kang, Olga Tokarczuk, David Diop and others at an early age. Clearly, the International Booker Prize and others like it play an important role in raising this awareness both through the actual prize-selection process itself and through their other activities on behalf of literature in translation. I have the greatest admiration for this work.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in literary translation?

Read. Having advanced language skills and deep familiarity with the source culture and literature are minimum requirements for literary translators, but I believe the best translators are voracious readers in both the language from which they translate and the one into which they translate. The former allows you to understand the range of texts being produced and discover work that excites you (translators should ideally always work on texts they love), and the latter – reading great writing in your own language – inspires you to create translations that are literary works in their own right.

What three works of translated Japanese fiction would you recommend to English-language readers, and why?

Ahh, the hardest question for last. There are endless works of fiction, from The Tale of Genji to the most recent Akutagawa Prize winner that are worth recommending. The list would inevitably differ depending on the person to whom I was recommending. But one version that spans the modern period, and includes only books I absolutely love, would be: Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (translated by Edwin McClellan); Enchi Fumiko’s Masks (in Juliet Winters Carpenter’s brilliant translation); and Mizumura Minae’s ‘Inheritance from Mother’ (Winters’ translation again!).