Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda On The Importance of Deep, Imaginative, Listening

9 questions about literary translation with author and Catapult instructor Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda

In our series Can Writing Be Taught, we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month we feature Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda, a writer and translator from Japanese. Check out her 4-week online literary translation workshop. We chatted with Hofmann-Kuroda about very long bike rides and quietly listening to the text, rather than projecting onto it.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a translation workshop as a student?

I don’t think the terms “teacher” and “student” are very applicable in the context of a workshop. We’re all just people sitting in a room, or a zoom room, and one of them makes some suggestions about things we could do, or read, or talk about. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to do that. We collectively decide what we’d like the space (and time) to be used for, and what makes sense to do given our collective abilities, inclinations, and resources. The best thing I’ve ever gotten out of a translation workshop is the feeling that it was possible for me to translate something, and that there were other people who believed that, too. It’s easy to believe that most things are impossible. I like to think of the workshop as a space where that belief can be suspended, at least for a little while.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a translation workshop as a student?

The worst thing I’ve ever gotten out of a translation workshop was the feeling that what I was translating wasn’t interesting or worth reading closely. Maybe that’s another way of saying: distractedness, inattention, and arrogance.

What is the lesson or piece of translation advice you return to most as an instructor?

They left all these clues on the page to help you hear what they were hearing

Bela Shayevich once told me that not even the worst translation could ruin a truly brilliant text. Sometimes I think about that and it takes the pressure off. It also reminds me that translation is really a negative capability. It’s about not getting in the way of what’s already there. You have to become very quiet, and very ghostly. You have to really listen to the text and not project too much onto it. When reading a piece of music, for example, you know the composer heard something in their head at one point, then they wrote it down, and now you’re looking at this piece of paper, and you have to try and play what they heard, to bring it to life. They left all these clues on the page to help you hear what they were hearing, so your job is to listen deeply, and imaginatively.        

Can everyone translate?

No, because we live in a capitalist society where creativity and self-expression are available only to an elite minority, while the majority of people in the world have to work so hard and so much just to stay alive that they don’t have the time or resources to even think about something like literature, let alone literary translation–however talented they might be. I feel like it’s important not to lose sight of that. That said, it depends on how we define translation. More than half the world’s population speak more than one language (oftentimes not by choice), so I feel pretty confident in saying that people are translating all the time, for each other, for fun, for love, for work, because they are in life and death situations, and so on.      

Would you ever encourage a student to give up translating? Under what circumstances?

Currently, it’s impossible to make a living off of translation, which is part of why the majority of its practitioners are so devastatingly old and white, and why it’s seen as a retirement hobby rather than a vocation. There are lots of practical reasons to give up on translating as a job–precisely because it’s not seen as a job at all–but I hope that translators will use their collective power as workers to demand better pay and working conditions so that less people will have to give it up in the future. Speaking of which, if you’re interested in doing that, hit me up. 

If you want to make a living as a translator, you should absolutely translate with publications in mind.

What’s more valuable in a translation workshop, praise or criticism?

That seems like a false dichotomy. The most valuable feedback I’ve received in workshop has taken the form of questions that forced me to think about why I made a particular decision. That said, most translators (and writers) are probably pretty critical of themselves already, or just have a lot of negative self-talk in general, so I think praise can go a long way toward helping someone keep their craft alive. Which is not always an easy thing.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?

Lurking inside this question, I feel, is the eternal “is translation an art or a job” dichotomy, with the assumption that if you think of it as a job (i.e. translate with a publication in mind) then you somehow aren’t a ‘real’ artist or are some sort of vulgar commercialist. I think that’s ridiculous and if you want to make a living as a translator, you should absolutely translate with publications in mind. I don’t think tailoring your work to your audience diminishes your art. I think we do that all the time anyway. This idea that there is some terrain of pure, free, original expression untainted by the thought of money, or publishing, or editors, or capitalism, is just totally made up. We are always translating or writing with someone or something in mind, the self is an illusion, etc etc. On a more practical note: unless you just feel like it for some reason, don’t translate an entire novel before you find a publisher for it! That is called working on spec and it is uncompensated labor. You can love your art and still respect yourself as a worker and acknowledge that what you do takes time and skill and in that sense has actual value.

What’s the best hobby for translators?

I’m not sure, but I like to go for very long bike rides.

What’s the best workshop snack?

I’m partial to popcorn.

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