There Is No Greater Cosmic Crime Than Devaluing a Woman’s Intelligence

Asa Yoneda on translating the strangeness of Yukiko Motoya’s ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’

The eleven stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder are as acute as fiction can get. They are knife-sharp, almost unbearably precise. Each one bounces from the mundane to the surreal, the satirical to the sincere. Most often, Yukiko Motoya aims her leveling gaze at sexism in contemporary Japanese society, reserving her strangest fates for men who underestimate the women in their lives. In the world of The Lonesome Bodybuilder, there is no greater cosmic crime than devaluing a woman’s intelligence.

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Motoya tends to begin stories with women who devalue their own intelligence. No wonder, when they find themselves “confused, stifled, [and] misunderstood,” as the book’s translator Asa Yoneda put it. To her, the protagonists’ silences are “proposed as sites of failure — moments where they fail to understand the situation, to express themselves, to perform socially, to connect with others.” The collections’ greatest victories are the moments when characters first express themselves fully. Mostly, this takes place inside a relationship or marriage, and each every time, it involves an enormous struggle. Sometimes there’s a physical battle, a chase scene, a metamorphosis. Bodies twist, transform, explode with the need to be seen.

Yukiko Motoya aims her leveling gaze at sexism in contemporary Japanese society, reserving her strangest fates for men who underestimate the women in their lives.

Not all of Motoya’s shape-shifting happens through magic, though. In the title story, the narrator takes up bodybuilding. Her overworked husband fails to notice, though her “chest felt so solid it was as though there was a metal plate under my skin, [and] my arms looked huge enough to snap a log in half.” She’s happy at work, where her co-workers are supportive of her transformation, but the silence in her marriage grows unendurable, as agonizing for the reader as for the bodybuilder herself.

Other transformations, though, are solidly surreal. A saleswoman in a high-end boutique struggles to satisfy a customer who she’s never seen, but who she slowly comes to understand isn’t human. A woman named Tomoko tries to justify her choice to marry a man made of straw — “yes, that straw, stalks of dried rice or wheat, plant matter used as fodder for farm animals, or for their bedding — tied into bundles and rolled into a human shape.” When he gets upset, his straw flies apart, and she has to, quite literally, put her husband back together.

In “An Exotic Marriage,” the collection’s centerpiece, the narrator, Sen, marries a man who refuses to engage with the world. At the story’s beginning, he seems like a garden-variety sexist, informing San that because she’s a housewife, she “can’t understand how men don’t want to have to think about things when we get home.’” Soon, though, San’s problems get far worse. His features begin sliding around on his face, migrating downward, like it’s too much effort for his mouth to stay away from his jawline. Next, he stops going to work, devoting himself instead to cooking fritters for San. Ominously, the more fritters she eats, the more like her husband she becomes. Her features start changing, too. When they have sex, she can’t tell their bodies apart. “You don’t really want to think about anything,” her husband tells her as he force-feeds her, his voice unfamiliar in her ears. “There isn’t really anything you want to talk to me about.” In a scene like that, who cares what the fritters look like?

The translator Asa Yoneda takes a wide view of her art. Yoneda, who specializes in contemporary Japanese fiction and film, has compared translation to sculpture, sight-reading music, and chatting with friends. In a recent email exchange, she likened it to wave physics: “The more firmly I can feel the original [text],” she wrote, “the more amplitude I’m able to transmit through my translation.” More amplitude, in physics, loosely equates to louder sound — and in Yoneda’s translation, the fiction writer and playwright Yukiko Motoya comes through loud and clear.

Yoneda is the first to translate Motoya’s prose into English, which she describes as both “an honor and an adventure.” Motoya is a literary star in Japan: she’s won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize, the Yukio Mishima prize, and, most recently, the Akutagawa Prize, which is Japan’s most prestigious literary award. In awarding Motoya his namesake prize, Oe wrote that she “possesses an acuity in human observation that will be a life’s work, and the prose skill to describe it concisely.”

In the world of The Lonesome Bodybuilder, there is no greater cosmic crime than devaluing a woman’s intelligence.

Pulling off strangeness is a huge challenge, for writer and translator alike. For Yoneda, the straw husbands and alien shoppers meant that the hardest parts of translating The Lonesome Bodybuilder had little to do with “classic translation issues like whether I wanted to translate the meanings of names, what genders to assign to characters, or the exact nature of the ‘fritters’ that play an important and ominous part in ‘An Exotic Marriage.’” Instead, her biggest challenge was to help English-language readers relate to these lost, baffled characters in the way that Yoneda herself did. “Many of the narrators of these stories are extremely self-conscious,” she wrote me,
“but perhaps less self-aware than one might expect. I was conscious of treading a line between empathizing with them and wanting to explain what I imagined they were going through.”

That balance is especially tricky because so many readers will come to The Lonesome Bodybuilder without context. Japanese women writers are not translated into English at nearly the rate that men are, a discrepancy Yoneda is doing her part to fix. In addition to Motoya, she’s worked with Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuko Kuroda, and Aoko Matsuda. Still, to most English-language readers, Motoya’s stories will feel unfamiliar — and that’s before the straw husbands show up.

Yoneda thought deeply about that unfamiliarity as she translated. Geographically, linguistically, and culturally, the stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder are a long way from home. Translating them, Yoneda told me, felt “like starting a conversation, talking into a present and potential silence. That said, fiction translated from English has a much larger presence in Japan than Japanese fiction does in the English-reading world… So in some ways, the conversation has already started.”

When I asked Yoneda how she wants English-language readers to enter the conversation she’s beginning, she replied, “I would love it if readers could relate to these stories with some of whatever awareness they might bring to an encounter with someone who speaks another language. I hope there’s some appreciation for the two of you sharing space and time, respect for mutual differences…and more than anything, a wonder that any of this came to pass at all. Then again, it’s perfectly possible (and sometimes possibly even acceptable) to have a great conversation without even realizing that the person you’re talking to might not have spent their whole life speaking English.”

That could happen with The Lonesome Bodybuilder. A reader could easily be so transported by the dark-fairytale nature of Motoya’s stories, their glimmering weirdness and constant, sly humor, that she forgets to think about the translator. That reader’s conversation with Motoya could be a great one. But anyone who remembers that The Lonesome Bodybuilder is Asa Yoneda’s work as well as Yukiko Motoya’s will have an infinitely more fun reading experience: not only will she be astonished and delighted by the stories themselves, she’ll be delighted that she gets to read them, and grateful to the woman who made it happen. There is wonder in translation, and especially in a translation as thoughtful and skillful as this. The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a rare and absolute treat.

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