Interview with Forrest Gander

Co-Translator (with Kyoko Yoshida) of Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura
By Rusty Morrison

Rusty Morrison: How did you come to this project? How did the idea develop? Tell us how you met Mr. Nomura?

Forrest Gander: I met Kiwao Nomura in Japan in 2010.  He was standing in a green room surrounded by flamenco musicians from Sevilla, modern dancers from Yokohama, and a famous one-eyed butoh performer from Tokyo. I had come backstage after a performance choreographed by Mariko Nomura, a well-known dancer and choreographer and Kiwao’s wife. 

Our meeting came about through Kyoko Yoshida, a fiction writer who came to Brown University as a visiting scholar in 2009. When Kyoko figured out that I was very interested in contemporary Japanese poetry, and particularly in the work of Gozo Yoshimasu, she said she thought I would like Kiwao Nomura’s work.  The trouble was that there were very few translations available. I don’t remember if it was Kyoko or me who suggested that we try to translate some of Nomura’s poems together.  But that’s how the project began.

RM: Can you describe your methods as a translator when working in this kind of collaboration with a fellow translator? How did the two of you engage in the act of revision? Was Mr. Nomura (the poet you are translating) involved in the process?

FG: In the late 70’s and early 80’s I fell in love with Japanese literature and culture. I studied Japanese briefly in college and I traveled to Japan for the first time in 1985.  But I don’t speak or read Japanese. Besides being brilliant and bilingual, Kyoko was the most diligent co-translator imaginable.  After we talked about the range of poems we wanted to include, Kyoko began to send me files.  In each file, I would find: the poem in kanji (logographic characters borrowed from Chinese); the poem in romanji (Romanized script so that I could pronounce the sounds); a literal English translation with notes about variables; and a first translation.  She would also send me a sound file of her reading the poem.  I was traveling a lot during the time that we worked most intently on the translations, and I have distinct memories of people looking curiously at me on buses and in cafes in Europe and Latin America while I listened to Kyoko’s Japanese recitations on my laptop.    

I would respond to Kyoko with questions and suggestions and drafts and the translation would travel back and forth between us over and over.  For the most part, Kiwao, who doesn’t speak English fluently, trusted us to do the job.  

RM: What, specifically, were some of the largest or most daunting challenges you faced as you worked through the text? And, the most exciting rewards or surprises?

FG: What we find in innovative Japanese poetries like Gozo Yoshimasu’s and Kiwao Nomura’s has, as far as I know, no equivalents in contemporary poetry in English.  The mix of the philosophical and the whimsical makes for a tone that is absolutely weird to Westerners.  Also, in Japanese there are puns that take place between characters and pronunciations that cannot be accounted for in our alphabet.  In one particularly difficult poem, “(or chasm),” Nomura uses characters that allude to Japanese mythology but might also simply be breath-sounds, Hooha and Ketha.  But English language breath-sounds would probably sound different from those sounds, just as dog barks are represented by very different onomatopoeic impressions in different languages.  In one remarkable and very exciting layer of our translation of this poem, “(or chasm),” Kyoko and I took a class in butoh movement from the butoh dancer, Akira Kasai, to whom it is dedicated. 

RM: You are an esteemed translator of Spanish poetry, and you have been active in translation for many years. Has translating Japanese had a different impact upon you? Has this translation project changed you as a writer?

FG: I’m afraid it sounds facile because I think we all know this intuitively, but I’d offer that everything we love changes us.  Certainly the forms, the syntactical innovations, and the compositional originality of Nomura’s poems inspire me and offer me new possibilities and models.

RM: When you read translations by other poets, what questions do you bring to the text? What are you looking for? What stimulates your interest? and what sustains your interest?

FG: I depend most immediately on the quality of the language in English.  So the same things that draw me to poetry in English draw me to poetry in translation.  Since I’m also interested in translation theory and have a smattering of familiarity with several other languages besides Spanish, there are particular questions concerning, for instance, syntactical sequencing or the use of articles and prepositions or rhythmical constructions that may come up.  The old questions about whether the translation stuffs the other language into the polished brown shoe of normative English…

RM: Who are the writers you are reading currently for kinship? Who are the writers you are reading currently to be challenged?

FG: Opening up my most recent notebook, I can tell you some of the books I’ve been reading in the last two months: Andrew Zawacki’s  Glasscape,  Kabir Mohanty’s  The Kernal is a Fact,  Joan Retallack’s  Proceedural Elegies: Western Civilization Continued,  Anja Utler’s  Engulf-Enkindle  in Kurt Beals’ translation, Alice Jones’  Gorgeous Morning , Christian Hawkey’s  Ventrakl,  Alphonso Lingis’ Dangerous Emotions  and Rosmarie Waldrop’s  Driven to Abstraction.

RM: Are there artists or musicians whom you especially return to? and why?

FG: I’ve been obsessing through a Nico Muhly stage lately.  I go back to John Abercrombie regularly.  There are two ceramic artists, Rick Hirsch in America and Ashwini Bhat in India, and a glass artist in New York, Michael Rogers, whose respective bodies of work draw me in close.  Diane Samuels, yes.  The great Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide and the North American photographers Lucas Foglia, Deborah Luster, Sally Mann, and Raymond Meeks.