Meet The Translator: Interview With Emily Balistrieri (Japanese to English)

Today’s Meet the Translator post is a follow up to my blog post where I reviewed The Refugees’ Daughter by Takuji Ichikawa and translated by Emily Balistrieri. I thought I would take the opportunity to find out more about not only the translating process but also more about the translator himself Emily Balistrieri.

First, could you please introduce yourself.

I’m Tristan, a nonbinary trans guy who uses his legal name for publishing! It’s like a reverse pseudonym, haha. I was born in Wisconsin and live in Tokyo now translating mainly novels and comics, but also video games and subtitles on occasion.

What was your inspiration for pursuing a career in translation? And how did you get started?

I really liked studying languages as a kid, so I figured something where I could focus on language would be good. The hard part was picking which language, actually. I was studying French and Russian, too, before deciding to focus on Japanese. In college, my goal was video game translation, but once I started reading more novels in Japanese, I realized that that was what I needed to be doing.

Why did you want to translate The Refugees’ Daughter?

I was in touch with the Red Circle guys, and Richard Nathan reached out with the offer. I read the story and found it really compelling. I like the build up a lot. And it’s just so different from the light novels I’m usually working on. My mom really liked this book, which makes me happy. Most of the stuff I have done so far I can’t recommend to my mom.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a translator?

Study a lot more English than you think you need to! Because you need to. I wish I had double-majored.

What authors/translators do you like to read? And what five books do you feel have really shaped and inspired you as a translator and a person?

My favourite authors most recently are Tomihiko Morimi (I translated The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, but you can also read this short story), Ao Omae (his English debut is up at Electric Literature), and Ryohei Machiya. I’m really keen on reading more Kaori Fujino and Mariko Yamauchi. I have too many TBR stacks and not enough time.

Translators I try to keep an eye on include Ginny Tapley Takemori, David Boyd, Sam Bett, Polly Barton, Matt Treyvaud, Lucy North, Asa Yoneda…probably others that are just not in my head at the moment…

Five books that show my trajectory as a translator:

Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater – My childhood favorite, but really anything by him. I think he should be translated into Japanese.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, tr. Jay Rubin – The first Murakami book I read, which made me realize I should read 1. More Murakami 2. More Japanese novels in general.

Pengin haiwei by Tomihiko Morimi (Penguin Highway tr. Andrew Cunningham) – I forgot my book one day in 2013 when I had a long train ride, so I picked this up at a station bookstore. Definitely life-changing in a sense that once I started reading Morimi I had a very specific goal in mind: to translate Morimi.

Kaitengusa by Ao Omae – This one (Tumbleweed) I picked up just browsing at Junkudo in Ikebukuro. The cover is so striking, and then you see that the author is young, has won some awards. I had no idea what I was in for. It’s a collection of short stories that makes you feel emotions on some sort of different frequency than usual. This was published a couple years ago, but he’s really exciting to watch. Currently pitching his novella about people who share difficult emotions with stuffed animals.

Shopan zonbi kontesutanto by Ryohei Machiya – I read Machiya’s Akutagawa win in Bungei Shunjū and really liked it. Then I saw him in conversation with Ao Omae, and that was what got me really hooked. Hearing him speak is always fascinating. This book (Chopin zombie contestant) is about piano players, one of whom is quitting and trying to write fiction instead, one of whom is considered a genius. I’m really eager to carve some time out to work on Machiya in the near future.

What books are you excited about or working on now?

I’m kept very busy with two light novel series: Kugane Maruyama’s Overlord and Carlo Zen’s The Saga of Tanya the Evil. Still excited about Kiki’s Delivery Service, which came out this past summer! I really hope we can do the rest of the series. (Not many people know that it’s a book, and even fewer people realize that it’s a series of books that follow the teenage witch into adulthood.)

My translation of second-generation atomic bomb survivor Shaw Kuzki’s Soul Lanterns is coming out in March. It follows kids in Hiroshima 25 years after the bomb as they try to wrap their heads around how horrible it was. One thing that makes this work interesting is that even though you learn things along with the kids as they interact with their older relatives and neighbors, the story itself is not “historical fiction,” but more of a drama with a bit of a mystery. 

Are there any Japanese books that you would love to translate in the future?

So many. Besides my top three authors, who are always on my mind, I’m pitching a YA sci-fi, first crush story called Syndrome by Tetsuya Sato that is unlike anything I’ve read before, mainly because of the writing and voice itself. Mikoto Mashita’s debut #Yuriatokakurenbo  (#HideandSeekwithYuria) is a dark thriller about the pop idol industry and online bullying that I think would resonate with a lot of people. I also just finished reading Yusaku Kitano’s Doronko rondo (Mud puddle rondo) which is a brilliant, philosophical adventure taken by a girl android and a turtle childcare robot through a future Earth that has turned into a sea of mud as they try to figure out where all the humans have gone.

When it comes to the promotion of the books that you have translated how involved are you?

I tweet a lot, haha. I’m not super involved with the publisher’s efforts (?), but I do interviews when they come up and sometimes organize things like this talk with Andrew Cunningham about translating Morimi or this interview with Carlo Zen. Going to Japan Now with Morimi early in the year before Covid got really bad was an amazing experience. I’d love to do more events with authors.

Has the perception of Japanese Literature in translation changed during the time you have worked as a translator?

It’s a bit weird because there are somewhat separate literatures. There’s “capital L” literature and then otaku stuff. The number of light novels published every year has skyrocketed, and while Literature hasn’t done that, exactly, I feel like there is definitely more available now? Or is it just that I personally am more aware of what’s available? Hard to say. But this current wave of writing by women with Sayaka Murata and Mieko Kawakami (Hiroko Oyamada, Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami…) has been nice to see.

Finally, what are you currently reading.

Been checking out Issue 6 of Chabudai because it contains a Ryohei Machiya short story, and I’m also interested in reading more essays. To that end, I’m also finally about to tuck into Rain Kudo’s Utau obake (The singing ghost). The next novel I read will probably be either Hiroka Yamashita’s Dōru (Doll) or Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 tr. Jamie Chang.

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview and I cannot wait to read more of your translations in the future.

(Photo of the book is my own and the photo of Emily Balistrieri is the property of Emily themself so please do not take or copy without permission first).

6 responses to “Meet The Translator: Interview With Emily Balistrieri (Japanese to English)

    • Thank you so much 🙂 I also didn’t realise Kiki was a series until this interview either. That’s one of things I love about doing these kinds of Interviews you find out so much that you didn’t know or realise about the bookish world or translation world before 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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