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Motoyuki Shibata

“I try not to think what might interest whom – quite often, what I think might interest my students is just that: what I think might interest them, not what might interest them.”

Motoyuki Shibata has been one of Japan’s most prolific translators of English literature. While his long bibliography includes masters like Paul Auster, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon, he introduces authors less known in their own countries to Japanese readers. Thanks to his precise, sophisticated translation and enthusiastic support, authors like Rebecca Brown and Kelly Link are creating strong fan bases in Japan. Shibata’s talent as a literary translator and curator is summarized in Monkey Business International, an annual literary journal he founded with Ted Goossen in 2011. Having just released its fourth issue, Shibata sat down with Chopsticks NY to discuss the journal, translation in general and Haruki Murakami as his student.

Please tell Chopsticks NY readers about Monkey Business International and highlights of the latest issue no. 4.
It’s an annual literary journal focused on contemporary Japanese fiction, featuring writers like Hiromi Kawakami, Hideo Furukawa, Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa, but we have among our contributors a number of top-rate American authors such as Paul Auster, Stuart Dybek, and Charles Simic.

Issue 4 opens with a new contributor, Craft Ebbing & Co., a Japanese designer duo’s piece, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and Monkey.” It’s a story about a strange monkey doll, with a lot of photos of fun objects. National Book Award author, Richard Powers contributes an illuminating essay exploring the power of Haruki Murakami’s fiction utilizing new knowledge in the field of neuroscience. We also have a modern classic piece by Hyakken Uchida, “The Sarasate Disk,” a tale of the uncanny by a great stylist who has yet to be discovered in North America.

What are the things in MB that might interest Chopsticks NY readers?
Both as a teacher and as a translator/editor, I try not to think what might interest whom – quite often, what I think might interest my students is just that: what I think might interest them, not what might interest them.  With MB we simply offer what excites us most.  Having said that, though, it is our hope that readers in North America find that there’s much diversity in contemporary Japanese literature.

You are the leading translator of English literature.  What are the things you particularly pay attention to while translating?
For me translation is essentially about pleasure: I hope to give Japanese readers the pleasure I get when I read the English text. If the text is fun, the translation should be fun. That may be more important than fidelity. As Eliot Weinberger says, “fidelity may be the most overrated of a translation’s qualities.” Or you could say that translation is not faithful enough if it doesn’t convey the sense of fun to readers.

Translation is not just about words but cultures. Can you think of any American cultures or concepts that you find difficulties in translating into Japanese?
Little things like “driveway” or “window sill” are sometimes a headache, and we don’t really know what “identity” or “compliance” means. But novels and stories contain so much information, so even if small things like that are lost, hopefully readers will still understand what it’s all about. If not, maybe it’s not very good fiction to begin with! Poetry, though, is another matter – one loss may be crucial.

Please share some book titles you enjoyed while translating, and tell us why.
I have enjoyed all novels and collections of stories I have ever translated. I’m especially proud, though, of titles like T. R. Pearson’s Off for the Sweet Hereafter, Laird Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana, and George Belden’s Land of the Snow Men (edited by Norman Lock), simply because those books might never have been translated into Japanese had I not done so.

Some famous novels have a couple of translations in different periods.  Do you think translations need to be updated to change of the time?
Yes. The 1965 translation of The Catcher in the Rye smells more now of Japan of 1965 than America of 1951. It’s very much like literary criticism: we read a critical essay on Poe written in 1960 now, and see more of the critic of 1960 in it than of Poe of the 1840s.

Thanks to your avid translation works, the New Yorker writer, Paul Auster, gained as much popularity in Japan as he did in the US.  What do you think about his novels so fascinates readers in both countries?
Clear prose, good storytelling, but above all the sense that the world may not be as simple as it looks.

I guess this is something you are aiming to do in MBI, but who are the Japanese writers you would like to introduce to the American audiences?
You are right – I’d like to introduce everyone that’s in MB, but especially Hiromi Kawakami and Hideo Furukawa. They are more established than others I’d also like to introduce: they have a number of good novels and collections of stories to their credit.  If you like Kelly Link you would probably like the more fantastical works by Kawakami, and if you like Steve Erickson you’d like most of Furukawa’s works.

You have collaborated with Haruki Murakami on many books and are known as a checker when he translates English literature into Japanese. What is it like to work with Mr. Murakami?
He’s very eager to learn, very quick to learn.  I feel very fortunate working with him.

You just retired from the University of Tokyo after teaching English literature and translation for 25 years. Are you retiring entirely from teaching? What is your plan next?
Yes, actually I retired yesterday (March 31) and this is my first day in 30 years as a free, unemployed man.  But no, I haven’t retired entirely from teaching. I’ll start teaching part-time in the fall, just one class a week.  Meanwhile, I plan to take lots of naps.

Many of Chopsticks NY readers are interested in visiting Japan.  Please share some of your favorite places in Japan with them.
I like the kind of places local people go to for a walk, such as riverbanks or small parks, and streets lined with small stores where locals go for everyday shopping. For a starter, you might enjoy this walking tour:— especially Yanaka Ginza and Yomise-dori.

—— Interview by Sayaka Toyama


Motoyuki Shibata

Born in Tokyo, graduated from University of Tokyo and received a masters degree from Yale University. Shibata has translated works by various authors including Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser, Steve Erickson and Barry Yourgrau and received Japan Translator’s Association Award for his translation of “Mason & Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon in 2010. He is a founding editor of “Monkey,” a quarterly Japanese journal and its English sibling “Monkey Business International.”

Monkey Business International Volume 4
Available in select bookstores and
on the official website


Monkey Business authors are coming to New York

To celebrate the launch of the 4th issue of Monkey Business, the magazine’s contributing authors Toh EnJoe, Hideo Furukawa, Laird Hunt, Matthew Sharpe, founding editors Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen, as well as contributing editor, Roland Kelts will be coming to New York and have discussion events in various locations.

May 3, 2 pm
PEN World Voices Festival @Asia Society
725 Park Ave., New York, NY 10021
$10 Asia Society & PEN members, $12 students & seniors, $15 non-members
Tickets are available at

May 5, 7 pm
163 Court St., Brooklyn, NY 11201

More events will be updated at


Shibata’s 5 Favorite Books He Translated

Laird Hunt, Indiana, Indiana
“One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever translated.”


Paul LaFarge, The Artist of the Missing
“One of the craziest books I’ve ever translated.”


George Belden, Land of the Snow Men (Manuscript Recovered and Edited by Norman Lock)
“One of the strangest books I’ve ever translated.”


Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
“The most difficult book I’ve ever translated. I was really having a hard time creating voices for characters, until I was having a drink with a bunch of friends from high school when it struck me that one of the guys spoke exactly like Jeremiah Dixon. To Mason I gave my own voice, more or less.”


Paul Auster, The Music of Chance
“I realized the power of fiction while I was translating this book – I caught a bad cold from the protagonist Jim Nashe!”