Rónán Hession, aka songwriter Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, recently relayed his admiration for the “sub-200 page novel”. Yes, it’s about the number of pages, but there’s “something perfect about the narrative arc in them, like a free-kick that clears the wall and dips just below the crossbar.” Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles and published by Tilted Axis Press, does precisely this.

Of the Akutagawa-award winning, Zainichi (Korean-Japanese) writer, The New York Times says: “She is simultaneously a social outcast and a literary star...a creative genius.” And of the slim, sensitive, and significant work, author Elaine Castillo says: “A radical and deeply felt work of fiction, pyschogeography and history all at once, tapping us straight into the lifeblood of a Tokyo we rarely see: Tokyo from the margins, rooted in the city’s most vulnerable and least visible lives – and deaths.” Within days of its release, Tokyo Ueno Station is all the rage in UK bookshops, where people are snapping up copies of Morgan Giles’s translation.

Giles spoke to Scroll.in over email about the process of translating Tokyo Ueno Station from the Japanese, about literary prizes and systemic issues in the publishing industry when it comes to works in translation, and about Miri’s prose, which is “like a very cold, deep, clear lake”. Excerpts from the interview:

How did you come to Yu Miri’s work – and to translating Tokyo Ueno Station?
There was, until quite recently, a wonderful Japanese secondhand bookstore in London called Adanami Shobo, where I used to just buy anything that grabbed my eye. One day I was browsing and saw a few books by Yu Miri with really striking titles – Men, Suicide – and I bought a handful. On the bus home I started reading and immediately fell in love. A few months later I saw she had a new book out, JR Ueno-eki Koen-guchi (Tokyo Ueno Station), which I bought and knew instantly I had to translate. It was the first book in Japanese that made me cry.

Getting to translate the book was strangely easy. I just kept talking about it nonstop for two years until Deborah Smith at Tilted Axis gave in and said she wanted to publish it.

What, if any, were the challenges you faced translating this work into English? Was the project a close collaboration with the author, or did you more or less work on it on your own? What was the most gratifying part of the translation process?
The Fukushima dialect was a challenge, as were the snippets of conversations of passers-by in the park, but the hardest thing in truth was maintaining the sense of tight emotional control in every single word. Miri’s prose in this novel is like a very cold, deep, clear lake; it never freezes and cracks. It took a lot of work to get the tone right, not too slack or taut.

Miri was always delighted to answer any questions throughout, so it felt very collaborative although Miri doesn’t speak English. She gave me complete freedom to play with the text; her primary concern was that English readers feel the book, not look at a grainy photocopy. The foundation of trust in our author-translator relationship and the liberty she gave me made it feel like we were in it together.

Towards the end of the translation process, she invited me up to Minami-soma, Fukushima, where she now lives, to work through any final questions I had. That weekend was the most gratifying part: visiting Minami-soma, meeting people who have returned there to live after the disasters, whose life stories are so close to Kazu’s in so many ways. The conversations I had with them gave me the energy to finish the translation, to let English readers know both sides of Fukushima, the tragedy and the beauty.

The protagonist Kazu’s life began as a labourer ahead of the 1964 Olympics. With the 2020 Olympics around the corner, how do you feel Yu Miri’s work and your translation of Tokyo Ueno Station are contributing to the conversation by bringing to the centre of the page those on the peripheries of Japanese society?
I hope it’s the flaw in the jewel, as the phrase goes in Japanese. I hope people can’t watch the opening ceremonies without feeling physically sick that labour, time and money were diverted from recovery efforts in the North-Eastern coastal region to build Olympic facilities. That homeless people have been evicted from parks in Tokyo because their presence isn’t compatible with the Olympic dream. That homeless people from as far south as Okinawa are being hired to do construction in the North-Eastern coastal region because companies are that hard up for labourers, leading to a situation that Miri calls “a reverse Tokyo Ueno Station” – these homeless labourers are dying in Fukushima, names unknown and no relatives to be traced, with nowhere for their remains to go except a temple that has agreed to be the final resting place for these anonymous men who worked until they died to rebuild a country that doesn’t care about them.

And if Prime Minister Abe dresses up as Mario again, I’m going to throw something.

How does it feel to be published by Tilted Axis Press, who have committed to bring contemporary Asian fiction in translation to English-speaking UK audiences?
It’s wonderful to be published by Tilted Axis – it feels like it was only yesterday that Deborah and I were grousing in the pub about how hard it was to get British publishers interested in Asian books in translation, and look at the press now. It shows what Deborah and I always told each other was true: people are interested in truly different, exciting books from Asia in translation. I couldn’t be prouder to work with TAP.

Author Yu Miri.
Author Yu Miri.

I read elsewhere that you’re working on translating a follow-up from Yu Miri – The End of August. What can readers expect?
The End of August is a multi-generational, multilingual epic telling a semi-fictionalised version of Miri’s family history: her grandfather was a marathon runner, good enough to have competed in the cancelled 1940 Tokyo Olympics – but as Korea was under Japanese occupation at the time, he would have had to run with the Rising Sun on his chest. (I promise this is the only other Olympics-related novel Miri’s written!) Expect more channeling of the dead and more taboo-smashing forthrightness, with a very experimental edge.

The Warwick Women’s Prize for Translation is currently in its third year. How important are such prizes and grants for translated fiction in filling industry gaps with respect to gender, language, and writers of colour?
I hope a better, more equal world is coming soon, but until that comes to pass, specific prizes are a necessary corrective to draw attention to the authors and books overlooked by the others. It’s amazing to me that four years ago, I think, I was sitting in a room at the British Library with dozens of other translators talking about concrete ways we could raise the visibility of women in translation, and not long after, fellow attendees including Katy Derbyshire announced they’d actually gone and done something about it, and now we have the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation!

Wonderful as it all is, we’re dealing with systemic issues in publishing, ones that aren’t going to get any better until the field is seriously diversified in every way. Pushing to make sure editorial internships are paid a genuine living wage is part of the way forward, so people without money behind them can get their foot in the door.

You’re one of the five members of The Starling Bureau – a London-based collective of literary translators. And you’re currently on a fellowship at Waseda University, Tokyo, where you research female Japanese authors. Can you tell us about these projects?
The Starling Bureau is myself, Zoe Perry (Portuguese-English), Ruth Clarke (Spanish/Italian/Portuguese-English), Roland Glasser (French-English), and Paul Russell Garrett (Norwegian/Danish-English). Working as a collective enables us to pitch one another’s books, share industry connections, and work together to provide multilingual and multinational intelligence to publishers. I’m hoping we’ll be able to take the collective to greater heights in 2019.

My time at Waseda is sadly coming to a close, but I spent the last two years working on Tokyo Ueno Station and researching two other, very different female authors: Fumiko Hayashi and Yoriko Shono. Fumiko Hayashi is a kind of Japanese Jean Rhys, very jazzy writing about women from the periphery living in tough conditions in the big city, while Yoriko Shono (still living) defines her writing as “avant-pop”, each novel a shamanistic postmodern mess. I’d kill to translate them both.

What are three works in translation you’ve read and loved recently – or ones you’re looking forward to reading this year? The Man Booker International longlist was announced recently. Who are you rooting for?
I seem to read a lot of French books in translation; not sure why. I loved The Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent, translated by Emma Ramadan. And I’m eagerly awaiting Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 3, translated by Frank Wynne, whenever that may be out. I adore Virginie Despentes’ writing so much I even had a dream a while back where I was helping Frank out with the translation, although I barely have enough French to buy a pack of cigarettes.

I’m looking forward to getting around to Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, which should tell you that you probably shouldn’t set much stock in any prediction I might offer for the Booker International winner for 2019. But I love Can Xue, so I hope Love in the New Millennium, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, wins.