Meet Japanese Literary Translator Allison Markin Powell – Words Without Borders Campus


The first time I went to Japan, when I left
my first host family, They were lovely, but they were somewhat reserved, as many Japanese people, when you first meet them, there seems like there’s a reservation there. But I lived with them for several months and the night before I left, we went out
and sang karaoke, not surprisingly, and my host mother, who was this very elegant woman, drank too much, and, on our way home burst into tears. And was just apparently devastated by the
impending separation, by me leaving. And it was somewhat surprising because it
was different from the character,the persona ,that I had encountered
for all of these past months and weeks. And, you know, to me that was like a
breakthrough in that you know the Japanese culture has the emote, the façade
they show to society and once you get to the other side there’s this whole other
level and this depth that you can get to know a person,
and once you’re in you’re in My name is Allison Markin Powell.
I am a Japanese literary translator. I started studying Japanese when
I was in college, my freshman year, and somewhat arbitrarily started with
Japanese and didn’t know anything really about the culture, the language, or the
literature. But I think that I got very lucky in terms of the wealth of Japanese
literature and how much had not been translated at that point. Or, still, at
this point. Some of the difficult to translate phrases and concepts that exist in Japanese are some of the most charming. Something like mono no aware is sometimes translated as
the pathos of things and it’s this, not quite an obsession but this
fixation on the ephemerality of life. It’s really exemplified with the way the
Japanese feel about, for instance, the cherry blossoms. They love cherry
blossoms and the trees and the seasons and the flowers and there are all of these
rituals around viewing and admiring the cherry blossoms, and it’s all based on the fact that
they’re going to die: they’re going to wither and scatter and and die. So, there’s just something that’s really beautiful about that to me. The stories that I’m drawn to, personally, to read and hopefully, ultimately, to translate as well, they do tend to examine this
sadness or I think there must be some sort of something that resonates
within me. For instance, in Sentimental Education, it is a story of the
emotional development of actually, two different people, two
different characters, and it does deal with memories. It’s absolutely, it’s painful
but bittersweet. There is a very acute sadness in the abandonment of this
baby girl and the idea of her mother as this
sort of transient, almost as a ghost. I think everybody tends to
try to understand themselves through their memories and what remains important to them,
the things that sort of imprint upon you and shape who you become.

2 Replies to “Meet Japanese Literary Translator Allison Markin Powell – Words Without Borders Campus

  1. Thank you for the interview. I have read her translation of The Briefcase, and thought it one of the best books I have ever read. I am on a binge of reading only Asian women writers. Can you tell me where this interview takes place? I must read Sentimental Education. Is it also called Schoolgirl?

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