The latest book project for Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell was released in England this summer to excellent reviews and strong sales, reaching the top 10 on Amazon.com.
The Reason I Jump, coming out in the US next month, is a memoir about autism and a deeply personal book for Mitchell, the father of an autistic boy. But he is not the author. The Reason I Jump is a Japanese publication written by Naoki Higashida, a 21-year-old author and motivational speaker who was 13 when he completed the book.
Mitchell and his wife, K A Yoshida, were the translators. “My wife had been hearing about the book and when she got a copy of it, in Japanese, she found it quite revelatory,” Mitchell said during a recent interview. “She started off interpreting the passages she felt were most useful in the book, but in the end she was reading through the whole thing.”
Higashida’s book, for which Mitchell also wrote an introduction, is a rarity in the publishing world. Translation is mostly the work of academics and professionals, with Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman and William Weaver among the most celebrated. Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery and countless other poets also translate books, some quite successfully. Seamus Heaney’s edition of Beowulf was a surprise best-seller in 2000 and Wilbur’s editions of Moliere’s plays are widely used in stage productions.
But among prose writers, the list is relatively tiny. In the 1950s, Saul Bell-ow translated Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Gimpel the Fool and helped introduce the Yiddish writer to English-language readers. Vladimir Nabokov translated Pushkin’s classic verse novel Eugene Onegin. Jonathan Franzen has a book out this fall, The Kraus Project, which features his translations of the late Austrian satirist and critic Karl Kraus. Lydia Davis is a prize-winning author of short stories whose many translations include an edition of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
“I think the main obstacle must purely be length,” said Adam Thirlwell, a British author whose books include The Delighted States, an informal history of novels, novelists and translations. “A translation is a very difficult object to create: For a novelist to translate someone else’s novel therefore requires a certain selflessness — a sacrifice of your own writing time to someone else.”
One way for a prose writer to find time is by spreading out the work. Franzen’s editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Jonathan Galassi, notes that the author had been working on the Kraus book since the 1980s.
During those years, Franzen completed four novels, including The Corrections and Freedom, and such non-fiction books as the memoir The Discomfort Zone and the essay colle-ction How To Be Alone.
Mitchell says that at first he and his wife simply wanted to translate the book for their son’s caretakers. But “one thing led to another” and he realised that his publisher, Random House, was interested in any book with his name on it, even as a translator. Mitchell and Yoshida took turns editing drafts of the book, with Mitchell drawing upon his “high inte-rmediate” level of Japanese, along with a dictionary and, Franzen be warned, the occasional search on his iPhone.
The pace was “relaxed,” said Mitchell, who all along was working on a novel of his own. A job that a full-time translator might have finished in weeks lasted about 18 months.