The following article is by guest contributor, Stacy Smith, a freelance translator, interpreter and writer currently living in New York. She writes about her work at the World P.E.N. Forum on Natural Disaster and Culture held in Tokyo earlier this year.
I was living in Tokyo last spring, and this is when my connection to the forum began. The executive producer of the event, Japanese non-fiction author Shinobu Yoshioka, happened to be friends with a colleague of mine from when I was working as a journalist at Nikkei Business’s New York bureau. My friend introduced me to Yoshioka-san when he heard I was moving to Tokyo, and after getting to know each other he asked me to translate the works that would be recited at the forum. As everything would be performed in Japanese, it was necessary to produce English versions so foreign guests could follow along. My previous translating work has been mostly technical or economic. Now as a freelance translator and interpreter, I jumped at the chance to be involved with a project in the arts and one of such significance.
Since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, natural disasters have become a part of the national dialogue in terms of physical as well as emotional damage, not to mention the interplay of politics. The current aftermath of the cyclone in Burma also shows the intersection of all of these elements in regard to natural disaster. With the theme of “Screamed, Survived, Start Anew,” the P.E.N. forum dealt with all of these aspects and tried to go beyond what is routinely covered on the news in terms of casualties and death counts.
There were Japanese presenters as well as 10 foreign presenters who attended this four-day forum. Four of them were two musician couples from New Orleans who sang about their Katrina experiences, singer Susan Cowsill and drummer Russ Broussard and David Leonard & Roselyn Lionheart, street musicians who have been performing together for almost 50 years. Other foreign guests included Samoan author Albert Wendt, Indonesian author Linda Christanty, Thai author Khwaiyun Lukjan, Chinese authors Mo Yan and Ryu Cheng-Yung and Taiwanese documentary filmmaker Wu Yii Feng.
I translated all of the foreign works except the Chinese ones, including Lukjan’s short story “Stones of the Golden Women” which is a moving piece about how a sea gypsy family near Phuket was affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami. I also translated works by Japanese authors, such as Tatsuro Dekune’s “Ansei-Edo Catastrophe,” a rowdy piece about this earthquake, Wahei Tatematsu’s radio drama “Mount Asama” depicting the eruption of this volcano in 1783 and the essay “Living on a Volcanic Archipelago” by Hiroshi Takada, a non-fiction piece examining how Japan’s topology has affected the lifestyle of its people.
I carried out these translations in the months leading up to the conference, and traveled to Tokyo this February to serve as an interpreter at the actual conference. In addition to meeting all of the amazing authors I had the honor of translating for, I was in charge of the English-speaking foreign guests. During the forum itself simultaneous interpreting for the presentations had been outsourced, but I was the sole interpreter for all other events such as welcome and goodbye parties and city tours. It was a job that kept me on my toes and enabled me to meet many wonderful, stimulating people during the course of the conference.
Watching the simultaneous interpreters at work both awed and inspired me. Conference interpreting is a whole other level of language ability that I would like to strive towards. For receiving this inspiration and many other reasons, being able to work with the Japan P.E.N. Club was invaluable. As a World P.E.N. Conference is planned to be held in Tokyo in 2010, I am looking forward to being called back to again serve as translator and interpreter for this event.
Stacy is currently working with the Japanese production company, TKO Entertainment, in translating upcoming plays the company plans to stage in New York City this summer and fall. She can be reached at Nyintern1@hotmail.com.