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Thriller set in Tokyo – plus Q&A with translator, Giles Murray

23rd May 2016

The Silent Dead by Tetsuya Honda, thriller set in Tokyo (translated by Giles Murray)

The Silent Dead is not for the faint-hearted. It is Tokyo noir at its best… and most gruesome.

thriller set in TokyoA series of twelve quite mind bogglingly evil and brutal murders threatens to confound the police. The investigation is led by Reiko Himekawa, an unusually young (and female) Lieutenant in the murder squad of Tokyo City Police. She has very little to go on… possibly a connection to the second Sunday evening of the month, and possibly a dark web reference to ‘Strawberry Night’. She, herself, was a rape victim when young – and the experience still haunts her. She is a very tough and insightful detective – who proceeds as much on ‘instinct’ as hard evidence. She is quite definitely a woman in a man’s world – and she suffers sexual harassment (and harassment in general) as she goes about her duties. The loyal team she leads is blatantly set up to compete with another fronted by the less than honest Lieutenant Kensaku Katsumata – and one of the key sub plots of The Silent Dead is the competition between them as they explore the murky existence of the Tokyo underworld and its inhabitants.

In parallel with the main story of the investigation, Honda also tracks back (one chapter in four…) to the very disturbed life of a young girl who was abused by her stepfather and eventually burnt him to death in the family home, before ending up in and out of psychiatric institutions. You will not be surprised to hear that the two stories eventually come together…

For TripFiction readers this is locationally a great book. Very much set in Tokyo with good descriptions of many different areas (some less desirable to visit than others…). The Silent Dead sold over 4m copies in Japan alone and is the first in a series of five novels featuring Reiko Himekawa. It is also the first to be translated into English and is published simultaneously in the UK and the US.

As I said at the beginning, The Silent Dead is not for the faint hearted. It was for me a fascinating book (not least because I know Tokyo reasonably well…) but it is also extremely gruesome and very bloody. With that not insignificant proviso, I recommend it.

Tony for the TripFiction team

Now over to our Q&A with translator, Giles Murray…

TF: Your working life is the Japanese language – from self-teach text books, to commercial / advertising translation, to the translation of novels. Which of these strands gives you the most satisfaction? 

GM: Translating books is probably the most intellectually satisfying thing I do, and I really like all the people involved in the publishing business, including my fellow translators. At the same time, translating is a solitary activity and a book of several hundred pages represents a long slog, so you need stamina and commitment. I think it’s healthy to be able to flip between the two worlds of advertising and translating, as each generates energy and enthusiasm for the other through the power of contrast. It’s also stimulating to work with top class editors in London or New York who provide all sorts of suggestions for books and TV series to read and watch to get in the right frame of mind for whatever one is translating.

TF: When you translate a novel how much do you feel you are part of the creative process? How much do you feel you are co-author of the translated book? 

GM: You certainly feel a bit more of a co-author when translating genre literature like thrillers. Readers have certain clear expectations of how a thriller should read, going all the way back to the terse, noirish style of Dashiell Hammitt in the 1930s, so the translator has to make sure the English version fits with those genre expectations. Japan has almost no swearwords—“foolish fellow” and ”golden balls” is about as nasty as it gets—so when a villain is being nasty, you get considerable leeway in spicing up their language, which is one fun aspect of the job.

TF: How difficult is it to re-create a book in English that was originally written with Japanese structures? 

GM: That’s a translator’s job! Honda likes to create atmosphere and is interested in language, in contrast to come thriller writers who really only care about the fine mechanics of plot, so this makes the task more rewarding. 

TF: What normally is your working relationship with the author? 

GM: I have met five authors whose books I have translated, usually in connection with press events. You tend to meet the non-fiction authors more than the fiction authors; as they are “being themselves” in their books, meeting them and getting a sense of their personality can be helpful. The most useful meeting I had in this regard was probably with Shunsaku Tamiya, the founder of the military model company, Tamiya, whose autobiography I translated. Wanting a hint as to how to translate the book, I asked him who he would like to be if he could be born again as a non-Japanese. His answer was Lawrence of Arabia. This gave me an idea for the tone to aim for, though I hope the English is not as opaque as Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

I have not met Tetsuya Honda, the author of The Silent Dead, but then again The Silent Dead is his first book to go into English. A successful writer will be translated into many languages, so they can’t very well meet all their translators. If you meet and the chemistry isn’t there, meeting the author can sometimes be counterproductive. Authors of genre fiction are less precious than literary authors, so tend to have a more laissez-faire attitude to translation and less interest in meeting (and interfering in!) their work.

TF: The Silent Dead is not a literal translation of the Japanese title (which is Strawberry Night). How did this change come about?

GM: This was a decision taken by Keith Kahla, the editor in New York. The main character Reiko is friendly with a pathologist by the name of Dr. Kunioku, who early on talks about the pleasure he gets from “plying his scalpel to communicate with the silent dead.” As Reiko is obsessed with the details of autopsies (someone mocks her as a “corpse fetishist” at one point) and tends to make her key deductions from bold, empathy-based intuitive leaps, this seemed like a good name for the book. In Japanese, “Strawberry Night” is an exotic foreign phrase, but in English to an English speaker it’s more mystifying than anything else.

TF: The Silent Dead describes some particularly gruesome murders. How did you feel as you translated some of the horrific detail? 

GM: To be honest, I enjoyed it. There is a double technical challenge in generating a sense of excitement and getting all the physiological details just right so that medically minded readers won’t find any mistakes. There is quite a lot of information—including entire autopsy reports with photographs, usually from developing countries—available on the Internet to consult to make sure one gets the terminology right. 

TF: The book describes Tokyo police procedures extremely well – and clearly presents Reiko as the outsider and independent spirit. In your experience of Japan, to what extent are there people like her – prepared to bend the rules? 

GM: Like anywhere else, the people who get things done in Japan often have slight maverick tendencies. As regards the police force, I don’t really know. But from what Reiko says in the book, the organization seems to be set up to punish mistakes rather than reward success, encouraging the promotion of risk-averse do-nothings.

TF: You, and Tetsuya Honda, clearly have great knowledge of Tokyo. To what extent did you simply translate his writing or to what extent did your own experience of the locations and transport systems kick in? 

GM: I visited all of the locations in The Silent Dead to take photographs, which I then annotated and sent along to the editor in New York as a sort of “mood board.” In a police procedural, the descriptions of the crime scenes tend to be very thorough and their characteristics—where the roads are, whether there is foliage to hide in, the number of passers by etc.—play a major role in the story, so you want to get everything absolutely 100% right. Plenty of submerged dead bodies get dredged up in the course of The Silent Dead; one of the places they are hidden is actually a man-made rowing lake that was constructed in Tokyo for the 1940 Olympics, which, for obvious reasons, did not take place! That was an interesting discovery to make.

TF: Do you think that, in general, book translators get the public credit they deserve?

GM: The best acclaim a translator can hope for is not to be noticed. If the book feels like a translation, then it’s failed as a translation. As far as I am concerned, the best public credit I can get is for people to vote with their feet and go and buy the book. People in the business can distinguish a good translation from a bad translation and it’s their opinion that matters.

Thank you to Giles for his excellent and informative answers..You can connect with Giles via his website

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