“This strange debut is an exploration of the psyche of a woman who feels removed from the emotional threads of humanity. Once she recognizes this ‘fault’ in herself, she embraces the freedom that being quiet, and therefore left alone, can bring her,” said Ely Watson of A Room of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin. “In college, she gets a job at a newly opened convenience store and quickly becomes a creature of habit reliant on the redundancy of the store’s sterile environment. The novel picks up with her having worked there for 18 years. While not ready to make any changes, she is ready to have people stop prying into her life and happiness. This novel is a strong commentary on obsessive work culture, but I recommend it more for its calculated, removed prose and its unique narrative and characters.”
Convenience Store Woman is the winner of the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards. Murata, who still works part-time in a convenience store, was named a Freeman’s “Future of New Writing” author and in 2016, Vogue Japan selected her as a Woman of the Year.
Ginny Tapley Takemori, a British translator based in rural Japan, has translated more than a dozen works from Japanese. She was previously an editor at Kodansha International and a Spain-based foreign rights agent.
Here, Watson talks with both the author and translator.
Ely Watson: How do the convenience stores you’ve worked in compare to the one in the novel?
Sayaka Murata: I have worked in six different stores, so it’s a little difficult to give a straightforward answer to your question. The store I was working in when writing the novel had a much more homely, peaceful atmosphere than the one in the novel. The convenience store I had in mind when describing the workers’ manual was much stricter than the one in the novel, and there were more people working there, including many sent from the head office. I drew on all my experiences in different stores to create a fictional version most suited to my character, who is an orderly, ideal employee.
EW: I love the ending of Convenience Store Woman. Is it what you planned to write all along?
Sayaka Murata: I always write without knowing how the story will end, so my heart was in my mouth while writing as I wondered what choice Keiko would make in the end. Therefore, I was delighted to hit upon this ending as I wrote. This sense of discovery is why I write, so I was very pleased with this experience.
EW: A theme in Convenience Store Woman is the narrator’s balance between work and life. How did you manage your time while writing the novel?
Sayaka Murata: I was actually working in a convenience store while writing this novel, so I exploited this to set my working rhythm. I got up at 2:00 a.m. and wrote until 6:00 a.m., then worked in the store from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., after which I spent the afternoon writing in a café until 5:00 p.m. and went to bed at 9:00 p.m. Writing progressed very well with this rhythm.
EW: The tone of Convenience Store Woman feels very removed, in a way that complements the narrator’s own disconnect from life. Was that something you had to be conscious of during the translation process?
Ginny Tapley Takemori: Yes, it is an important element of the narrative voice, so I had to be careful to capture this aspect in translation. It’s what makes the very detailed observations of the store — the characters, social norms, and so forth — possible, and is also behind the humor, since the disconnect between Keiko’s thoughts and the expectations of the other characters (and the reader) is what makes it so funny. Take the scene near the beginning when some children find a dead bird in the park and Keiko shows it to her mother, who sympathetically suggests burying it, only for Keiko to say, “Let’s eat it!” which almost made me spit out my coffee the first time I read it. The author emphasizes this disconnect with a deadpan tone combined with unusual juxtapositions of words, which strike the reader as surprising but are very vividly understandable. There are many instances of this through the novel, and they had to come across every bit as surprising and vivid in English to retain the humor.
EW: What were some of the challenges or more interesting aspects of translating Convenience Store Woman?
Ginny Tapley Takemori: There were a number of aspects unique to Japanese culture and language that are tricky to deal with in translation. One was the convenience store itself. These stores are ubiquitous throughout Japan, and no matter what chain they belong to, they are all very similar in terms of layout, what they sell, the varied services they offer, the customer service, and so forth. They are instantly recognizable to any Japanese person, but they are also unique to Japan, so how do you bring them alive in the imagination of a readership that has never been in one?
And then there are the formulaic phrases used by store workers that have no equivalent in English: I decided to keep Irasshaimasé, which means something like, “Welcome, please come in,” since it is the one phrase that anyone who has been to Japan will have heard in every store, restaurant, and pretty much any public place. For other phrases, I came up with something roughly equivalent in English, while aiming to retain the formulaic feeling. There were a number of other translation issues that I had to make similar decisions for, but that is really what literary translation is all about: how to render a story in another language while keeping it engaging for the reader and true to the original intent of the author.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori (Trans.) (Grove Press, 9780802128256, Hardcover Fiction, $20) On Sale Date: 6/12/2018.
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