Kaoru Takamura’s Lady Joker, Vol. 1 (Soho Crime, Apr.), which received a starred review from PW, is an epic 600-page tale of revenge originally published in 1997. Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt (Penguin Books, June), released in Japan in 2019, is a brisk novel of obsession. Their spring publications mark the authors’ English-language debuts; PW spoke with translators Marie Iida and Alison Markin Powell (Lady Joker) and Lucy North (The Woman in the Purple Skirt) about introducing the acclaimed novels to a new readership.
Did you feel a particular sense of responsibility in translating Lady Joker, a modern classic in Japan?
Marie Iida: Definitely yes.
Alison Markin Powell: There’s the weight of the project itself, and aside from that—it’s just that Takamura is so well known and well respected. She hasn’t been translated into English before, and there’s a reason for that. Her work is very difficult.
What about The Woman in the Purple Skirt, a newer book?
Lucy North: As a translator I feel a tremendous sense of love for the book, and I also feel a terrific sense of responsibility to the writer. Natsuko Imamura’s writing is deceptively simple. She explores loneliness, precarity, exclusion, and victimization in quite complicated ways.
Do thrillers present distinct translation challenges?
LN: There’s an overwhelming sense of loneliness in the narrator [of The Woman in the Purple Skirt]—you get the sense that she isn’t known, even to herself. As a translator I had to make sure that readers gradually picked up the character of the narrator; I had to make this quality of unknownness known to the reader, but in as light a way as possible. At the same time, I had to make sure that the surprise at the end could be a surprise.
MI: For Takamura, so much of her thriller comes from communicating the minutiae of everyday life, and she communicates so much detail in this sort of ritualistic way life unfolds back in the 1990s in Japan. But there’s always that personal crisis or breakdown seething just beneath the surface, and we’re waiting for that to manifest. So it was very important for us to get all the details that Takamura illustrates as accurately as possible.
AMP: Takamura does so much research for her books, and for this book in particular, so we also had to do that research. I think that helped to recreate the minutiae that Marie is talking about, the minutiae of daily life in society and culture and the layers of information and connections among the characters. We knew we needed to gather all those strands and keep them intact.
How do you feel about English-language readers finally getting to experience these books?
LN: It’s wonderful that Imamura’s making her debut in English with this novel in particular. She’d already made a name for herself as a writer, and then she won the Akutagawa Prize with this book, and it became a bestseller in Japan. It’s a short novel, but it’s a masterpiece.
AMP: As you say, [Lady Joker is] a modern classic; people know the author. They know her by reputation. But this book in particular—she touches on certain aspects of society that don’t get put under the spotlight. And the fact that she weaves them in as integral parts of the plot is, I think, really fascinating.
MI: As a Japanese person, I’m so excited to introduce Takamura’s voice into the world, because she’s so important and is active even to this day, not just with her novels, but with social commentary. She has such a sharp eye on Japanese society, where it’s going, and what its position is in the world. I’m looking forward to her book connecting with international readers.