The Gap Between Languages

An Interview with Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

Hideo Yokoyama’s detective novel Six Four, about a cold case and the conflicts within a police department, was first released in Japan to wide acclaim. Yokoyama’s carefully plotted, high-tension novel seemed perfect for U.K. and U.S. readers that had been devouring books by writers like Jo Nesbø and Steig Larsson, so translator Jonathan Lloyd-Davies was tasked with bringing Yokoyama’s work to English-language readers. We talked to Lloyd-Davies about translating a Japanese bureaucracy, his translation process, and the appeal of a crime novel in a country with a low crime rate.


Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
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Work in Progress: Before Six Four landed on U.S. shores, it was a bestseller in the U.K. and a cultural phenomenon in Japan. Were you living in Tokyo when the novel first appeared in 2012? If so, what do you remember about the reception and general excitement? How did you first hear about it?

Jonathan Lloyd-Davies: I was still living in the U.K. when the novel was released, working on other translations, and on a strict diet of reading English to limit the influence of Japanese syntax in my work. Six Four first came my way via a translation summer school in Norwich, chaired by the translator and professor Michael Emmerich, who later brought the project to my attention. At the time I was finishing another translation and looking for something to take on. He was, of course, kind enough to warn me that it was a long book.

WiP: Did this project require you to do any background research on Japan’s police and criminal justice systems? If so, what kind?

JLD: My knowledge going in was limited at best. So I read the book, took a deep breath, then combed through a long list of police and government websites. I downloaded structure charts and department lists, then set about building a glossary. Most prefectures have their own ways of translating their departments into English, so I used what seemed to fit while referencing other books to get a sense of vocabulary. I also researched the more technical items, such as the Japanese statute of limitations, so I could be sure I wasn’t getting it wrong.

WiP: What is Hideo Yokoyama’s profile in Japan? Are there equivalents that seem right to you—for instance, when Yokoyama gets described as the James Ellroy of Tokyo, or as Jo Nesbø meets Haruki Murakami?

JLD: Yokoyama is known for having his own unique style, taking the traditional detective novel and flipping the focus away from the case—although there are, of course, cases to be solved. But the central tensions tend to concern internal politics, media conflict, problems of a more domestic nature. Yokoyama constantly questions the boundaries and structures of Japanese society, using them to pen thrillers that are political and introspective and that emphasize human drama. When the Japanese press talk about him, they talk about his uniqueness.

WiP: Hideo Yokoyama is famous for his intense work ethic—what is your work routine when translating?

JLD: Certainly less intense! Six Four took just over a year to finish, putting in eight to ten hours every day (including most weekends). I’d usually start midmorning, after a walk to clear my head, and finish up late evening. The only way I can translate is to go straight through the text once, writing in draft, and then take some time away from the text to get some distance. These first drafts are always terrible. Next is tweaking and rewriting, which I spend lots of time on. When I translate I also tend to read lots, but only in English—reading in Japanese seems to mess with my translator’s brain. After the rewrite, the book hopefully reads more like real English. Finally, I go back and do a line-check against the original text to check I haven’t strayed.

WiP: Japan has a reputation in the West for having extremely low rates of violent crime. Do you think this has any relevance to the immense popularity of crime fiction in Japan?

JLD: I think Japan has always had a bit of a love affair with detective fiction. There’s romance in detective work, and I think detail-focused Japan certainly has an appreciation for the methodical process of solving a case. Whether there’s a causal relationship with actual crime, I couldn’t say—but it would be interesting to see a study compared to other low-crime countries!

WiP: Has Six Four changed the way living in Japan feels to you? For instance, has it made you think of the police or the culture differently? The book has been celebrated for revealing a culture—even to itself—and I’m curious how you feel about that and if you’ve experienced that personally?

JLD: One of the things I enjoyed most about Six Four was how well it captures so many aspects of Japanese society: the rigid social structures, the tension between the ever-changing and contextual ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ attitudes towards women at work. After having worked in Japan for a few years, I recognized a lot of what I saw being reflected in the book. It was a good reminder of how different Japan can be from home.

WiP: How did you get started as a translator of Japanese literature?

JLD: I was working at an accountancy firm in London when an old colleague from Japan got in touch and asked if I was available to co-translate Edge by Koji Suzuki. I didn’t have much time on my hands but felt I couldn’t pass up the opportunity—I took the project on and cut sleep until it was finished.

WiP: Who are your favorite Japanese writers, either available in translation or not?

JLD: I don’t get that much time to read these days, with a full-time job and a family, but some of my favorite Japanese writers are Aoko Matsuda, Yukio Mishima, and Toh EnJoe. I also enjoy Kobo Abe’s work, and reading Haruki Murakami’s essays was instrumental in helping me learn Japanese.

WiP: What is the hardest thing to get right in translating from Japanese into English?

JLD: The huge gap between the two languages means for a lot of reworking of the text to get natural-sounding sentences. I often read a sentence in Japanese and think I understand it completely, only to realize that I have no idea how to write it in English. It’s not usually a language you can translate word for word. Subject markers are often skipped, verbs don’t correlate, onomatopoeia can be prevalent; in Japanese, it’s viewed as a positive to repeat the same adjectives. To the translator all of this is of course part of the puzzle, a puzzle that’s frequently infuriating, but one with enough eureka moments to make it all worthwhile.

WiP: Were there any special challenges in translating this novel in particular?

JLD: The lengthy internal monologues were a challenge, capturing them as they shifted from past to present to future speculation, with little in the Japanese to signal the changes. The number of characters, the repeated lines, all the department and position names, and the particular quirks of Japanese vertical-society office speak.

WiP: Have you seen the movie and TV series based on Six Four? Do you think they are successful adaptations?

JLD: I actually haven’t seen them, although I hear the movie is a particularly good representation. On my list!

WiP: Have you spent much time in areas of Japan like those where Six Four takes place? The novel isn’t set in the areas Westerners typically imagine when we think of Japan (e.g., hyper neon-lit metropolis Tokyo, or rural Old World Japan). What is this other Japan like?

JLD: I spent some time in a small city in rural Gifu, working for a government-sponsored business incubator. The novel does a great job of reflecting life in semi-rural Japan. This other Japan is, in my view, the best Japan. It’s relaxed, safe, friendly, where people work hard but enjoy nature and culture in their own time. The sense of shared community was like nothing I’d seen before.

WiP: Did you see the twist coming?

JLD: No! He got me good and proper.

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

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Jonathan Lloyd-Davies studied Japanese at the University of Durham and Chinese at Oxford. His translations include Edge by Koji Suzuki, with cotranslator Camellia Nieh; the Psyche Diver trilogy by Baku Yumemakura; Gray Men by Tomotake Ishikawa; and Nan-Core by Mahokaru Numata. His translation of Edge received the Shirley Jackson Award for best novel. Originally from Wales, he now resides in Tokyo.

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Read an excerpt of Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four
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