A 2001 community exchange trip to Japan as a middle school student set Richmond native Morgan Giles on a path which led her translating from Japanese the novel that won the National Book Award for Translated Literature this year.
The National Book Awards rank in significance with the Pulitzer Prizes, but the Pulitzers give no prize for translated literature. Thus, the NBA is the highest recognition in that category. The awards were announced Nov. 18 just before Giles flew from her home in London, England, to visit with her parents in Richmond.
Giles, 33, comes by her interest in books and writing naturally.
Her grandmother, the late Helen Winburn who retired in the early 1980s, was the society/ lifestyles editor of the Richmond Register for nearly 35 years. No other Register news/editorial employee has come close to matching her length of service. Giles’ mother, Jenny Winburn Giles, is a retired school librarian. Her father, Bob Giles, is a businessman.
The 12-year-old Giles’ Japan trip was intended to unveil new horizons. However, it proved life-changing in an unexpected, if a bit frightening way.
Not long after arriving in Japan, the Model Laboratory School student contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. Relying on translators as she lay in a hospital bed made her realize the importance of learning other languages, she explained.
As a Model Lab High School student, Giles began taking Japanese courses at Eastern Kentucky University, where she was mentored by Prof. Michiko Kwak, who now lives in Los Angeles. After taking all of EKU’s Japanese classes, Giles said Kwak suggested she read a Japanese novel. So she did — making notes in the book’s margins. Those notes were her first attempt at literary translation, she recalled in a socially distanced interview on the porch of her parents’ home.
After graduating from Model in 2006, Giles enrolled at Indiana University because of its top-ranked international language programs. Upon receiving a degree in Japanese with a minor in linguistics, Giles moved to England, where she began working for a firm that moderates websites while working privately on translating a Japanese short story. Relocating to London, one of the world’s greatest publishing centers, proved fruitful for Giles. She got involved with the British Center for Literary Translations and enrolled in one of its summer programs, which resulted in the 2015 publication of her short story. That initial success “really clicked for me,” Giles said. Translating “let me play with words, which is something I’ve always loved,” she explained. And it clarified her career ambition.
She began reading an array of Japanese novels, looking for one she thought would appeal to English readers. One “really jumped out at me,” Giles said. It was “Tokyo Ueno Station: A Novel” by Yu Mir, published in 2014. “It’s about people who have worked hard all their lives and (end up with) almost nothing,” she explained.
While telling one man’s life story, the novel also broadly recounts the suffering of people in the region around the Fukushima nuclear electricity generation plant that melted down in 2011. An earthquake that violently shook the region was followed by a tsunami that overwhelmed the coastal area, causing widespread damage. The combined forces breached the nuclear reactor and released radioactive contamination. Nearly 16,000 people were killed, with more than 2,500 still missing. Damage was estimated at nearly $200 billion.
Most of the electricity generated by the Fukushima plant went to Tokyo and provided little benefit for the people who lived around it, according to the book.
Giles saw a parallel with eastern Kentucky, where coal is stripmined to generate power for prosperous cities such as Lexington, while wreaking havoc on the land and leaving coalfield communities “to rot” whenever the coal economy collapses. That gave her a personal, emotional connection to the story, she said.
Thus, the book is “not just about one unfortunate man in Japan,” Giles said. “It has a broader connection to our world,” Kentucky as well as Japan, or anywhere peoples’ lives are upended when a region is economically exploited.
“I feel really lucky they let me translate this book,” Giles said of the author and her publisher.
During the translation project, Giles received a fellowship from the Japanese government to study contemporary Japanese literature at Waseda University from 2017-2019.
While there, Giles met and was befriended by the author. The two became so close that Yu Mir, now 52, served as a witness for Giles’ wedding when her fiance came to Japan for the ceremony. (Giles holds citizenship in both the United States and Britain and resides with her husband in London.)
“Tokyo Ueno Station” was popular and well reviewed in Japan, and the English version has won praise from reviewers in the United States and Britain. The Guardian newspaper of Britain described it as “poetic.” How the protagonist “comes to be homeless, and then to haunt the park (next to the train station where the 1964 Tokyo Olympics took place and where he died), is what keeps us reading, trying to understand the tragedy of this ghostly everyman,” according to an excerpt from its review on Amazon. “Deftly translated by Morgan Giles... It is an urgent reminder of the radical divide between rich and poor in postwar Japan,” the review adds.
The publication Booklist calls the book “a surreal fable of splintered families, disintegrating relationships, and the casual devaluation of humanity.” It praises Giles for giving the work “fluent accessibility” in translation.
The Japanese press has taken a renewed interest in “Tokyo Ueno Station” since it won the American award. The same week Giles was interviewed by The Register, a New York City-based Japanese journalist flew to Kentucky and then came to Richmond where he and Giles talked for about three hours, she said. Giles said she believes American readers are interested in hearing stories about life in other lands and cultures, despite the apparent lack of translated contemporary literature on bookstore and library shelves. Even in a story from another culture, translated from another language, a reader can connect to fictional characters’ common humanity, Giles said. The translator’s challenge is to convey that bond while presenting a clear portrait of the other culture, she said.
Instead of focusing directly on translating words or even idioms, Giles said she seeks “to replicate the feeling of what I’m translating.” Making the English reader feel what the Japanese reader would feel is at the heart of her effort.
Reading books written in other languages provides a window into other cultures that lets us see how alike we are despite our differences, Giles continued. That connection and understanding is even more important now that international travel has been curtailed, she added.
“A novel allows you to see inside someone’s mind,” Giles said. “It lets us get close to people in a way we wouldn’t be able to in face to face conversation.”
Even before the National Book Awards were announced, Giles was at work translating another book by Yu Miri called “The End of August.” It is considered her masterpiece, she said.
Giles describes this book as “an epic, multi-generational, semi-biographical novel.” It tells the story of Yu Miri’s grandfather who was a marathon runner in the 1930s when Korea was occupied by Japan. He likely would have represented Japan in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics had the games not been canceled because of the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
Yu Miri’s family is part of Japan’s ethnic Korean minority, and the novel’s backdrop is the bitter history of the two countries. It begins with the Japanese occupation of Korea that began before World War I and continued through World War II. Part of that story centers around the Koreans who came to live in Japan and still do, including Yu Miri and her family.
“I’m really blown away that my first fulllength book translation won this award,” Giles said.
Back in March she won the British Translators Association award for a debut translator, which she received at a ceremony in London. However, the National Book Awards ceremony that would have taken place in New York City was canceled because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Giles hopes the ceremony will be rescheduled or the 2020 winners will be honored at the 2021 ceremony.
“Tokyo Euno Station: A Novel” is in the collection of the Madison County Public Library’s Richmond branch. It can be purchased in the Kindle electronic format on amazon.com or ordered in hardback for January delivery.