Preserving Ambiguity: An Interview with Sylvia Gallagher


Sylvia Gallagher, translator of Hiroko Oyamada’s “Cat-a-Cat” from Volume 73.1, talks about literary translation, her relationship to Oyamada’s work, and the tactical importance of spare trousers. This interview has been edited for clarity. The interviewer is William Shaw. Read “Cat-a-Cat” here.



I enjoyed your translation of “Cat-a-Cat” when I read it for this issue. How did you first encounter this story in the Japanese? What made you decide to translate it?


I had been reading and playing around with translating Oyamada’s work for a while when Kojima (Little Island), the collection that “Cat-a-Cat” was included in, came out. There were a few stories I started on, but I really liked the particular blend of mundane chaos shadowed by ever-growing tension in this one. Also, my partner and I couldn’t get the little rhyme the narrator makes up (in the original, Nekoneko, nekoneko, neko janaaai) out of our heads.



What was your working relationship with the original author, Hiroko Oyamada? Did you work closely with her on the translation, or was it more independent? What is your relationship to her work more broadly?


I told her at one point I was working on the translation, but otherwise basically went about it by myself! If I had wanted to change anything major, like a name, I might have reached out, but I didn’t end up doing that here.


My first encounter with Oyamada’s work was her first story collection, Niwa (Garden). I didn’t know anything about her at the time. I just saw the list of story titles, mostly single words like some very odd encyclopedia, and that grabbed my curiosity. A few have been translated, like “Spider Lilies” and “Careless.” It was only on later rereads that I started appreciating how interesting the way she writes is, but from the start, I was totally drawn into these uneasy little pockets of the world she invites you into, and the slippery people and other creatures that inhabit them.



One thing I like about your translation of “Cat-a-Cat” is that uneasy atmosphere. It feels like there’s something sinister going on, with the disappearing animals and Sah-chan’s insistence that what she saw wasn’t a cat, but it’s never quite spelled out, which only adds to the tension. How did you try and bring that sense of unease across in English? Was there anything in the Japanese version you had to adapt or leave out for the sake of that atmosphere?


There is so much atmosphere in Oyamada’s work, and a lot of it comes from what isn’t said or what stays undefined. Was it a cat? Well, maybe, but what does that mean? Vanilla is nothing like the cats (?) in the park, and when the narrator tries to explain what a cat is, she comes up with these characters that don’t actually look very similar, yet all fit into some part of what you think of when you think “cat.” Like, no wonder Sah-chan isn’t convinced—and you get the impression the narrator isn’t either, though she has other, more immediate concerns. It’s hard to say exactly how that came into the actual translation, but the way words can be so difficult to pin down was definitely on my mind as I was working on it. Apart from that, I didn’t leave anything out, but I suppose I was careful about what I put in and swapped around. You have to fill out Japanese sentences usually, for the sake of grammar, so there’s a balance to be achieved there.



The characterization of Sah-chan was another aspect of the story I really liked. Her insistent repetition, her getting angry at her grandmother for not listening, and her playing with the cat and insisting it doesn’t hurt when she gets scratched. How did you approach translating the way a child speaks and acts? Were you conscious about U.S. vs. Japanese attitudes toward parenting in your translation?


I spent a lot of time muttering dialogue to myself! The way Sah-chan speaks was something I paid close attention to. I’m very easily distracted so at one point I even found myself reading abstracts for papers on how small children put together sentences. But I didn’t set myself rules so much as I tried to build up a feeling for things like vocabulary, and how to preserve ambiguity as Sah-chan puzzles out how to express herself. I didn’t think too much about parenting, though as I’m not a parent myself I did talk to some translator colleagues with kids about the story. One thing they all agreed was they would never go out without a spare pair of trousers for a toddler.



Climate change also feels like an important part of the narrative, species extinction in particular. The invocation of The Birds, the sense of animals disappearing or acting strangely, and so on. What role do you think that larger context plays in the story?


I definitely wouldn’t say it’s allegorical, but Oyamada does take us to these places in her stories where the world and its inhabitants aren’t quite right and you can’t shake the feeling something sinister is waiting around the corner. And even though everyone sort of knows it, they just keep doing what they’re doing. It isn’t an unease exclusive to climate change, but climate change does mean we’re all being confronted more regularly with the fact that the nonhuman world isn’t as well-understood and reliable as we assume, and I think Oyamada’s writing taps into that.



There are some stylistic aspects of the translation which feel unusual to Anglophone readers (or to this Anglophone reader, anyway). I’m thinking of the very long paragraphs without line breaks for dialogue, and the use of run-on sentences to describe the exhausting workload of caring for a young child. Am I right in thinking these reflect the original Japanese story? If so, what made you decide to preserve those aspects in translation?


Yes, those were very much taken from the Japanese. Stylistic elements like that can be a bit of a dilemma—Japanese sentences are built differently to English ones, and the rules of how to lay them out on a page are looser, so leaving them as-is can feel more like a statement in English. I think different translators have taken different approaches, but the paragraphs are very distinctive in Japanese as well (I have to wonder if Oyamada is over being asked about them—she says it’s just how she writes), so I wanted to keep them. Personally, I get really immersed in the way the thoughts and snatches of conversation and sensory information all run together.


Sentences were more of a case-by-case basis, but I feel like Oyamada is quite deliberate with her sentences. While you have to break or rearrange sometimes, I was trying to be attentive to places in the original where, say, there were two unexpected ideas connected in a single sentence, or a comma that could have just as easily been a period.



The English version has some lovely moments of humor. I especially like the moment when the narrator reflects that “I didn’t care in the least whether the animal I’d seen was a cat or not (it was, though).” How did you approach this story’s humor when translating, particularly as the overall tone is quite serious?


That touch of humor was definitely something I was conscious of, and it’s something I really enjoy in Oyamada’s work. Even though there’s this tension throughout the story, it kind of grounds you to the fact that you’re still in the head of this long-suffering mother who has to worry about her daughter’s trousers getting damp, and navigating conversations with her mother-in-law, and really doesn’t have the energy to debate what makes a cat, a cat. I think Oyamada’s humor translates fairly well, so my attention was on things like matching the rhythm of the Japanese to get the delivery across.



The story ends ambiguously, with Sah-chan singing her “cat-a-cat” chant, and Vanny-chan’s eyes seeming to change color to match the creatures that attacked the birds. It’s so deliciously creepy. What are your thoughts on the story’s ending?


What indeed… I’ll leave that to the readers, but I do like the little moment of peace at the end, even though you’re pretty sure everything is still not right. Still, they drive home and life goes on. I wonder how the rest of their day went, too—did they have a pleasant-enough afternoon in the end, with Vanilla watching on?



Now that “Cat-a-Cat” is out, what’s next for you as a translator? Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?


Nothing set in stone yet, but I have some more ongoing projects, also fairly spooky in their own ways, that I hope will find homes soon!

Sylvia Gallagher is a literary translator of Japanese. Originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, she now resides in Fukushima.