New York Native Roger Pulvers Receives Distinguished Translation Prize for Japanese Literature

“I think one of the roles of a translator is to give that same wonderful, emotional, and intellectual stimulation to the foreign audience that the reader in the original gets,” says Roger Pulvers, a New York-born author, playwright, theater director, and translator based in Tokyo and Sydney.

Pulvers was exceptional in that role with his translation of Strong in the Rain: Selected Poems by Japanese children’s author and poet Kenji Miyazawa, for which Pulvers received the 2013 Noma Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature in a ceremony at Japan Society on September 16.

Established in 1989 by Kodansha, Japan’s largest publishing company, the Noma Award salutes the most outstanding translation of modern Japanese literature published from the Meiji Era (1869-1912) to the present. The purpose of the award, which has been given to translations ranging from Scandinavian languages to Chinese, is to introduce Japanese culture abroad and to promote mutual understanding with other countries. Strong in the Rain marks the fifth time an English translation gets the nod and the second time a translation of Miyazawa’s work has been recognized. (The first was in 2001 by Italian translator Giorgio Amitrano.)

Before the ceremony JapanCultureNYC spent a few minutes with Pulvers and Noma Award selection committee members Jay Rubin and Motoyuki Shibata. Shibata, a professor at the University of Tokyo, is an award-winning translator of contemporary American literature into Japanese. Rubin is Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and the 2003 Noma Award recipient for his English translation of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Professors Shibata and Rubin had three basic criteria when judging the translations vying or this year’s award. Says Shibata, “Accuracy, consistency in tone – provided that there is consistency in tone in the original – and whether it gives the sense of pleasure that you get with the original. The third one is the most important.”


Kenji Miyazawa, Roger Pulvers, Kodansha, Noma Award, Japanese literature, translations, Motoyuki Shibata, Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami, NYC, Japan Society
Roger Pulvers accepts the 2013 Noma Award (with Yoshinobu Noma in the background)

“All translators aim to have their readers associate with the work on the same levels – sound levels, rhythm levels, meaning levels, overall spiritual message levels – that the native gets. And if we can achieve that, then I think we’ve succeeded,” says Pulvers.

The author of more than 40 books of fiction, non-fiction, and plays, Pulvers also translates Russian and Polish literature, opening new worlds to people who don’t know those languages. It’s important for translators to capture the voice of the author, but the methods by which they achieve that vary. Rubin says, “I just sit down with my computer and start writing the way I feel,” while Pulvers likens translators’ rituals to the shamanesses who gather once a year on Mount Osore in Tohoku and go into a trance when speaking in the voices of the dead.

“We go into a kind of trance which is both fun and yet is quite full of excruciating moments when we can’t find the right words and we just don’t know if we’re on the right track,” says Pulvers. “But going into that trance is the same thing that an actor does on stage. You know what you do? You forget yourself. That’s what an actor does, and that’s what a translator does.”

Pulvers describes Miyazawa (1896-1933) as “a 21st century writer born in the 19th century” who used Japanese in idiosyncratic and complex ways. One of Pulvers’s “excruciating moments” in the translation process involved Japanese onomatopoeia, which forced him to walk a fine line between being too creative and making Miyazawa sound insipid.

Kenji Miyazawa, Roger Pulvers, Kodansha, Noma Award, Japanese literature, translations, Motoyuki Shibata, Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami, NYC, Japan Society
Kenji Miyazawa

“Kenji’s poetry is not easy to translate,” says Pulvers. “He uses some Iwate dialect, and he uses some onomatopoeia that he’s made up, which is very tricky for the translator . . . There’s only one way to translate anything like [poetry], and that is to become the person. I mean it. From the time that I’m translating, I think I’m Miyazawa Kenji. That’s why you should translate only literature you truly worship and love.”

Throughout Japan, Miyazawa is a beloved poet. When presenting Pulvers his award, Yoshinobu Noma, the seventh-generation head of the family that founded Kodansha, described “Strong in the Rain” as one of the most popular poems in Japan, saying schoolchildren are required to memorize and recite it.

“The poems of Mr. Miyazawa . . . take us on a journey to his home environment and country life in Northern Japan with its rhythmic cycle of nature,” says Ambassador Sumio Kusaka, Counsel General of Japan in New York, who was a special guest at the ceremony. “Mr. Miyazawa’s home prefecture of Iwate in Tohoku was one of the areas that was hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. I’ve heard that those poems were a great source of comfort to many Japanese people living in the region who endured immense loss. And because of Mr. Pulvers’s thoughtful translation into English, more people outside of Japan can understand how the survivors have been able to move closer to recovery.”

For introducing English readers to this prized poet, Pulvers became the Noma Award’s 24th recipient, and his acceptance speech reflected his sense of humor.

“This prize actually doesn’t belong to me, despite what’s been said. It belongs to Miyazawa Kenji,” says Pulvers on the Japan Society stage. “I only consider myself a conveyancer, or a medium, of his message. So the prize is really his. But since he’s been dead for eighty years, I’ve decided to accept the $10,000 and the business class tickets on his behalf.”

[callout title=“Strong in the Rain”
by Kenji Miyazawa, translation by Roger Pulvers]

Strong in the rain
Strong in the wind
Strong against the summer heat and snow
He is healthy and robust
Free from desire
He never loses his temper
Nor the quiet smile on his lips
He eats four go of unpolished rice
Miso and a few vegetables a day
He does not consider himself
In whatever occurs . . . his understanding
Comes from observation and experience
And he never loses sight of things
He lives in a little thatched-roof hut
In a field in the shadows of a pine tree grove
If there is a sick child in the east
He goes there to nurse the child
If there’s a tired mother in the west
He goes to her and carries her sheaves
If someone is near death in the south
He goes and says, ‘Don’t be afraid’
If there are strife and lawsuits in the north
He demands that the people put an end to their pettiness
He weeps at the time of drought
He plods about at a loss during the cold summer
Everyone calls him Blockhead
No one sings his praises
Or takes him to heart . . .

That is the kind of person
I want to be[/callout]