An interview with Avant-Garde Japanese Poetry Translator David Michael Ramirez II
David Michael Ramirez II is a Seattle-based Japanese-English translator with a PhD in Japan Studies from Osaka University. His first published work, Lizard Telepathy, Fox Telepathy, a collection of surrealist poems by Osaka avant-garde poet, photographer, gallery owner, and musician Yoshinori Henguchi, hits bookstores soon. For Ramirez, translating these poems concerning the fluidity of Japanese language became a rediscovery of what it is about art that “makes his heart to begin anew.”
Jessica Barrett Sattell: You grew up in California. What about Japan piqued your interest and inspired you to live, study and work there?
David Michael Ramirez II: I think my dad had a secret agenda to get me interested in Japan. We watched shows together like Shogun and he took me to see movies like Ran. We also had a Japanese student stay with us for a year when I was five. She smoked and wore a wig, and gave me a broken lighter to play with, which I thought was amazing.
I eventually got into Japanese video games, comics, and classic anime, and my focus sharpened. I was encountering art, before I even knew to call it “art,” that had so much passion and action. Learning Japanese felt exotic and empowering. There’s still something about Japan that’s “wild” to me, even if it’s often played out in stereotypes like samurai, ninjas, or Hello Kitty. There’s an aesthetic that keeps building up and out, whether it’s through the work of Takashi Murakami or icons like [pop singer] Kari Pomyu Pomyu. Every step I took closer to Japan, I was rewarded with more knowledge about art, conceptual thought, history, philosophy, and politics. That kept me going deeper.
JBS: When you first encountered Yoshinori Henguchi‘s photographs and his meta-poem “Nihongo” (“Japanese Language”) at a club in Osaka, the artist was there. You two immediately hit it off because he felt you were able to see to the core of his work despite you not being Japanese. What urged you to translate Lizard Telepathy, Fox Telepathy (LTFT) into English?
DMR: Every once in a while you find art that strikes a chord. There’s a lot of art that exists only for the artist or for fans [of that artist], and even if it’s excellent, it doesn’t get big press. For many wild and well-known artists, their art is already translated or captured by a group of people or publishing houses. Instead of looking to translate something that had already been done, my challenge was to find something new. This was on my mind when I met Henguchi.
There had been plenty of times when someone staked a claim somewhere I wanted to be working, but [LTFT] was going to be my project, the one I could fight for, stand up for, and bring a perspective that I saw emerging; something for my generation that didn’t disregard or unnecessarily worship the art of the past. I wanted to translate something new that was untouched, that had that strange ring of contemporary truth to it.
The screaming, true-to-life part of Japan is hard to translate with the serious or abstract parts intact. Henguchi’s work gave me courage because his language seems to slice through both ignorance and sophistication at once. Any reader is dealing with life, so art either “hits” them in an instant, or it doesn’t. I imagine this is especially so if you “like” art, and I’m so glad that his “hit” me. Also, there’s a kind of “fuck you, fuck me, fuck it, let’s make lunch” attitude to his poems and photographs. It’s not nihilistic or droopy like a lot of Japanese art can be, or aspire to be. It’s exciting and pulsing. Maybe life is like that. That’s why I wanted in.
JBS: You’ve also described Henguchi as the “love child” of Barbara Kruger and Gertrude Stein.
DMR: I’d include Jenny Holzer, too, another metalanguage artist. They all turn language on its head, at will. They discovered its raw potency by dislocating it, or re-contextualizing it, so they’re ripping through either trite expressions that can deaden the mind, or truisms that destroy the soul, giving back an inkling of what it’s like to be alive or creatively free.
I’m not sure if Henguchi is actively looking accomplish any of those tasks, but that’s what I saw in “Nihongo.” That especially rang true for me when he talked about “burning Nihongo and turning it into smoke.”
JBS: Reading through his poems and gazing at his photographs, I felt that in addition to “artist” or “poet,” Henguchi could be described as “editor.” He has this well-honed eye for both visual and verbal languages, creating containers for ideas that are inherently uncontainable.
DMR: Absolutely. That’s what I like about this. Sometimes it feels like his is the language of dreams. Maybe it’s his sense of timing; stylistically, he’s able to do this without a lot of weight or verbosity. That’s hard to do in Japanese, a language full of poetics, pregnant silences, and florid speech. I have no idea how he does it. He takes out the dead weight and leaves not much behind but these ideas.
The poems really do live for me. They’re not necessarily explicit, or as you said, “inherently uncontainable” but they are alive throughout the work.
JBS: As a translator, you’re an “artist-editor” in that same sense of carefully thinking about the words that best express ideas that are often ineffable. Henguchi’s poetry, and your bringing of his words into new light, questions and bursts through all of the core confines of language.
DMR: That was the goal, and there’s no way I could have made a translation this graceful alone. Heather Kirkorowicz is also the translator of this work, although she’s credited as an editor out of my respect for what editors and translators do. Regardless, she’s both a conceptual translator and an English-English translator.
JBS: By “English-English translator,” you mean that Heather doesn’t speak Japanese?
DMR: She doesn’t, but she looks at all language abstractly. In a sense, she’s versed in the language of abstract thought. Some of the mirroring we achieved came from her exactness in translating commas, periods and repeated word usage. She takes a very strict approach to language, which was a great addition to my “monster-truck-rally-free-for-all-shoot-from-the-hip-if-it-feels-good-do-it” approach to translation. We worked together night after night to solidly depict the concepts in the original Japanese and bring them into English.
Other editors included Bruce Rutledge, the publisher who gave the book life, and friends who became collaborators gracious enough to donate their time. There would have been too much of myself in this to do it alone. I needed more pairs of eyes to bring out Henguchi’s voice into the shape of English.
JBS: What were some of the challenges, and rewards, of translating LTFT?
DMR: The biggest challenges were time and the need for repetitive review. Luckily, the right people came along at the right time and helped to refresh the whole text, letting me see it in a new light and allowing me to correct my old errors. Getting through that was like getting over being the kind of person who is afraid of his own shadow. But, you have to get over that or you’ll regret it later.
The initial challenge was also my first reward: meeting Henguchi, the person whose work I wanted to translate. That was my favorite; to go to bed knowing, at least in some realm, you’re fighting the good fight to be yourself.
JBS: That reminds me of a line from your afterword: “Why should anybody care when somebody chooses creativity as the means to stand up and fight?” That’s the best definition of “art” if I’ve ever heard one. Is there a point to art, even if we’re fighting and nobody cares?
DMR: Yes! That line specifically references an editor who read [LTFT] and said it reminded him of Allen Ginsberg, but asked, “what’s the point? Who cares?” I loved that critique because it allowed me to explain why I feel so strongly about Henguchi’s art. There are plenty of sophisticated and sour-faced attitudes proclaiming that there’s no point to art, or to life. There’s a point where life has no point, but there’s also a point where you can take some credit for just being alive in this crazy time.
If there’s any point about art, it’s about choices; what you want out of your art. At a certain point, you make the choice for what you want your art to be. Don’t give it away or let it slip by because you think you have to, or because somebody else wants you to. Taking responsibility for your own joy leads to so much more than just doing what’s working for other people.
JBS: LTFT pretty much made me fall in love with Japanese all over again. It also made my heart ache because it reminded me of how much Japan shaped my life. I see it as a love story to Japanese, and proof that art can, and has, broken Japan wide open.
DMR: It makes my heart ache, too. It ached a lot to get here, but now it’s more like that “get-up-and-get-going” type of ache. The world is groovy, and if you want it, it’s yours. I hope that idea comes across in LTFT. It’s a type of love, that love of Japan and all of the crazy things that go on there. Even if we’re not Japanese, we can love that too. In that case, I hope it takes away barriers and makes Japan available to us all.