Author & Translator Interview: Erika Kobayashi and Brian Bergstrom
Updated: Jul 21
In July 2022, I sat down for an online interview with Japanese author Erika Kobayashi and translator Brian Bergstrom to celebrate the launch of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity, Erika's first novel to be translated into English. The novel has since received the 2022 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.
Please find the full interview below with the author's stunning artwork, shared generously by Erika herself.
Erika-san, can you share what it was like to grow up in a household with parents who were the Japanese translators of Sherlock Holmes?
Erika Kobayashi (E): My father was a psychiatrist and my mother worked as a bank clerk, and they quit their jobs just before I was born and decided to become translators of Sherlock Holmes because they loved his stories. I grew up in the suburbs of Tokyo, eating rice crackers in a kotatsu, but I also feel like I grew up in the Victorian Era of London, since my parents always talked about how to translate Sherlock Holmes stories. For example, does Watson become ワトスン [Wat-SUN] or ワトソン [Wat-SOHN] in Japanese? It’s almost like magic to see what translators do. The Victorian Era is a long time ago and everyone, including Arthur Conan Doyle, was already dead, but all the spirits, all these people came alive when I read the texts. For me, translating seemed like a séance. I am so appreciative to have been able to work with the translator of this book.
(Note: You can read Erika's essay on CrimeReads - translated by Brian in 2022 - about growing up in a household of Sherlock translators here)
Did your parents translate the entire Sherlock Holmes collection?
E: Yes. Over ten years, they translated all sixty Sherlock Holmes stories, the whole canon, which are published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in Japanese.
What an experience to have as a child. Thank you for sharing. And Brian, we want to learn a little bit about you too. I must first ask about your passion for baking - magnificent, professional-looking tarts that you share on Instagram. Can you tell us about that?
Brian Bergstrom (B): I liked to cook with my grandmother, which is a little bit like Madame Curie (of Kobayashi’s novel Breakfast with Madame Curie) - cooking between generations. Cooking is very satisfying in general, but with these little tarts, there's a process, which you get better at. It’s a self-contained task with a definite end, unlike writing or translating, which is infinite. After publishing a piece, you still think about it. But with tarts, once it’s over, it's done. Most writers I know have something like that. If not cooking, then something else. You do a small task well and feel good about it, and it helps you go back to the tasks that are long and endless.
I’ve heard the process of translating a novel described as trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Can you both share the story of how the English translation of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity came to be?
B: Many years ago, there was an international conference in Montreal about radiation organized by a dear friend, Livia Monnet, at the University of Montréal. The featured speakers were artists, scholars, and activists. I was a discussant on a panel, and Erika was an invited guest with the scholar Saeko Kimura, who writes about post-Fukushima literature. This was around the time Erika’s novel Breakfast with Madame Curie had come out in Japanese and was gathering critical accolades. Erika presented her writing and artwork, and everyone, including me, was very excited and charmed by it. We loved her manga and the idea in the novel of a cat traveling through time. Erika and I met, and she kindly asked me to translate some texts.
When she creates her artwork for museum exhibitions, it is usually accompanied by a small text. So I began to translate those in a very collaborative process. She sends me a text and I do my best with it, and then we work to refine it. Over many years and art exhibitions, I learned about the fabric of her writing - how to get a feel for it in Japanese, but at the same time, how to recreate the feel for English. You kind of start to hear the voice in your head.
E: It has been amazing talking to Brian when working on the art installations. I’m often inspired by his translations. For example, the title His Last Bow for my latest novel in Japanese - I got the idea of the title from his translation. I did an exhibition in London and wanted to create a title based on a Sherlock Holmes story. I love The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to do a title like The Adventures of the Fathers（父たちの冒険）but it sounded a bit strange in English. Brian proposed His Last Bow, and I loved it so much, it eventually became the title of my novel. We always exchange ideas, and the translation itself inspires my writing in Japanese too. It is a great relationship and I appreciate it very much.
E: This is an art installation of “Sunrise”, which is about the test site Trinity - the first time testing atomic bombs in the US during WWII. The installation was part of the exhibition Roppongi Crossing 2016: My Body, Your Voice at the Mori Museum, Tokyo, in 2016, and the accompanying texts were translated by Brian.
B: In this very dynamic exhibition, images were projected onto the wall, along with a flashing countdown.
E: As part of the installation, human beatboxers sang Sunrise Serenade, the B-side of the famous Moonlight Serenade record released by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Sunrise Serenade was the song playing on a US radio show when the Trinity nuclear test happened. It was probably playing in the building where the scientists waited to watch the bomb being dropped. That detail inspired me, and I combined the sound of it in my installation with flashing lights that made text painted on the wall glow in the darkness.
B: This is also in the novel Trinity, Trinity,Trinity - Sunrise Serenade coming on the radio as the nuclear test takes place is part of the climax. This coming together of sound and light. The English translation of the text for that installation is included as the titular story in the collection Sunrise: Radiant Stories.
(July 2023 Update: The short story collection Sunrise: Radiant Stories was published by Astra Publishing House in July 2023 and includes a translation of this text from the SUNRISE installation.)
E: My installations are always connected to my novels and stories, including Trinity, Trinity, Trinity and Breakfast with Madame Curie.
The next installation I asked Brian for help with was “She Waited,” which was part of the exhibition Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art at the National Art Center, Tokyo, in 2019. The Japanese version of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity was published at the same time as the installation. It was right before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were supposed to start in Tokyo, and we never imagined it would be canceled due to Covid-19. The installation was of the Olympic torch and the atomic bomb, and the light of nuclear power. These lights were modified from them. One of the photos is on the cover of Trinity, Trinity, Trinity. It’s called “My Torch.”
B: That is your hand, literally on fire. One of the physicists at the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman, who was famous as a popularizer of science, shares different types of science experiments including how to light your hand on fire without hurting yourself. I was so interested that you did that. It’s a multilayered gesture, not only as an image of a hand on fire as a torch, but in a more literal way as well. You have layers of history there, leading back to the atomic bomb as you recreate this act, which I think is compelling.
E: Thank you. I read Richard Feynman’s book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and was so inspired. He lit his hand on fire to prove scientific points when he was a child. Technically, it shouldn’t be hot, but it was a bit hot, because the hairs on his hand burned! But for me, it wasn’t too hot, maybe because I don’t have much hair.
B: I love telling people that’s actually Erika’s hand. “It’s really on fire!” and everyone’s like oh…!
E: A lot of people thought it was computer graphics.
I also exhibited these drawings of girls. I found a photograph and was shocked because these girls had a flag of Nazi Germany, the Japanese flag, and the Olympic flag. It was 1936, during the Berlin Olympics by Nazi Germany. The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to take place in four years. When the Tokyo Olympics happened in 2020, a lot of people talked about the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. But I was very curious about what would have happened in 1940 Olympics, had it happened.
(Note: You can see and read about Erika's exhibition "She Waited" (in English) at The National Art Center, Tokyo here)
TRINITY, TRINITY, TRINITY
Fans in Japan are fortunate to be able to engage with your work in museums, magazine articles, and various manga, illustrated work, and children’s books. This being your first English novel, many readers are learning about your work for the first time. If you were to describe Trinity, Trinity, Trinity to first-time readers who don’t have the context of your visual artwork, how would you describe it?
B: I would say it’s a novel that takes the form of a thriller but has the feeling of the poem. It accelerates and is a fast read, but also has the satisfaction of poetry in that it forces you to read slowly. It also provides a similar satisfaction in the end—a very poetic ending that is not really a thriller ending.
E: Thank you so much. I wrote Trinity, Trinity, Trinity because I was inspired by actual history. I went to Jáchymov in the Czech Republic. Jáchymov used to be famous for silver mining. The silver coin called the Joachimsthaler was very popular in Europe in the 16th century before going to America and becoming the origin of the dollar. I visited this place because of Marie Curie, who found the radioactive material, radium, along with her husband Pierre in 1902. The stone called pitchblende, which means “black, accursed” mineral in German, was transported from Jáchymovský to Paris by train. In that “accursed” stone, she found high levels of radioactive materials. So, I visited the town of Jáchymovský and found a building with the Olympics emblem on the wall that read 1936, referring to the Berlin Olympics. I was curious about the Olympics because the games were coming to Tokyo in 2020. That history inspired me and made me want to write Trinity, Trinity, Trinity.
The novel is structured in poetic, short sentences, and we’re able to sit with each sentence for a long time and draw different answers from it. Was this structure mapped out before you started writing, or did it unfold as you went, Erika-san? And Brian, how did you manage to recreate the speed? I alternated between reading in Japanese and English, and the transition was so smooth I almost forgot which language I was reading. I was just reading the story.
E: The structure was something I came up with while writing. I always feel like I’m not writing by myself. It’s weird to say, but whenever I write something about the past, even if it becomes fantastical, I always try to trace it. The figure or structure constructs itself. I never know what will happen or what the final text will be.
And Brian, what kind of process is happening with you?
B: Translation is different from writing in that I know the ending. The whole thing has happened, so I am re-experiencing it. For me, what is so striking when I was reading in Japanese was that it had small and large structures based on countdowns that are counting both forward and backward. You have the classic countdown from 10 to 1 when the bomb falls. And you have counting inside the text like when they are making the lace, which is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The numbers are going this way and that way simultaneously.
Another thing is that the novel’s structure is in three parts, which is the three parts of the day - a classic Aristotelian plot. You begin and end in the same day, the beginning of life and the end of life, like the famous riddle. In all these things, there’s a sense of acceleration, a sense of movement. Either you are going down or going up. So I think when I was writing in English, I was just following that through and emphasizing these moments of movement.
But it’s not a straightforward seriality. If this were a thriller, there would be a countdown and that’s it. Instead, two countdowns are going this way and that, so you are always in suspension. There are parts of the novel that are strange enough in the writing, in the phrasing, in a literary sense, so that your mind catches on images of people falling, for example. The light has darkness around it, and vice versa. It’s like a spiral trajectory built into the novel. In a way, I didn’t have to do a lot to it. I just had to make sure it was there. Just follow the text in that sense.
You’re right. You’re getting pulled in this direction and yanked in that direction, and reading the novel is almost a physical activity. A word that appears frequently is rakka (落下), which means ‘fall’. But the more common Japanese word for ‘fall’ is ochiru (落ちる). That’s what we generally use. I rarely see rakka except in instances where massive objects such as bombs are falling, for example. But you use it, Erika-san, to describe cheese falling onto the table, drops of rains and blood falling to the ground, people tripping and falling. I felt jolted every time I saw the word and wondered about your decision to use it. And Brian, because there is no English equivalent, we only have one word, which is fall, I was amazed by how you translated it differently every time.
(Erika answers the question in Japanese while Brian interprets below)
B: I’ll try to summarize that. Erika says that rakka signifies falling, but especially things falling due to forces like gravity, the movement of life toward death. Everything has a force acting on it that makes it decline or go down or fall. But we as humans have this kind of response, a desire in the face of this fact of life that we want things that don’t do that. We want a light that never extinguishes, a life that never moves towards death. We want things to fly forever and never fall. In some ways, this is what drives human endeavor in general and scientific advancement specifically. Looking at the sun and thinking, how can we get inexhaustible energy and light like the sun? And we do things like develop nuclear technology, nuclear bombs and so on. In that sense, this is a mortal aspiring to be God-like, with inexhaustible sources of light and energy, never having to fall. This overlaps with things like the image of the atomic bomb, which is a weapon that ends a war. Like Yuki pointed out, rakka is usually used to describe bombs, and it becomes a resonant word when you expand it into these metaphorical possibilities.
What was the process of translating the many sentences with rakka in them?
B: When the novel opens at 8:00 in the morning, the English version reads, “Clear liquid slowly formed into a drop, and then, succumbing to gravity, fell.” You always think about the opening lines, but it’s a very important line for the novel because of this exact reason - it uses rakka to describe falling. It also uses the word gravity. And it estranges the concept.
It happens a lot in the novel about all sorts of things that you have pointed out, and Erika draws attention to these moments, of descent or falling. I knew that I needed to translate this first sentence in a way that flows, of course, but also makes it an event. Not making it so smooth that you’re just moving on to the next thing. Because the Japanese text is dwelling on this image of the drop, which is an IV drip, and it slows down so much that you see just one drop happen within the sentence. It slows down your perception and makes you see anew, makes you see it differently.
I used different words every time because not only can you not repeat the same word in English, there is a significance in the reuse of the word in Japanese, and I felt it was more important to get the image dwelt upon again and again. Not necessarily using the same word, because as you pointed out, there is no good word like rakka. Rakka is a chunky word, a little bit of a formal word. All these things you can’t really do in direct translation in English, so you try to make them into little events within the text, so your brain catches them but doesn’t stumble on them. That’s what I was trying to do, and I hope I have succeeded in doing so without making it clumsy.
A similar thing happens whenever there’s an invisible force at work in the novel, even if it’s something we take for granted, such as when a character uses the remote control to turn up the volume, or people passing through sensors or using their credit card. The woman uses a credit card and there is an invisible transaction, but it’s narrated in the text in a way that wouldn’t be noted in a more conventionally written novel. I needed to make these into little events too. I think the cumulative effect of these day-to-day occurrences is that things start to build up, and at first, you’re thinking, okay, whatever, but by the third part of novel, when everything is coming apart at the seams, and the character is coming apart at the seams, she’s not able to speak, she’s not able to stand, she keeps falling down. It’s happening along with the strangeness of everyday life. Which makes us observe the lives we know as members of society, using the credit card and remote control without thinking about it.
That is wonderfully said. I wanted to ask about the invisible. Erika, you write about 目に見えないもの, things we cannot see, and specifically, the fear that we cannot see. We humans want to take control and be able to see and manage everything. In writing this novel, you visited Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in person. How did the visit affect you?
E: It meant a lot to me to visit the power plant in 2017. Until then, I’d imagined something like Chernobyl, which I saw on TV when I was a child. Ruins overgrown with flowers and plants, animals wandering around, and so on. But inside the plant, what I saw was a convenience store, Lawson. Just like the Lawson in my neighborhood. I was shocked. And the grounds of the power plant were covered in silver. I wrote about that in Trinity, Trinity, Trinity too.
B: In order to reduce the amount of radioactive materials, which stick to biological materials like plants and trees, the whole area is covered with silver mortar cement to create a smooth silver surface, which reduces radiation.
B: I will try to summarize that. When Erika visited the nuclear plant, she was struck by how normalized everything seemed. There was a Lawson convenience store and so on. Before her visit, she’d thought the place was a completely ruined place, very different from where she exists. But it was revealed to be continuous with daily life as she experiences it. This prompted a major shift in the trajectory of her understanding of radiation and other invisible forces.
In previous works like Breakfast with Madame Curie and her manga Hikari no Kodomo (Child of Light), her impulse was to make radiation visible. But after her visit, one thing that changed for her was that instead of trying to make the things you cannot see visible, she now challenges herself to portray invisible things in their invisibility. You don’t see it. It isn't marked in the way that you might imagine - irradiated areas marked as ruined or exclusion zones, something you can see and feel. Instead, everything looks the same and yet it’s not, because radiation is there. So rendering the invisible visible in its invisibility became the impulse behind this work and also her later work.
(Note: You can read Erika's piece "The Forest of Wild Birds" on Literary Hub about her visit to the plant, translated by Brian and published in July 2023.)
Thank you so much for that. And we have an audience question. “I would like to ask Erika about her focus on radiation and especially stones as in the wonderful short story, which Brian translated called Precious Stones, and I would like to know about the mother-daughter relationship as mediated through the stones.”
E: Thank you so much for reading Precious Stones. 私がはじめて作家になりたいと思ったのが10歳の時でした。『アンネの日記』を読み、「わたしの望みは、死んでからもなお生きつづけること！」という言葉を読み、深く感動したからです。それから時が過ぎ、2011年にマリ・キュリーの実験ノートを実際に見る機会がありました。その時、その実験ノートの表紙の放射線量が、未だに高いことを知りました。なぜかというと、彼女は素手でラジウムやポロニウムなどの放射性物質を扱っていて、放射性物質がその指紋についているのだ、というのです。
B: She’s been always interested in rocks, since she was 10 years old. They are very important symbols, things that exist in a different time than humans do. One thing that made a big impression on Erika was seeing Madame Curie’s notebook, which is still highly radioactive. Her fingerprint is radioactive and because it has radium in it, it will outlast the notebook itself. Its half-life is much longer than the notebook’s ability to exist.
Compared to a human life span, rocks have been present far in the past, and will be far into the future. That sense of scale inspired her, as she was reminded of Anne Frank’s words about leaving behind words that will exist much longer than she is alive. The novella Precious Stones came out of reading classical poets such as Izumi Shikibu, who lived a thousand years ago. We are still reading her poems. What does it mean to read these poems, and what will people be reading a thousand years from now? Stones are a way to trace the past as well as the future, as they signify a presence that goes both forward and backward.
When you first started to write, Erika-san, your wish was to leave konseki (痕跡) behind, which is a sign or trace that you were here. But gradually, you began to want to write about the times you live in and people that you share this life with. I wonder if the world we currently live in is something you might address in the future.
E: When I was 10, I was really inspired by the words of Anne Frank: “I want to live even after my death.” I wanted to become a writer like her, or a journalist. She was brave and smart, and she knew the power of writing. I admire the power of writing because the texts live even after someone’s death. We can read a writer’s poem from a thousand years ago and fall in love with the text.
When I became a writer, I tried to write about everything around me, but I cannot write all the things I’ve seen or everything I think is important. I cannot write about the entire world around me, even if I wanted to. At the same time, I noticed that a lot of things weren’t written. There must be many people who, like Anne, wrote but unlike her, they didn’t end up read, and their words are lost. Or perhaps they didn’t write, or couldn’t write.
けれど、私は今、それが書かれなかったからといって、それが大切ではないという風には思えない。だから、私は書かれなかったものたちの声に耳をすませたいという風に思い始めた。歴史書みたいな大きなものに書き残されなかったとしても、そこに確実に生きて、ご飯を食べたり、恋をしたひとりひとりのことを、いま私が書き記したり書き残したりすることが、どうしたらできるだろうということを考えている。書かれなかったけれど、誰かにとっては大切な瞬間というのが、本当に無数に存在していることを、すごく意識するようになりました。そうして、『わたしは しなない おんなのこ』という、アンネ・フランクの言葉をモチーフに、ひとりの生の痕跡が見えない形で、時を超えたり場所を超えて受け渡されてゆく絵本作品も描きました。
B: The second part of her answer is that part of her trajectory as an artist now is trying to listen to the voices that are not written into textbooks or history books. Things that weren’t written down but still existed, the daily lives of people who don’t make it into the history books, the parts of their life that interests her are those that are not depicted, like Edison’s lover and her cat.
She wants to create texts that fill in the blanks, and concerns for these details are driving her recent work, like her new children’s book called I Am a Girl Who Will Never Die. This is somewhat inspired by Anne Frank, about a girl who knows she is going to die at some point and despairs about that but finds hope through singing. If I can give away the ending, there are little animals singing her song, and therefore the song continues, and she knows it will continue beyond herself. That’s how she is going to become a girl who never dies - her words living on through the voices of others, but in remembrance of her voice. It’s a beautiful book that I hope will someday be brought into English.
I hope so too. Can you share what the two of you are working on next?
B: We are putting together the final version of the manuscript for a collection of novellas and short pieces, which is coming out from Astra House in 2023 and is called SUNRISE. It brings together many of the pieces I translated for Erika’s art exhibitions, as well as some pieces that are in an alternate universe or near future, science fiction pieces I think are fascinating. A couple are novellas, including Precious Stones, which has been previously published, although I am revising the translation. There is also a new novella that I translated in English as Shedding (in Japanese it is called 脱皮), which was written during the first and second waves of Covid-19 in Japan, and it deals again with things that cannot be seen.
(July 2023 - SUNRISE: RADIANT STORIES is now available from Astra Publishing House.)
E: I am currently preparing a novel about paper balloon bombs. I will hopefully finish it and can share it in 2023. I have been doing research about the paper balloons for about three to four years now.
- - - END OF INTERVIEW - - -
And an update in July 2023:
Erika's deeply-researched novel about paper balloon bombs is currently being published as a special series in the Japanese literary magazine BUNGAKUKAI. A reading of the novel was performed onstage in Ginza on June 19, 2023. I was blown away by the performance and shared my thoughts here.
Thank you to my dear friend Asuka for her help in coordinating the interview, and to Erika and Brian for their time and commitment. It was a pleasure to be in discussion with the both of you in summer 2022, and I'm thrilled to continue our conversation in summer 2023 as we celebrate the launch of the short story collection SUNRISE: RADIANT STORIES.
A radiant team, truly.
Erika Kobayashi is a novelist and visual artist based in Tokyo. History, memory, and radiation play an important role in her work. In her novels, Kobayashi traces the history of radiation via the lives of ordinary people over generations—particularly generations of women: mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters. Through her writing she wants to make the invisible visible, the unseen seen. Her novelマダムキュリーと朝食を (Breakfast with Madame Curie), published in Japan in 2014, was shortlisted for both the Mishima and the Akutagawa Prize. Her first novel to be translated into English, the literary thriller Trinity, Trinity, Trinity (2019), about a terrorist attack on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics examines the intertwined histories of the Olympics, fascism, and nuclear technologies. Her website is erikakobayashi.com and her Instagram account is @flowertv.
Brian Bergstrom is a lecturer and translator currently based in Montréal after living in Chicago, Kyoto, and Yokohama. He has worked over ten years as part of the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University and has published academically on Japanese literature and culture in the journals Mechademia, positions: asia critique, and Japan Forum. His translations include the collection We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino, which was longlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, and the children’s book Animals Brag About Their Bottoms by Maki Saito. Other translations have appeared in Granta, Asymptote, Aperture, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, and For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature. He can be found on Instagram at @asa_no_burei.