Translating Success

Translating Success

Award-winning author Sayaka Murata talks reaching—and surprising—readers across cultural divides.

"They say I write literary fiction overseas,” says Sayaka Murata. “At an event in New York, someone taught me the term ‘speculative fiction.’ A college student in Iowa called Convenience Store Woman a science-fiction novel.” 

Murata rejects that last label but admits the main character of her award-winning Convenience Store Woman seems, at times, not of this earth. Keiko Furukura is indifferent to romance, perplexed by social norms and happily employed for 18 years as a part-time convenience store clerk until a disaffected coworker provides Keiko with a chance to disguise herself as a well-adjusted member of society.

Every character is to some degree an extension of the author. For nearly two decades, Murata herself woke at 2am each day to write, then stocked shelves and rang up customers at a string of Tokyo convenience stores. Two years before her international bestseller, Murata published a short story, Love Letter to a Convenience Store, signed by a narrator with her name.

“I tried to write about a lot of people in the store,” Murata says of Convenience Store Woman. “But it was only when I started writing Furukura that it all started coming out in a blur.”

Like many untranslated Japanese writers (female writers particularly so), Murata was relatively unknown in the West until 2018 when Convenience Store Woman, her 10th novel, won Japan’s highest literary honor: the Akutagawa Prize. 

Ginny Tapley Takemori, Murata’s English translator, knew the writer’s fame was a just matter of time when she first encountered (and later translated) her work in a 2011 anthology of short stories.

“It’s a very whimsical story,” Takemori says of Lover on the Breeze, in which an animate window curtain covets a teenage romance. “It’s a very unusual take on first love.” 

Unusual, perhaps, but not for Murata’s oeuvre. While Convenience Store Woman is her biggest success, Murata describes it as her most mild. Jyunyu, her debut novel, delves into a high school girl’s sexual manipulation of her college-aged tutor. In A Clean Marriage, translated by Takemori, a happily sexless couple visits a cutting-edge fertility clinic that guarantees conception without the complexities, physical or otherwise, of intercourse.

“The sense of humor is quite grotesque,” says Takemori, who will appear with Murata at this month’s Meet the Author event. “It has a very dark side to it as well, but I think a lot of Murata’s work has those two elements.”

In the three short years since its release, Convenience Store Woman has been translated into nearly 30 languages, and more of Murata’s fiction is sure to follow. Takemori is currently translating Murata’s latest novel, Earthlings, a tale of two children certain they come from another planet. She calls it darker and more violent yet equally brilliant as the book that catapulted Murata to literary stardom. 

“Readers might be in for a shock,” warns Murata. “But that’s part of the joy of reading—the shock, the wondering, ‘What is this? Why did that happen?’”

Words: Owen Ziegler

Meet the Author: Sayaka Murata
May 22 | 7–8pm