The saucer’s apprentice: An interview with Eleanor Goldsmith, translator of Every Day a Good Day: Fifteen lessons I learned about happiness from Japanese tea culture

GoodDayHow did Eleanor Goldsmith, a working class girl from Swansea, Wales, find herself becoming a leading practitioner of the Japanese tea ceremony in New Zealand? With the recent publication of her translation of Every Day a Good Day: Fifteen lessons I learned about happiness from Japanese tea culture, Patrick Sherriff wanted to stir the pot.

Patrick Sherriff: What is it with you and tea?

Eleanor Goldsmith: Well, it’s hard to say why it’s become such a big part of my life. I’m not at all a tidy, well-organised, serene person in my everyday life (I think most of what self-discipline I have goes into my work), but there’s something in tea, with all its structures and rules, that not only appeals to me, but makes me feel that I can fit into those boundaries despite my shortcomings. I’ve been a black tea drinker since childhood: Mum went back to work soon after I was born and her parents looked after me during the day. My grandparents used to drink 5-6 cups of tea a day and once I was old enough, Gran taught me how to make a proper pot of tea using leaf tea. We’re a working class family, so it was milk in first! In my mid-teens, I began experimenting with fruit teas and then moved on to the harder stuff: Earl Grey and jasmine. I had my first taste of Japanese tea – bancha, in fact – during a school exchange trip to Vienna when I was 16, as the family I was staying with had visited Japan and gladly introduced me to Japanese food and drink when they learned that I was studying Japanese at school.

My first encounter with the Japanese tradition of tea known variously as chado, sado, and chanoyu came during my first year studying Japanese at the University of Durham, at a cultural festival held at Teikyo University’s school in the city. Some of the students gave a Tea demonstration, which I watched as though observing a dance performance: impressed at the spectacle, but uncomprehending of the meaning. In our second year, my classmates and I went to Kumamoto University for 9 months of intensive Japanese language study. Most of us took up some kind of traditional Japanese hobby. Some did calligraphy, others kendo. I attended monthly Sogetsu ikebana classes and two of my classmates joined the tea club. I watched them practicing folding and snapping the fukusa – the red silk cloth used to wipe the utensils before making tea – and that was the moment that my curiosity about tea began to stir.

A couple of years later, I was coming towards the end of my degree and learned that I had been accepted onto the JET program as a Coordinator of International Relations. I made a list of things that I wanted to do while I was in Japan. Today, I only remember two things that were on it: climb Mount Fuji and start learning tea. I never did do the first (I settled for listening to other people’s horror stories about it), but I certainly did manage the second. After arriving at Joetsu City Office, I asked one of my colleagues in the International Exchange Division whether he knew where I could learn tea. He told me that the city office actually had a tea club that met on a Thursday after work, taught by a former city employee who had recently retired. The club members welcomed me with open arms and so began my journey along the Way of Tea.

How did you come to translate the book Every Day A Good Day? I thought you were primarily a translator of Japanese business documents, but the book sounds a lot more fun than company reports.

I’ve been a freelance translator since 2000 – nearly 20 years now – and my work has indeed been primarily centered on factual material: research papers (I spent five and a half years as the in-house translator at the Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia in Niigata), government documents, and company reports. I’ve also worked on less dry, more creative texts in fields such as art, tourism, and cosmetics. One of the agencies for which I work, Office Miyazaki Inc., has handled the translation of several books published through the Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture’s Japan Library project, which aims to bring outstanding Japanese books to a wider global audience by publishing them in English translation.

In February 2017, the agency’s president, Hisako Miyazaki, asked me if I knew of any books in Japanese about tea that might be suitable for the project. I couldn’t think of any off-hand that weren’t already available in English, such as Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea (which Okakura originally wrote in English, in fact) and the various books published by Dr. Genshitsu Sen, the 15th Grand Master of the Urasenke Tradition of the Way of Tea. I asked friends on a number of tea-related groups on Facebook for ideas, but their suggestions were mainly esoteric writings or textbooks specific to a particular school of tea. While those texts might have been useful to existing Tea practitioners, I didn’t feel that they were likely to convey the appeal of Tea to those unfamiliar with this aspect of Japanese culture.

And so, late one night during my busiest time of year (the end of the Japanese fiscal year), I found myself searching Amazon Japan for books in Japanese about tea. I think the search term I used really was as simple as “茶道” (chado). Ignoring hits for textbooks and manuals of tea etiquette, I managed to find two or three vaguely feasible possibilities. I forget what the others were and why I chose them, but the one that stood out for me was Noriko Morishita’s collection of essays about tea “日日是好日―「お茶」が教えてくれた15のしあわせ” (Nichinichi kore kojitsu – o-cha ga oshiete kureta 15 no shiawase), which became “Every Day a Good Day: Fifteen lessons I learned about happiness from Japanese tea culture”. As luck would have it, an excerpt from the first chapter was available to read via the “Look Inside” function. The author’s descriptions of learning how to fold the fukusa (a red silk cloth) and wipe the tea container echoed my own early experiences of learning tea. Her bewilderment at the unfamiliar terms and tools made me recall my own at a similar age. I completely identified with the author’s feelings and realised that this was not only a book I’d like to read, but also one that might help other people to understand the fascination held by tea.

I e-mailed my suggestions to Miyazaki-san and promptly forgot all about them, being preoccupied with both work and family affairs in the wake of my mother-in-law’s death the month before.

About a year later, Miyazaki-san contacted me to tell me that JPIC had selected Nichinichi, as I came to call it, for inclusion in the Japan Library collection and asked whether I’d be interested in putting my name forward to translate it. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said yes. I sent her my CV to pass on to JPIC…and heard nothing again for a couple of months, but bought the book in the meantime. In her next e-mail about the project, Miyazaki-san explained that there were two sticking points for JPIC: one was that I was an Urasenke practitioner, whereas Morishita-san follows the Omotesenke tradition, and the other was that I had no literary translation experience. They wanted to know whether I had any other distinctions (academic background, etc.) that might qualify me as a suitable translator for this work. Miyazaki-san also confided that one reason why JPIC had reservations was that the book, which was originally published in 2002 and subsequently appeared in paperback in 2008, was being made into a film, so the translation would potentially have a higher profile than might otherwise be the case. I replied that my only qualifications were 20 years as both a tea practitioner and a translator, first in Japan and latterly in New Zealand. I also mentioned that I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the differences between Urasenke and Omotesenke procedures, as I attend Omotesenke tea demonstrations at the Japanese Society of Auckland’s annual Japan Day event. It’s the highlight of my year, because it’s the only time I get to attend Tea demonstrations in NZ as a guest, rather than the host!

Another month or so passed. I went to visit friends and family in the UK and France, and started reading the book on the plane. I pencilled into the margins my ideas for translating certain words and phrases, just in case I was lucky enough to be selected. A few days after arriving in France, I received confirmation that I had been chosen to translate Nichinichi. My reaction was very much an alloyed mixture of delight and terror. I really wanted to translate this book, but what if I made a mess of it?

What was it like translating the book? How has it been received? Any lessons you got from translating the book you could impart to wannabe book translators?

Translating the book was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea before I started quite how much time and effort were involved. First of all, it took so much longer than I’d expected just to translate a single page. Sometimes the difficulty lay in working out specifically what picture the author was painting – it’s one thing to read a book and gain a general, broad-brush impression of a scene, but as a translator, you need to understand the finer details of what’s going on. As a tea practitioner myself, I had the advantage of understanding many of the scenarios and being able to fill in (for my own comprehension – not necessarily explicitly on the page) background details from my own experience in order to convey the atmosphere. What it was like to handle a tea whisk for the first time or stumble while trying to walk correctly across the tatami mats were easy enough to understand, but a throwaway line in an overheard conversation between two women waiting for a large tea gathering to start, for example, took a lot of puzzling out – I had the general sense of what they were saying, but to convey it in natural English in a way that accurately reflected the author’s intention. Sometimes what took time was weighing up all the possible ways that a sentence could be translated and finding the one that combined balance, natural English, accuracy, and a certain aesthetic pleasure in the reading. Where normally I’d expect to complete 4,000 characters in a day quite comfortably, I found I was doing well if I got to 2,000 on the book. It was much more mentally taxing than non-literary translation.

Then I’d send my first draft of the chapter to my English-language editor, who’d make suggestions for changes – seeing the wood, where I had been focused on the trees, as it were. I was tremendously lucky to have as my editor Matt Treyvaud, who has a number of published translations under his belt and who I already knew from Twitter. Once we’d reached an agreed draft, it went to the Japanese-language editor, in whom I was again fortunate, as she’s someone who has known me almost since the beginning of my translation career. We also had an Omotesenke practitioner on the team as a consultant, just to be certain that I hadn’t overlooked or misinterpreted any subtle points about the style of Tea practiced in that particular tradition.

There were a couple of rounds of proofreading by external proofreaders before the manuscript went from a Word document to a PDF of the galley proof, and then multiple rounds of checking to ensure that things were as they should be. E.g. that words that had been italics in the Word document had remained in italics in the proof. Which they hadn’t – it was quite a mission to correct those, as I’ve romanised a lot of the original Japanese Tea terminology in the interests of enabling the reader to accompany the author on her journey of learning these initially impenetrable terms. The publisher kindly agreed to include a glossary of terms at the end for readers’ reference, so we also had to put that together.

All in all, the main lesson I learned from translating the book was to expect everything to take longer than you’d normally anticipate. And also that it helps to have editors with whom you get on!

As to how the book has been received, I haven’t seen any detailed reviews, but it has a 4-star rating overall on Goodreads and someone on the Urasenke Facebook page said they were enjoying it, which is great to hear. The best feedback I’ve had so far, though, came from my mother, to whom I sent a copy for her birthday: she said she’d enjoyed the book very much and had never realized there was so much to Tea. Morishita-san’s intention in writing Every Day a Good Day and what I was aiming to achieve with my translation was to help people who know nothing about tea gain an insight into it, so it was great to have such a positive reaction from someone who knew almost nothing about tea before reading the book. Mum says she now hopes to see the film when it’s released in France (where she lives) on July 10 under the title Dans un jardin qu’on dirait éternel.

How did you end up learning Japanese in the first place?

I actually wanted to study Russian* originally. I was raised in a bilingual environment, growing up hearing my mother speak Welsh with my grandparents. Unfortunately, my biological father didn’t want me to learn Welsh, so I was deprived of the opportunity to become bilingual myself. However, I began learning French at 8, German at 9, and Latin at 10. When I was 12, I happened to find an old Penguin Teach Yourself Russian textbook in one of the numerous second-hand bookshops in the little market town of Hay-on-Wye, on the Welsh side of the border with England. It was a few months before the Berlin Wall came down and I was intrigued by the idea of learning this language with a non-Roman alphabet. My parents bought me the book and I spent a bit of time studying it during my summer holidays, but didn’t get very far beyond teaching myself the Cyrillic alphabet, because I struggled with the pronunciation and had no audio tapes (these days, one would just fire up the internet!) I ended up studying French, German, and Economics for A-level and had the opportunity to study something else for fun for four classes a week. Unfortunately, Russian wasn’t on offer, but Japanese was, taught by a multilingual semi-retired biology teacher and all-round polymath who had taught himself basic Japanese while recuperating from illness the year before. Thinking that Japanese might possibly be useful in the future, given how much Japanese inward investment in Wales there was at that stage, I signed up for the class and soon abandoned my original plan of studying European languages at university in favour of majoring in Japanese. Although the course at school was only designed to run for a year, my teacher, Mr Peirson, kindly offered to teach me one-on-one for an hour a week. He would write out haiku poems and I would look up the characters in his Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary and attempt a translation of my own before he explained each poem and the background to it. It was my favourite class of the week.

*I’ve made several subsequent attempts to study Russian, but without much success. It’s a language that’s very demanding grammatically and I think I’m just too lazy to put in the hours of rote learning and drills required! However, I can understand the language to some degree, which is helpful, since my husband is, in fact, Russian. Funny how life turns out. Japanese ended up being more than a bit useful to me, too!

Any advice for newbie translators?

I don’t think I have any advice that is terribly original, but for what it’s worth, this is what I’d suggest:

  • Read a variety of different texts (fiction, non-fiction, news) in both your source and target languages to develop a sense of style, register, and nuance.
  • Check everything thoroughly before submission. If you can, try to finish the day before your deadline and read the text through again with a fresh brain the following day, when you’re more likely to pick up typos and clunky phrasing.
    Aim for on time, every time, but if you think you’re going to miss your deadline, let your client know as early as possible – people are more amenable to renegotiating deadlines if they don’t feel bounced into it at the last minute.
  • Hone your internet search skills – learn how to refine your search results.
    Accept and reflect on feedback – use it as an opportunity to improve. Some changes by translation checkers are just a matter of personal preference, but they aren’t necessarily worth arguing over. If you disagree with something that is actually wrong, you may be able to encourage a rethink by explaining your perspective. In that situation, explain your thinking concisely and respectfully.
  • Use the comments function in your word processing software to provide references to show the checker your sources for translations of organization names or names of plants and animals, for example.
  • Read up on translation ethics – being a good translator goes beyond mere language ability.
  • You might be surprised by how common kanji conversion mistakes are. If something really isn’t making sense to you, it might be a mistake like that, so think about the reading of the kanji and which other compounds have the same reading, or a longer/shorter vowel sound than the one that appears out of place. After a while, it becomes second nature and it almost feels like you have the ability to read people’s minds.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – if you’re working for translation agencies, it’s better to be on the books of several, rather than just one. Think of it in terms of risk diversification.
  • Back up your work!
  • Some people are just terrible at writing. You’ll inevitably come across them in your work. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you might be able to make it slightly less porcine.

Are there any challenges or advantages to being based in New Zealand?

Not specific to the book, but certainly from a general perspective, I feel that the time zone difference works to my advantage. NZ is 3 hours ahead of Japan between early April and late September, then 4 hours ahead during our Daylight Saving period. I find I’m at my most productive in the morning, so can get jobs for delivery by the Japanese morning done during the NZ morning. This is a particular advantage with one of my clients, for whom I need to translate news articles from Japanese overnight. The articles generally arrive at the end of the Japanese working day and need to be back by the following lunchtime in Japan, so I can work on them when my brain is at its freshest.

The main challenge is keeping up with trends and current affairs in Japan – it requires a bit more effort than it would if I was based in Japan and therefore immersed in them from day to day. However, I’ve found Twitter particularly helpful in that regard and the internet generally makes the job of a translator a lot easier, with so much information at one’s fingertips now that would have required more time and effort to obtain 25-30 years ago. Of course, the caveat to that is clients expect much faster turnaround of jobs than they did in earlier decades, when a translator might have had to spend a while waiting for a specialist dictionary, for example, to reach their local library. I should note that a translator still needs to be able to evaluate the usefulness and accuracy of information sources – as we’ve seen all too often, just because something’s on the net doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. I don’t translate super-technical material, but I do have enough grounding and interest in science (I once wanted to study medicine, but ended up focusing on languages because I disliked my chemistry teacher – it was probably the right choice, as I’m way too emotional ever to have made a good physician!) to be able to find, understand, and use the information I need.

What’s next for you?

A trip back to the UK and France to see friends and family, hopefully in July and August (once I finally get it booked). There’s usually a bit of a lull at this time of year, but it’s giving me the opportunity to catch up on some other things on the long-term non-work to-do list. I expect things to get busier after o-Bon and I know that one regular client has some work coming in for me then. I don’t have any particularly exciting projects on the horizon, but I’m going to do what I usually do and wait to see what comes my way. One of the things I love about this job is that it’s never predictable. Oh, and I’ll also keep plugging the book on Twitter!

Eleanor Goldsmith was born in Swansea, Wales. She graduated from the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Durham in July 1998, taking up a post as JET Programme Coordinator of International Relations at Joetsu City Office, Niigata Prefecture the same month. She began freelancing as a translator in 2000 and worked as a research assistant at the Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia in Niigata City from 2001 to 2006. Eleanor moved to Auckland, New Zealand in December 2006 and continued to freelance, while also working for an international assistance company, coordinating assistance for clients of travel and medical insurance companies across the globe. She founded her company Kinsho Language Services in July 2008 and has been fully freelance as a translator since February 2012. She is President of the Chado Urasenke Tankokai New Zealand Association and Secretary of the NZ-Japan Society of Auckland (NZJS) Aoteakai tea ceremony group, as well as being a member of the NZJS Council and former NZJS Vice-President. Contact her on Twitter here.

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Patrick Sherriff publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. He lives in Abiko with his wife and two daughters.