Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008

WORDS TO LIVE BY

"Harry Potter" translator Yuko Matsuoka Harris


Yuko Matsuoka Harris, age 64, is the translator of the "Harry Potter" books in Japan and the president of the series' Japanese publisher, Say-zan-sha. Similar to the series' Hermione, Matsuoka has always been exceptional: As one of the best simultaneous interpreters in Japan, during her 30-year career she has specialized in intellectual property and patent law and regularly worked for the United Nations. The perfect match for the genius of J. K. Rowling, whose books have sold 400 million copies worldwide, Matsuoka creates masterpieces equal to their originals. Her flawless texts were penned during a 10-year sentence that she spent under virtual house arrest in Harry's world -- but she still managed to stay sane in the process, a feat only one with magical powers could have achieved. Beloved by fans, who have already purchased 24 million copies of her translations, she has also been the driving force behind the Japan Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) Association, established by her late husband in 1986.

News photo
Yuko Matsuoka Harris JUDIT KAWAGUCHI PHOTO

Trust your instincts. My friends recommended that I get the rights to the "Harry Potter" books. I read the first in one sitting and was hooked. I knew this was the project I was preparing for my whole life. It didn't bother me that at that point I had never translated a book nor published much. I knew that I could do it.

Enthusiasm is what matters. This is what J. K. Rowling said when asked why they gave me the copyright. She's the greatest! Enthusiasm is all I had: I loved the book and wanted every Japanese to read it.

No one expects to make money on books. I never thought I would ever make money on publishing -- my late husband never did. Somehow good books and profit-making were on two different ends of the spectrum. You want them to come together, but as they say, you could never make ends meet.

The less one knows about a subject, the braver one can be about it. Although I thought everyone wanted to publish "Harry Potter," I kept asking the agents to give it to me. I had a lot going against me: I was inexperienced at business and at translation and had just lost my husband. But that meant that I had nothing to fear.

Even when people die, they keep on living. If someone loves you strongly, he or she continues to live in you. Since my first husband's death in 1997, I keep feeling his presence. Magic exists if you just believe -- and you'd better believe it. I am living proof. I encountered it after the death of my husband. His dreams kept living on in me, and I made them come true.

When our loved ones have dreams, we share them. And once they are not here anymore, we can achieve their dreams for them. My husband knew he had terminal lung cancer and only six months left. I asked him how he wanted me to live. He said: "Publishing is too hard so you shouldn't continue. So is taking care of the ALS association, so please don't worry about it anymore. Be free! Do whatever you want to do!" But I listened to what he felt, not what he said, and inherited his two dreams: to publish great books and to help sufferers of ALS. He is looking down on me, guiding me. So now I have to achieve his third dream: to be free. I interpret it as his wish that I do something for others.

Loving your work will turn you into a perfectionist. Being the president of the company meant that I could spend as much time as I wanted on perfecting the translation. We redid each book about six times!

A rising tide lifts all the boats — even those that are capsized. Before "Harry" we were always in the red but now Say-zan-sha can afford to pay its staff. It's a miracle!

Japanese people try very hard to solve problems without blaming anyone. In my experience, this is not true with Europeans, who think that any mistake is your own business and that you should take care of it yourself. That's why I miss Japanese customer service when I am abroad. I think Japan has a lot to offer the world.

To interpret or to translate, words are not enough. The real secret is to have a wide knowledge of a variety of subjects. I am always searching for information, whether it is from books or watching animals or even drinking wine. It all polishes my sense of language and develops my sensitivity.

The ability to communicate is the key to feeling human. Many ALS patients communicate using slight eye movements, since they have lost the use of their other muscles. Even though they can't move physically and many are bound to respirators, they have tremendous courage to live. I admire them. They participate in social activities, often as leaders, and work to create a society where every person can live a full life.

Simply to be alive is to contribute to the lives of loved ones. I know a father with ALS who can't move his eyelids anymore. He lies still in the living room. But just by being there, and by being brave, he is a role model and is adored by his wife and children.

If you are going to make a noise, have something real to say. The idea that silence is golden is so passe. Fortunately Japanese are more outspoken now in international society. We found our voice, although we should keep in mind that talking alone is not important -- it's your message that matters. The caveat is not to simply assert yourself, but to have a message to assert.

If you're meant to be together, one day you will be. My current husband and I first met in 1977, but didn't see each other again until 2000, soon after the first "Harry Potter" was published in Japanese. That time it was like magic, and in 2001, I moved to Switzerland to live with him. We got married in 2006.

Never be afraid. If you are equipped with knowledge, enthusiasm and perseverance, magic is on your side.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK's "Out & About." Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.