French cover art

Interview with the French translator of “No-No Boy”

cover of French translationMerci beaucoup  to the readers and independent bookstores in France now discovering the work of John Okada through a new translation of No-No Boy.

Published on October 29 by Valérie Millet of Les Éditions du Sonneur, the new translation is by Paris-based writer Anne-Sylvie Homassel. She reports that bookstores across France reopened last Saturday from the pandemic and they’re eagerly welcoming the new edition, as can be seen in this Facebook post from La Geosphere of Montpelier on the south coast of France.

This is the third international edition of No-No Boy, joining the German and Japanese translations.  As with those versions, I had a delightful correspondence  with the translator to help untangle a few of Okada’s more idiomatic phrases and Nisei colloquialisms. Thanks to Le Sonneur for the nice acknowledgement and reference back to this website.

Homassel is a Paris-based writer and translator. She co-directs The Green Face (Le Visage vert), a literary magazine and small press devoted to supernatural fiction, and has translated close to 100 volumes, including those of Max Beerbohm,  Henry Darger, Willa Cather, John Buchan, Zane Gray, Herman Melville and L. Frank Baum. Under the name Anne-Sylvie Salzman,  she’s written the novels and collections Sleep (Sommeil); On the Edge of a Slow Black River (Au bord d’un lent fleuve noir); Lamont; Feral (Vivre sauvage dans les villes);  and Zelenka (Dernières nouvelles d’Œsthrénie).

We were fascinated to know more, so here is an edited trans-Atlantic interview conducted via e-mail: What was the origin for the French edition? Were you commissioned by the publisher or did you bring the idea to them? 

Anne-Sylvie Homassel
Anne-Sylvie Homassel

Anne-Sylvie Homassel: I frequently travel to Japan, where I have many friends, and In September 2018, I read an article about No-No Boy in The Japan Times.  I soon ordered the book—and when I finished reading it I knew I would want to translate and offer it to French-speaking readers. I mentioned it to publisher Valérie Millet, who runs an independent press called Les Éditions du Sonneur, and she was as thrilled as I was by the novel. Le Sonneur has been publishing for more than 15 years books of all description—works of fiction, travel literature, essays—with a focus on literary quality. So Le Sonneur acquired the rights to No-No Boy—and two years and a pandemic later, here we are.

How long did it actually take you to translate this book?

Translating the book took, as far as I can remember, two months. A little bit more (considering the number of words) than average. I wanted to dwell in the book. And together with Valérie, we had a week of intense re-reading (which is also a bit unusual).

Did you find any particular problems in conveying the English en français? In Japan, for example, translator Ryusuke Kawai felt the previous Japanese edition used many antiquated and obsolete terms. Any observations about Okada’s use of language?

Maybe the most difficult thing was to express in proper French the ruptures in rhythm. You have these long, almost howling, painful streams of consciousness, these lamentations whose stylistic features actually help the translator—and then the terse, illuminating descriptions—and then the dialogues. Those were probably the most difficult to translate, because you have to reinvent voices in French which still convey something of a 1940s American English as spoken by young Nisei, their Issei parents and the world around them. Not always easy. A good thing with Le Sonneur is that Valérie Millet pays attention to the music of a translation, as well to its quality, and that we had, when the translation was finished, three long working sessions, during which we went through the whole text, reading aloud at times, amending, weighing alternatives. It helped a lot—or so I hope.

Has your view of the novel and the author changed over the course of your work?

Working on the translation and reading your biography and Okada’s other stories and essays has only deepened my feelings of admiration and appreciation for both the novel and its author.

The cover is certainly eye-catching. Who is the graphic artist, and can you share any insights into how he or she approached the cover image? How you do you like it?

I spoke with Sandrine Duvillier who created the cover—she’s in charge of all the layout creation at Le Sonneur. She told me that, in the spirit of what she had done for the three Jim Tully and one of the Martha Gellhorn books, she initially thought she might use a contemporaneous black and white picture, and had a look at Dorothea Lange’s photos of the internment camps. But then she decided against it, to grant No-No Boy its specificity—it’s a book of fiction, after all. Hence the conflation of flags. The grey marks on the background symbolize the destruction, desperation and grime of the war and its aftermath. And yes: I like the cover very much.

Your social media includes several references to things and places Japanese. What is your own background?

I’ve been living in the southern suburbs of Paris for ages, studying philosophy for a while, then moving on to a double life devoted to literature (writing fiction and translating) on one hand, and some jobs as a PR person for sundry institutions on the other. Then 15 years ago I fell in love with Japanese cinema and subsequently with Japan; I’ve been a frequent traveler there since, and try to visit Tokyo and friends there twice a year. And I learned Japanese, a very slow process (and alas a slightly lazy one) in my case. A few years later I felt confident enough to start a career as a freelance translator, English to French. And that’s what I do now for a living. Some of the translations are projects of mine, such as No-No Boy; others are commissions from publishers.

How can it be that there is interest in France in 2020 in this novel by a Japanese American written in 1957?  How does it speak to the French reader today?

There are quite a few elements which I think may resonate in the psyche of a French reader. First of all the question of loyalty. There has been in France for quite a while now a drift which tends to isolate parts of the Muslim communities, which are suspected of being more loyal to Islam than to the ideals of the French Republic. While historically different, Ichiro’s turmoils could well resonate with our present situation. How do you reconcile your origins and your feelings of belonging? How do you deal with those who expect from you a sort of augmented loyalty, as a token of your assimilation? These are questions to which No-No Boy offers no precise answers, but certainly plenty of thought and some sort of resolution.

Then there is a keen interest in France for all things American—and Japanese, even if they concern a period which may now seem remote (the aftermath of WWII) but which remains extremely vivid for most French readers. And in the light of what is happening in the USA at the moment, what Okada captures in term of race relations—I am thinking of the scene when the old Black man isn’t offered a seat in the church where Tommy takes Ichiro, but also of the taunts thrown at Ichiro by the Black men in the street—has still some relevance.

And then—it is a splendid novel, with its powerful mixture of cinematographic scenes, intense streams of consciousness and very evocative and delicate flashes of melancholy (the old couple watching the young people dance in the darkness at the internment camp as they look for their daughter, for instance—a lasting image for me). Different rhythms—and, as a result, a profound music. As such, it should appeal to all sorts of readers.

The French people of course have their own painful experience of occupation during WW2. How do the French today regard the Japanese American experience, if they are even aware of it? 

I first heard of what happened while reading about the FDR era as a student, but the mention of the internment camps was extremely sketchy. I later learned more about it through the photos of Dorothea Lange and the testimony of the American Japanese veterans in Ken Burns’ documentary The War—still not quite detailed. But most of what I know now comes from your website,, and from the Densho encyclopedia online. And my friend Miki Nitadori, a Japanese artist who lived for a while in Hawaii and has now settled in Paris, taught me a lot about Japanese immigration and Japanese American communities in Hawaii (she based one of her works, Odyssey, on photographs from Japanese American families in Hawai’i.

On a less personal level, I would say there is a certain awareness in France of the plight of the Japanese Americans during WW2. It might be related to our own history of incarceration of “alien citizens” at the outbreak of WW2, when the French authorities rounded up German citizens and sent them to camps, only to hand them over to the Nazis in 1940—and of course most of those people would be Jewish and/or political exiles who had fled the Nazis. It is certainly not related to the plight of the French Japanese of New Caledonia—right after Pearl Harbor, more than a thousand civilians which were arrested and send to camps in South New Wales, then forcefully sent to Japan—of which very few French people would have heard of outside New Caledonia.

How is your publisher promoting your translation?

Promoting a book whose author is both totally unknown and long dead can be daunting, especially when the literary season is so laden with more contemporary books by living (and sometime very boisterous) novelists. Le Sonneur is sending books to reviewers and bookshops (we still have in France a great network of independent bookshops, which are “great prescribers” of books, as we put it); there will also be some promotion on the social networks, especially Facebook. We’ll also reach out to bloggers and to magazines with an interest in America and/or Japan.

You seem to closely follow events in the U.S. When it comes to the America of today, how do we look over there to the French?

I have a keen interest into American affairs—a lot of French people do.  What has been happening since 2016 in your country is—how shall I put in? Dismaying? Disheartening? Horrifying?

Sen. Mitt Romney had a very revealing comment in September 2020 when he justified his position in the Supreme Court affair. “My liberal friends have over many decades gotten very used to the idea of having a liberal court, and that’s not written in the stars,” he said. Why indeed: so while Americans are embracing wholeheartedly the course of technical and medical progress, some of them would not mind following the path of intellectual and social regression with the likes of Trump, Pence and their ilk. It is something which is difficult to understand for us French. Our rightist parties—yes, even the far-right Rassemblement national—do not advocate for such a regression (which is not to say they never will). The big difference possibly lays in the importance of Evangelical groups in the USA and what some political analysts describe as a “Confederate spirit’” As for Trump himself—he’s a political experiment gone extremely wild, isn’t he? So there is a mixture here in France of shock, disgust—and, I’m afraid, a tiny little bit of fascination for that Golem or Frankenstein’s creature of a politician.

Needless to say, the outcome of the election was a huge relief for me, after a nail-biting four days spent with CNN Live. Mr. Trump’s outrageous lies and Kraken-riding antics still worry me but I’m hopeful. Multilateralism, acknowledgment of the climate and health crisis and empathy seem to be heading back to the White House and that is good not only for the US but also for the world at large.

What other projects do you have planned?

This very week I am starting to work on Dexter Palmer’s novel Mary Toft (that’s a commission, and one I thoroughly enjoy). I am also currently writing a novel together with an English friend (it is our second venture together) and must find time to start another, solo novel, for which I have been collecting material for quite a while.

Thanks to Anne-Sylvie. Here’s an interview with her from 2014 on  her translation of the autobiography of the artist Henry Darger, The History of My Life.

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