On February 26, 2023 I attended an online presentation co-sponsored by the City of Asylum, the University of Pittsburgh Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and Stone Bridge publishers. The event featured Japanese author Hiromi Itō and her translator Jeffrey Angles who read selections from The Thorn Puller, Ms. Itō’s first novel to appear in English. The readings were in both English and Japanese.

Hiromi Itō is a highly prolific author of poetry, prose and essays and a winner of several important literary prizes. She first came to the attention of the Japanese reading public in the 1980’s with her ground-breaking poetry focusing on themes of pregnancy, childbirth and female sexuality. After emigrating to the US in the 1990’s, her themes shifted to those of the immigrant experience and biculturalism. Her most recent works reflect her concern with death and dying and how those forces impact the lives of women caretakers.

Ms. Itō is also an experienced translator. Her translations of American literature for young readers include Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as well as Out of the Dust and Witness by Karen Hesse. She has translated Buddhist texts into modern Japanese and has also written a modern Japanese translation of a short story by Meiji era author Ichiyō Higuchi, Japan’s first professional female writer of modern literature.

Translator Jeffrey Angles is a scholar as well as a poet who writes in his second language which is Japanese. An award-winning literary translator, he is a professor of Japanese language and literature at Western Michigan University. He has a long standing relationship with Ms. Ito, having met her in the year 2000 when he was a graduate student.

The title The Thorn Puller refers to the Japanese divinity Jizō, a bodhisattva revered in East Asian Buddhism. Ms. Ito stressed the importance of Jizō to many Japanese women. There is a site in Tokyo dedicated to him often visited by Japanese women which included some of her own ancestors. Japanese women view Jizō as able to remove the thorns of human suffering from human beings.

The bi-lingual readings from the novel were darkly humorous and serious as the author addresses issues of particular concern to women such as the stress of being a caretaker to one’s parents while taking care of one’s own family. In the novel, the author is raising a family in California while her aging parents in Japan depend on her to ease the burden of their failing health. The novel deals with issues such as guilt and feelings of failure as the author tries to meet the expectations of both her husband and her parents.

Punctuating the novel are many references to Japanese folklore and religion, including Jizō. The translator Jeffrey Angles mentioned in the Q&A how rich the novel is in these references and what a challenge is was to translate them. The book includes quotations from many different Japanese sources, both classical and modern, in which the language varies from the highly refined to the very humble. Some of the quotations come from eras when the Japanese language was the equivalent of our Middle or Old English. Mr. Angles made the decision to translate the more ancient quotations into modern English.

It was enjoyable listening to the highly idiosyncratic readings by the author and to learn about her bi-cultural journey.  Hearing about the challenges that her translator faced when translating works of such diversity was also illuminating and informative.

Patricia Stumpp




On April 18, 2023 the Circle hosted a webinar featuring Rafael Espinal, Executive Director of the Freelancers Union. Before joining the Union in 2020, Mr. Espinal was a member of the New York City council for 8 years where he represented the 37th district in Brooklyn. During his tenure, he co-sponsored the “Freelance Isn’t Free” legislation that gave freelancers protection from nonpayment and late payments. In addition to his City Council service, he also spent two years in the New York State Assembly.

Founded in 1995, the Freelancers Union advocates for independent workers across the US. Mr. Espinal estimates that approximately 60 million Americans are freelancers, up from 54-56 million pre-pandemic.  In addition to translators, freelancers are found in many industries where creativity is involved such as graphic designers, writers, and photographers.

Membership in the Union is free and gives members access to the Union’s website which provides a lot of information about critical issues such as:

– health and other kinds of insurance: while the Union does not currently offer its own health insurance plan, it does curate insurance offerings for its members.

– accounting topics such as how to incorporate or create an LLC.

– advice on how translators can protect themselves against and deal with issues of non-payment. The Union website contains a sample contract for freelancers who may not yet have their own version. When there is a dispute with an employer, the Union can also write a letter for the freelancer on their letterhead which may get the attention of non-payers more quickly than if the freelancer approached the non-payer independently.

– AI: Mr. Espinal made the point that AI is smart and is getting smarter. Consequently, freelance translators will have to master basic AI tools and adapt to the ever-improving technology.  For example, translators who work in post-editing will be expected to work more efficiently and faster than ever before.

The Union provides a wide variety of resources to help freelancers grow their businesses. These include community networking, seminars and training events which are offered at the Union’s co-working Hub in Industry City, Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Membership in the Union entitles the member to 8 days of free coworking space at the Hub. The Union also offers free 30-minute in-person consultations with business experts in fields such as finance, retirement planning, tech and business development.

What emerged from the presentation was that it behooves freelancers to band together to expand the safety net available to them and to advocate for laws that address their needs. The Freelancers Union appears to be an important tool in that ongoing effort.

Patricia Stumpp



On April 27, 2023 I attended a seminar at the Rizzoli bookstore at which three prominent translators spoke about their latest projects. The translators were Ann Goldstein, translator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Jenny McPhee, who has translated Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg, and Michael Moore, who recently published the first new translation in 50 years of the seminal 19th century novel I Promessi Sposi. The discussion was moderated by Professor Monica Calabritto, Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Hunter College and Chairperson of the Department of Romance Languages and Eugenio Refini, Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University.

Jennie McPhee discussed her work on the three-volume translation of the complete works of Primo Levi published in 2015. This project, which took seventeen years to complete, was edited by Ann Goldstein. It was mentioned that as Levi’s works were published in Italian, they were not translated with a consistent voice and this project was able to achieve that. Also, Levi’s works had often been evaluated more on the basis of his role as witness than on his skill as a writer. The new translation was able to show the beauty of his prose as well as the importance of his work as historical record.

It was mentioned how a translation can help a book to take its place in the canon of great literary classics and/or give a book a new life. Many books are not included among the great books simply because they were overlooked or forgotten after they were published in their native tongue. This has often been the case for women writers such as Natalia Ginzburg whose works were given new life after they were translated. Other examples of this are Elena Ferrante, who became a more important writer in Italy because of the success of her translated books in the US, and Alba de Cespedes.

Translation can also be an act of restoration. Michael Moore mentioned that earlier translations of I Promessi Sposi skirted around the issue of sexuality in such a way that the erotic undertones present in the novel were eliminated. Jennie MacPhee mentioned that in an earlier translation of a work by Elsa Morante the translator for some unexplained reason simply left out about 200 pages.

It can be difficult to translate potentially controversial elements of a literary work so as to be true to the tone of the original while not offending contemporary sensibilities. An example might be words that are potentially denigrating in nature. Jenny McPhee mentioned how in one story the author used the word “moro” to describe a child. The word could have been translated into English in several different ways such as the black boy, the negro, the dark one, etc. She opted to use the word negro with a footnote describing the context in which the word was used.

Throughout the discussion it was acknowledged how difficult it is to translate the past in present day terms. This raises questions such as what good English today is and when a translation is too contemporary or too American.  All of the panelists agreed that literary translation is anything but literal but is an art in itself.

Patricia Stumpp