Translating a literary work requires a precise grasp of not only the language and style of the original but its entire worldview, along with a command of the target language that allows the translator to recreate the full literary effect of the original for the reader without distortion. The difficulties encountered in negotiating the deep canyons separating the two languages are ultimately rewarded by those rare moments of sheer joy when a perfect meeting of words and minds and hearts occurs. This tale centers on a man who devotes his life to this pursuit.
The story begins in 1980 in Tokyo. Hiroyuki Narikawa, a 20-year-old college student, meets same-year student Yūko Kaino when she asks to join the literary circle Hiroyuki belongs to. The easygoing but relatively quiet Hiroyuki is the product of a well-to-do middle-class background, while the assertive and driven Yūko comes from a blended family that has always struggled to make ends meet, and is working her way through college. But in spite of these differences they are drawn to each other by a shared interest in the English language.
During summer vacation one year, Yūko suggests Hiroyuki take over a job she’s found translating an American short story, and it gives him his first taste of English-to-Japanese literary translation. Yūko has concluded that text translation is not for her, and sets her sights on becoming a conference interpreter instead. With his more deliberate temperament, Hiroyuki likes the fact that textual translation allows him to take all the time he needs to find just the right expression for the context. Yūko lacks Hiroyuki’s patience and is always looking for quick answers, which makes the task of simultaneous interpreting in live situations more appealing to her. With each of them striving to hone his or her command of English for allied but different purposes, the two are both kindred spirits and worthy rivals, first as students, and later as working people. But these differences in their personalities and interests also get in the way of their developing relationship. The quick-witted Yūko, who trusts her instincts and feels comfortable making snap judgments in even the most difficult situations, is always thinking ahead and moving forward, while Hiroyuki, who lacks the same instincts, especially for matters of the heart, only belatedly realizes the cues he missed at some point in the past.
After graduation, Yūko hits up an unspecified family member for a loan so she can go to the United States to further hone her interpreting skills. There she builds up her resumé and begins to establish herself on the international conference circuit. Hiroyuki continues on to graduate school to polish his literary translation skills under a mentor professor. He eventually discovers the works of a Canadian author named Sara Stanley, and a path opens up for him to carve out a living as a translator of women writers. The globetrotting Yūko sends him picture postcards from around the world, and they meet whenever Yūko is back in Japan to renew their friendship. But then Yūko marries her stepbrother Mineo. When Hiroyuki learns that she made the decision out of a sense of obligation that flowed from Mineo’s support for her college plans in the midst of financial difficulties for the family, he silently backs away.
Fifteen years later, just when Hiroyuki finally gets married and is about to have his first child, he receives word of Yūko’s divorce. Though they seem to be forever running on different clocks in different time zones, their feelings for each other have never faded. They begin spending several days together each August at a seaside hotel. But after one of those meetings a number of summers later, Yūko is killed in a plane crash in Sri Lanka, where she has flown for an interpreting job. Only after Yūko’s death does Hiroyuki learn that he had always been Yūko’s one true love. And that she had borne a daughter—his daughter—in the United States and put her up for adoption.
A great many authors and works from both Japan and around the world are referenced in the course of the narrative; Yūko is particularly fond of Japanese author Kuniko Mukōda. Also of interest to language and literature lovers everywhere are discussions of the art of translation, as well as the portrayal of events at the Frankfurt Book Fair—nicknamed “the Logos Market” by Hiroyuki—where publication rights for translations are negotiated.