Tyran Grillo 01.07.2020 (text)

I’m joined by writer and editor Tyran Grillo and we’ll be talking specifically about his work with the 2005 published English edition of the book Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena.


1. First of all thank you so much for doing this interview, could you start by telling a bit about how did you get your start translating Japanese books?

I actually got started translating Japanese books because of Parasite Eve. My best friend in high school was from Tokyo, and it was by his influence that I developed an interest in learning Japanese. He would come back to school after Christmas and summer vacations with the latest tech, music, and video games. Among the latter was the first Parasite Eve for Playstation—a game which at that time had yet to be localized for the American market. I played through the entire story with his help and became fascinated by its premise. Along the way, he told me about the novel and my fascination grew. I vowed then and there that I would learn Japanese well enough to translate the novel one day, whereupon he handed me his copy of the book. I kept it with me, struggling through it until, after my third year of Japanese, I began translating it in earnest. Needless to say, I made good on that promise.


2. Parasite Eve’s genre is sci-fi horror. Is this a genre you enjoy, generally speaking?

I’m not usually one to gravitate toward particular genres, but simply toward great stories. (On that note, however, I prefer to call Parasite Eve a prime example of biohorror.) Parasite Eve is, despite its frightening elements, a fundamentally human story told on human terms. The science is sound (Sena was trained as a pharmacologist)—so much so that the novel contains a glossary and bibliography. I’ve always felt that the science was there to serve the emotional lives of the Sena’s characters, not the other way around. Fans outside of Japan may not be aware that Mr. Sena wrote the book with the hope of introducing hard science to his readers, and that the first run of its publication included survey cards for readers to fill out, asking whether they felt there was too much (or too little) science in the novel and whether they had learned anything from reading it. He then compiled that information, analyzed the data, and gave talks at schools all across Japan about the value of introducing science via popular culture, using Parasite Eve as his springboard. The results of all that personal research yielded a wonderful little book, sadly no longer in print, called Time Machine of the Heart! (Amazon Japan link here).


3. How did you get involved with translating Parasite Eve and how did the project go?

I’ve already shared how I started the project, but its progress was far from easy. It was my first translation, and so my best often fell short of what was required to pull it off. If not for the help of native speakers, librarians, and beta readers who selflessly offered their time and assistance, I might never have had the confidence to pitch it blindly to Vertical, who ultimately published it. As it happened, Vertical had already contracted two separate translators to render the novel into English yet whose efforts apparently left much to be desired. The folks at Vertical had been preparing to sustain a massive headache by mashing up the two translations together into something more coherent, but then I came along out of the blue with something they felt was more print-worthy. This by no means proves that I was (or am) the better translator. If anything, it merely shows that passion and genuine interest in the material counts for a lot when translating a piece of fiction.


4. Back then what were your thoughts and feelings on the Japanese version of the book? And have those thoughts and feelings changed over the years?

One thing that I love about the Japanese prose of the original is its descriptiveness. Mr. Sena excels at setting up a scene and, of course, making sure that general readers understand the science behind the conceit. I am particularly fond of his demystification of the kidney transplant. I also particularly enjoy the way in which he gives Mitochondria Eve a sentient voice, so that we can at least sympathize with her desire for freedom from symbiotic bondage (even if we are frightened by its prospect). For me, the novel is intensely emotional, especially with regard to Mariko, whose unwitting role in Eve’s grander scheme tugged at my heartstrings as I was reading it. One more thing about the novel is its adroit use of onomatopoeia, which I think reads much more effectively in the Japanese than in my meager translation. The leitmotif of dripping and other watery sounds (something you will notice was enhanced almost to the point of hyperbole in the sound design of the 1997 film adaptation) lends a deeply internal, biological tactility to the text.


5. What was your approach to this project and how do you like the finished work looking back now?

In light of the passion I spoke of in reference to an earlier question, I believe my genuine love for the story came through, even if I still look back on the translation and cringe at some of my poor decisions that survived the editorial ringer. While translating it, I drew upon my first-hand knowledge and experience of the games and the film to evoke a certain atmosphere, which in spite of my sometimes-clunky prose I hope still comes across.


6. Anything special you remember from this project that you could share?

The most special aspect of the whole process by far was the fact that Mr. Sena read through my entire translation and handwrote corrections throughout. Being a practicing scientist, he is fluent enough in English to do so (if I remember correctly, his wife also read the manuscript), and it is by virtue of his meticulousness that the scientific terminology in particular came across with relative accuracy. Also, Vertical is unique as a publishing house in that its editors are fluent Japanese speakers and take the time to cross-check every translation that comes across their desk against the original. Their due diligence, too, saved my skin in that regard.


7. How was working with Mr. Sena and what kind of impression did he make on you?

Despite the fact that he personally handled my manuscript, he and I’ve never once communicated directly. It was always through my editor as go-between. Still, I could feel his care and love for this project, and he was gracious in putting his stamp of approval on the finished product.


8. The book was of course made into movie in 1997 and Square adopted it into three video games published 1998, 1999 and 2010. Also two series of manga have been published in 1998 and 1999. Have you seen or read any of these adaptations and what do you think of them?

I’ve seen the film and played the video games, but only glanced at the manga adaptations (I was never a big manga reader to begin with). In my opinion, the film was terrible. I felt it degraded the story into a two-hour jump scare that increasingly departed from the novel as it went along. (It also threw realism out the window, especially when they happened to have a monitor tracking Eve’s human silhouette throughout the building as she carried Mariko to the roof.) I did, however, like the casting quite a bit, and none other than Joe Hisaishi wrote the soundtrack to give it the mood it deserved, so it does have its redeeming qualities. As for the video games, they hold up just fine because they make no pretentions of being adaptations, per se, but instead transplant the concept of self-preserving mitochondria into its own world of mortal anxiety. I’ll never forget the opening opera scene in which the audience at Carnegie Hall spontaneously bursts into flames.


9. In our coronavirus-affected time, do you think Parasite Eve could have relevance as a franchise again?

It’s funny you should ask that, because I’ve recently found my thoughts going back to Parasite Eve for that very reason. It would be interesting to see how people react to it. I fear, however, that it may be too relevant. People are in a state of heightened sensitivity and alertness these days, and the novel’s under-the-skin narrative might be even more unsettling to readers now than when it was first released. That said, it does have a redemptive edge that throws into question our allegiance to materialism in the face of possible unwilled destruction from within.


10. Lastly, could you tell us a bit about what are working on nowadays?

After a string of subsequent translations, notably of Yūsaku Kitano’s Mr. Turtle (Kurodahan) and Megumu Sagisawa’s The Running Boy (Cornell University Press), as well as a book of music criticism called Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer (Rey Naranjo), I am currently turning my Ph.D. dissertation into a book on the topic of animal representations in contemporary Japanese literature. The book examines the symbolic, social, and philosophical function of animal subjects across multiple genres (from autobiography to science fiction) and what those functions tell us about the human condition in Japan and beyond.


Thank you very much and all the best!