Giles Murray, translator of Cage on the Sea, is well known in the world of Japanese studies for Breaking into Japanese Literature and 13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese. He has translated books in genres from literary fiction to business, art history and biography.

Why did Bento Books choose to translate Cage on the Sea?

Alex Smith, one of Bento Books’ founders, was asked to translate a few chapters of the book by a nonagenarian friend who was researching the Anatahan episode. Alex liked the way that the Japanese author had interwoven fiction and history, building the story on a foundation of real documents and characters. He was also confident that the public would respond to the Robinson Crusoe survival aspects of the story.

Had you translated any World War II books before?

Yes, I had translated Kumiko Kakehashi’s Letters from Iwo Jima, about Commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese soldier in charge of defending Iwo Jima against the Americans. Ken Watanabe, of Batman fame, who played Kuribayashi in the Clint Eastwood film, apparently referred to the book a lot during filming to help flesh out his character.

Where there any particular challenges with Cage on the Sea?

The action takes place in two locations—Anatahan, where the Japanese holdouts are, and Saipan, where the American commander who’s trying to lure them off the island is based. The American parts make extensive use of contemporary documents, so the tone of those parts is somewhat documentary-like. On the island, by contrast, you have a large number of uneducated, often drunk men dashing around in loincloths and occasionally killing one another. Rather more of a Lord of the Flies scenario. Due to the desert island setting, a lot of the external signifiers that we take for granted in the civilized world are simply not there.

Let me explain what I mean. Think of an Agatha Christie book. You have a bunch of archetypal characters—the vicar, the squire, the governess, the playboy, whatever—in their archetypal costumes—cassock, tweeds, dinner jacket—in a bunch of archetypal locations—the manor house, the church, the tea shop, whatever. On a desert island there’s none of that. Nothing. It’s just, Oh here’s another naked bloke in a palm frond hut in the middle of the jungle! As a translator, you need to have a 110% grasp of what’s going on in order to translate a book accurately. A desert island, by eliminating a lot of mundane physical details, necessarily makes that job rather harder.

Were there any aspects of the book you particularly enjoyed?

It’s always fun to read up on the historical background. From a technical viewpoint, one enjoyable challenge was to give all the characters properly distinctive voices. For example, Kazuko, the woman, becomes increasingly coarse and domineering as she starts to realize how much power her sex gives her over the men, and her way of speaking has to change accordingly. Meanwhile, her de facto husband, the former manager of Anatahan’s coconut plantations and the only university graduate around, needs to speak in a more educated manner than the sailors and the fishermen. That’s just a couple of examples, but it’s important for everyone to talk in character—especially as they’re just an undifferentiated bunch of loincloth wearers appearance-wise!

Where there any reference materials to help you?

When the holdouts were brought off the island in the early fifties, the Anatahan episode became a major international news story. It got into Time magazine and was made into a Hollywood movie; but only one author, Wilbur Cross, ever wrote about the episode in English. Much of the documentation on which Cage on the Sea is based is actually wholly new. The author, Kaoru Ohno, got it from the personal archive of the American commander in charge of the operation. In the novel, for instance, Kazuko’s testimony is the original testimony from her actual debriefing immediately after she escaped from the island. The author had a photocopy of the transcript, so my English “translation” comes straight from that source. And that’s only one example.

Do you think the story will resonate with a modern audience?

Absolutely. First of all, Japanese soldiers hiding out in remote jungles and stubbornly refusing to believe the war is over is a classic World War II archetype. On top of that, you have this bizarre Freudian scenario with a single woman living among thirty men on a desert island—and everyone’s naked to boot. It’s hard not to be interested! Natsuo Kirino, the author of the thriller Out, recently wrote a novel called Tokyo Island which was inspired by the events on Anatahan, so the story definitely retains its allure.

The whole holdout issue got back into the news when Hiro Onoda, the Japanese soldier who hid in the jungles of the Philippines until 1974, died at the age of ninety-one this January [2014]. There was also a fascinating story in the Financial Times recently about an ad campaign designed to lure guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, out of the jungle and back home. Photographs showing them as babies or little children with their mothers were stuck up on trees in the jungle, and TV commercials featuring several real mothers were broadcast. The campaign was made by the Interpublic Group—one of the world’s Big Four advertising conglomerates—but it used very similar “tug-on-the-heartstring” techniques to those Johnson employed on Anatahan sixty years ago.

This is only Bento Books’ fourth publication. How was it working with them?

There’s been a lot of disruption in the publishing business in recent years, in Japan as everywhere else. Organizations like Kodansha International and the Ministry of Culture, which actively supported literature in translation, have collapsed, shrunk or just bowed out. I was on the hunt for a young company to work with that was not afraid of innovations like e-books, print-on-demand, social media, and so forth, and I stumbled upon Bento Books. As it’s a small firm, it’s very collaborative, egalitarian and friendly. Although I’m just the translator, they were kind enough to involve me in many other aspects of the process, which was fun.

Are you planning to do some more translations with them?

Yes. Last year I translated The Eight Elements of Powerful Package Design for them and I’m currently working on a whodunnit, Murder by Nonlethal Dose.