May GLLI Blog Series: Japan in Translation, No. 12
My two unfinished almost-ABD*-PhDs still makes my mother cringe. I know, I know: even in middle age, my tiger mother looms, not to mention I still have occasional nightmares about missing seminar with my beloved, last advisor. His passing remains my excuse for academic desertion, but my admiration for Japanese novels, initiated and inspired by the literary titan he was, has never wavered. Since I can’t read in the original anymore (oh, how the brain has dulled), I couldn’t be more grateful for the translators (so many of them who shared our advisor!) who enable by literary obsessions. So allow me to share some of my most recent Anglophoned favorites.
Despite having “a normal family,” Keiko “was a rather strange child” who learned quiet detachment to avoid trouble. At 18, she’s “reborn as a convenience store worker” at a newly opened Smile Mart. Donning a uniform, learning the manual, and mimicking her coworkers enable Keiko to become “a normal cog in society.” Eighteen years later, she remains a top-performing employee. At 36, however, being a single woman in a dead-end job elicits worry and judgment from family and acquaintances. To deflect unwanted meddling, Keiko “adopts” an arrogant wastrel with both comical and bittersweet results. The prestigious Akutagawa Prize-winning Murata, herself a part-time “convenience store woman,” makes a dazzling English-language debut in a crisp translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori, rich in scathingly entertaining observations on identity, perspective, and the suffocating hypocrisy of “normal” society.
Japanese-born, Germany-based Tawada writes facilely in both languages and creates incomparable award-winning fiction that defies easy labels. Her latest literary, linguistic mélange – smoothly rendered by Mitsutani – blends fairy tale, dystopian warning, peculiar mystery, cultural critique, and multigenerational family saga. Yoshiro and Mumei are a symbiotically bonded duo who are a century apart in age. At almost 108, Yoshiro still jogs every morning for half an hour – with a rented dog. His reason for (still) living is Mumei, his daughter’s son’s son – to get him up, dressed, mandarin-juiced, out the door to practice walking a few steps, then biked the rest of the way to his elementary school. In this alternate future, everything – soil, sky, oceans – is potentially poisoned, most animals have disappeared, and even the children face extinction. Only the elderly seems to have long, longlife – perhaps more curse than blessing as they bear the responsibility for being guardians to fragile, weakened new generations unprepared for survival. And yet despite his seemingly truncated prognosis, Mumei’s outlook remains full of insight and charm.
Japan and Korea’s centuries-long, combative history has long made Koreans in Japan second-class citizens. Kaneshiro, who is Korean Japanese, channels his own experiences into his teenage protagonist, Sugihara, a Japan-born-and-raised ethnic Korean. After attending Korean-only schools, Sugihara transfers into a Japanese high school; three years later, he’s still plagued with violent rejection. And then he meets a girl, and the deeper their love, the harder it becomes to reveal his secret. First published in Japan in 2000 and awarded the Naoki Prize, GO also found substantial celluloid success in 2001. The title is a homophone in Japanese for language, an honorific prefix, the number five, the strategic game, and more; these multiple meanings constitute a pointed reminder of the complexity of people, relationships, and identity. Supported by a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, Takami Nieda provides gratifying anglophone access to Kaneshiro’s searing ruminations – heightened by Malcolm X and Bruce Lee, softened by Miles Davis and Brahms – on history, xenophobia, and, of course, love.
At 27, Majime is recruited to help compile The Great Passage, an überdictionary destined to guide users across a vast sea of words. The socially awkward logophile embarks on an almost two-decade journey, during which he comes to understand the deepest meanings of friendship, dedication, and everlasting love. For English readers, this Japanese best-seller arrives in the U.S. as a symbiotic accomplishment. Miura provides the whimsical original, while Carpenter creates an exceptional English rendering in what was surely a supremely challenging feat of translation, further magnified by the story’s exactness of every word. In decoding the Japanese – a language already complicated by the possibilities of multilayered wordplay – Carpenter had to meticulously balance between transcribing word-for-word and providing too much linguistic context and/or cultural description, which would have dampened the ineffable cleverness of the original. Swirling with witty enchantment, The Great Passage proves to be, well, utterly great.
“[W]e can’t distinguish what is the truthful artist and what is the lying social man.” For Tanizaki’s protagonist, the writer Mizuno, creating fiction using real-life details – he models a murder victim on a casual acquaintance, even inadvertently slipping in the man’s actual name – might just prove fatal. Mizuno plots a murder so convincingly on the page that its possibility seems imminent, and he must find any means possible (including faking gonorrhea, saving himself via sequel, betraying a secret pact with the mysterious Fräulein Hindenberg) to proactively create an alibi before a random, ardent reader turns deadly. Originally published in 1928 as a newspaper serial, this rare work by legendary Tanizaki (1886–1965) has never been available in Japan as an independent volume, only in anthologies. Japanese scholar and professor Lyons not only provides the first-ever English translation 80 years later, but also includes an illuminating afterword in which she contextualizes the virtually forgotten work as both literary history and a career-changing accomplishment for one of Japan’s most revered authors. New generations of readers will undoubtedly benefit from Lyons’ careful resurrection of this surprisingly timeless, slyly metafictional, unusually intriguing title.
*ABD: All but dissertation
Stop by tomorrow for more recommendations from Terry!
Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She co-directs the Walter Awards for We Need Diverse Books. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.
David Jacobson organized this series on Japanese literature in translation. He is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a 2017 NCTE notable poetry book. A longtime journalist, David has written news articles and TV scripts that have appeared in the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times and on CNN and Japan’s NHK. Since 2008, he has worked with Seattle book publisher Chin Music Press. An experienced Japanese translator, he is on the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative.
And in case you missed it…
May 1: Roger Pulvers on Ishikawa Takuboku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 1)
May 2: Kathryn Hemmann on outsider stories in contemporary literature (Japan-in-Translation, No. 2)
May 3: Deborah Iwabuchi on memorable translations (Japan-in-Translation, No. 3)
May 4: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 4)
May 5: Eve Kushner on kanji’s punning potential, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 5)
May 7: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 6)
May 8: Translator roundtable on Shiba Ryōtarō’s Ryōma!, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 7)
May 9: Librarian Ash Brown on manga in translation (Japan-in-Translation, No. 8)
May 10: Excerpt from Mori Eto’s Dive!! (Japan-in-Translation, No. 9)
May 11: Tony Malone on translations of Natsume Sōseki (Japan-in-Translation, No. 10)
May 12: Poet Michael Dylan Welch on translating haiku (Japan-in-Translation, No. 11)