Melek Ortabasi on Japanese Literature as World Literature

May GLLI Blog Series:  Japan in Translation, No. 17

I would argue that any literature, translated or not, is part of the international trove of human cultural production. But it is true that those of us who can’t read works in the original have to rely on translation to hear otherwise inaccessible literary voices. It is also true that not everything deserving of translation gets translated – a cold hard fact in the Anglophone world, where only about 3% of what gets published is translated from other languages.

If we think particularly of Japanese literature in (English) translation, then, what are we left with? As one of my colleagues recently put it, referring to a book display in a UK bookshop that mirrors those of others found throughout the UK and North America, “Mishima [Yukio], Mizumura [Minae] and then lots and lots of Murakami [Haruki].”[1] Populated only with one canonical author (Mishima) and two transnational types — one US-educated and critically acclaimed (Mizumura) and one exceptionally adept at writing specifically for a globalized market (Murakami) – this is a narrow landscape. It doesn’t even reflect what is currently available in translation.

As an instructor in an undergraduate program taught entirely in translation, my priority to widen this landscape for my students as much as possible. There are some logistical challenges: for example, I love teaching Tawada Yôko’s brilliantly cracked story about an unnamed mail-order bride, “Missing Heels.” Despite the international popularity of this contemporary author, however, the book in which Margaret Mitsutani’s fantastic translation appears was out of print for a while until it came available on Kindle.[2] These are not insurmountable obstacles, however, and doing the work to share these wonderful writings with students is well worth it, since it is unlikely they’d ever run across them otherwise.

One area of Japanese literature that gets particularly short shrift in the international popular arena is the premodern. As a specialist in modern literature myself, I am well aware of the presentist focus of the publishing world, not to mention the college curriculum. So I’d like to end this post by highlighting two recent English-language publications about classical Japanese literature that increase our awareness of the premodern Japanese canon, as well as show the important contribution it makes to world literature.

Michael Emmerich and Genji

My first recommendation is Michael Emmerich’s book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature. Genji is not just a classic of Japanese literature; this epic romance set at the ancient Japanese court is also commonly acknowledged as “the world’s first novel.” Regardless of whether that categorization is accurate, what is important to the English reader of Genji is that there are multiple translations available. Emmerich’s book can help us navigate these versions in an interesting way, since his main argument is that we should understand Genji not as a single text but as a constantly evolving international text system. I haven’t taught Genji since Emmerich’s book came out, but the next time I do, I absolutely plan on having students read portions of his book, while comparing passages from some of the English translations of Genji.

Worlding Sei Shonagon

As world literature scholar David Damrosch has pointed out, comparing translations of the same work can be enlightening if “we read them in awareness that we need in a sense to translate the translations in turn, taking into account the ways the translator has interpreted the original.”[3] One more work that presents a golden opportunity to do just that with premodern Japanese literature is Valerie Henitiuk’s Worlding Sei Shônagon: The Pillow Book in Translation.  Sei Shônagon’s diary-like and witty text, like The Tale of Genji, is another oft-translated classical Japanese text by a courtly woman. Henitiuk collects almost fifty translations of the poetic and contemplative opening passage into various languages, including English, offering a first-hand and expansive view of how works transform in translation.

World Literature should never mean only those works that make it out of their original language. The term should, instead, serve to remind us that there is a world of literature out there that we may barely have explored. And doing so by comparing translations into one’s own language is a great way to start.

[1]John Whittier Treat, “Japan is interesting: modern Japanese literary studies today.” Japan Forum 2018: 2.

[2]The second of three stories in Tawada Yôko. The Bridegroom was a Dog. Trans. Margaret Mitsutani. NY: New Directions, 2012.

[3]David Damrosch, How to Read World Literature. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 84.

On deck for tomorrow:  selected Japanese picture books by Andrew Wong


Melek Ortabasi is Associate Professor and Director of the World Literature Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Her teaching and research interests include translation practice and theory, popular culture and transnationalism, and internationalism in children’s literature. She is currently working on a comparative historiography of children’s literature at the turn of the last century. Incorporating materials primarily in Japanese, German, and English, the book is tentatively entitled “The World Republic of Childhood: Children’s Literature and Transnationalism, 1870-1930.” What she’d really like to do is translate more literature from Japanese, particularly children’s and YA fiction!


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)
May 14: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 1 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 12)
May 15: Smithsonian BookDragon’s Favorites, part 2 (Japan-in-Translation, No. 13)
May 16: Sally Ito on Misuzu Kaneko’s Compassionate Imagination (Japan-in-Translation, No. 14)
May 17: Frederik Schodt on The Four Immigrants Manga (Japan-in-Translation, No. 15)
May 18: Stone Bridge Press Publisher Peter Goodman (Japan-in-Translation, No. 16)

14 thoughts on “Melek Ortabasi on Japanese Literature as World Literature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s