Wednesday, 28 November 2012

J-Lit Giants: 1 - Natsume Soseki

Welcome to the first in what may become a short series of posts, introducing readers to some of Japan's most famous writers - or, as I like to call them, J-Lit Giants :)  Over the next couple of months, I hope to have other bloggers talk about their favourite writers, but today I'll be starting off with a short post on one of the most famous of them all...

Natsume Soseki (the pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke) is the father of modern J-Lit and arguably Japan's most famous writer.  Certainly, when I asked Japanese students to name a famous writer (back in the days when I taught English in Japan), his was inevitably the first name uttered.

After studying English literature in Tokyo, Natsume worked in the provinces as a high school teacher, gathering experiences which would help him write several of his later works.  Then, in 1900, he was chosen to travel to England, the first Japanese scholar to study in this country.  Sadly, this wasn't the experience it might have been - lack of money and strong feelings of homesickness meant that his time in England, while useful for his career, was a depressing one.

On his return to Japan, a few years later, he became a lecturer in Literary Theory and Criticism at a famous Tokyo university.  However, once he began to produce fiction, he gave up the job, preferring to work for a newspaper instead.  Indeed, like many Victorian English novellists, his work often appeared first in newspaper serialisations.

Natsume's works are very different, depending on when he wrote them.  His early works, such as I am a Cat and Botchan are light, amusing stories, not characteristics we associate with J-Lit today!  Soon, his style developed into a more aesthetically-concerned, drifting style (e.g. Kusamakura and Sanshiro).  Eventually though, his work became more serious, novels such as Kokoro and Grass on the Wayside concerned with the dilemma of integrating western ideas into Japanese society without sacrificing native traditions.

For those wanting to try Natsume Soseki's work, I'd definitely recommend starting at (or near) the beginning, as his early fiction is much more accessible than some of his more famous later books.  My three to try would be:
1) Botchan - This is a comical (semi-fictional) look at the writer's time as a high school teacher in the provinces.  Caught between jaded, unfriendly teachers and rural students who could beat him to a pulp if they wanted to, the hero of the story discovers that he's not in Tokyo any more...

2) Kusamakura (also known as The Three-Cornered World) - A laconic look at an artist's stay in a rural village and his encounters there with a beautiful woman.  Nothing happens, and the book is all the better for it :)

3) Sanshiro - The first in a (very) loosely-linked trilogy, this book marks the start of a shift to more serious writing, but the youthfulness is still there.  A young student moves to Tokyo from the provinces, ostensibly to become a university student, in reality to learn more about life.  A Japanese Bildungsroman, this is an excellent, moving story.

That's all from me - over to you :)  Have you read any of these books?  Have you tried any of Natsume's other works?  Leave a comment, and let us all know about your experiences with the father of modern J-Lit!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Lost in Translation

This post was originally written as a guest post for Tanabata while she was gallivanting around in New York a while back, and I then used it on my own blog... which makes this the third time it has been published!  Hopefully, it is still a very relevant post, and one which will make people reflect a little more on their reading choices for 'January in Japan'.

Michael Emmerich, Stephen Snyder, Ivan Morris, E. Dale Saunders: these are not names which most people would recognise. However, you, dear reader, an avid follower as you are of Japanese literature, should be praising these literary marvels to the skies, for without them your lives would be bereft of joy and laughter. Well, slightly bereft, anyway. You see, the above-mentioned writers are among that legion of unsung heroes who bring the wonders of Japanese literature to the unfortunates among us who have trouble distinguishing kanji from hieroglyphs. They are, of course, translators.

We owe literary translators an awful lot, and yet we treat them so badly. Often their names are hidden away in font size 3 on the page with all the boring information we can't bring ourselves to glance at - if they're lucky. Occasionally, their names are simply not there at all, as if the translator is of no more importance than the proofreader or the boy who brings the editor his tea in the morning. What kind of way is this to treat artists who, in reality, are creating unique, original pieces of art from a foreign source? Unfortunately, as long as many people still see translating as a mechanical process involving a computer, a dictionary and a bucketful of coffee, Snyder and co. will fail to get the recognition they deserve.

The importance of translators is especially important when it comes to languages such as Japanese. As most of you will no doubt know, the Japanese use three different types of symbols to record ideas (in addition to the romaji, or roman script, which occasionally creeps in): katakana (a syllabary for expressing foreign words); hiragana (a syllabary for expressing Japanese words, usually prepositions and verb endings); and kanji (a collection of pictograms adapted from Chinese specifically to torture unsuspecting Westerners who want to learn the language). When I left Japan eight years ago, I had just about become an intermediate-level speaker (on a good day) of Japanese. If I were to work with non-native speakers of English at the same level, I would be using carefully selected newspaper articles with helpful vocabulary hints. By the end of my Japanese studies, I was able to struggle through a Japanese translation of The Ugly Duckling. You can infer from this that my chances of reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the original are fairly slim.

Assuming then that your kanji skills are not up to scratch, you're going to have to trust to a translation to enjoy the delights of J-Lit. However, if you don't actually read the original text, then how do you know that you are reading what the writer wanted you to read? Are you reading the same book? The best translators are able to transfer the ideas across into idiomatic English while preserving the unique flavour that sets the author apart. Even in English, Mishima and Murakami have a distinct, consistent style which attracts the reader (in fact, some of Murakami's detractors, the cynics that they are, say that his translators - Jay Rubin, Phillip Gabriel and Alfred Birnbaum - make him look better than he actually is!). On the whole, translators of Japanese works seem to do a pretty good job of capturing those quintessentially Japanese elements and making them comprehensible to an English-speaking audience.

However, there are some occasions where I have my doubts. One Japanese writer whose translations I'm a little suspicious of is Banana Yoshimoto. I love her prose and stretches of descriptive writing, but I really, really get annoyed by the trite, stilted, perhaps over-Americanised dialogue. Michael Emmerich's translation of Goodbye Tsugumi and Russel F. Wasden's translation of Amrita are the two books I'm thinking of when I write this, and being unable to check with the original, it's difficult to know the reason for my unease. As both translators are American (and probably writing for an American audience), it's probably understandable that Yoshimoto's characters come across as classic US-TV teens. Still, that doesn't explain the abundance of cliches and set phrases, which sound suspiciously like literal translations of formulaic Japanese conversational turns. Another explanation is that Yoshimoto is just really bad at dialogue. Or I may just be completely wrong - the point is that we'll never know.

Some translations can also seem a little dated, and the language chosen to convey the Japanese meaning now appears bizarre and distracting. Edward Seidensticker's translation of Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters (which has a footnote explaining what sushi means!) is one example which comes to mind. Another is provided by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson's translation of Soseki Natsume's I am a Cat, where they decided to translate the names of the major characters into English to bring across the puns in their names - which, in my opinion, has the unintended effect of making the protagonists slightly less Japanese than desired. Still, this is not an uncommon issue with translating: even the legendary Constance Garnett, the woman who brought the great Russian classics to life for Anglophone readers, was criticised for making Russian serfs talk with a Cockney accent...

While I am an avid reader, I do not have the time (or energy) to undertake extensive research into the differences between translations of the same work (although I have heard of some stylistic differences between different versions of one of Murakami's novels), and I definitely have no chance of becoming fluent in written Japanese any time soon, so I suppose I will just have to continue to rely on other people to do the work for me. Therefore, I would like to finish this post by paraphrasing ABBA (who needed no translators; they changed the words to Waterloo from Swedish to English all by themselves):

I say thank you for the translations - and giving them to me :)

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Announcing January in Japan

Welcome one and all to an exciting announcement - January will see me host my first ever event, January in Japan :)

Regular followers of my blog (Tony's Reading List) will know that I'm a huge fan of J-Lit, and I thought it would be a nice idea to have a month devoted to Japanese literature to kick off the new year.  It also coincides with the final month of Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 6, giving you all an extra incentive to dust off those Japanese classics and crime novels!

Rather than host the month from the comfort of my own blog, I have decided to create a separate one, just for this event, so please follow it - it'll be worth it :)  I'm planning to publish regular posts (starting next week!), with features on selected Japanese writers, summaries of reviews submitted by participants and (if I get lucky) perhaps even a giveaway or two.  It's still in the planning stage, but I'm hopeful that I can get it all up and running in time ;)

What do you have to do to take part?  As much (or as little) as you like!
  • Leave a comment below, and I'll add you to the list of participants (on the right)
  • Starting in January, add your reviews to the Mister Linky page (tab at the top)
  • If anyone would be interested in doing a guest author review (500-600 words including a short bio, why you like the writer's work and three books to try), either let me know in the comments, or send me an e-mail (tonysreadinglist at y7mail dot com).  I have already written one on Natsume Soseki, but there are a lot of other writers out there to talk about.
  • If you want to, you can also let other people know about the event :)
That's all for now; hopefully, I've whetted your appetite, and you'll be coming back for more.  Remember - whether you think Murakami is a marvel, adore Akutagawa or go bananas for Yoshimoto, January in Japan is for everyone who loves J-Lit.  See you then :)