1970 interview with this week’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner Patrick Modiano
This month, Action Books is publishing my second book of translations of ITŌ Hiromi 伊藤比呂美, one of Japan’s most theoretically provocative and endlessly innovative poets. One of the first attempts in contemporary Japan to write a book-length narrative poem, Wild Grass on the Riverbank is a long, wild, interlingual exploration of migrancy, alienation, borders, language, abuse, determination, and what it means to live in between two far-apart countries. It is wild, overflowing, full of excess, and unlike anything I had ever read before. Once I read it, I simply could not get it out of my head.
The book is not yet on Amazon or the SPD website, but we hope that it should be come October. I hope that this book excites some of you, my friends, as much as it did me!
Click here to read critic TOCHIGI Nobuaki’s comments on Wild Grass on the Riverbank.
Click here for Killing Kanoko, Itō’s first book of translations into English.
Just the other day, The New Yorker had a fascinating little article called “Translating a Novel of Sadism,” which is rich with implications about translating literature with explicitly sexual content, and in particular, sexually explicit content that would not be considered PC to discuss. In the article, the translator, who chose to write under the pseudonym D.E. Brooke, talks about the decision to translate Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel, a lushly overwrought description of one person’s sadistic feelings and activities. In an e-mail interview, Brooke rightly criticizes society’s inability to talk about non-PC feelings, such as sadism and masochism.
While there is primal revulsion at the rape of innocence and the various other crimes detailed in this story, conflating act and fantasy in assessing a work of this kind seems to me to reflect a generally upheld social lie that requires the weirder and more disquieting manifestations of the human psyche to be swept under the public rug. The book’s lack of hypocrisy is in direct proportion to the rarity of similar avowals, especially in established spheres of social privilege and influence. The resulting schism of minds burdened with shameful, unspoken secrets appears to me to do more damage than what can be laid at the doorstep of this novel, which by its very existence forces us to ponder our relationship to criminal thoughts and fantasies: whether we must not think bad thoughts, not share them, not be exposed to them; whether we must condemn them in ourselves and others; and whether they can even be curtailed or eliminated by these actions. Rather than disown his darkest psyche, Robbe-Grillet erects a shrine to it.
Translation has, as often as not, historically been a site of repression—one place where sexually explicit material was bowdlerized, excised, shortened, smoothed over, or reframed in more socially “acceptable” language—even though as the translator in this article argues, such thoughts are frequently part of the very fabric of the human psyche. I certainly feel that the position that this translator has taken is important, allowing an open and honest encounter with a non-PC form of sexuality. The result is that Brooke has revealed an important side of the work of Robbe-Grillet for anglophone audiences, and, I hope, in the encouraged more dialogue about forms of desire that society tends to shun. If anything, the inclination to combine sexuality and power play (submitting to power as well as wielding to power) are far, far more common than society would have us believe.
What should one make about the translator’s decision to keep his/her name off the book? On one level, I can sympathize with the decision to remain anonymous for fear of being shut out of certain communities where it is difficult to have open discussions about sexuality, much forms of sexuality that would be considered problematic or taboo.
In fact, I can relate to this story in my own way. When I was in graduate school, the former publisher of Gay Sunshine Press asked me to translate some comics by the Japanese author Tagame Gengoroh 田亀源五郎, who draws manga of hirsute, muscle-bound men who engage in all sorts of homoerotic sadomasochistic pleasures—often of the most extreme sorts. In almost every single one of his comics, one character rapes, ravages, and sometimes even mutilates another, but despite the protests of the victim, readers can tell from the erections on every page that the one receiving the abuse at some level likes what is happening.
On one hand, I was happy to have the money to do the translations. Plus, as a budding scholar of queer studies, I found myself fascinated by Tagame’s comics, which dared explore a part of the psyche that (to borrow Brooke’s phrase) is often swept under the rug. On the other hand, I was worried about associating my name with the translation, especially since I hoped one day to get a job in academia, and there was no guarantee that an association with such non-PC work would not be a liability. I could imagine potential employers doing a Google search, finding the comics, then dismissing me altogether, feeling that I was not a serious scholar or that I was too involved with marginal, even “unseemly” things.
In the end, I decided to do the translations but used a pseudonym. I was spared any complication, however, by the fact that Gay Sunshine Press went out of business and my translation was never published. Interestingly, more than fifteen years later, a collection of translations of Tagame’s stories was published under the title The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame. Currently, the Bruno Gmunder Group is publishing a number of other, new translations of Tagame’s work. So far all of the translations have very positive reviews on Amazon, and this give me hope that society is growing increasingly able to talk about non-heteronormative forms of desire and fantasy with less opprobrium.
Now that I have what appears to be a secure position in a university teaching Japanese literature and translation, I probably would not be so concerned about using my real name, but even though my translations never went anywhere, I have reflected many times about my own decision in the late 1990s to use a pseudonym. I can see more clearly about how the translator is caught between conflicting ideological and economic currents. I see that the use of a pseudonym, even when one is doing good work on interjecting sexuality into the realm of discussion, is complicit with the historical problem of the invisibility and erasure of the translator. More importantly, the translator’s decision to leave one’s name off a book could be seen as complicit with, or perhaps even contributing to exactly the same problem that Brooke criticizes so forcefully in this article—the inability to speak openly about sexuality in all of its forms.
On the other hand, it is not difficult to understand the reasons one might use a pseudonym, especially considering that translators are often financially and socially vulnerable—underpaid, under-appreciated, and working at a task that is as likely to invite criticism as praise. One can easily imagine how associations with controversial material could potentially harm one’s career.
So what is a translator to do? The answer is not at all clear, but I hope that with more open discussions about the difference between reality and fantasy, about literature and society, about translation, writing, and erasure, we can open up a space within society where it is easier to talk about sexuality, desire, language, and power, in their many, multivalent, intertwining forms.
The American Literary Translators Assocation has just announced its list of candidates for the 2014 National Translation Award. Among the wonderful things on here is John Nathan’s new translation of a work that represents a milestone in the history of the modern Japanese novel: Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark 夏目漱石『明暗』. Here’s the full list. I cannot wait to find out who wins the big prize!
Poems of Consummation by Vicente Aleixandre
Translated from the Spanish by Stephen Kessler
(Black Widow Press)
Cavafy: Complete Plus by C.P. Cavafy
Translated from the Greek by George Economou
The Dark by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
(Open Letter Books)
Theme of Farewell and After-Poems by Milo de Angelis
Translated from the Italian
by Susan Stewart & Patrizio Ceccagnoli
(The University of Chicago Press)
Life’s Good, Brother by Nazim Hikmet
Translated from the Turkish by Mutlu Konuk Blasing
(Persea Books, Inc.)
Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets who Don’t Exist by Agnieszka Kuciak
Translated from the Polish by Karen Kovacik
(White Pine Press)
A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Between Friends by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Girl with the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash
Translated from the Hindi by Jason Gruenbaum
(Yale Univeristy Press)
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray
(Yale University Press)
Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud
Translated from the French by Keith Waldrop
Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Soseki
Translated from the Japanese by John Nathan
(Columbia University Press)
Crossings by Habib Tengour
Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker
(The Post-Apollo Press)
An Invitation For Me to Think by Alexander Vvedensky
Translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky & Matvei Yankelevich
(New York Review Books)
A Schoolboy’s Diary by Robert Walser
Translated from the German by Damion Searls
(New York Review Books)
The New Museum in NYC is hosting a beautifully creative exhibition about translation, art, and the elusive destinies of meaning. The following description of the exhibition comes from the New Museum’s webpage.
The Temporary Center for Translation is a site for pedagogical exchange founded on the importance of translation as a mode for thinking, making, and doing.Every translation sets into play distinct vocabularies and systems of meaning—linguistic and otherwise—and it is in these encounters that priorities and positions are negotiated. While fidelity to an original work or idea is paramount in some theories of translation, the Center questions what exactly constitutes a likeness. It also complicates the idea that a translator should aim to retain what is foreign about a work, which in turn helps articulate the distinctions between contexts that are national, political, cultural, or otherwise. Inevitable incongruities are important to the Center’s activities: They provide the opportunity for devoted—though, in some cases, not so faithful—rewrites. A work may be radically reoriented from its original readership and stakes through translation, thereby asking the original and the translation to account for each other in new ways. At its base, the Center is dedicated to opening up the process of translation, making visible conversations that are a routine—but often hidden—part of the translation process.
A modest experiment rather than an enduring infrastructure, the Center’s commitment during its short-term existence is to the facilitation and distribution of translations of select texts on visual culture. An essay by Lebanese artist and writer Jalal Toufic will be translated from English into Arabic and French, and an essay by contemporary Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali will be translated twice from Arabic into English. The first iteration will be a “standard” translation and the second, a more radical linguistic transformation drawing on experimental processing techniques by a writer-translator with no Arabic language skills. Acting as a temporary catalyst for collaborative translation, the Center will also facilitate collective translations of contemporary art texts selected by international partner organizations, using the online multilingual platform TLHUB.
Also displayed within the Center are materials from other writers, editors, translators, and artists, including Omar Berrada and Érik Bullot, Joshua Craze, Mariam Ghani, and the editors of and contributors to Dictionary of Untranslatables. These projects stage constant interplays between written, visual, and verbal expression, and exemplify a wide range of local vernaculars and specialized discourses, from official military grammar to the philosophy of language, theories of translation, associated political agendas, and the aestheticization of translation modalities. In addition, the Center houses a small, specialized resource collection intended for public use.
The Temporary Center for Translation is an initiative of the Education Department and Dar al-Ma’mûn, conceived to be in dialogue with “Here and Elsewhere” and other current Museum programs. The Center looks specifically at the translator’s role—with the complexity of her or his individual and institutional networks, impetuses, and desires—as integral to creating social, cultural, or political meaning in history.
The Temporary Center for Translation is organized by Omar Berrada, Codirector of Dar al-Ma’mûn, Marrakesh, Taraneh Fazeli, Education Associate, and Alicia Ritson, Research Fellow, with Chaeeun Lee, Education Intern. The Center’s institutional partner is Dar al-Ma’mûn. Special thanks to TLHUB and Princeton University Press.
One of the most curious and fascinating pieces of modernist Japanese literature, Inagaki Taruho’s novel Miroku (Matreiya) was made in 2013 into a film by the director Hayashi Kaizō (b. 1957), known for his detective stories and work on the Ultraman series.
Taruho (1900-1977) wrote this novel during the 1930s in response to Ishikawa Jun’s novel Fugen (translated by William J. Tyler in the book The Bodhisattva), and somewhat like its predecessor, it is a meandering, flowing, and sometimes even perplexing novel of ideas. At first I had trouble imagining how Kaizō might have put Taruho’s work on film, considering how much of it consists of a long flow of sometimes disjointed thoughts. However, as one can see in the clip above, Kaizō has done so by drawing upon the sorts of images and motifs that recur so often in Taruho’s other novels: papier-mâché sets, glittering crescent moons, astronomers looking through telescopes, and bishōnen (beautiful young men).
Interestingly, the bishōnen in Kaizō’s film are played by female actors. In his short story “The Story of R-chan and S”「ＲちゃんとSの話」, which I have translated for William J. Tyler’s anthology Modanizumu, features a young boy who is fascinated with the Takurazuka Theater, in which young women play all of the roles, including those of men. I have written a great deal about this story and Taruho’s other work in my own book Writing the Love of Boys, which explores Taruho’s homoerotic fascination with pretty, young men and the ways he saw them as representing a new, modern aesthetic sensibility.
I was pleased to find out that W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento’s translation of the Collected Poems of Yosa Buson has just won the 2014 U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, which is distributed by the Donald Keene Center at Columbia University.
Yosa Buson (与謝蕪村) is one of the most important haiku poets to have ever lived. Born about a generation after the death of Matsuo Bashō, Buson helped to push haikai in important, new directions, and shape haiku (the first verse of a haikai sequence) into an individual, independent art form.
It is no surprise that many collections of Japanese traditional verse in English, such as Robert Hass’ collection of “essential haiku,” contain some of Buson’s poems. Most of those collections, however, only contain of a tiny number of poems, which are presented with minimal commentary and little to no context. Because the offerings in English are currently so poor, Anglophone readers have not yet really had the opportunity to figure out what is actually Buson-like about Buson, and how this giant’s voice differs from those of other haiku greats, such as Bashō, Issa, and Shiki.
Those of us who love Japanese poetry owe a great debt of gratitude to Takako Lento and W.S. Merwin for giving us the first thorough retrospective of Buson’s work in English. This book presents renditions of 868 haiku, plus a small scattering of longer poems—the best look at Buson yet in this English. All of the poems are presented in Romanized Japanese as well.
Donald Keene once wrote about Buson’s poetry that it was “so exclusively concerned with his private feelings, tastes, and perceptions that it strikes us as being modern; there is no barrier of time between him and us” (Seeds in the Heart, 1976, p. 343). Indeed, some of the poems do feel strikingly imagistic, such as haiku 211, “nanohana ya / kujira mo yorazu / umi kurenu,” rendered as Lento and Merwin as “A field of mustard flowers / no whales passed today / night falls on the sea.”
At moments, Buson even gives us glimpses of surrealism avant la lettre, such as with haiku 360: “dedemushi ya / sono tsuno moji no / nijiri gaki” or “With his horns / a snail slowly scrawls / a hesitant letter.” At the same time, Lento and Merwin give us a look at Buson’s other side as well, the one that loves to draw upon Chinese influences and earlier Heian-period literature. The picture that emerges is one of an erudite, intensely focused poet with a distinctive voice.
Personally, I was surprised that this otherwise excellent book provides so little commentary. The translator’s introduction includes a short, one-page summary of Buson’s position in Japanese poetry, but obviously, there is much more that could be said about such an important poet. I suspect that Lento and Merwin felt they did not need to reinvent the wheel; after all, the Japanese literature scholar Makoto Ueda has written about Buson’s life and work in the long out-of-print book The Path of Flowering Thorn. Still, it would have been useful, especially for those of us teaching Japanese literature at universities, to have had some basic information about Buson in the same volume as the translations themselves.
All in all, these are the best Buson translations currently available, hands down. Lento and Merwin deserve much praise for bringing them to us. I hope that they will collaborate again in the future and will continue enriching our bookshelves with their collaborations.
Tomorrow, I’ll be participating in a round-table discussion in Kumamoto about the literature of the Kyūshū-based writer Ishimure Michiko 石牟礼道子 (born 1927). Ishimure made a name for herself as one of the foremost environmentalist writers and activists in Japan in 1969, when she published the first part of the book Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow 『苦界浄土』, which wrote in heart-rending detail about the massive human and environmental damage inflicted upon the Kyushu coastline by the industrial conglomerate Chisso, known for its production of chemicals and fertilizer. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chisso dumped massive quantities of methyl mercury into the Ariake Sea off Kyūshū, and not surprisingly, the local fishermen in Minamata 水俣 and the surrounding areas developed deformities and began dying horrifying deaths. Chisso denied any involvement in the outbreak of the strange “disease,” and the local and national government hesitated for a few years to get involved, thus leading to massive casualties. In this powerful book about the horrors unfolding in her own hometown of Minamata, Ishimure documents the human costs of the disaster, the ways that the “disease” disproportionally struck the poor, and the intricate mechanisms by which capitalism deforms local communities.
Since writing that explosively powerful book, Ishimure has continued to write novels and poetry about environmental themes, but never has her literature been more relevant than today, when environmental degradation and the abusive excesses of capitalist production are happening on a broader scale than ever. A complete selection of her works was published in 18 volumes by Fujiwara Shoten, but even since the release of these “complete works,” she has published several more volumes of interviews and writing. In fact, just this week, Shichōsha 思潮社 is publishing a collection of her poetry entitled The Grassy Villages of My Ancestors『祖さまの草の邑』. Currently, Ishimure is 87 years old.
There will be four of us talking about Ishimure’s work tomorrow at the Kumamoto City Museum of Modern Art: the philosopher/critic Watanabe Kyōji 渡辺京二, the California- and Kumamoto-based poet Itō Hiromi 伊藤比呂美, the critic Taniguchi Kinue 谷口絹枝, and me, a simple admirer of her work, Jeffrey Angles.
Carl Sandberg “The Sins of Kalamazoo”
I think that Kalamazoo has become slightly more full of sin than when Carl Sandberg published this poem in the collection Smoke and Steel in1922. Although this little film by Logan Marshall-Green is lovely, I don’t think it was shot in Kalamazoo at all.
|—||Jacques Lezra, “How to Translate an Untranslatable Book,” The Washington Post, 16 Jul 2014.|
At the Allegan Antique Market last Saturday, in a box of photos showing cows and steers in different fairs and competitions, I found this wonderfully sweet old photograph, taken long before it was possible to call up televised images instantly on Youtube or Hulu. I still remember the days when there were few ways to record a televised image other than waiting by the TV set with a camera ready. (I remember my father taking pictures of the television during one of the early Space Shuttle flights.) No doubt this photograph was kept to show somebody’s friends that a favorite steer had hit the big time!
|—||Karen Emmerich, “Translation Questionnaire,” Full Stop|
The Bozar Expo in Brussels is doing what promises to be an amazing exhibition about the connection between the avant-garde and feminism during the 1970s. Click here for more information. In conjunction with that exhibition, Bozar is also putting out a small collection entitled “I Sit Like a Garbage God,” which contains avant-garde poetry written by feminist poets around the world during the same era.
It looks like this mini-expo and the catalog that is being published along with it will contain an awe-inspiring line-up of poets! Among them are the critically important Japanese poet Hiromi Itō, who will be appearing my English translations, and one of my absolutely favorite writers, the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon who will be appearing the translations of Don Mee Choi.
Panel discussion about translating Nakahara Chūya into English
Sponsored by the Nakahara Chūya Memorial Museum, Yamaguchi City
A group of bilingual poets—Hiromi Itō, Jeffrey Angles, Arthur Binard, and Yasuhiro Yotsumoto—is coming together in Yamaguchi City to do a panel discussion on July 13, 2014 about our ongoing project to translate into English the modernist poet, Nakahara Chūya, a figure often considered one of the fathers of Japanese modernist poetry. (Chūya was heavily influenced by symbolism and Dada, and he was one of the most important Japanese translators of Rimbaud.) This event will be hosted by the always wonderful Nakahara Chūya Memorial Museum.
「ゆあーん ゆよーん ゆやゆよん」は英語でどう言うの？日米両国で活動を続けている詩人・伊藤比呂美をコーディネーターとして、日本語と英語双方に深い造詣をもつ詩人・翻訳家のアーサー・ビナード、ジェフリー・アングルス、四元康祐をパネリストに迎え、英訳することで初めて見えてくる中也の詩の特徴、日本語と英語の詩的表現の違いなどを、熱く語り合います。
会場：ホテル松政 2階 芙蓉の間
TEL 083-932-6430 FAX 083-932-6431