Modeled after similar organizations in Europe, the newly formed Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America is designed to provide support for beginning and early-career literary translators. If that sounds like you, click here to find out more.
The newest issue of Asymptote, one of the very best journals of international writing out there, contains lots of gems, including a short story by Tawada Yōko, who in my book, is nothing short of a genius. (Whenever I hear all of the hype about Murakami Haruki being in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature, as we did last week before Alice Munro finally took home the prize, I always secretly hope that Tawada, who is so much more creative and brilliant than Murakami, will stage a radical upset.)
Here is how the story in Asymptote begins:
One day, when you open your eyes, perhaps there will be a tiger standing beside your pillow. The sky is azure, the earth is amber, and should the two go to war, all words shall be swallowed up in the turbulence and suffer a hundred falls, a thousand scratches; and no beast, bird, or man shall be able to tell the chill from the swelter, joy from dolour. Perhaps the tiger will speak to you. No one may learn the words of the tiger, but on that day, perhaps you will listen carefully to what it says, and comprehend.
“I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely. I seek to provoke, annoy, bother, irritate, and amuse; I am chasing small projects, micropolitics, hunches, whims, fancies.”—Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 21.
But Achilles,weeping, quickly slipping away from his companions, sat on the shore of the gray salt sea, and looked out to the wine-dark sea. —Homer, The Iliad
Lapham’s Quarterly has a fascinating little article on the trouble of translating Homer, specifically his age-old description of the sea as “wine-dark.” I remember being especially fascinated by this turn of phrase when I first encountered it in Japanese. My imagination turned with images of dark, sultry, deep red wine, but as this article shows, the phrase may have meant something altogether different to the Greeks. The result: things only get more complicated for the translator, who has to decide on a meaning and chose an English turn of phrase that best represents that interpretation.
One of the most poetic visual artists is the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Each one of his small-scale installations—whether it be filled with antiques, bits of broken glass, balls, sand, or clippings from books and magazines—serves as a small, intimate world that draws the viewer in, inviting him or her to make sense of the work’s poetically suggestive juxtapositions. For this reason, the Japanese poet Takahashi Mutsuo, has long been drawn to Cornell’s work.
Takahashi Mutsuo This World, or the Man of the Boxes Dedicated to Joseph Cornell
Pilgrim on earth, thy name is heaven, Stranger, thou art the guest of God. —Mary Baker Eddy
The shade of sooty quince The bloom of dusty roses ——And beyond that A fence of metal wire entwined with vines Of spiderwort or knotgrass perhaps?
There tossed among the plants Reclining in a weather-worn wooden armchair Hands folded at his abdomen like a dead man Who could he be this man who looks as if He was washed here from some distant world? This man is a decrepit adolescent a broken angel Swept here by the ark of dreams a boat in the shape of a box When was that? Yesterday or a hundred years ago?
The world to which this man really belongs is not here The world to which this man really belongs Is far away through the fissures of dream Guarded by sensible, steadfast parents This man wearing a starched collar is a clever boy He has two beautiful younger sisters And a younger brother with an upright spirit This family of angels with wings hidden under their fancy dress Is enveloped in golden happiness That world of distant memories Is like a box floating in a galaxy of tears
One morning suddenly that box-shaped boat ran ashore In the doorway to that timeless world of happiness When was that? A second or a hundred million years ago? Dreams are always nightmares interlopers with foul intent Drawn by death the father was pulled backward And the rest of the family were dragged quickly away It was here they disembarked the backyard of a sickly city Here not even angels could escape human fate The mother grew ill from anxiety the sisters grew thin And wrinkles spread across the brother’s spotless soul
In this false world perched atop the scales This man was the quiet, noble head of the household Working harder growing old faster than everyone else But that was not the reality of who he was His real self is hidden under the disguise of an old man Strewn across his chair seated like a corpse He inhales the blue-green seas of his own world of reality Watches clouds trailing behind airplanes over the sea And pricks up his ears to overhear the daytime dialogue of the stars
This man suddenly stands from his chair And slowly descends through the fallen leaves Underground he finds his own private box-like world With objects neatly stored in shelves and drawers Candy boxes pill boxes candle boxes Cut-outs from old images musical scores lost wooden blocks Shells brass rings sky blue marbles Cracked glasses soap bubble sets—— These too are fragments of the real world Drifted here through the fissures of dream This man gives himself plenty of time How long? One week or thirty years? He chooses the fragments then puts them together In just the right place in just the right box While the faint reflection of the golden happiness Belonging to the real world so far away Turns into pale afternoon sunlight and falls Upon his deftly moving fingers
Is this man no longer at his chair in the garden? Is he no longer at his basement table? If he is nowhere to be found This man must never have been here at all What we thought we saw was nothing more Than the shadow of his real self His shadowy eyelashes drawing the bow of vision toward the real world His shadowy hands caressing the flotsam from the real world It is not for us to lament his absence Like little birds we should descend into the garden to bathe as usual And play on his basement window like light
Then what about these boxes? The objects captured inside the princesses The ballerinas the rabbit princes The parrots the honeybees the butterflies Does this man lodge inside them Borrowing the forms of these ephemeral creatures? Like the garden and basement these boxes are also Cheap hotel rooms inhabited briefly by this man’s shadow It swings upon the roost pours some sand Creates nimble cracks across the panes of glass And then vanishes The destination for his shadow is the real world These wistfully nostalgic boxes before us are The frames around the well through which We peer into that world and are drawn in
NOTE: Takahashi originally wrote the poem “This World, or the Man of the Boxes” for an exhibition of Cornell’s work held at the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan. This poem was such a success that in 2010, when the same museum once again held a large scale Cornell exhibition, the curators invited Takahashi to write one poem to accompany each of the artworks. The result was the collaborative exhibition “Intimate Worlds Enclosed: Joseph Cornell x Takahashi Mutsuo,” which drew large crowds and quickly sold through multiple prints of its catalog. The English renditions of the poems in the catalog were done by Jeffrey Angles. For more information, see the museum’s website: http://kawamura-museum.dic.co.jp/en/exhibition/201004_cornell.html.
TAKAHASHIMutsuo (1937- ) came to international attention in the 1970s for his bold expressions of homoerotic desire. He is one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary poets, with over three dozen anthologies of free-style verse, haiku, tanka, and other forms of poetry to his name. He is also one of the most thoroughly translated contemporary Japanese poets, with four volumes of his poetry available in English. A translation of his memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance, translated by Jeffrey Angles,was published in 2012 by University of Minnesota Press.
“The exercise has confirmed my long-held suspicion that my translators are three times cleverer than me, with a better command of English as well as the ‘into-language,’ plus a knowledge of the mysterious art and science that is translation itself. As a writer I can be bad, but I can’t be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word-nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock.”—David Mitchell, explaining the insights his debut in translation gave him. Read more in our exclusive interview with him, which you can find in our last issue! (via asymptotejournal)
The March 11, 2011 earthquake that shook northeastern Japan also reverberated throughout Japanese society, forcing it to reconsider many of things things that it had taken for granted—its usage of energy, its relationship to the natural environment, its relationship with the government, and its modes of organizing at the grass-roots level. Almost immediately, writers took action. Many figures known for their involvement in social issues, writers such as Ōe Kenzaburō, Tsushima Yūko, and Ishimure Michiko, began respond and publish statements to the press, helping to use their influence to help shape reconstruction efforts and talk about new directions for the Japanese nation.
Perhaps the segment of the Japanese literary world where the seismic forces of 3/11 were felt most strongly, however, was the poetic world. Many Japanese newspapers include regular columns that include free verse (shi), tanka, or haiku poems, but in just the few days after 3/11, poetry began to emerge from those small columns and take a more prominent place in the news, eventually finding its way into a central position in the discourse that had started unfolding across the nation. Poetry exploded into the mainstream, serving as one of the ways that the nation thought about and processed its own complicated feelings about the disasters.
Because I was in Japan at the time and experienced the quakes, numerous aftershocks, and anxiety personally, I have been unable to forget it. After a few weeks of uncertainty and great worry, everything I had come to Japan to do was cancelled, and so I cut my stay short and returned to the United States ahead of schedule. As one way of working through the experience and my complicated feelings about returning to America, I began translating a number of poems about the quake and the resulting disasters, mostly poems written by poets whom I admire. Most of those translations have been published in various journals, mostly online.
Here is a collection of links to some of those translations. Some appear with the original Japanese. Most of the poems first appeared in the May 2011 special issue of Handbook of Contemporary Poetry 『現代詩手帖』dedicated to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Some were also published in a special section in the daily newspaper Asahi shinbun published in commemoration of the first anniversary of the quake. Others were published in various magazines or newspapers, but still, these poems are only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. There are thousands upon thousands more poems out there.
In celebration of National Poetry Month 2013, I wanted to share a site showing a number of poems in the original handwriting of the poets. Although we all have all seen Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems, I realized while looking at this page that I had never seen Virginia Clemm Poe’s deliberate, calligraphic handwriting, or the childlike, big writing of Anne Sexton. Somehow a poem comes alive in such a different way when written in the author’s own hand. Check the photos of the manuscripts out by clicking here.
David Burleigh at The Japan Times, just published this review of my translation of Takahashi Mutsuo’s memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance 高橋睦郎『十二の遠景』. He describes how the book describes the grinding poverty and difficulty of Takahashi’s early life, then states,
Takahashi invokes a world that has now mostly disappeared, along with its bitterness and hunger. Yet it was also a rich world, for those who managed to survive it.
And what was the secret of survival? Undoubtedly to some extent it was the poet’s imagination. Near the end he writes: “My undeveloped, youthful soul felt a strong affinity for what was outside my world in the realm of the other.”
With photographs and a retrospective afterword by the author, this is an excellent translation of an absorbing and necessary book.
Because I worked on this translation a little at a time, often working in half-hour increments pilfered from other projects, this translation took me a number of years from start to publication, beginning in 2006 until around 2010. It was then another couple of years before it found its way into print in late 2012 with University of Minnesota Press, which took quite a chance on deciding publish this rather unusual, but profoundly beautiful book. This project was a long labor of love, and so it means an enormous deal to me that this book review—the first to be published—is so enthusiastic.
Each year, University of Chicago holds a contest in which people submit translations from Japanese into English. The winners are placed online and win a significant cash prize. This year’s winners were just announced: Annika Culver and Andrew Murakami-Smith. Here is more information, plus links to the two super stories online.
Annika A. Culver is Assistant Professor of Asian History and Asian Studies Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She recently published the book Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo (University of British Columbia Press, 2013). Current projects include a book chapter, “Japanese Mothers and Rural Settlement in Wartime Manchukuo: Gendered Reflections of Labor and Productivity in Manchuria Graph, 1940-1944” for Dana Cooper and Claire Phelan, eds., Motherhood and War, and a monograph on images of women and consumerism in early 20th century East Asia. In autumn 2013, Culver will join the faculty at Florida State University as Assistant Professor of East Asian History.
Andrew Murakami-Smith is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Language and Culture at Osaka University. While writing his dissertation on “Dialects and Place in Modern Japanese Literature,” he did two years of research at Osaka University. After obtaining his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1997, he returned to Osaka to work as a translator at a patent lawyer’s office. He has a continuing interest in regional dialects and cultures of Japan, especially the dialect, culture, and image of Osaka. He has translated into English some 15 works of modern fiction, poetry, and essays relating to Osaka.
The online journal Transformative Works and Cultures just ran a special issue about transnational fandoms and boy’s love manga. In it was a review of my book by Emerald King (a name that itself sounds like it is right out of a boy’s love manga). Here is the link. In one place, the reviewer writes,
Writing the Love of Boys is an engaging and challenging text that encourages readers to interrogate their understanding of boys’ love narratives in Japan as more than just a current popular cultural trend. The book is of interest not only to scholars of boys’ love narratives and associated bishōnen culture, but also to students of Taishō modernism and gender studies.
I received this call for submissions. Inventory is a handsomely designed, well-conceived publication. I encourage friends interested in translation to submit.
Call for Submissions: INVENTORY Nº4 (Princeton University Journal of Translation)
Submission deadline for next issue June 1, 2013
We consider translations of poetry and prose from any language – ancient or modern – into English. We welcome new translations of previously translated work, and we encourage our translators to engage imaginatively with the conventions and possibilities of literary translation. We regret that we are unable to accept translations into languages other than English.
Poetry submissions should include 3-6 poems (no more than five pages), and fiction submissions should not exceed 2000 words. We do accept excerpts, but request that you include a single-paragraph summary of the full work. Please attach a copy of all pieces in their first language.
Inventory is particularly interested in translations of works involving visual and graphic elements. Should the text you are translating comprise a graphic or visual component, we kindly request you include this element with your submission as an attachment not larger than 10 MB.
Submissions should be directed to email@example.com, indicating in the subject line the genre and first language of the submission, if applicable.We ask that you include in the body of your email a brief paragraph describing the piece’s translation history, as well any relevant information about why you have chosen to translate the piece at this time.
Published writers retain copyright of their material and are free to publish again elsewhere. We regret that we can accept unsolicited submissions by email only.
Thank you for your interest, and please contact the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. You may also visit our website for further information.
I just read Peter Minter’s essay about Japan, poetry, translation, and the productive power of forgetting in Southern Review. From it comes this haunting passage. Check out the entire essay by clicking here.
Against the sheer existential horror of all we forget, each poem in a life becomes a fugitive, delicately precise machine for remembering an event and its organic dislocations. A poem is like an ark for a moment or series of moments, a small vessel amidst a sea of epic or reflexive forgetfulness that we glide off headlong toward our friends and readers or indeed future selves. Perhaps that is what our species has been doing for thousands of years, making poems to send information forward and outward so others can see and remember. Madeleines for the survivors. Holographs of the forgotten. Genealogies of invisibility.
Since its founding decades ago, Poetry Kanto has been instrumental in introducing many Japanese poets to the English-speaking world. Recently, the editors of Poetry Kanto placed all of its annual issues since 2005 online. This means that a small treasure trove of Japanese poetry is suddenly accessible to anyone with a computer.
The Kalamazoo Gazette just ran this story about the thousands and thousands of donations we received in response to my Twitter call in 2011 for donations of Japanese books to WMU’s library. Thank you so much to everyone who responded! I was extremely touched by everyone’s kindness and generosity.
The Japan Times obituary of Donald Richie, an inspiration to an entire of generation of Japanologists , contained this observation.
Widely considered the foremost foreign writer and cultural commentator on Japan, his physical energy may have failed him at times, but his creative energy was boundless. His death, like the felling of a great tree in a forest, has changed the inner landscape of literature on Japan. It is likely, however, that his work will remain unrivaled, not simply because of its quality and dimension, but because the time he inhabited can never be re-experienced.
Indeed, Richie saw a time and era in Japanese history that can never be recaptured. Perhaps better than anyone writing in English, he taught us what it was to feel their way through the historical changes that have descended over the nation. I will never forget my long conversations with him in Ueno as he told me about the years and decades gone by.
Rest in peace, Donald. I and many other people will miss you.
I recently stumbled upon this dialogue between the poet Takahashi Mutsuo 高橋睦郎 and the designer Hara Ken’ya 原研哉, in which they explore a number of topics having to do with art, language, and the power of words. One of the several things that struck me in this dialogue, were Takahashi’s comments on his attempts to move away from “individuality.” Considering that these come from one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Japanese letters (and an author on whom I’ve done a lot of critical work), these comments struck me as somewhat surprising.
I have never believed in the concept of “individuality” at all…Imagine that there is an apple and a peach, and that I am to paint a picture of them. At this time, my individuality is not necessary. What is necessary is the individuality of the peach and the apple. I should express and return that individuality as accurately as possible. I should return a peach and an apple. At that time, I require only the individuality of the peach and the apple. Perhaps my own individuality can be of use in accomplishing this, however revealing my own individuality is not the ultimate goal.
Speaking from my perspective, the more I express my own individuality, the deeper I fall into a hell from which I may not be able to rescue myself. I think that the modern hell is a hell created when everyone asserts themselves all the time.
So what is the purpose of expression? In the end, it is to redeem oneself from the hell of one’s own individuality through those subjects a person wants to express.
Whereas most people tend to think of language as a tool to assert individuality, Takahashi suggests that instead, it ought to more properly represent a tool to overcome individuality, to allow the outside world to travel through the self. In his other work, he has suggested that the image of a unified self is always predicated on a sort of lack or absence—a knowledge that the self is not total but, rather, cut off from the outside world through the prison of the body. Perhaps language is not a tool for conveying individuality after all, but merely a means to allow the outside world to flow through us and, in the process, to assuage the pain of being formulated through absence.