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.
2014 National Translation Award Longlist -
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)
Temporary Center for Translation -
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.
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.
Click here for more information about the prize.
Click here for a link to the book on Amazon.
A few months ago, I wrote this review about the book on Amazon.
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.
Human institutions are built on terms that are more like the word “happiness” than they are like the word “apple.” Acknowledging that the concepts on which we build these institutions, our expectations, and our forms of life are tied to the languages in which they take shape and are expressed does not mean abandoning the task of making these institutions better, more equitable, more precise, and it doesn’t mean granting privilege to one experience or one identity or one tradition over others. It means agreeing that the project of building these defective institutions is an endless and often a violent one, beset by injustices that need to be expressed and imagined in words we will have to translate again and again, for ourselves and for others. — 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!
Life is better with a sense of wonder.
I see each translation as gain: you can gain a little or you can gain a lot, but every time a work of literature is translated, you end up with more, not less. Even a “bad” translation is a gain. — Karen Emmerich, “Translation Questionnaire,” Full Stop
Takashi Yoshida, From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2014)
Because news from Japan is filled with stories about textbook censors routinely downplaying the aggression of the imperial Japanese military during World War II and politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine 靖国神社, it is sometimes easy to forget that there are countless people across Japan actively invested in remembering the experience of World War II from an entirely different perspective. Most people know of Japan’s culpability during the war, but there are activists across the country who actively seek to remember the difficult parts of history that nationalist politicians are quick to leave out. By creating dialogue about Japan’s aggression on the mainland and its disastrous results, these grass-roots activists hope to inspire the population of Japan never to want to engage in war again. They seek to overturn textbook accounts of the war and show that the war was not just something that happened to Japan; the war was something Japan created.
My friend and colleague Takashi Yoshida’s new book From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2014) examines the history of public displays about World War II. Discussions of war-related displays in Japan usually focus on the Yūshūkan 遊就館, the infamously nationalist, pro-military museum located at Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies World War II and selectively passes over Japanese atrocities on the mainland. Yoshida travelled through Japan to countless small museums and public displays created at the grass-roots level in order to remember the war. He finds that, if anything, the nationalist Yūshūkan is an aberration. The majority of museums dedicated to war memory in Japan seek to forge a new culture of peace.
In examining the history of those places, Yoshida looks at newspaper articles, editorials, histories of governmental support, and public debates about the display contents in order to better understand the ways that people have talked about World War II as part of their own contemporary sociopolitical projects. In addition, Yoshida visited a number of similar sites in China and South Korea, showing once again that there is sometimes a sizeable gap between the official rhetoric of politicians and the beliefs of ordinary citizens.
This important book should, I hope, begin the process of bringing the work of postwar Japanese peace activists to the forefront so that Japan’s image on the international stage is not fashioned only by the actions and rhetoric of politicians seeking to earn support from well-funded, politically active nationalist groups.
Prof. Yoshida is a professor of history in the Department of History at Western Michigan University and one of the core faculty of the WMU Soga Japan Center. He is the author of The Making the “The Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (London: Oxford University Press, 2009), which examines the differences in the ways that Japan, China, and the U.S. remember the Nanjing massacres of 1937. As one might expect with such a difficult subject, Yoshida finds that contemporary political realities are always at play within the process of remembering the past. The new book published this year is an extension of Yoshida’s ongoing interest in war memory and the ways that the use of a reified “past” continues to inform current thinking in Japan and its neighbors.