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 Riverbankis 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!
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.
中原中也詩英訳パネルディスカッション 伊藤比呂美、ジェフリー・アングルス、アーサー・ビナード、四元康祐 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 Cityto 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.
Yesterday, I posted a few thoughts about the new book of poetry by the feminist poet ARAI Takako, one of the most provocative and theoretically interesting young figures in the Japanese poetic world. Today, I wanted to share the title work from that collection, which I translated as “Beds and Looms” for publication in the inaugural issue of the journal Southpaw (2012), a left-learning journal of art and writing that explores issues of cultural displacement, global capitalism, and the legacy of colonialism.
Arai’s father was the owner of a small, cottage-style, weaving factory in Kiryū, Gunma Prefecture, a town known for textile production since ancient times. At its height, it employed a few dozen people, the overwhelming majority of which were women. This poem is part of a series that Arai has written about the lives of the women workers she observed while growing up in the factory.
This particular poem juxtaposes the images of baby beds, the mattresses on which adult workers met and made love, and the looms which the factory women used to make their living. In doing so, it exploresthe ways that different forms of desire—sexual desire, motherly desire, the desire for labor, and the desire for commodities—intersected on the floor of her father’s factory. Powerful and brilliant.
In late April, we were fortunate to have TAWADA Yōko, one of Japan’s most scintillatingly brilliant writers, come visit us at Western Michigan University, where she gave an unforgettable reading from her recent essays, poetry, and novels. While at WMU, she gave the reading debut of her short story「彼岸」or "Equinox," a sci-fi evocation of a post-apocalyptic Japan which has been rendered uninhabitable by a massive nuclear meltdown. The original Japanese version of this story is soon to be published in the journal 『早稲田文学』Waseda bungaku in Japan, and I have been translating it for publication abroad.
Here are some photographs from Tawada’s visit. The photograph of her in fur was born out of a moment of spontaneous silliness. While chatting about her novel 『雪の練習生』(The Practitioners of Snow), which is narrated from the point of view of three polar bears, she began to wonder what she would look like as a bear. It just so happened that my partner, a former antique dealer, happened to have an an antique beaver jacket, antique beaver gloves, and a Russian-style hat in the closet, and so we pulled them out for her to try on and see. Not bear, of course, but at least it gave a hint of what Kuma no Yōko might look like!
アメリカの一番よく読まれている絵本作家、ドクター・スースの和訳を取り上げる拙論は『Japan Forum』の新しい特集「Geographies of Childhood」（幼児期の地理学）に載りました。アメリカでも広く知られていないが、第二次世界大戦中、スースは戦時中の日本を風刺する漫画を描いたり、アメリカ陸軍の映画班に所属して日本文化と軍隊主義の問題を取り上げるドクメンタリー映画を作ったりしました。戦後になって、スースは『ライフ雑誌』のために取材しに訪日して、関西で知り合った友人からインスピレーションを受けて、アメリカ児童文学の古典になる『ぞうのホートンひとだすけ』を書きました。その歴史から始まり、本論はスースの和訳史、そして絵本に隠る教訓の翻訳による変容を論じています。特に、占領下の日本で活躍した翻訳家・大森武男と、1970年頃に「児童文学の翻訳の王様」と言われた渡辺茂男と、2000年頃にスースの和訳を出したフェミニストの詩人・伊藤比呂美の貢献を重視しています。論文は英語で書いたが、興味のある方に喜んで送ります。
The new special issue of Japan Forum (Vol. 26, No. 2)is entitled Geographies of Childhood and contains several fascinating articles about the ways that globalization, translation, and localization have shaped children’s culture in postwar and contemporary Japan. Among them is my article “Dr. Seuss Goes to Japan: Ideology and the Translation of an American Icon,” which looks at the history of Dr. Seuss translations into Japanese. It begins by looking at Dr. Seuss’s own long, intimate, personal engagement with Japan, beginning with his World War II political cartoons satirizing Japan, his contributions to Frank Capra’s wartime and Occupation-era documentaries about rebuilding Japanese culture, his fact-finding visit for Life magazine in 1953, and the ways that inspired Seuss’s own writing. It then moves on to see how Japanese translators have dealt with the messages embedded in Seuss’s work (especially the messages related to Japan) and the changing ways that they have used Seuss in their own political and social agendas over time. In particular, it focuses on the Japanese-language translations of the Occupation-era translator Ōmori Takeo, the prolific translator of children’s books during the 1970s Watanabe Shigeo, and the contemporary feminist poet Itō Hiromi.
The article is free to download for the first fifty people who click here. If you would like to read it but are unable to download it from the link above, please e-mail me, and I will be happy to send a copy.
Exhibited at the Roppongi Crossing 2013 exhibit at the Mori Art Museum 森美術館・六本木クロッシング2013展 Made of chairs and clothing collected from people around the artist in the Roppongi Hills area in 2013 600 × 600 × 190 cm
Amanda Vail at Rain Taxi, one of the journals that I often turn to for literary reviews, wrote a glowing review of my translation of the gay Japanese poet TAKAHASHI Mutsuo’s memoirs, Twelve Views from the Distance. In it, she writes,
Takahashi’s memoir presents not only the difficulties faced by citizens living through a war, but also the challenges of growing up in poverty, of being raised by a single mother who is forced to make ends meet in creative ways, and of exploring an alternative sexuality, among others. The novel presents twelve reflections on the time and place it depicts; some of the details are very specific, and many are universal. Throughout, Twelve Views from the Distance is unflinching, compassionate, and beautiful.
During this reading at Stanford University on May 2, 2014, Itō Hiromi will appear with me as her translator. We plan to read from her work about the 2011 disasters in Japan, as well as from the translation of her long, narrative poem Wild Grass on the Riverbank, which will be forthcoming from Action Books in fall 2014. This award-winning, book-length narrative poem, called by critics “unprecedented” in the history of modern Japanese literature, deals with transpacific migration, linguistic isolation, and the question of what it means to belong to a place.
Kyoko Selden Memorial Translation Prize in Japanese Literature, Thought, and Society
The Department of Asian Studies at Cornell University is pleased to announce a prize honoring the life and work of Kyoko Selden. The prize will pay homage to the finest achievements in Japanese literature, thought, and society through the medium of translation. Kyoko Selden’s translations and writings ranged widely across such realms as Japanese women writers, the atomic bomb experience, Ainu life and culture, historical and contemporary literature, poetry and prose, Japanese art, and early education (the Suzuki method). In the same spirit, the prize will recognize the breadth of Japanese writings, classical and contemporary. Collaborative translations are welcomed. In order to encourage classroom use and wide dissemination of the winning entries, prize-winning translations, together with the original Japanese text, will be made freely available on the web. The winning translations will be published online at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus <http://www.japanfocus.org/>.
Submit three copies of a translation and the original text of an unpublished work or a new translation of a previously published work to the Kyoko Selden Memorial Translation Prize, Department of Asian Studies, 350 Rockefeller Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853. E-mail submissions should be sent to email@example.com. Please provide both paper and electronic versions of the translation and the original text. The maximum length of a submission is 20,000 words. The translation should be accompanied by an introduction of up to 1,000 words. In case of translation of longer works, a 20,000-word excerpt should be submitted.
The closing date for the first prize competition is May 30, 2014. Awards will be announced on August 31, 2014. A prize of $2,500 will be given to the author(s) of the award-winning translation. For further information, please visit <http://lrc.cornell.edu/asian/seldenmemorial>.
On April 18-20, 2014, University of Michigan is going to be holding a three-day conference on one of Japan’s greatest modern authors NATSUME Sōseki 夏目漱石. Highlights include a visit by John NATHAN, who did the new translation of Sōseki’s Light and Dark 『明暗』, and TAWADA Yōko 多和田葉子, one of Japan’s most important living novelists. To register, click here.
Angles convincingly argues that despite occasional borrowing from and homage to Edo-period notions of nanshoku (male-male sexuality), these three artists [discussed in the book, namely MURAYAMA Kaita, 村山槐多 EDOGAWA Ranpo 江戸川乱歩, and INAGAKI Taruho 稲垣足穂] were very much products of their particular historical moment. Specifically, amid the ascendency of heteronormative models of sexuality and an ever-increasing pathologization of male-male attraction and eroticism, they grappled and experimented with, queered, and challenged the aesthetic, medico-scientific, and social trends of their day. One strength of this study is that the lives and textual productions of the men it investigates are richly contextualized within Japanese and Western literary movements, dominant and popular sexological discourses, and trends in print and visual culture. The work also presents an assortment of imported and indigenous terminology and associations that intersect and transform in novel ways to configure modern Japanese conceptualizations of beautiful boys, male-male eroticism, and modern aesthetics…. Anyone reading to the end is rewarded with a rich rendering of an extremely important historical and cultural inheritance, which, as Angles compellingly argues, profoundly informs and inspires current Japanese understanding of male-male desire.
In this film recorded during the poet Takahashi Mutsuo’s 高橋睦郎 recent trip to Michigan, he reads from his memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance 『十二の遠景』about his memories of his mother in the days immediately before she abandoned him to go to China.
In intimate, poetic language, this book describes Takahashi’s youth in a poor, rural family in southwestern Japan and the tragic ways his family’s destiny intersected with the rise and fall of the Japanese empire. Click here to go to the Amazon page for this book.