The journal Poetry Kanto, designed to bring Japanese and other international poets into dialogue, has just released its newest issue completely online. (Click here to follow the link.) In it are some translations of some important Japanese poets: ŌOKA Makoto 大岡 誠, one of the leaders of the Japanese poetic world in the mid-twentieth century, and TSUKAGOSHI Yūka 塚越祐佳, one of the new, dynamic generation of poets whose work I have been following in recent years with great interest. Alongside them is Gorō TAKANO 高野吾朗, the Hiroshima-born poet who tests the boundaries of language in his adopted language of English. Check out their work, along with the many other writers included in this issue.
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.
"Stackable/s" by MATSUDA Aoko
Click here to read excerpts from the novella.
During the 2013 British Centre for Literary Translation summer workshop, I had the pleasure to serve as workshop leader for a group of talented young translators who had gathered from four continents in order to work with the young, experimental Japanese author Aoko MATSUDA 松田青子 on the translation of one of her novellas.
The work selected for the workshop, “Sutakkingu kannō” was a clever, surreal, and often quite funny tale about the workers in a multi-storeyed office complex. On each floor of the building, similar characters do similar things, giving rise to the illusion that as people, they are virtually interchangeable. The characters are, in a sense, “stackable”—able to be lumped together, placed in neat, conceptual piles like generic, plastic chairs placed in a pile.
Still, as the novella unfolds, those expectations are frequently undermined. Some characters do not fit in to the office and have trouble figuring out how to. Some characters defy the expectations placed upon them by their gender. Some characters see surreal visions. Some characters question their place in the office hierarchy.
The website New Writing has placed online our translation of certain passages from this wonderful novella, which gives such a good glimpse into the Japanese office workers’ inner lives. Click here to read them.
The translators at the 2013 BCLT Summer School were Asa Yoneda, Dan Bradley, Ginny Tapley Takemori, Hart Larrabee, Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, Lucy Fraser, Lydia Moed, Morgan Giles, Sam Malissa and Takami Nieda, and myself. The translation was completed in the presence of the author.
New English translations of Tawada Yōko
Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Translation, published by the English Department of Stanford University, has released its eleventh volume. In this issue is my translation of a series of poems by TAWADA Yōko 多和田葉子 (a writer who is nothing short of a genius in my book) called “People Born of Lines” 「線から生まれた人々」 . As I explain in an interview also included in this issue, these poems were inspired by the shapes of particular kanji (Chinese characters). For instance, she writes about the character 人 meaning “person,”
The character for ‘person’ look so sparse
No brain, no shoes to wear
If it just had hands, it could light a fire
But it cannot create light or warmth on its own
Then, in the next poem, she writes about the character 木, which means “tree” and is only a couple of strokes away from the character 人. In this playful and creative way, she works her way through a series of similar-looking characters with different meanings, thus producing a cleverly linked series of poems.
In 2011, Tawada and I read these poems together at the Worlds writer’s conference in Norwich, England, she holding up a big sign with the character being described, and me reading the English. (Martin Figura took the photograph above of me reading the poem inspired by the character for “rice.” This photograph is especially hilarious because the character for “rice” also means “America,” so it looks as if Tawada is using semaphore to telegraph my nationality from the sidelines.) Tawada and I look forward to reading this piece again when she visits Western Michigan University for a reading in April 2014.
The most recent issue of Monkey Business, is out, and it features some of the most dazzling literary voices from Japan. This is the third issue of a transpacific effort spearheaded by SHIBATA Motoyuki 柴田元幸, an extremely well known writer known for his superb translations of American novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon, Stuart Dybek, Rebecca Brown, and many others. In each of the issues of Monkey Business, Shibata, whose tastes in American literature are proof enough that he knows good writing when he sees it, has chosen some of the most provocative young writers and worked with excellent translators to bring them into English so they can co-exist in the same space with some of the great Anglophone writers.
Among the treasures in this issue are new translations of pieces by the early twentieth-century experimenters AKUTAGAWA Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 and YOKOMITSU Riichi 横光利一, all the way through new pieces by postmodern writers TAKAHASHI Gen’ichirō 高橋源一郎 and FURUKAWA Hideo 古川日出男. The issue even contains a manga of Kafka’s Metamorphosis by the NISHIOKA 西岡 siblings, known for their unusual, artsy style. Also inside is a small contribution from me, a translation of a short story by the brilliant writer KURITA Yuki 栗田有起, a surreal and incisive depiction of one woman’s experience with psychoanalysis. This issue also includes new work by Paul Auster, Charles Simic, Barry Yourgrau, and other leading English-language writers.
Three-Dimensional Reading: Stories of Time and Space in Japanese Modernist Fiction, 1911-1932, edited by Angela YIU, illustrated by SAKAGUCHI Kyōhei (University of Hawaii Press, 2013).
University of Hawaii Press has just published this innovative and creative collection of stories, which includes prose by many of the most exciting writers of the early twentieth-century Japanese literature.
This collection also includes my own translation of INAGAKI Taruho’s “Astromania” 稲垣足穂「天体嗜好症」, a oddly shaped, meandering, yet beautiful story about a young boy’s aesthetic awakening in the Western quarters of the city of Kobe. (In many ways, I think that Inagaki is subtly riffing off the discourse of sexology, which tended to stereotype an aesthetic orientation with homosexuality, but more about that at another time.)
Here is some information about the book from the press release.
A 29th-century dystopian society seen through the eyes of a mutant-cum-romantic poet; a post-impressionist landscape of orbs and cubes experienced by a wandering underdog; an imaginary sick room generated entirely from sounds reaching the ears of an invalid: These and other haunting re-presentations of time and space constitute the Japanese modernist landscape depicted in this volume of stories from the 1910s to the 1930s.
The fourteen stories selected for this anthology—by both relatively unknown and “must-read” authors—experiment with a protean modernist style in the vivacious period between the nationbuilding Meiji and the early years of Showa. The writers capture imaginary temporal and spatial dimensions that embody forms of futuristic urban space, colonial space, utopia, dystopia, and heterotopia. Their work invites readers to abandon the conventional naturalistic approach to spatial and temporal representations and explore how the physical and empirical experience of time and space is distorted and reconfigured through the prism of modernist Japanese prose.
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.
TANIKAWA Shuntarō: “Words”
ITŌ Hiromi: “Cooking, Writing Poetry”
TANAKA Yōsuke: “Screaming Potato Field”
OHSAKI Sayaka: “Noisy Animal”
Jeffrey ANGLES: “Return After Earthquake”
The always beautiful literary journal Manoa, published by the University of Hawai’i, has an especially impressive and beautiful new issue centering on the theme of freedom and what that means for individuals, societies, cultures, nations, and religions. It also contains an extract from my translation of Takahashi Mutsuo’s Twelve Views from the Distance—the entire first, unforgettable chapter of the book about a young boy dealing with his own mother’s attempts to find freedom in adversity. Check Manoa 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.
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.
I have published a number of poems in Poetry Kanto over the years, including translations of Tada Chimako 多田智満子 (2007), Itō Hiromi 伊藤比呂美 (2012 and 2011), Arai Takako 新井高子 (2012), Minashita Kiriu 水無田気流 (2007),and my own poetry (2011). Click the links above to go directly to the pages for each of these writers.
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.
University of Minnesota Press just published my translation of Twelve Views from the Distance, the memoirs of TAKAHASHI Mutsuo, originally published in Japan in 1970. The book is a beautiful object: the cover is embossed, and the design shows a small boat floating on a distant sea. In many ways, this captures the right mood for this memoir, in which one of Japan’s most important poets looks across the distance of the years and remembers his poverty-stricken youth in Kyushu during World War II.
On the back of the book are two blurbs. The first is by Edmund White, the great American known for his bold, homoerotic memoirs. (I was thrilled that White, whom I read with such interest during my own adolescence and coming out, agreed to write the blurb for my translation.)
Twelve Views from the Distance is a wrenching memoir about growing up in southern Japan during the war and just afterward in an extremely poor family of day laborers. Utterly dependent on his hard-bitten grandmother and his often absent mother, Mutsuo Takahashi withdraws into himself and lives in his very rich imagination. That he was destined to become Japan’s leading gay poet may or may not be obvious from these painful but lyrical memories.
The other is from MISHIMA Yukio, who wrote the following in 1970, just a few months before his dramatic suicide.
Mutsuo Takahashi has managed to achieve firm prose that, while unmistakably the work of a poet, shines with a black luster much like a set of drawers crafted by a master of old. This book is a magnificent collection of sensations and of memories, much like the toys we might find in a dark closet. The part toward the end in which the theme of his ‘search for a father’ crystallizes in a copy of an erotic book radiates a certain tragic beauty.
My translation of this book was supported through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the PEN Translation Fund. Thank you for believing in this project.
Mark McHarry wrote a thoughtful, detailed review of my book Writing the Love of Boysfor the online Australian journal Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific. He begins,
Edogawa Ranpo (1894–1965) and Inagaki Taruho (1900–1977) were widely read in early twentieth-century Japan. Murayama Kaita’s (1896–1919) works would prove influential among other authors. Writing the Love of Boys shows how they sought new ways to describe non-heteronormative sexuality in literature, and in so doing developed an aestheticism that would be taken up, in part, by boys’ love. Of the three, and in English, Ranpo’s works may be the most anthologised, but his keen interest in male homoeroticism is not widely known, and the homoerotic writings of Kaita and Taruho perhaps less so. Jeffrey Angles situates their work in modernist Japanese literature, mainly during the Taishō (1912–1926) and pre-war Shōwa (1926–1989) periods. His book is a fascinating glimpse of male-male desire in literature at a time of cultural and political ferment in Japan, and well worth reading by anyone interested in Japanese modernism, Japanese homoeroticism, or boys’ love.
Thank you, Mark, for the review!
Dan Luffey, translator of Edogawa Ranpo’s famous children’s detective story The Fiend with Twenty Faces 江戸川乱歩『怪人二十面相』, has published a short online article online about translating Ranpo’s work into English. There he writes the following.
There’s one quote about translation I’ve always tried to keep in my mind. I can’t remember who first told it to me, but it goes something like this: “The goal of any good translation is to give the reader in the target language a similar experience to that of a reader in the source language.” In other words, translation isn’t merely re-stacking items from one shelf to another. A good translation unpacks the product, examines it, and decides how best to rearrange and display things for the target audience.
I wonder if the quote was based on a conversation I once had with him soon before this book was published…. I often say this sort of thing when talking about translating.
In any case, congrats to Luffey for a translation well done! Here is to more new Ranpo translations!