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Translation and Non-PC Sexuality

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.

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.[2] 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!

Roland Barthes, by Roland Barthes
Here Barthes anticipates queer theory before the word “queer theory” ever came into existence. 

Roland Barthes, by Roland Barthes

Here Barthes anticipates queer theory before the word “queer theory” ever came into existence. 

高橋睦郎の英訳の表紙(近刊)
ミネソタ大学出版部(2012年秋予定)

In fall 2012, University of Minnesota Press will be publishing two books by one of Japan’s most important poets, TAKAHASHI Mutsuo 高橋睦郎.  One is my translation of Twelve Views from the Distance 『十二の遠景』, a sumptuously beautiful book first published in 1970.  This book describes Takahashi’s troubled, impoverished early life in rural, southern Japan and the ways that his family’s fortunes intersected with the rise of the Japanese empire and World War II. Takahashi’s friend, the novelist MISHIMA Yukio 三島由紀夫, lauded the book with these words.  

It is magnificent that in this book, Twelve Views from the Distance, the poet 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 other forthcoming book by Takahashi is a reissue of Hiroaki Sato’s translation Poems of a Penisist, which brings together much of Takahashi’s most important early poetry, much of which deals with existentialist themes and homoerotic material.  This collection includes the long poem Ode ( Homeuta), which the publisher Winston Leyland has called “the great gay poem of the 20th century.” It is said that Allen Ginsberg was so impressed by this collection of poetry that he personally lobbied Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Books to publish more of Takahashi’s work. 

Soviet Space Propaganda (1958-1960s)

As I have been unpacking after my move, I discovered a beautiful book of old, Soviet stamps that my father’s friend brought back for me from a trip to the USSR.  As a boy, I adored their bright colors and gloriously strong images of handsome adventurers, even though I was typically much more interested in happenings on earth than in space. 

Now, I see that what was appealing to me was the homoerotic potential of a world of strong, beautiful men, going boldly into the new frontier.  I have often thought that I would like to write something about the queerness of space within the mid-century imagination.

When young Americans today say that sexuality “just doesn’t matter,” it is often heralded as a progressive triumph. But sexuality should matter: it should be the thrilling, dangerous, unpredictable, imaginative force it once was and no doubt still is, although more often quietly and out of public sight. If sexuality does not matter anymore, it is not because we won but because of how much we have lost.
Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, in If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (via fiveoclockbot)

Gay rights are human rights!

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Day speech in Geneva left me with tears in my eyes.  Never have I heard such a strong official statement from the U.S. government about this issue.  I cannot help but feel like a new day is dawning on this critical struggle for dignity, a fight against ignorance, intolerance (often in the name of religion), and inequality.  Please watch this amazing speech. 

Here are some of the most powerful points. 

I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.

I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time…

Some seem to believe it is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.  Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality…

Acting alone, minorities can never achieve the majorities necessary for political change. So when any part of humanity is sidelined, the rest of us cannot sit on the sidelines. Every time a barrier to progress has fallen, it has taken a cooperative effort from those on both sides of the barrier. In the fight for women’s rights, the support of men remains crucial. The fight for racial equality has relied on contributions from people of all races. Combating Islamaphobia or anti-Semitism is a task for people of all faiths. And the same is true with this struggle for equality…

And to people of all nations, I say supporting human rights is your responsibility too. The lives of gay people are shaped not only by laws, but by the treatment they receive every day from their families, from their neighbors. Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to advance human rights worldwide, said that these rights begin in the small places close to home – the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work. These places are your domain. The actions you take, the ideals that you advocate, can determine whether human rights flourish where you are.

And finally, to LGBT men and women worldwide, let me say this: Wherever you live and whatever the circumstances of your life, whether you are connected to a network of support or feel isolated and vulnerable, please know that you are not alone. People around the globe are working hard to support you and to bring an end to the injustices and dangers you face. That is certainly true for my country. And you have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.

XXY (2007)

This Argentine film, written and directed by Lucía Puenzo, is one of the most sensitive and lovely explorations of the intersex experience I have seen. This film does a beautiful job of showing the tremendous pressures and tensions that gender-related expectations place on people who do not fit ordinary categories of “male” and “female,” as well as their families.  At the same time, it also explores the power and drama of waking up to one’s own sexual desires, especially in non-heteronormative situations.

Incidentally, one out of 650 people usually classified as male at birth has “XXY syndrome” (also called Klinefelter’s syndrome), in which a person has chromosomes of both genders and may develop some secondary sexual characteristics usually associated with women.  (Consider those odds!  Most of us know enough people that the odds are we DO know someone in this situation, whether they have chosen to share this with us or not.)  Clearly, gender is not binary—i.e. we are not just male or female.  Society ought to challenge the assumptions, so prevalent in our language and our society, that there are only two, and those determine the ways that we should live and act.  Why do we need gender categories anyway? 

A few days ago, the blog Truck included two of my newest translations from Japanese, one by the female writer HIRATA Toshiko 平田俊子 and the other by the queer male writer TANAKA Atsusuke 田中宏輔.  This blog was started by Kate Schapira as a project to explore new contemporary poetry.  Each day, she included the writing of a contemporary poet whom she had not known when she started the project. 

The poems she selected to include on the blog are a super juxtposition, one wistful, one erotic, both full of longing and a desire to step away from daily experience. 

For the two poems, click here.
For more of my translations by Hirata Toshiko, click here
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For a video of Tanaka reading his work, click here.

Here is the contemporary queer poet TANAKA Atsusuke 田中宏輔 reading my translation of one of his poems, “Like a Fruit Floating on Water ” 「水面に浮かぶ果実のように」, which will soon be published in Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality (Sibling Rivalry Press). The original Japanese poem appeared in Tanaka’s debut collection of poetry Pastiche (Kashinsha, 1993). 

Tanaka was born and raised in Kyoto, where he still lives and works as a high school mathematics teacher. In 1991, the prominent poet Ōoka Makoto 大岡信identified him in the journal Yuriika ユリイカas one of the important new poetic voices of his generation. Since then, Tanaka has published seven volumes of poetry in Japanese, including five volumes of his “The Wasteless Land” series.  

Click here for Tanaka’s Japanese-language webpage.

ISHIGURO Kenichirō 石黒賢一郎 (1967- ) For Ishiguro’s website and galleries, click here.
Ishiguro is a contemporary artist who works largely in large-scale paintings and pastels.  I first heard his name recently at an exhibition called “The Aesthetics of Existence” 「存在の美学」 at the Osaka branch of the Takashimaya Department Store.  Although some time has passed since the exhibition, his drawings have continued to haunt me. 
His paintings and drawings are lifelike to the point of being photographic, and since they are usually life size, they have a powerful sense of presence.  Among his most striking images are portraits of people wearing gas masks, some of whom are naked women.  In these images, he takes a symbol of modern murderous excess—an image that has special resonance in our era of fear of chemical weapons—into something fetishistic that incites curiosity, interest, and perhaps even desire on the part of the viewers. 
This is especially clear in the pastel drawing Sexual State Experiment 「性態実験」 which shows a nude woman standing in front of a gynological table and a board covered with gags, handcuffs, ropes, a flogger, and other SM gear.  While ostensibly, the painting depicts an experiments to test the naked woman in the image, it also tests us, as we gauge our reaction to the provocative image before us. 
At the same time, the people in the gas masks are also hiding, as if keeping safe from us and our scopophilic gaze by a barrier of anonymity.  What does it mean to have a self-portrait concealed in a gas mask as at the top of this posting?  The subject is reduced to a body that is seemingly vulnerable and endangered, yet its interiority is put off limits, resistant to interpretation and identification. 
Ultimately, I wonder if what we see in Ishiguro’s work isn’t really ourselves.  At the same time we gaze at the mask from the outside, we find ourselves imagining ourselves donning it from inside it as well.  At the same time we look, we are visually cut off from the face of the person inside, and that interruption just makes us think all the more about our own act of looking. 

ISHIGURO Kenichirō 石黒賢一郎 (1967- )
For Ishiguro’s website and galleries, click here.

Ishiguro is a contemporary artist who works largely in large-scale paintings and pastels.  I first heard his name recently at an exhibition called “The Aesthetics of Existence” 「存在の美学」 at the Osaka branch of the Takashimaya Department Store.  Although some time has passed since the exhibition, his drawings have continued to haunt me. 

His paintings and drawings are lifelike to the point of being photographic, and since they are usually life size, they have a powerful sense of presence.  Among his most striking images are portraits of people wearing gas masks, some of whom are naked women.  In these images, he takes a symbol of modern murderous excess—an image that has special resonance in our era of fear of chemical weapons—into something fetishistic that incites curiosity, interest, and perhaps even desire on the part of the viewers. 

Experiments on Sexual States 「性態実験」This is especially clear in the pastel drawing Sexual State Experiment 「性態実験」 which shows a nude woman standing in front of a gynological table and a board covered with gags, handcuffs, ropes, a flogger, and other SM gear.  While ostensibly, the painting depicts an experiments to test the naked woman in the image, it also tests us, as we gauge our reaction to the provocative image before us. 

旧ソ連製ガスマスク使用方法(P20)At the same time, the people in the gas masks are also hiding, as if keeping safe from us and our scopophilic gaze by a barrier of anonymity.  What does it mean to have a self-portrait concealed in a gas mask as at the top of this posting?  The subject is reduced to a body that is seemingly vulnerable and endangered, yet its interiority is put off limits, resistant to interpretation and identification. 

Ultimately, I wonder if what we see in Ishiguro’s work isn’t really ourselves.  At the same time we gaze at the mask from the outside, we find ourselves imagining ourselves donning it from inside it as well.  At the same time we look, we are visually cut off from the face of the person inside, and that interruption just makes us think all the more about our own act of looking.