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Polyglot comfortable between cultures

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Alessandro Gerevini, an Italian writer and translator who has lived and worked in Japan for 16 years, believes that Japanese and Italian cultures have a lot in common.

Gerevini notes that, for example, the idea of family and the unique culture of food are important in both countries. Also, the notion of humbleness exists in both cultures.

In Italy, “people should always try to minimize themselves according to Catholic ethics,” and in Japan, “humbleness” seems to be embedded deeply in its culture, he says.

Gerevini has traveled to almost 90 countries around the world and speaks six languages — Italian, Japanese, English, Spanish, Korean and French. He speaks fluent Japanese, and says he feels totally at ease with Japanese society and culture but believes that keeping an Italian sense of value is important to him, in order to keep his identity.

Gerevini also points out the difference between the two countries, such as that Italians use more physical means of communication, such as touching or kissing, than Japanese. “In Italy, we have a culture of kiss. We touch a lot, and we kiss a lot. When I first arrived in Japan, I had to learn to control myself and try not to move (the body) too much,” he said.

However, he points out that people have a different way of expressing their physical sense in Japan. “Parents sleep with kids in the same futon, take the bath together, and people accept being very close to each other when they are, for example, in a crowded train,” he added.

Born and raised in Cremona in the Lombardy region in northern Italy, Gerevini first took an interest in Japanese literature and culture when he was 17 years old.

When his father passed away, he read by chance the Italian translation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s “Sasame-yuki” (“The Makioka Sisters” as it is known in English), which his father had owned. “I fell in love with the story,” he said.

His interest in Japanese literature snowballed, and Gerevini went on to major in Japanese language and literature at the University of Venice.

He first visited Japan in 1989, when he traveled to Kyoto. “It was at the time of the Gion Festival, and the first impact was wonderful,” he said.

While in university, he received a scholarship from Japan’s education ministry to attend a Japanese-language course at Nagoya University for a year.

Later, he received another scholarship to study further at the University of Tokyo. After seven years, he received a Ph.D. in “interdisciplinary cultural studies” from the graduate school of arts and sciences at the university. His thesis was on “Representation of the body in the Japanese female writers of the 1980s,” in which he analyzed authors such as Banana Yoshimoto, Rieko Matsuura and Yoko Ogawa.

In 2001, he went to South Korea and studied Korean language and literature at Yonsei University in Seoul for about a year, and then moved to New York to learn acting at HB Studio, a training school for theater artists. “In New York, I learned how the body is used to represent literature” — or how physical expressions are used to reproduce the emotions of characters in literary works, he said.

While he was in South Korea and the U.S., he started writing serial essays in Japanese for Japanese magazines.

“It was a way to keep the relationship with Japan. I’m very glad I did it,” he said.

In the end, he chose to return to Japan and “go back to what I thought I could do better” — writing and translating.

Gerevini writes essays and novels in Japanese, and translates Japanese novels into Italian. He translated nine novels by Yoshimoto and one by Matsuura, both popular female writers representing the 1980s.

He is also an associate professor of Italian and modern Japanese culture at the Open Education Center at Waseda University.

He first translated some short stories from “Shirakawa Yofune” (the English version is known by the title “Asleep”), one of Yoshimoto’s books, when he was a student at the University of Venice and wrote his thesis about her works.

Prior to that, professor Giorgio Amitrano had translated Yoshimoto’s first novel, “Kitchen,” and the Italian publisher said that they wanted to publish other works by her right away.

Amitrano told them about Gerevini and his translation of “Asleep,” and the publisher immediately jumped at it. Since then, Amitrano and Gerevini have taken turns translating Yoshimoto’s novels.

Yoshimoto’s novels became very popular in Italy and received four major literary prizes there, “maybe partly because of the translations done by us (Amitrano and Gerevini),” Gerevini said. “Banana became popular worldwide, but her popularity was quite temporary in most countries. However, in Italy, Korea and Taiwan, she still remains very popular.”

He says that translating Yoshimoto’s novels is challenging in the sense that some of her sentences are “open to more than one interpretation.”

“She writes about sensations. You really need to use your sensibility as a translator, as a reader, to find a possible translation,” Gerevini said.

He adds that being around the same age as Yoshimoto has helped. “Banana wrote ‘Tsugumi’ when she was 25 years old, and I translated it when I was 25, so the sensibility matched. We’re getting old together,” he said with a smile.

Gerevini says that his favorite phrase in Japanese is hin-ga-ii (to be classy), noting that something similar exists in Italian: avere classe. He says he likes this phrase “because it expresses something more than just ‘beautiful.’ “

“It’s something deeper. In traditional Japanese culture, this value was very, very important, but it has been lost a lot in contemporary (Japanese) culture. . . . In Italy, you’ve grown up seeing beautiful things, so you learn to distinguish between what is beautiful and what is not, what is true and what is fake. You understand that only the true and beautiful things last . . . I think this is the attitude that Japan should have,” he added.

“Why do people think Italy is a beautiful country? We made an incredible effort to keep what we received from our ancestors. It’s not easy, it’s very uncomfortable, it costs a lot of money, for example, to live in an old house. But it’s the only way we think we can keep our identity.”