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‘Milky Way Railroad’: A beautiful if unfinished inquiry into meaning and happiness

by

Special To The Japan Times

This beloved classic of Japanese children’s literature is testimony to the difficulties of translation. The title, variously called “Night on the Galactic Railway” or “Fantasy Railroad in the Stars,” is a good example.

Milky Way Railroad, by Kenji Miyazawa, Translated by Joseph Sigrist and D.M. Stroud.
143 pages
STONE BRIDGE PRESS, Fiction.

The copy I read is titled “Milky Way Railroad,” and translated by Joseph Sigrist and D.M. Stroud. But it’s not just Kenji Miyazawa’s title that frustrates translators. The short novel, like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince,” spans a universe of ideas and philosophies, blending science, religion and esoteric notions that challenge straightforward decoding. At the heart of the story, however, is a simple tale of hope amid tragedy. A young outcast from a poor family, Giovanni, mysteriously boards a train to the stars during the summer Tanabata Festival in his small village. He is soon joined by his only friend, Campanella. A cast of fellow travelers impart wisdom and share experiences along the way. The complexities of translation stem in part from Miyazawa’s wrestling with this question: What is true happiness?

The book was first published in 1934 after Miyazawa’s death in 1933, although sections in the middle of the book were incomplete. There is still, however, a dreamlike beauty in his unpolished, interrupted ideas. “Milky Way Railroad” continues to resonate with powerful ideas, and remains an elemental work that lingers in the memory, full of unfinished musings and gorgeous imagery.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.