The art and artistry of translation


WORDS, IDEAS, AND AMBIGUITIES: Four Perspectives on Translating from the Japanese, edited by Donald Richie. A Pacific Basin Institute Book, Imprint Publications, 2000, 88 pp., $19.95.

This volume is a faithful account of an important and stimulating series of colloquia held at the International House of Japan in May of 1998. The speakers were four very distinguished translators of Japanese literature, all academics from U.S. institutions: Professors Edwin McClellan of Yale; Edward Seidensticker, emeritus at Columbia; Howard Hibbett, emeritus at Harvard; and John Nathan, of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Each presented a lecture on one or more Japanese authors whom he had translated and then answered questions from the audience. There was a final, round-table discussion on a fifth evening in which the lecturers addressed each other, offering opportunities for comment, criticism and not a few witty ripostes; again, the audience was invited to participate with questions.

Donald Richie served as moderator on all of the evenings, sometimes suggesting lines of inquiry to the speakers and guiding the questions from the audience with a courteous but firm hand.

In his preface, Donald Keene reminds us of how relatively few good translations there were when he compiled his pioneering anthologies of classical and modern literature in the 1950s, and contrasts that sparseness with the abundance of good translations from all periods now available: “Thanks to the translators of succeeding generations, Japanese literature is now in the world, as never before.”

In his introduction, Richie gives the backgrounds of the speakers, acknowledges the generosity of the sponsor, and suggests that “the result is certainly the fullest and most important statement on its subject that has ever been published,” a view with which informed readers will surely concur, with respect to Japanese literature, at any rate.

McClellan began the series by discussing his translations of Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro” and “Grass on the Wayside” and Shiga Naoya’s “A Dark Night’s Passing.” He tells us that he felt a strong empathy for each of the novels, that each was a work of love. Since, as he points out, a major translation can take years to do, pity the poor translator who does not love what he is working on.

In the case of literary criticism, either love or hate will do, it would seem — a strong reaction of some kind is sufficient to keep the critic/analyst on the scent. But translation is like a marriage, and a strong measure of love and sympathy is required.

McClellan loved the cadences and special atmosphere of Soseki’s prose, and worked to bring as much of that as possible into English (his apparently being bilingual and bicultural must have been of great aid in this work).

Quoting from his translations, he brings out the lyrical quality in “Kokoro” and contrasts it with the tautness, tension and relentlessness of the very different “Grass on the Wayside.” In the case of Shiga Naoya, it is an intuitive, almost mystical sense of the interconnectedness of things that must be carried over into English with the same subtlety that exists in the original.

During the question-and-answer session, McClellan made a point that may seem obvious but nevertheless needs to be made again and again in the Japanese context, where it is so often ignored: If a literary translation does not read well, it is of no use. This means that one should translate into one’s native language, rather than out of it.

Not all translations by native speakers are stylistically up to snuff, but there is a far better chance that they will be than is the case with non-native-speaking translators. (There are exceptions, of course: people who have become virtually bilingual and bicultural in the course of their education).

The next evening featured Edward Seidensticker, celebrated for his translations of Kawabata Yasunari (instrumental in that author’s winning of the first Nobel Prize ever awarded to a Japanese), Nagai Kafu (“Kafu the Scribbler” being my nomination for the single best biographical-critical study of a Japanese author), and “The Tale of Genji,” among other works of classical literature.

Seidensticker deliberately distanced himself from “theory of translation” and talked about specific problems and solutions. Moving between two languages as remote as Japanese and English, the translator must constantly make concrete choices between several alternatives, none of which is perfect. He must strive to maintain the tone of the original, including, crucially, the tempo.

For this reason, cuts must sometimes be made — either that, or interpolations, which will slow the tempo, or footnotes, which most literary editors and many general readers dislike.

For Seidensticker, difficulty in translation lends interest, and he chooses Kawabata as the most difficult and hence most enjoyable author he has translated. One of Kawabata’s characteristics is ambiguity (usually intentional, Seidensticker thinks), but English has less tolerance for ambiguity than does Japanese, and editors in particular seek to eliminate it.

Nevertheless, it is important to be faithful to the original, and a rather literal translation often meets this requirement, retaining the ambiguities. (The famous “good girl”/”good woman” contrast in “Snow Country” is an instance of this). In the case of the famous opening passage of “Snow Country,” Seidensticker has, in a recently published deluxe edition, revised the line “The earth lay white under the night sky” to the more literal, and more striking, “The bottom of the night turned white.”

The other major writer spoken of was Kafu, characterized as “the most lovable,” largely because he wrote lovingly of Tokyo, a passion which his translator has shared for decades.

The third speaker was Howard Hibbett, distinguished translator of and commentator on the Edo literary figures Saikaku and Kiseki as well as the 20th-century giant Tanizaki Junichiro, on whom he spoke. He began by pointing to this author’s very long and prolific career, and a creative energy that continued up to his death in 1965 at around the age of 80.

Tanizaki, though highly respected, was a little apart from the mainstream of the literature of his time, criticized by “intellectually correct” commentators of his time for his lack of “shiso” (“thought”) and sometimes in trouble with the government for his unbuttoned approach to topics erotic and sexual. “Eroticism, grotesquerie and nonsense” was the characterization of a school of writers of the 1920s, but Tanizaki shared all three qualities from beginning to end, the “nonsense” factor appearing as a taste for farcical treatment of erotic obsessions.

Hibbett provides a good deal of fascinating information about his strategies for coping with the “dialogue by diaries” in “The Key” and with the feminine voice that narrates “Quicksand,” his most recent translation. Analogues for aspects of Tanizaki can be found in Russian, Italian and Hungarian writers, as well as Anglo-American ones.

It behooves the literary translator to be well, and widely, read. Problems in translating titles, rendering orthographic modes (kanji, hiragana, katakana), and, above all, dialect are daunting, and Hibbett gives us instructive examples of solutions, compromises and stratagems. He also touches on the question of theory of translation, referring to Walter Benjamin’s and George Steiner’s now fashionable view that the target language is to be expanded and transformed in the process of translation: an ideal of super-fidelity.

While acknowledging that such theories raise interesting and perhaps useful questions, Hibbett remarks that they may well tend to “freeze the hand of the beleaguered translator.”

The last speaker, John Nathan, revels in contemporary translation theory yet manages to keep his translating hand splendidly unfrozen, as shown by his versions of numerous authors including Mishima Yukio and, above all, Oe Kenzaburo (the second Japanese to win a Nobel Prize for literature).

Nathan ranges widely over the question of the nature of translation, quoting Cicero and Horace, Vladimir Nabokov and Ezra Pound as representatives of the contrasting poles of literalism and freedom.

It is only in this century that a more radical view of translation, a nonmimetic one, emerges with theorists like Benjamin and his pronouncement that “no work of art is created for the beholder or reader . . . nor is translation a copy of a given fixed original complete unto itself.” Translation becomes a process of transformation affecting both the source and target languages, both striving to become “pure speech” or “one true language.”

Here the imagery becomes biblical, and translation theory would ascend to the level of theology. Still giddier heights await the reader who proceeds to Paul De Man and Jacques Derrida.

Nathan believes that these theories repay study and seeks to interpret the work of Oe in their light.

Oe is a writer on the edge, coming from the margins of Japanese society and constantly moving in his reading and thought among Japanese, English and European cultural sources. The interactive theories of translation would seem to apply especially well in his case.

Instructive contrasts are drawn between Mishima, a writer who seeks to be centered in his own culture, and the consciously liminal Oe: Nathan brings out this difference in his analysis of their different styles. He also demonstrates the difficulty of bridging the gap between English and Japanese by giving us what he calls “literal translations” as well as final, polished versions.

He is far too hard on his own earlier translations of Oe, on the grounds that much that is idiosyncratic yet essential to Oe’s style is homogenized as it is Englished. Perhaps so, but that may be inevitable; and the “literal” versions offered here do not, in my view, represent any kind of solution.

Nor are they really intended as such by Nathan, who concludes by envisioning “some kind of an interaction between Oe Kenzaburo and John Nathan” from which “might emerge something closer to pure speech, something part of them both but better than either, by Kenzaburo Oe.”

On that ambitious and hopeful note, Nathan’s challenging contribution brings to an end this extraordinarily diverse and stimulating collection.