Finding the exotic, alien other

The subject of the exotic and alien other is a perennial. In Japanese literature the foreign influence is usually traced to its reappearance in a native product and the results are appraised.

THE ALIEN WITHIN: Representations of the Exotic in Twentieth-Century Japanese Literature, by Leith Morton. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009, 260 pp., $56 (cloth)

In this interesting new accounting, however, Leith Morton gives us ample indication of what happens to the outside influence once it gets inside. “I am concerned with how modern Japanese writers discovered the foreign, the exotic, or even the alien within themselves.”

As the final example in this examination the author centers on “the most celebrated Japanese writer of his generation,” Haruki Murakami — in especial his 2001 “Shidonii!” a chronicle of the Sydney Olympics. This includes his meticulously kept “Sydney Diary” which Morton mines for information.

(Though most of Murakami’s work has been translated into English, “Sydney!” has not been. Here, the interested reader will be able to find whole swaths of it translated for the first time by Morton.)

The conclusion is that “the ostensible subject of the diary — Australians and their society — is less mysterious, perhaps even less alien, than its author . . . . The identity between the alien and [the] self is usually recognized as a codependent construction. [In Murakami] this is made self-evident.”

Other examples make up the body of Morton’s book. There are two chapters on Akiko Yosano, whose poetry — on childbirth and on unborn children — broke taboos and enriched the concept of the alien. There is the Okinawan novelist Tatsuhiro Oshiro, and Takeo Arishima, as well as Kyoka Izumi and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, here subsumed under the exotic and alien “Gothic.”

And there is a full chapter on the translator Shoyo Tsubouchi and his renderings of Shakespeare. He appears as the first subject of the first chapter of Morton’s book and well illustrates the author’s methodology since, as translator, Tsubouchi is actively engaged in the transformation of the “other” to the “self.”

His first translation (1884) was “Julius Caesar,” which became titled “The Sharp Edge of Freedom’s Sword (Jiyutachi Nagori no Kireaji).” The results, says Morton, were like the title “almost unrecognizable as translations . . . Shoyo adapted them [so] successfully into a Japanese frame of reference [during which] the sense of the exotic, the alien, almost completely disappeared.” However, as Shoyo himself wondered, “can we offer a new interpretation based on the unique perspective of the Japanese?”

Apparently, yes. Morton notes that by 1978 there were some 36 translations of “Hamlet” into Japanese “and since then the number may well have doubled.”

Through those several by Shoyo we are able to gauge his own evolving attitude toward not only the prince of Denmark but also toward himself.

Though he approved of colloquial language, he was against slang and cliche — Hamlet’s mother or Macbeth’s wife, he said, “would sound like brothel madams.” And copying the classics would not help. “Shakespeare’s vocabulary is much larger than Chikamatsu’s and his tone is much loftier.”

Here Morton, most entertainingly, takes us through all of Shoyo’s various translations of Hamlet’s most famous (Act III, Scene 1) soliloquy — from the 1909 “Nagaraeuruka? Nagaraenu?” (“to live long or not live long”) to that of 1933, “Yo ni aru, yo ni aranu?” (“to be or not to be in this world”) and then contrasts these with the 2001 Hidekatsu Nojima translation: “Ikiru ka, shinu ka, sore wa mondai da” (“To be or not to be, that is the question”).

In accommodating the exotic by domesticating the alien, Shoyo’s success, however, was short lived. Morton notes that his texts “are now almost unreadable for Japanese students, who need modern colloquial translations of Japanese texts that were written a mere century ago.” In the process it is Shoyo who has become alien.

“In a sense the alien that was once domesticated . . . becomes alien once again to an audience from a different age and needs refiguring and retranslating.”

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