One of the great pleasures of life in a country not your own is savoring its literature in the original language.
The first Japanese people I ever knew were characters in novels, who all (very kindly) spoke to me in my language, since I knew nothing of theirs. One day, I promised them, we’ll have a reunion — in Japanese.
The time has come, and I have lately been renewing my acquaintance with some very old friends. They’re still their old youthful selves, though changed in other ways.
They speak now in their own language, in their own words, each in his or her unique and characteristic manner. When Yukiko, the shy spinster in Junichiro Tanizaki’s “Sasame Yuki,” is thrown into a panic by an unexpected phone call from a suitor and sends the maid out after her more worldly older sister, she shrieks, in her Osaka dialect, “Hayau! Hayau yonde kite!” “Quick! Go call her! Quick!” is an irreproachable English rendering. Lost, though, is the Osaka flavor, piquant in a way the geographically neutral English is not. And when the maid, finding the sister, calls out not, as in English, “Mrs. Makioka,” but “Goryonin-san” — Madame Lady of the House — that too adds an unsuspected texture to the characters, their mutual relations and their environment.
The first Japanese novel I ever read was Jiro Osaragi’s “Tabiji (The Journey).” It is a very good novel, though less famous than “Sasame Yuki” and (in Japanese) long out of print. I hunted high and low for it. Finally a librarian found it for me — not on a shelf but moldering in a rear storage room.
The main character is a young woman named Taeko. There is nothing very special about her, but some people are delightful in their ordinariness, and she’s one of them. When I first came to Japan, every young woman I saw was Taeko. In the opening scene, she is surprised to meet a stranger at her cousin’s grave, where she had gone expecting to find her uncle. “Ojisama irassharu? (Is Uncle at home?)” she asks the unknown young man. The formal, feminine politeness has no English equivalent, and the only possible translation sounds rather bland in comparison.
The two young people get to know each other, fall in love, and drift apart. Stated so baldly, it suggests that life is pretty much the same everywhere — a conclusion false enough to serve as a warning against bald statements.
The novel is set in the early 1950s. The American occupation has just ended. The young man, Ryosuke, is a somewhat shady wheeler-dealer who fought honorably, even heroically, on the battlefield. Taeko is an office typist whose independent spirit and (precariously) independent finances put her in the vanguard of values women today take for granted.
The lovers’ parting scene is climatic. She says to him (in Ivan Morris’ translation), “We should both make a fresh start, each in our own way (Futaritomo, atarashiku denaoshita ho ga ii to omotta no).” Ryosuke, understanding at last that her resolve is not to be shaken, says, “That’s all very well, but don’t you think you’re being rather heartless? (Datte, sore ni shitemo, hakujo da ze).” And she — the office typist talking to a war hero — says, “A man shouldn’t speak like that (Otoko no hito ga, sonna koto, itte wa ikenai wa).”
Translation, writes Seidensticker in his memoir “Tokyo Central,” “is a clumsy meat-axe kind of process, constantly demanding that something be thrown away.” That “something” can be the rough edge in a man’s speech, as in Ryosuke’s above (“da ze” suggests a man making a display of masculinity). It can be dialect, which Seidensticker — after trying, as he says, this device and that — reluctantly sacrificed in “The Makioka Sisters.” If a great translation will send you back to the original as soon as you can read it, why shouldn’t the reverse be true too? “The Catcher in the Rye” — there’s an old adolescent favorite; when, in 2003, novelist Haruki Murakami published his fine Japanese translation of the J.D. Salinger classic, it seemed an occasion indeed. What would Holden Caulfield, the angst-ridden 16-going-on-ageless antihero who taught midcentury American teens to talk filthy with style, sound like in Japanese? Well, like this: “Ii kara, sono usugitane, donkusai hiza o doka shiagare.” Which means, of course, “Get your dirty stinking moron knees off my chest.”
It would be interesting to have an expert translator who hasn’t read Salinger render Murakami’s version into English. How close would it come to the original? My guess is, not very. Jodan nuki da yo. No kidding.