Shishi Bunroku (the pen name of Iwata Toyoo) is a writer who deserves to be better known. His novel “Jiyu Gakko (School of Freedom)” was a best seller when it first appeared in 1951, and gives as vivid a picture as we’re likely to get today of what daily life was like in postwar Tokyo.

Few nations in history have been as violently wrenched out of one era into another as Japan was then, and Shishi’s characters — the elderly and middle-aged for whom the past remains, in spite of everything, very much alive, and the young for whom it is dead and good riddance — must discover for themselves what brand new concepts like “freedom” and “human rights” are all about.

For more than 50 years “Jiyu Gakko” remained unavailable in English. The publication last year of Lynne E. Riggs’ fine translation will give the non-Japanese reader a whole new perspective on today’s elderly Japanese — who, of course, were the young people living with the plights Shishi wrote about.

Riggs, a professional translator of mainly nonfiction who works at the private translation firm Center for Intercultural Communication, shares her insights into the translation process.

Why hasn’t this novel been translated before? It would obviously appeal to people interested in Japan.

I’m sure the eminent translators read or knew about Shishi Bunroku long ago, but his works must not have been thought to represent what the bundan (literary circles) considered “Japanese literature.” The works widely translated into English since the end of World War II were mainly jun bungaku (pure literature) written by authors keenly conscious of Western literature. Shishi’s works are generally categorized as taishu bungaku (popular literature), written in colloquial Japanese aimed at a popular readership. Perhaps what he wrote about was too close to reality for what was supposedly “Japanese literature.”

What sort of things were particularly difficult to translate?

One example is the very first sentence, which in Japanese is simply, “Gasha, gasha, gasha to iu oto,” describing the sound of a foot pedal-powered sewing machine. It went through many permutations before we finally settled on, “That whirring and clanking, clanking and whirring!”

Of course, it’s endless. For “me ga gira-gira to. . . Iosuke no kao ga hachi no su ni nariso ni” you can’t say “(her) glare seemed as if it would make Iosuke’s face into a honeycomb”; we came up with “She glared with such intensity that she seemed to drill holes in his face.”

How much is lost in translation?

A lot. It’s mainly when there is a special vernacular or style of speech. After the war, remnants of the prewar social structure were still alive in people’s patterns of speech. I regretted that the terms of address could not be retained somehow.

For example, Yuri and Takabumi (the young couple), as well as Komako and Iosuke (both in their early 30s), are products of the Yamanote (uptown Tokyo) culture, so Yuri and Takabumi call the elder couple “Obasama” and “Ojisama,” and without those honorifics, now archaic, we lose the flavor of the dialogue. There is a rich passage at the end of chapter 2 when the young folks mingle in freshly minted Occupation-era slang with their speech, as in “tonde mo happen! (no way!).”

A paragraph toward the end of chapter 8, when an old man attempts to induct Iosuke into the lingua franca of Tokyo tramps, is spiced with slang evocative of the era. An attempt to render “Do da. Iwai ni, itcho, kisu demo hiku ka?” as “How ’bout we have a bot o’ da sa’? (How about we have a bottle of sake)” naturally fell flat — all that was ultimately cut out in the editing.

Do Taka and Yuri remind you of young people today? What about Iosuke and Komako?

Yes, I’d say the rebellious, cigarette-smoking young woman and the fashion-conscious, romantic young man we saw in postwar Ginza can probably be found in the neighborhood of Omotesando or Shibuya readily enough today. In 1950, Shishi was able to reassure the reader that the Yuri’s and Taka’s would settle down and become ordinary members of adult society; what will become of the denizens of Akihabara and Harajuku today remains to be seen. And I see present-day Komakos everywhere — capable, smart, dynamic women who don’t quite have a handle on happiness yet.

Part two of this interview appears next week.

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