Rivalry: Nagai Kafu (Trans. Stephen Snyder)

 When the publisher asked me if I’d be interested in reading Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale in a well-written and well-targeted email (PR people, take note! Show that you have actually read my the things my brain has to say and that you think your book would be something my brain would like to battle. I am much more likely to respond to you than if you suggest I check out your preschooler picture book.), I said yes mostly because this 1917 novel had been newly translated by Stephen Snyder, a translator whose work I have very much enjoyed in the past (particularly in Out by Natsuo Kirino) (Seriously, go read that. It’s amazing.).

Because I have had trouble getting into novelists from this period in Japanese history. Something about how they are stuck between traditional values and the Western values that are creeping into Japanese society, but I often can smell the Nihonjinron and bleh, I can’t handle that at all. I get enough of it from older colleagues who offer me books about mighty Japan because I am one of the “good” foreigners and they are trying to welcome me into their secret club. I know that the Nihonjinron I see in older works is not coming from the same place as those more recent writings pressed into my unwilling palms, but having met these ideas in the mouths of racist rightwingers in present-day Japan, I have a hard time putting aside the unpleasant connotations.

And Rivalry is, in its own way, definitely an ode to an era gone by, praise of a Japanese way of life that was on the decline while the author was writing and nearly vanished completely before his death in 1959: the world of the Tokyo geisha. There are still geisha in Tokyo, but they are a far cry from the Shimbashi tea houses of Rivalry. (I knew a geisha in Atami who had come to the onsen town because she was fed up with the Western, hostess style of geisha in Tokyo. But then in Atami, you have to deal with all the “pillow geisha”* innuendo, so basically, I guess you can’t win as a geisha unless you’re in Kyoto these days?)

Komayo used to be a geisha in Shimbashi, but then one of her clients fell in love with her, they got married, and she moved with him to his hometown in Akita (oddly enough, another place I used to live). But of course, husband dies, life with the in-laws in the rural north is brutal and she comes back to Tokyo to resume her former life. She meets up with a former client, who dumps another geisha he’s been supporting to become her patron. But she falls in love with someone else, who also falls in love with someone else. And so the traps are set. Lots of people with grudges for one reason or another, and all with some power to wield over whoever wronged them.

And even though Kafu clearly has a fondness for this floating world he depicts, I came to appreciate the somewhat critical eye he turns on it. He doesn’t just focus on the romanticized heroes like the geisha or the kabuki actors. He takes his time to paint portraits of the less savoury inhabitants of downtown Tokyo: a gambler disowned by his family, a geisha who shocks and titillates with her nude performances, a habitual hanger-on. We get to see all sides of Komayo’s world and all perspectives. It’s a well fleshed out world and certainly more balanced than the starry-eyed narrative I was expecting.

But I did feel I got a lot of tell and not show. Long paragraphs explaining who was what and where they came from, or dialogue peppered with asides to give the necessary background, especially at the beginning. It took me a while to get into Rivalry because I felt like I was being given a lesson in Japanese history, like I was being lectured to. It felt stilted somehow. I’m reluctant to blame the translation, since it’s likely just Kafu’s style that I don’t like. And although I did find the rhythm of it as I read, the text remained somewhat distant right up until the end.

And you know I have words to say about the translation. Because when do I not have words about a translation? I am opinionated. It is why we are all here. Obviously, Snyder is an excellent translator, so I have no nits to pick, as it were. But one thing that consistently bothered me was the use of honourifics. I’m on record as being against them in translation, so you know every “san” and “chan” I encountered in Rivalry was like an icicle through my heart.

What was really unfortunate was that I could understand why Snyder chose to keep them and I would have been on board with the choice if only there had been some contextual info offered up for the reader not steeped in Japanese culture, like the kind Matt Thorn so adeptly provided in his excellent translation of Wandering Son. The first couple pages (I think. I don’t have a copy at hand) of Volume 1 of that book are dedicated to giving the reader a general overview of the uses of “kun”, “san” and “chan” and why Thorn felt he needed to use these Japanese honourifics in English. Which framed everything for the more casual reader and made the reading experience that much richer.

Given that Rivalry is published as part of the Japanese Studies Series,I’m guessing that it will be used in the classroom and that a professor would likely give the context required to understand why it means something when Komayo calls junior geisha “chan” or why she refers to her lover as “Niisan”. But readers without that classroom situation won’t get that context, which means they’ll be missing out on a lot of the subtleties in the text. And Snyder wrote a thorough and informative foreword which puts the reader on rather solid footing, so I really don’t understand why a brief note on honourifics was not included. I’m not a fan of excluding readers of an English text because they don’t speak a foreign language. I can’t think of translations from other languages I’ve read where the translator keeps the original language in the English text. It smacks of a certain fetishization of Japan to me. (Feel free to disagree! But don’t call me names. It makes me cry sad translator tears.)

*Onsen resort town geisha who are basically prostitutes


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