I have been reading this collection from Waseda Bungaku for about a year now. It’s that book I leave on the coffee table to pick up for a quick story break before heading back to work or getting back to whatever I’m reading for work. Or else it’s next to my bed, where I read a few pages before falling asleep. Which is never a good idea because I always forget what I read and end up having to read those same three pages over again the next night. It’s become a kind of fixture in my life at this point; it will be weird to have it sitting up on a bookshelf, tidily in its place, instead of living my life with me.
Also, full disclosure: I am in this book. Twice. But I can still talk about it, right? Because there is a lot to talk about. I’ll just refrain from commenting on my own translations and we’re all good, yeah? But I will not refrain from commenting on the original stories (Silverpoint by Toh EnJoe, The Interview by Maki Kashimada) because they are pretty good and you should read them (if you can read Japanese). (Otherwise you are going to have to read my translations. That is not a plug for my work, just a fact of life.)
If you’re not a Japanese book nerd, you might not know that Waseda Bungaku is a lit magazine issued by Waseda University in Tokyo. They publish a lot of cool stuff (it’s where Brain favourite Mieko Kawakami got her start), so you should probably start reading it. (Unless you know, you can’t read Japanese. In which case, might I recommend Monkey Business, another Japanese lit magazine, but this one comes in English form?) And when the tsunami of terror and nuclear disaster struck Japan after the earthquake two years ago, they, like so many of us, scrambled to find some way to help the victims of the disaster. But they were authors and editors. What could words do for someone who had just seen their house washed out to sea and was now living in a school gymnasium?
I’m sure this is something all of us unable to be on the ground physically helping with relief efforts struggled with, the desire to do something, anything, but far from the site of the disaster and having no relevant skills. I did every volunteer disaster-related translation I possibly could, and felt like it could never be enough. Waseda, though, instead of volunteering their words, turned volunteered words into donations to the Red Cross with this charity relief project. Authors like the aforementioned Mieko Kawakami and Toh EnJoe (another Brain favourite) donated stories, which were then posted to the charity project website and available with a donation to the Red Cross for a year after the disaster. A book collecting all of them was then published, Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake, the proceeds of which are also being donated to the Red Cross.
What was interesting about this project, and one of the things that made it different from another earthquake relief anthology March was Made of Yarn (edited by David Karashima, who also had a hand in Ruptured Fiction(s)), was that they decided to translate every story into English. And a few stories were also translated into Korean and Chinese, making this the most multilingual book I own. So of course, I enjoyed a little bilingual reading, reading the Japanese story and then flipping the book to check out the English version and obsess over translation choices. Because, you know, I am a Japanese book nerd.
The translations are generally excellent, although I thought a couple of the stories were on the awkward side and dabbling in some translator-ese. But mostly, the translations made me jealous of my colleagues’ skills. Especially “Planting” by Aoko Matsuda and translated by Angus Turvill. The story in and of itself is wonderful, a woman who plants in her garden the items in the box that arrives at her house each day: “She planted balloons of pretty colors. She planted lip cream, its smell tingling in her nose. She planted thick ceramic mugs. She planted cashmere socks.” But Turvill’s translation captures so perfectly the phrasing and tone of the Japanese, without any extra flourishes or English massaging, that it really took my breath away. It’s the balance I always strive for in my work, but I always feel like I come up short. So reading this story and Turvill’s translation was a real pleasure and proof that my translation goals are not insanely out of reach.
Turvill also applied his translation magic to “To Next Spring – Obon”, a sad story about an Obon festival in a village in the exclusion zone, a rumination on what home means and what happens when you lose that home. Although all the stories in here were written after the earthquake, in reaction to it, this is the only one to directly take up that event. And yet all the others have an undercurrent of loss or fear or sadness or even hope that reflects the earthquake and its impact in unexpected ways. Or perhaps they read like that because you already know that this tragedy has happened.
“March Yarn” by Kawakami (and adeptly translated by Michael Emmerich) takes place at the time of the earthquake, but its protagonists, the male narrator and his heavily pregnant wife, are cut off from the world, and so have no idea what has happened. Still, there is an anxiety running through it that suggests the disaster. It reminds the reader that we already know how the world has changed and these people are ignorant for a few hours more, but still anxious.
In addition to some very fine fiction, Ruptured Fiction(s) also includes an interesting essay on the possibility of replacing nuclear power with renewable energy by Hisako Fujii, a dialogue between two authors, one from Fukushima, and a roundtable discussion on the relevance and place of fiction and writing after a disaster like the Tohoku earthquake. Unfortunately, only summaries of the discussions are given in the English half of the book, presumably because the discussions are very long (but worth reading!), but the summaries are enough to get you thinking.
Ruptured Fiction(s) is a whole lot of book. Jam-packed with a whole lot of things to think about. And every yen of the cover price (minus printing costs and all that, I guess) go toward helping the Red Cross get those people in Tohoku out of temporary shelters and into their own homes again. And sadly, there are still hundreds of thousands of people in this limbo nightmare even two years later. So buy the book. You can read at least half of it if you’re reading this, and you can have some fun on the train pretending you know how to read Korean.