Modern Japanese Literature: Donald Keene (ed.)

Modern JLit

I think I am the only Japanese literary translator I know who does not have a degree in something related to Japanese or literary translation. Admittedly, I am still on the outskirts of the world of literary translation as my focus tends to be on manga and pop culture stuff (you would not believe how much I know about Hatsune Miku after translating these art books!), but I am doing more and more lit stuff (even working on a novel right now), and I hope to keep doing more since I love books (in case you had not already put that piece of the puzzle in place).

Since I have never taken a Japanese literature course, or any other Japanese course for that matter, everything I know about J-lit has come from reading J-lit for fun. So naturally, I am reading weird modern stuff because I encounter weird modern stuff. I mean, no one is tweeting about Osamu Dazai or putting up big bookstore displays of Junichiro Tanizaki. Fortunately, the universe is conspiring to get my brain a little J-lit history, leaving Modern Japanese Literature on the shelves of a used bookstore in Hamilton for me to discover. (Also, that is a pretty good bookstore. If you are for some sad reason stuck in Hamilton/Mordor, you should check it out.)

The subtitle of Modern is “From 1868 to the present day”, which is funny if you read this book in 2013 since the present day is apparently 1950. In “the present day”, Osamu Dazai is one of many “new writers” and Yukio Mishima is “a remarkably gifted young writer”. It is a seriously strange thing to read those words knowing how Mishima imploded twenty years later. A strange but interesting thing, as I realized I could not read the excerpt of his novel Confession of a Mask included in the anthology without that knowledge influencing how I read it. The narrator discovers his deep love for a classmate (also a boy) on a snowy day when he is fourteen, and like a good excerpt should, it made me want to read the book it was taken from.

Other things that reveal the age of the book are hilarious translations in which children from the 1870s are talking like kids from the forties. You know that fast talking style peppered with “what do you know”s and “how do you like that”s? Some parts of  “Growing Up” by Ichiyo Higuchi reminded me of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Hot dog! It’s actually a fascinating look at a Tokyo in transition near the beginning of the Meiji era, focussing on a group of kids living near Yoshiwara (ye olde prostitute district), but this old-timey dialogue takes the kids out of that neighbourhood and tries to put them in a soda shop across the ocean. It’s jarring and really made me wonder about the translation choices we make. You think you are just writing regular dialogue because that is how everyone around you talks and you can’t actually know what regular people sounded like seventy years earlier, but then! A few decades go by and people are scratching their heads at why the translator made everyone sound like gangsters or something.

Not all the stories suffer from this translation time travel problem, although most have a stilted, dated phrasing, but this works in general because the stories are actually older and shouldn’t have a super modern feel to them. Interestingly, “Time” by Riichi Yokomitsu in this collection shows up in a new translation in the latest issue of Monkey Business, and after a quick glance, the language does indeed seem fresher in the Monkey Business version, although not in a way that feels anachronistic. It’d be interesting to compare both with the Japanese and see what each of the translators did and wonder why. (Or maybe that would only be interesting for translation nerd me.)

Although “Time” is a fascinating story, depicting a troupe of actors who find themselves trapped at a hotel due to their manager absconding with their funds, it highlighted one real problem I have with this collection. The troupe of actors is composed of eight men and four women. The narrator introduces each of the men with their name and some little tidbit about their personality and physique. The women? Yeah, they just get names. Too bad, ladies! You do not have personalities worth describing! The woman continue to be passive players throughout the story, just sexual objects that the men get to fight over, with the exception of the woman dying and being a huge hassle to everyone else.

Ladies are just as poorly represented in this collection, with just Ichiyo Higuchi (she of the five thousand yen bill) and Fumiko Hayashi (with the story “Tokyo” that was recommended to me just last week right on this very blog in some kind of weird coincidence). I get that women were not as much in the public life and all that, but given that more than one male author is included more than once, it would have been nice to see some of these pages given to some more lady voices. Hilariously to me, in his introduction to the story “The Mole”, Keene refers to Yasunari Kawabata’s “mastery of the psychology of women”. Yes, Kawabata has really nailed what you think women are like in their heads, Donald Keene.

Keene’s introductions to each selection are generally useful and interesting and not accidentally hilarious, but sometimes they raise more questions than they answer. Like when he notes for “Growing Up” that “the translation is virtually complete” and offers no explanation of this. So did translator Edward Seidensticker cut something? Why? In the introduction to “The Cannery Boat” by Takiji Kobayashi, after telling us that the story has this and that significance, Keene notes completely out of the blue in the last line that the “author later died in prison of torture.” Wait, what? And in one case, the introduction is entirely absent, making me wonder if Keene assumes that Masao Kume and his story “The Tiger” are so well known that they need no introduction.

Still with nearly five hundred pages of fiction and poetry from some of the heavy hitters of  Japanese literature, this collection is definitely worth a look. It’s a good mix of people who have basically become the face of J-Lit (Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa) and people I’ve never heard of before (Busho Hattori, Doppo Kunikida). Plus, like any good collection of olden time stories, you will meet at least one person going off somewhere to convalesce. (Do people still do this? Why did people ever do this? What does travelling have to do with convalescence? So many questions raised by the old timey fiction.)

4 thoughts on “Modern Japanese Literature: Donald Keene (ed.)

    • I basically love Toh. He has this way of turning the world upside down and using language so inventively to shift perspective almost constantly sometimes. I’m actually reading the English translation of his first book now, after having read it in Japanese. It’s just as mind-boggling in English, so I’d definitely recommend that if you’re looking to check out more of his stuff. You can also check out a short story I translated of his here and another story (which I did not translate) here.

  1. I’m just reading Footprints in the Snow by Kenjiro Tokutomi, originally published in 1901. At one point the main character gets typhoid fever and goes to convalesce by the sea. There must be all kinds of resort towns that went into decline after the invention of antibiotics.

    • Do you think there was some kind of outcry by the resort town business associations denouncing antibiotics in a vain attempt to keep people coming to them to convalesce? Or maybe they didn’t see the writing on the sanatorium wall until it was too late.

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