Sunday, December 26, 2010

translating oe

I've read every Kenzaburo Oe book translated into English. Many of these were read several years ago (in some cases as many as 15), so my memory of the translations isn't always vivid. I'm pretty certain, however, that the recent (2010) translation of The Changeling by Deborah Boliver Boehm is the worst.

At least one review has complained about the stiltedness of Boehm's prose. Comparatively, however, Boehm's translation is easily one of the most readable of the Oe works in English. The problem is in convincing oneself that Boehm has been faithful to the Japanese original.

Early in the book, it becomes obvious that she's taken the liberty of inserting expositional material for the non-Japanese reader into the body of the text (instead of into footnotes, where it belongs). For example:
... her voice had a distinct Kansai accent (that is, typical of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area). (63)

On one of the major Japanese television networks there is a popular, long-running late-night program called the Wide Show that offers a combination of celebrity chat and cultural news. One night Goro, who was still working as an actor at the time, was one of the guests. (119)

The term "kansai" and the "Wide Show" would both be so familiar to Japanese readers that there would be no need of exposition. These, somewhat awkward, explanations have clearly been inserted by the translator into the text. Now, for the purist, this would probably already be enough of an offense. The real problem, however, is that there are indeed many asides and oblique references and parentheticals in Oe's writing anyway. So, sometimes, it's unclear whether an aside is his or the translator's.

For example, there is a passage where the main character, "Kogito," a clear stand in for Oe himself, discusses the New Testament's Book of Mark at the dinner table. In particular, the incident where an angel appears to women who have gone to the tomb and tells them to spread the word that Jesus is risen. The women, however, are too scared to tell anyone, and the sequence ends abruptly. Boehm gives us this sentence:

Kogito was particularly intrigued by the writers—the authors of the Bible—whose work seemed to parallel his own, and although he didn't think his own novelist's opinions had any bearing on the interpretation of the Gospel, he felt, personally, that the original author's ambiguous way of ending this particular tale was an effective literary technique. (412)

There is no definite article in Japanese, and it is tempting to think the first part of the sentence originally made the general claim "Kogito was particularly intrigued by writers whose work seemed to parallel his own". In its current form, the parenthetical either identifies the authors of the bible specifically as writers whose work parallels Kogito's own, or quantifies over them. Does Oe intend to tell us that Kogito finds, amongst authors of the bible, those whose work parallels his own interesting? Or that Kogito feels this way about all authors and identifies some of those who wrote the bible as falling into this category? Since the reader is unsure whether the aside is inserted by Boehm or in the original, the author's intent is unclear.

The intent of Oe in terms of what information he chooses to reveal and what not is especially important in understanding The Changeling. This is because Kogito is clearly a stand-in for Oe, and Goro is clearly a stand-in for Oe's brother-in-law, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in 1997. This book is a very personal memoir about the relationship between the two, and Oe's reaction to his friend's unexpected death. Many many incidents described in the novel occurred almost identically in real life. For example, the attempt on Itami's life by yakuza thugs after his film Minbo no Onna, which ridicules the yakuza attempts at extortion, was released is described exactly as an attack upon Goro. Far more interesting (and helpful) than explaining what the Wide Show is in the above example, might have been a mention of the date of the particular event of Juzo Itami appearing on it which Oe fictionalizes!

The Guardian review, for example, explicitly bemoans the lack of this contextual information, and singles out Boehm for hurting rather than helping the situation:

Unfortunately, the reader's sense of not possessing important chunks of the background to this allusive, personal yet political novel is amplified by Boehm's translation. Her decision to use strongly American English may or may not be defensible, but she often appears to be clumsily incorporating footnote-type information into the text: "'What I'm making here isn't Tora-san, you know,' Goro went on, making wry reference to an immensely popular series of formulaic, feel-good films about a hapless, sweet-natured vagabond," for example. She also seems to have translated book and film titles on the fly, leading to a mention of "Hitchcock's Balkan Express", which I'd guess is the Japanese title of The Lady Vanishes. This raises a question: in Oe's text, are Kogito's novels and Goro's films given subtly different titles from their real-life counterparts, as they often are here? Given the novel's games with identity, it might be useful to know that, but reading Boehm's version it's anybody's guess.

The issue raised at the end by the Guardian is an interesting one, and Boehm's handling of it indeed raises the question of how much she herself understands about the context of the novel. Certainly, at least one of the names of Oe's works has been subtly altered. The novel Man'en gannen no futtoboru (1967), in my opinion Oe's best, was translated into English as The Silent Cry. Literally, however, "man'en gannen" means the first year of the man'en era, which was 1860. "Futtoboru" is just the Japanese pronunciation of football, meant here in the sense of soccer. This, and other textual clues make it clear that Oe has altered has altered the title of this book, changing the word football to some equivalent Japanicization of "rugby" (which Boehm translates as Rugby Match 1860).

But what about other titles? The work rendered as "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" by John Nathan is titled in The Changeling, "His Majesty Himself Will Wipe Away My Tears." Now, are the discrepancies here due to a subtle change in the Japanese wording? Or to a difference in opinion about how to translate the same words by Boehm? Given the football to rugby change, the natural assumption is that there is an underlying change in the Japanese wording—until we get to A Quiet Life.

Oe has a 1990 novel called Shizuka na seikatsu, translated as A Quiet Life by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall, which was made into a movie by Juzo Itami in 1995; Kogito has a novel called A Quiet Life which was made into a movie by Goro. Question: did Oe subtly change the name of this novel or not?

Now, "shizuka" means "quiet" in the sense of "peaceful" or "calm"; "shizuka" could easily have been replaced with a word meaning "quiet" in a more literal sense, leaving a subtly different name in Oe's novel, but the same plausible translation. If this were the case, though, then Boehm should have been aware of the earlier translation choice and picked something subtly different for consistency. Of course, it's also possible that Oe deliberately left the title of this particular novel unchanged, but then that fact itself would be significant for interpreting The Changeling. One would have wished for enough clarity in the translation that there would be no ambiguity on this point.

Of course, I've been beating up on Boehm, and certainly the issue of title translation can be pinned on her. Some of the other choices, however, e.g. intratext parentheticals instead of footnotes or Americanized language, may have been the choice of Grove, the publishers. The Guardian astutely points out that Grove has designed the packaging of this book to look much more like the those of the very successful Haruki Murakami, than like past Oe books, in particular the not very popular Somersault (1999 / 2003), last of Oe's books to be translated before this one.

So, if those choices were made by Grove, or forced upon Boehm by her editor, then the blame should fall on their head. But, surely someone needs to pay attention to the content here—the fact of the matter is that Oe is not like Murakami and will never be as accessible as him. Oe is obsessed with the obscure, and his novels are only going to appeal to those who share this interest and a certain kind of patience with over-intellectualized and convoluted prose. I mean, Somersault is a complex metaphorical novel which (a) references past Oe works (many of which have not been translated into English!), and (b) spends a great deal of time analyzing Keirkegaard's concept of the "leap of faith" in excruciating detail. This is just not going to be as broadly appealing as a hip romantic love story.

On the topic of Oe's other books, at one point in The Changeling, a character remarks to Kogito that none of his novels makes sense unless the reader has read all the other ones. And this is certainly true of Oe: his oeuvre as a whole is itself a coherent work much greater than the sum of its parts. The discussion in Somersault reimagines and dissects the events in Oe's Flaming Green Tree trilogy, which itself builds upon the mythos laid down in The Silent Cry and earlier works. Yet the Flaming Green Tree trilogy has never been translated! No wonder readers and critics couldn't make heads or tails of Somersault! If Grove wants to improve critical reception of Oe's works in English, they would do a much greater service getting his most important works of the 1980s translated into English, than by attempting to market recent works (without any relevant context!) to young hipsters.

A final note on The Changeling: the novel itself is deeply paradoxical. Knowing that so many of the events described are real, one wonders about those which are not. Particularly telling, and puzzling, is a remark made to Kogito by his wife:

I've never asked you this before, but what really happened that weekend? If you don't write down whatever you know—without telling any lies or concealing the truth with embellishments—then I'll never be able to understand what happened. At this point, of course, neither you nor I have very many years left, and it seems to me that just as we want to live the rest of our lives honestly, without resorting to lies, you would want to write that way, too . . . for the rest of your days.

It's a little bit like what Akari said to his grandmother in Shikoku, during her final illness: "Please cheer up and die!" Only in your case, I'm asking you to be brave and write only the truth, until the very end. (163)

Given how many incidents in the novel are indeed real, one has to wonder if this conversation reflects any actual interaction between Oe and his wife following the death of his friend and her brother. If so, is The Changeling's Oe telling the truth? But in what sense? Here I agree with the Guardian: we simply don't have enough information to understand.

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