Mere Pebbles Along the Way

Charles De Wolf

It is said that while source texts are eternal, target languages are not, hence the enduring need for new translations of old works. And yet inasmuch as our perceptions too are subject to time’s vicissitudes, so in some sense are the seemingly unchanging texts themselves.

The perfectly “normal” dialogue in older films such as Ozu’s Banshun (Late Spring) will strike the contemporary ear as rather quaint, time compounding whatever cultural differences there may be. Working with ICU students on an English version of the script, I found myself telling them, despite my better judgment: “You can’t have Noriko calling her father ‘Dad’. A Hara Setsuko character simply doesn’t talk like that.”

The first time I read Kawabata Yasunari’s Senbazuru, having already been charmed by Edward Seidensticker’s translation (Thousand Cranes), I was particularly struck by the language of Ōta-fujin, the one-time lover of the deceased protagonist’s father and, subsequently, the lover of the son as well. She initially speaks with the latter using honorific verbs, humble verbs, and almost no pronouns. Using excerpts from the novel in a certain women’s university known for its ojōsan, I was struck at how remote even they found such language. I tried to explain that while Kawabata was no doubt deliberately focusing on a limited class of Japanese, living in the rarified atmosphere of Kamakura tea-ceremony ceramics, exoticisms were no less out of place in a translation than anachronisms. (Alas, this only seemed to encourage some of the young ladies to write in their essays that Japanese is untranslatable, as foreign languages are lacking in mysterious Nihon-teki nuances.)

But then what about deliberate and daring linguistic innovations in one era that may be quite lost on readers in another? When in 1924 Yokomitsu Riichi published his short story “Atama narabi ni hara“ (“Heads and a Belly“), the third sentence turned a lot of heads: “Mahiru de aru. Tokubetsu-kyūkō-ressha wa man’in no mama zensokuryoku de kakete ita. Ensen no shōeki wa ishi no yō ni mokusatsu sareta.” At the time, this example of the “new sensationalism” (shin-kankaku-ha) was both praised and damned. An express train was being personified, as though it had a will of its own. Interestingly enough, the sentence also contains the phrase mokusatsu, a Sino-Japanese character combination put to famous use and subsequently much debated, though for obviously very different reasons.

When in 2008 I translated the story for the JAL inflight magazine Skyward, I was at pains to convey some hint of the feeling that the author had attempted to convey. Such was at first lost in the editing process, but I lobbied to get it back. Here, for what it is worth, was the result: “It was noon. A special-express train, packed with passengers, sped at full throttle, haughtily sweeping past the local stations, as though they were mere pebbles along the way.” I’ll confess that my editor, as I remember it, could not understand what all the fuss was about.