Not Temporary Matter

It was 11th March 2011. Just after the quake, I got a lot of emails from friends who live out side Japan. They were worried about me and about Japan, having heard the news of the terrible disaster. One of my British friends emailed from the UK, ‘I can’t imagine how scary that must be for everyone there.’ I replied to her, ‘I couldn’t have imagined it, either’; but, it happened.

That day I was working in Tokyo on the 21st floor of a building to the department of the Public and Government Affairs. At first, I thought it was just the usual quake. We get a lot of earthquakes in Japan. We might get a slight tremor every few weeks. Usually they stop after 10 or 20 seconds – but this did not stop. The emergency earthquake alarm went of. This was the first time I had ever heard this, so I know it was very serious. I took cover under a desk, like most Japanese. I had been trained to do this in the event of a serious quake. Documents and books came crashing to the floor. A woman, somewhere on the same floor screamed. The building kept on shaking brutally. At that moment it was entirely a tragedy. The quake left like an absurd joke for me. I couldn’t believe that such a huge earthquake had hit us; but it had.

There was a TV set in the building where I was working. I rushed toward the TV and switched it on to check the size of the quake. TV news caster in the screen was giving the detail of the quake. It was beyond anything I could imagine. It was unimaginably bad. The north east of Japan was the worst hit, it seemed. Then, the next piece of footage, shot by a helicopter from the TV station, was unread – I could see one white line across the sea. It was a huge wave, a tsunami. It was still offshore. It looked calm; the wave was heading silently towards land. Although the tsunami had enough energy to completely destroy the towns along the shore, I couldn’t have guessed its potential to do that at that time. As the TV news and the internet broadcast delivered widely and vividly, the quake and the tsunami eventually devastated a part of Japan and killed about sixteen thousand people.

It’s now two years later. Two years. If I am honest, I have felt something like guilt since that moment, for all the people who disappeared by the disaster. All I did for these people was watch TV. I felt I abandoned them to their fate – They died; I’m still alive. I have turned this fact over in my mind many times, but then I found this thought led to a dead-end; I have never found the reason. Every time I think about the disaster, I think of my future; how can I mourn those who have been died.

As every one know, I’m a person who don’t have a particular skill. I’m also a person who believe in the power of fiction. This is because I have experienced the power of fiction to generate and encourage me in its metaphorical way. If there is something I can do for the victims, it will come from this demotion to literary arts.

Catching the Voice

Recently I’ve been researching for two assignments: one is related to experimental translation, and the other is related to translating children’s literature. The former had been regarded as a marginal area from the point of view of proper translation; it’s usually approached using theories such as Barthes’ ‘the death of the author’, Kristeva’s ‘intertextuality’, and ‘creativity’ all these have been used in translation studies for several years. And ‘voice.’ Before the course started, I had a vague idea what was meant by voice in literary works. Through doing the course, I felt I would finally understand the meaning of the term voice. As for the latter, I am looking at a well-known picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, and its Japanese translation by Jingu Teruo. Although I find both assignments are fascinating, they’re both quite tricky to handle. So, as usual I’ve been studying in the library until late evening.

However, unusually, recently I’ve found myself studying along side 2 girl students. They too for some reason have studying until mid-night, though I won’t disclose the reasons. They are a lot more hard working more than me. I found that studying with girl has advantages: they feed me (to be honest I don’t know the definition of girl. I make use of the word ‘girl’ here tentatively): they give me some snack, because they always bring a snack with them into the library. This is the prof of the notion – that girls love to eat sweet things. The other thing which they provide is ‘girl talk’. Although I won’t disclose the contents of our conversation here, the theme revolves around ‘love,’ ‘marriage,’ ‘job’ and their ‘future.’ I’m interested in their interests and concerns because I sometimes was surprised by their comments as if these comments come from another alien world.

Come to think of girls talk, I have come across it a lot since my time at university. Almost always, I only spoke to one or two girls, as in recent days. I found I enjoyed listening to their talk. And they said I was a good listener. To be honest I like talking to others, especially by girls.

Through register, their talk revealed their thought, news, opinion, way of looking of the world. I like listening to their talk and catching their voice(s) created by their choice of words. Language is a useful medium to understand (or try to understand) another’s mind and thoughts.

From Exophony with Love

Exophony – a literary phenomenon, where writers choose to write in a language other than their mother tongue. I have been fascinated by this word ever since I came across Yoko Tawada’s collection of essays, Exofonii: bogono soto ni deru tabi エクソフォニー:母語の外に出る旅 (Exophony: Traveling Outward from One’s Mother Tongue) (2003), about ten years ago. Although she is Japanese, she writes novels and poems in German as well as Japanese. There are many exophonic writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and Joseph Conrad.

Most Japanese start learning English ‘officially’ when they are 12 and continue through secondary school until they leave at 18. After leaving school, many Japanese carry on learning English. I am one of them; I can happily get by in English, but write a novel? Of course I may be able to write one in Japanese (OK, I should say, ‘I may be able to write something like a novel in Japanese’ because writing a novel is not easy). I imagine it must be a wonderful experience to write a novel in English, a language so distinct from Japanese.

To acquire another language means, more or less, to embrace its ‘foreignness’. In fact, I sometimes think of it in terms of love. To some extent, talking about ‘foreignness’ is like talking about love. As a concept, love has been argued about since ancient Greece, the meaning of love has several denotations. According to one, love is embracing the personality and background of the loved one. There may be nothing in common between you. You may be both physically and fatefully distinct from each other. Whether one has commonality or not, love makes you want to connect with him or her…OK, sounds pompous but, it is true that a love affair allows you to acquire something new, something you didn’t have before you met your boyfriend or girlfriend.

If you are an exophonic writer, you are so steeped in another language that you are almost wedded to foreignness.

Far from Japan – 2

As a Master’s student in literary translation, I am struggling to study literature and translation here in the UK. However, the subject and the course component is really interesting to me; so, I really enjoy studying it and have been to the library on campus almost every day since the course started last September. I have been completely unbothered by working hard here. Actually, this is a lie. I lied. Sorry! But if there is one thing I know to be true – it is this: I have been somewhere between ‘frequently satisfied’ and ‘infrequently frazzled’.

There are two kinds of people in the world: the sprinters and the marathon runners. I’m definitely one of the latter. I like long-term projects. I like to work independently without distractions and maybe for this reason I am particularly well suited to studying abroad. Though I have friends here, they, like me, are often too busy to meet up and hang out in the city. When I was in Tokyo, I used to be really busy. I felt pursued constantly – by my job, my studies, my laundry even the odd stray dog or cat. I was in commuting hell. Now at last I have time to focus one thing, studying – and there are no dogs or cats chasing me either.

As for translating, for me translation is like long-distance running. I need time to explore words, to pour through dictionaries. To keep going, I have to keep up a rhythm. Haruki Murakami refers to marathon running in his book, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, ‘Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed—and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage’. This could also apply to translating.

Some think translation, like marathon running, is boring. Needless to say, translation, at least literary translation, is not boring to me. As I walk among the many trees with their many words, I relish the variety of those words’ sense and rhythm, each of which represents a writer’s thought. I often think of translation as diving into a pool full of an author’s ideas – ideas which need to be translated. This concept of translation has been developed by our distinguished professor Jean Boase-Beier. In her seminar on stylistics, I was taught how a translator should read the source text.

Far from Japan – 1

The easiest thing in the world is to criticise a translation by another translator; and, the best way to criticise it is to write a much better translation oneself – I remember one of the most influential translators in Japan said something like that, though I don’t remember when I heard it. Anyway, ‘I’ve been turning over his aphorism in my mind ever since’ as Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby did.

When I was in Japan, I was involved in a translation job and had been translating business material from English into Japanese, such as adverts and brochures. In the job, I was required to keep the translations faithful to the source text. Of course, it is the nature of business. If I do free-translation, it does not become a business product and it fails to express correctly what the source text means.

The principle for fidelity sometimes obsesses me – you must keep the word order of the source text, you must keep the sense of the source text, even though culture and language are entirely different. Naturally, every translator is struggling to do that. And, they are often likely to criticise translations which seem not to be faithful to the source text or not natural to read. This is because they found that the translations were worse than theirs or the translations were something that should be overcome like the father in Oedipus complex theory. To me, the principle makes me inevitably face an infelicitous aspect of the text which has already been translated by someone more or less.

I am currently studying Translation Studies in the UK as a Master’s student and the course has offered theoretical and practical view of translation which I have never seen. Indeed, the most meaningful insight which I acquired frees me from the principle. (To be continued.)