Monday, February 20, 2017

What did you do in the war, daddy?

Public Information by Rolf Margenau is a great shambling mess of a novel/memoir set mostly in Korea during the last six months of the war and the ten months after—the sixteen months, I suspect, of the author's tour of duty. We follow Wylie Cypher through basic training and into the "53rd Infantry Division" and his job as a public information officer with detours through the stories of a North Korean conscript, an American prisoner of war, and a small unit action that's now taught at West Point.

Although the book is all Army, these are Marines,
Given that there was no "53rd Infantry Division" in Korea, the potted unit history Margenau supplies and other internal evidence, I suspect he was actually assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, the unit in which I myself spent sixteen months shortly after the war. Our tours did not overlap, but I could identify with many of the book's incidents. For example, walking in Seoul one day, Wylie meets three young Korean teenager who skillfully strip him of the pen in his breast pocket; I lost a good Parker pen the same way.

So. I found much to admire in Public Information. Wylie's experience of basic training, how he happens to end up in the infantry rather than the Army Language School for which he enlisted, the taste of combat, the routine military screwups, his work as—essentially—a public relations man for the unit with an Army censor reading all his copy, the mud and stink of Korea and domestic chaos when the fighting finally stopped all have the ring of lived experience.

The book reminded me of expressions and events I have not thought about for years. Someone says: "You're SOL if you think . . ." SOL = Shit Out of Luck.

—In the small unit action: "Martinez saved one of [the dead] Carson's dog tags, leaving the other one around Carson's neck." Perhaps, but my dog tags had a notch so they could be jammed into my teeth and not be separated from my body.

—Wiley is told to show up at Thai headquarters in Korea in his Class A uniform. We didn't have Class A—dress—uniforms when I was in Korea.

—For a radio interview to be played for the folks back home, a PIO reporter asks a BAR man how he likes his job (BAR = Browning Automatic Rifle, a kind of machine gun). "It's itchie bon," he says, a GI bastardization of the Japanese for "number one."

For all the pleasures Public Information gave me, I also found it a mess. It needed a good editor. Wylie's occasional letters home add little to the story or to the character and so are lost opportunities. And while I trust most of the military anecdotes Margenau tells from Wylie's point of view—and that Wylie's experience as a reporter could have framed others—I had a hard time believing the subplot of the North Korean conscript/POW/nephew of a South Korean mob boss, a story Wylie could not have learned directly.

Midway through the book, Wylie becomes romantically involved with the lovely red-haired daughter of a missionary who is establishing an orphanage for Korean orphans and the bastard children of GIs who could not be accepted into Korean society. Amelia initiates the sex, and, although Wylie has a girl waiting for him back in New Jersey, he embarks on a rapturous affair with her in the orphanage and on R&R in Japan.

I have a sense that Margenau felt (or was told) that he had to have a romance in his book to make it popular and, rather than write another Madam Butterfly or Sayonara (James Michener's story of doomed love in Japan during the Korean War) and to have Wylie fall in hopeless love with a beautiful, passionate South Korean woman, he invented a beautiful, passionate, selfless American missionary's daughter.

Public Information is long, 424 pages. The second edition, which I read, "incorporates newly discovered information . . . and incidents reported by veteran readers." This reader would have been happier with a tighter book, one that stayed with Wylie Cypher throughout, and limited itself to the incidents Margenau experienced personally or could flesh out as Wylie learned about them directly. If you know nothing about the US Army in 1953/54 and nothing about the Korean War, Public Information is filled with nuggets of information. You just have to know how to pick them out.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Money problems, family lineage, and a marriage gone sour

Minae Mizumura is an important Japanese author, three of whose books have been translated into English: A True Novel, which I reviewed earlier in this blog, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which the Columbia University Press published in 2015, and Inheritance from Mother, which the Other Press is publishing in May 2017.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve. She after studying fine art in Boston and then lived in Paris, she studied French literature at Yale College and Yale Graduate School. While a graduate student, Mizumura published "Renunciation," a critical essay on the work of literary critic Paul de Man. The essay is often cited as one of the earliest contributions toward a comprehensive study of de Man's writings. Upon finishing her M.Phil. program, Mizumura returned to Japan to write fiction in Japanese. She has taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford, and has been a resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Inheritance from Mother, whose Japanese title includes "—A Newspaper Novel," is a 66-chapter, 448-page fiction Mizumura wrote as a weekly newspaper serial. In Part One, Mitsuki Katsura is a Japanese woman in her mid-fifties who works as a French language instructor at a private university in Tokyo and who cares for her terminally-ill mother until she finally—finally!—dies. It is not an easy death (the mother is not going gently into that good night) and Mitsuki must also deal with her flighty, wealthy older sister and her professor husband who is teaching in Vietnam while having an affair with his current lover. In Part Two, Mitsuki retreats to a lake-front hotel in Hakone, the historic mountain resort south of Tokyo, where she contemplates her impending divorce, her mother's legacy, and her impending independence.

In the course of the novel, impressively translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, we learn a great deal about ordinary, middle-class Japanese life while simultaneously seeing the society and their personal situation through the eyes of well-defined individuals—a neat trick. With an aging population, how are the Japanese coping? What are the effects of class, rank, and education on familial obligations, marriage, aging? What remains of traditional Japanese life and attitudes toward death, dying, divorce? For Mitsuke, "After giving the matter a great deal of thought, she decided that even if she did not go through with the divorce, facing squarely the fact that her marriage had been a failure was the least she could do to live out her life with dignity."

In addition to Mitsuke's interactions with her dying mother and feckless sister, a pleasure of Inheritance from Mother is an observation like:

"Western novels made much of love and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many—certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers—especially women—into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parent, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma [Bovary] for someone to whisper thrilling words of love . . ."

And in an interesting comment about serial newspaper novels in a serial newspaper novel, Mizumura writes, "If the content of serial novels was no longer as impressive as it had been, neither was the style, which had often been of a rare sophistication . . . Over the course of a century, as newspapers increasingly became part of every household's morning ritual, subscribers were exposed no only to novels patterned after western novels, singing of amour and amants but to articles full of new words translated from the West, among them words for 'democracy,' 'individual,' and 'liberty." Gradually, newspapers shaped a new language and a new breed of Japanese people."

I hope I have not given a distorted impression of the novel by these quotes. Inheritance from Mother, as a Japanese reviewer wrote, is filled with "human longings and hatreds; beauty and ugliness; grace and vulgarity; money problems, family lineage, and a marriage gone sour; sickness and old age. The author's adeptness in dealing fully with a plethora of such themes in simply scary." I can only concur and recommend the book.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The code of the samurai, simplified

Lori Tsugawa Whaley is proud of her Japanese heritage and believes others can learn valuable lessons from it, which is why she has titled her book The Courage of a Samurai: Seven Sword-Sharp Principles for Success.

According to her bio, Whaley "is a third-generation Japanese American and a descendant of the samurai. As a baby boomer, she grew up in a predominately Caucasian logging and farming community in rural southwest Washington state. Lori's character and work ethic were formed by working hard alongside her parents on the family farm. She struggled with being different, especially during the school years." She is now on a "mission to inspire individuals to apply the code of bushido (the way of the warrior) to tap into their sole purpose in life."

Her seven principles are courage, integrity, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, and loyalty. And for good measure she adds an eighth: ganbaru, the verb that my dicti
onary defines as "be tenacious; be persistent; keep at it; do not give up easily; give all one has got; hold out; stick to it; be full of energy; insist that; stick to; keep saying/repeating; continue to claim . . ." But you get the idea. It's a word you hear a lot in Japan.

Whaley describes each principle and illustrates its application through Japanese-related examples. Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese counsel in Kaunas, Lithuania, signed thousands of transit visas in 1940 for mainly Jewish refugees to escape the Germans, violating orders of his own Foreign Ministry—demonstrating courage.

Michi Nishiura Weglyn researched and wrote a book about the American government's shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans at the beginning of WWII—integrity.

Dr. James K. Okubo won a Silver Star as a medic in all-nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) 442nd Regimental Combat Team—benevolence.

The Military Intelligence Service, the Japanese-language interpreters, translators, radio announcers, and propaganda writers during the Pacific war illustrate integrity in some way. The way people acted after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami illustrates honesty. Saigo Takamori, the Kyushu samurai who led a rebellion against the new Meiji government in 1876, illustrates honor.

If you know nothing about Japanese history or culture and nothing whatever about the Japanese-American internment or the 442nd, The Courage of a Samurai is an introduction. I'm not sure how useful it is as a way to lead readers "on a path to personal and business fulfillment" as one reader claims. Be courageous she urges! Have integrity! Be benevolent! Show respect! Be honest, honorable, and loyal!

Well, yes. Who would argue otherwise? But how exactly do you cultivate these principles in yourself?

Moreover, what do you do when one principle appears to contradict another? Sugihara
was not loyal to his government by signing visas (and I suspect his Christianity had more to do with his actions than bushido, a faith Whaley does not mention). Takamori did not respect the new Meiji government and raised an army. An overweening sense of honor can lead to disloyality.

Also, Whaley, by reducing the samurai code to seven (or eight) principles, oversimplifies Japanese culture. She never mentions tatemae or honne, both important in Japanese life. The first is what one professes, or says in public; your official position, public stance. The second is one's true feelings; what one is really thinking or underlying motive. I would like to have seen a discussion of how one justifies or reconciles a contradiction between the two.

There is nothing wrong with The Courage of a Samurai and Lori Tsugawa Whaley is right to be proud of her heritage. I am sorry only that her book does not meet her own goal of inspiring and empowering the reader.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The translator's dilemma, Part V or so

A recent issue of The New York Review of Books has an interesting essay by Lydia Davis, "Eleven Pleasures of Translating." I responded to it because Davis is also an author and she talks about the relationship between translating an author's work and creating one's own: "in translation, you are writing, yes, but not only writing—you are also solving, or trying to solve, a set problem not of your own creation. The problem can't be evaded, as it can in your own writing, and it may haunt you later."

Which brings me to a sentence in a Japanese short story I am currently translating: 広くなったダイニングテーブルに新聞を広げ、それを読みながらゆっくりと食べている...

The situation: The protagonist's wife has gotten up early, fed their teen-age boys, sent them off to school, and has made her husband's breakfast. He has now gotten up and, according to this sentence he spreads out the newspaper on the dining table [ダイニングテーブルに新聞を広げ] and he reads it while slowly eating [それを読みながらゆっくりと食べている].

What I could not understand was that first clause in the sentence: 広くなった. It could be translated as "It got wider," but what? The table? And I translated the same character before the comma, 広げ, as "spread out," which makes sense. What could that first clause mean? Time to consult my native-speaking Japanese conversation partner.

The idea that 広くなった conveys to her is that the wife has cleared away the children's breakfast dishes so that her husband now has room to spread his newspaper over the dining table. There is a perfectly good word in Japanese that means "to clear away the dishes," but it has nothing to do with something growing wider or spreading out.

I know my Japanese is limited, but I cannot believe someone who is not a native speaker would understand the nuances of that opening clause. My translation reads, "She cleaned away the boys' breakfast dishes so he could spread out the newspaper on the dining table, and he slowly ate breakfast while reading it." Nothing about becoming wider.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Take a virtual tour of Tokyo's bookstores

I have been aware of AbeBooks for years as a source of used and out-of-print books. According to Wikipedia it is an e-commerce global online marketplace that offers books, collectible art, and ephemera from sellers in more than fifty countries. Amazon bought the company in 2008.

Photo by Colin Laird, "A Tour of Tokyo's Bookshops"
Again Wikipedia: "AbeBooks' users can search across the listings of many independent bookstores thereby allowing small, independent players to compete with bookselling superstores. Some of the member bookstores offer their books online only, while others also maintain a regular storefront.

"Booksellers upload their inventory data to the AbeBooks database, specifying information about each book including condition and price. Prices are fixed (with US$1 being the minimum) and there are no auctions. Items available range from the extremely common, where there might be hundreds of copies listed, to truly unique manuscript material worth thousands of dollars. In addition to books, magazines, audio books, journals, illustration art, vintage photographs and paper ephemera are offered."

I was not aware that AbeBooks offered something like a virtual tour of Tokyo's bookstores. The Jimbocho district is the center of Japanese bookselling with something like 175 shops and stalls in the area. While most of the books are in Japanese, a dedicated browser may find a rarity in English or a picture book for which the text is not crucial.

I spent a delightful afternoon one day poking around Jimbocho's shops, and taking AbeBooks's virtual tour may be the next best thing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why translation is such a challenge

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is an interesting science fiction novel, published originally in China in 2008. In 2014, Tor published the English translation of Ken Liu who added a "Translator's Postscript" to the book in which he writes:

"The act of translation involves breaking down one piece of work in one language and ferrying the pieces across a gulf to reconstitute them into a new work in another language. When the gulf separating the two is as wide as the Pacific Ocean that separates China from America, the task can be daunting."

Because I am currently working with a Japanese conversation partner to translate a book of short stories into English, I know whereof Liu speaks. There are historical, cultural, and linguistic challenges. Liu uses an occasional footnote, and tried to keep them to a minimum by, wherever possible, adding a few information phrases. I have avoided footnotes entirely for informational phrases. For example, one Japanese story begins: "They decided to visit both parents' homes on the August Obon holiday, the first after their marriage. Obon after all is reunion time; the time to return to the family home, to visit all the relatives, and to clean the family graves. The time when the spirits of one's ancestors visit the household altar."

The italic sentence is not in the original because Japanese readers know what the Obon holiday is. I could have made the sentence a footnote, but because Obon is central to the story I felt it was important to save the reader the distraction of looking at the bottom of the page to understand the significance of the couple's decision.

Liu writes, "Overly literal translations, far from being faithful, actually distort meaning by obscuring sense." How true, how true. He continues, "But translations can also pay so little attention to the integrity of the source that almost nothing of the original's flavor or voice survives." I'm sure that's also true, and it is something I think about often.

He writes that the "best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture's patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language's rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people's gestures and movements." It sounds good, but I'm not sure I agree.

In Japanese, the verb—when it's not omitted because it's understood—comes at the end of the sentence. Dialogue may not need markers ("he said," "she said") because the speaker is using a masculine or feminine word. Japanese tends to use more double negatives than English. I have the impression that the Japanese I am translating uses the passive voice more than a contemporary American writer would. Japanese has no plurals, no articles ("the," "a," "an"), and relatively few pronouns.

My goal in translation is to convey the story's meaning clearly. I know that in certain passages, the English is less ambiguous than what is on the page. But I also know that native Japanese readers  understand meanings within the ambiguity that American readers cannot. I'm afraid that if that means the story reads as if it was originally written in English, so be it.

When the book is available, I'll let you know and you can judge whether the stories sound as if they were written in English or something between English and Japanese.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What's it like to be Japanese-American at the attack on Pearl Harbor?

J.J. White's novel Nisei suggests once again how great minds think alike. The novel begins with Robert Takahashi finding a memoir written by his father. My second novel's main character finds a memoir written by his father. Robert's father was a GI during WWII. My character's father was an army surgeon during the Korean War. Robert's father had an illicit romance that
resulted in a child. My character's father had an illicit romance that resulted in a child. Neither Robert nor my character knew their father's stories. Other than this of course the books are entirely different.

At the beginning of Nisei, Robert Takahashi, his life in ruins, has decided that killing himself is his only alternative. In a final tour of his family's Hawaii house, he discovers a box containing a memoir his father, Hideo "Bobby" Takahashi dictated in 1953 that his mother never showed him. The bulk of Nisei is Bobby's story, as a teen-ager in Hawaii, his infatuation with a white girl, his watching the attack on Pearl Harbor, being arrested as a spy, being interred with his family first in the Santa Anita Race Track, then being split up, Bobby and his father being sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp; his mother and Chieko, the Japanese girl who becomes his wife, being sent to the Manzanar camp.

Ultimately, Bobby is able to to enlist in the US Army and becomes a member of the 422nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Japanese-Americans that is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare and we follow Bobby through combat in Italy and France.

Bobby, although born of Japanese parents on Hawaii, always saw himself as a loyal American. He dreamed of joining the US Navy. His being arrested as a spy is the result of his innocent actions. The family's incarceration is the result of Bobby's act and his father's pre-Pearl Harbor support of Japan. White does not over-emphasize the injustice of rounding up Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the West Coast, but it is an indelible stain on the American story.

While Bobby's story is interesting and held my attention, Nisei has some problems. Here for example is the father of Bobby's (white) girlfriend confronting Bobby hours after the Pearl Harbor attack that has just killed the man's wife: "The people you and your father helped all those years just destroyed my life, Bobby. They shot her, an accountant. How proud your emperor must feel now that he has killed an innocent civilian . . .Go home to your family. I don't ever want you to see Mary again . . . Go, and never set foot on my property." White might argue that these words are being filtered through the consciousness of the woman who is taking the father's dictation, but they still seem bland.

I think there are a number of small problems. It's not clear how much Japanese Bobby speaks, but his mother apparently speaks no English. Wouldn't he be able to speak to her? Also I bump on sentences like, "What I didn't know was that, the next day, events would change my destiny." Aside from the heavy-handed foreshadowing, nothing happens the next day. Finally, late in the book, Bobby sums up his situation for the reader: "Earlier that morning I had woken happy with thoughts only of my future battles in the war and by late afternoon I had learned I was the father of two children I did not want, married still to a woman I did not like much and left without any chance of being with the girl I loved. . . ."  Combat is almost a relief.

Nisei has an interesting premise: What would it be like to grow up as a second-generation Japanese American in Hawaii and witness the attack on Pearl Harbor and experience the tsunami of white prejudice and fear? Bobby Takahashi does the best he can, and his son, reading his memoir, is finally sobered.