Saturday, January 13, 2018

Where I'll be going this summer

For some time, I‘ve been following a website “Words without Borders,” which focuses on literature in translation. Last fall, the site announced a Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference to be held in Vermont in June, sponsored by (organized by?) Middlebury College. I went to the conference site, it seemed interesting, focuses on literary translation, and I applied.

Which was more than filling out a form and sending a $15 check. Applicants also had send along 4,000 words of a translation plus the original. I sent the first half of one of the Japanese stories I’ve been working on. 
A week ago the conference staff wrote to tell me I’d been admitted. So I will be in Vermont for a week at the beginning of June.
What, you ask, do you do at a translation conference?
I'm not sure. I suspect that we will discuss the craft of translation—general questions, not specific about any one language—and the business of translation. Craft questions like: At what point is fidelity to the original a disservice to the English? What do you do when a foreign word is not in any dictionary because it’s a neologism? Or dialect, a word many native speakers don’t understand?
Concerning the business of translation, I expect the conference leaders will talk about rights, the market for translation, publishers, and everything that has to do with getting a translation published and sold. 

Stay tuned. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

A delightful novel of Japanese dictionary-making

"Kohei Araki had devoted his entire life—his entire working life—to dictionaries."

With that first sentence, Shion Miura establishes his subject and theme: dictionaries, their creation, and their creators. Miura's novel, The Great Passage, is the story of producing a new dictionary. Simon Winchester was able to write a fascinating non-fiction book about creating a dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, but a novel? How interesting could that be? (Of course, Winchester's subtitle helped attract readers: "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.")

Kohei Araki is the head of the Dictionary Editorial Department, a backwater at Gembu Books, a major, fictional Japanese publisher. ("Gembu" in the Taoist tradition is the black turtle-snake that defends the north.) Araki and his academic consultant friend, Professor Matsumoto, have persuaded the firm to publish a major new dictionary to join the Gembu Dictionary of Modern Japanese, the Gembu Student's Dictionary of Japanese, and Wordmaster. Araki has to retire under corporate rules although he will work on as a consultant, but he manages to find an equally-driven word-drunk young man in the sales department, Mitsuya Majime.

Hearing the last name as a nickname, Araki thinks, "Majime, eh? Serious diligent. Araki nodded in satisfaction. This was very good. Lexicography was slow and steady work—exactly the sort of work that required someone majime at the helm."

It's a problem with Japanese: homonyms are common. "Majime" (真面目) does mean "serious, sober, earnest, steady" but "majime" (馬じめ) with the same sound means "horse dealer." Majime's ancestors probably rented horses at post stations along the Tokaido road. I imagine that the translator, the brilliant Juliet Winters Carpenter, had fun playing with the language in this novel about language and the challenges of capturing a word's meaning with other words.

For example, the verbs "agaru" and 'noboru" both mean "to go up." When do you use one and when do you use the other or are they perfectly interchangeable? No. "Agaru" carries the sense of going up to a destination, a place: I went upstairs. "Noboru" has the sense of the process of going up: I climbed the mountain.

The Great Passage is interesting not only for insight into Japanese—which is almost a side issue—but for the personal and professional efforts by Araki, Matsumoto, Majime, and their associates to create this massive new work. Miura describes the efforts of a paper manufacturer to develop a new thin, strong, opaque paper appropriate for a fat dictionary.

At one point late in the production process—one that requires five rounds of proofreading (!)—they discover the word for "blood" is missing. The mistake is so egregious and so serious, Majime and Araki call in all the college interns and part-timers who've been helping to live in the office full time for a month while they review the entire dictionary to ensure there are no other such omissions.

The novel's timeline covers more than fifteen years, from the conception of the dictionary to its (spoiler alert) publication. In the course of the action Majime falls in love—timidly, awkwardly—with a co-worker, writing her a long letter declaring himself in almost unreadable Japanese. A sweet romance that makes this more than a dry case history.

As one who has spent a lot of time in considerable time in Japanese dictionaries, I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Passage. Using the creation of a new dictionary as the armature on which to wind the characters' personal stories, the tensions and pressures within a business, and much more, Shion Miura engages the reader in a fascinating portrayal of Japanese life.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Strange weather in Tokyo; love is in the air

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell) is a slim, poignant, big-city love story. Tsukiko Omachi, who narrates the book, is a single, unmarried woman in her late thirties. One evening when she is eating dinner alone, she is greeted by Mr. Harutuma Matsumoto, her Japanese language teacher in secondary school, now retired. He remembers her, has occasionally spotted her in the bar, and this evening greets her. She cannot recall his name and so calls him "Sensei" (teacher) throughout the book.

That first evening, they drink five flasks of saké between them and, she notes, Sensei pays. The next time they met at the bar, Tsukiko pays. The third time and from then on, they got separate checks. "We both seemed to be the type of person who liked to stop in every so often at the local bar . . . Despite the age difference of more than thirty years, I felt much more at ease with him than with friends my own age."

They begin a friendship that eventually, slowly. grows into something more. "We never made plans, but always happened to meet by chance. Weeks went by when our paths didn't cross, and there were stretches when we'd see each other every night." As the seasons change—and the menu at their favorite bar follows—Tukiko and Sensei gradually learn more about each other, but not with out fits and starts. Early on they have a disagreement about a baseball team and don't speak for weeks.

But without the occasional meetings with Sensei, Tsukiko realizes she has been lonely. "I took the bus alone, I walked around the city alone, I did my shopping alone, and I drank alone." She impulsively buys Sensei a vegetable grater and in thanking her he quotes a Basho haiku that mentions grated yam and they begin talking again.

They go into the mountains to hunt mushrooms with the bar owner. Tsukiko spends the New Year with her mother and brother and his family.Tsukiko attracts a suitor and they go to a cherry blossom party. He kisses her but she fends him off. Ultimately, she realizes she loves Sensei.

It's an interesting love story. The couple have to adjust to the difference in their ages, in their status, and in their expectations. Sensei sounds as if he as a widower—he has an adult son—is as lonely and as afraid of intimacy as Tsukiko. Gradually, slowly, slowly, through one small incident after another, the two finally come together.

It is also an interesting slice of what I suspect is not untypical Japanese life. While at one time the vast majority of Japanese marriages were arranged by families, today fewer than 30 percent are arranged. More and more young men and women want a love marriage. The down side of that trend is that Tokyo and other big cities are filled with lonely people like Tsukiko. All of which is to say that Strange Weather in Tokyo is a sweet, convincing novel of two mature adults finding an unlikely love.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Getting Oriented: A novel available around the country

A pleasant surprise. While fooling around on WorldCat (a great place to fool around on, by the way) look what I came across:

If you're in the neighborhood of any of these libraries, check it out.

Friday, August 11, 2017

What it was like as a Marine corpsman in Korea

You rarely hear a veteran talk about actual combat. My theory: the experience is so intense, so extreme that any attempt to convey the reality is inevitably inadequate. Unless you've been there, you cannot apprehend the situation. Leonard Adreon, who was a Marine corpsman during the Korean war, has now, sixty years after the experience, made the worthy attempt to tell those of us who weren't there what it was like.

Hilltop Doc: A Marine Corpsman Fighting Through the Mud and Blood of the Korean War is an interesting blend of reminiscences and photographs. Adreon was drafted into the Navy in 1944, trained as a corpsman and stationed at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Mustered out at the end of the war, he joined the active reserves assuming he'd never be called back to active duty. He went to college and in June 1950 the Korean War broke out.

Navy corpsmen serve as the medics for the Marines and in 1951 Adreon was assigned to an infantry company in the 1st Marine Division. Almost as soon as he arrived in Korea—unprepared and virtually untrained—he was in the middle of combat:

"About halfway to the top of the hill I heard my first yell of 'Corpsman!'. . . The wounded man screamed in pain as he rolled side to side, gripping his midsection. I took out my scissors, cut away his jacket and shirt, and pulled up his undershirt so I could see the wound . . . To calm him, I injected morphine into his arm and grabbed some bandages, pressing them firmly against the wound . . . I took the Marine's M1 rifle and jabbed the bayonet into the ground, placing his helmet atop the rifle. That signaled stretcher teams that a wounded man needed transport. I filled out an EMP (emergency medical tag) that spelled out the treatment I'd given, hoping that would help those at the forward aid station know what was needed . . . ."

The 30 chapters are relatively short and Adreon breaks up the war stories with anecdotes about his military background—such as it was—before Korea and after. The chapters are not arranged in strict chronology, but that's fine. Every chapter subhead identifies the place and year, and each brief chapter is complete in itself.

By the time Adreon arrived in Korea in the spring of 1951, the conflict had settled down into a war of attrition. The Chinese were on one side of the Main Line of Resistance; the Marines, US Army, and Republic of Korea Army were on the other. The Chinese would attack, we would resist, try to kill as many Chinese as possible, withdraw if necessary, then counterattack days later and take back the ground we'd lost.

I was interested to learn that after the medics treated the American wounded, they treated the Chinese left behind and sent them back south where they eventually became POWs. We buried the dead Chinese and left no Americans behind unless we were entirely overwhelmed.

I was also interested to read that Hospital Corpsman Third Class Adreon, in addition to his med kit, carried a loaded carbine with extra ammunition, a .45 pistol with a bandolier of ammunition, and grenades. He was not only armed, but used the weapons when his platoon was attacking a hill. His sergeant told him to aim as an enemy's face with the carbine because you couldn't be sure the bullets would penetrate the white padded parkas the Chinese wore.

Adreon includes two helpful addenda to Hilltop Doc: the costs of war and a very brief history. Something like 1.8 million US servicemen and women served in Korea. Of those 103,284 were wounded; 33,739 died on the battlefield while another 2,835 died from other causes. The war never ended. The UN forces signed an armistice, but there has never been a peace treaty with North Korea. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why did Michiko throw the man under the train?

A successful mystery for me, I've concluded, is an engaging mixture of character, place, and plausibility. If the detective, the killer (you have to have a killer), and the supporting cast are not convincing, the mystery fails. If the author is able to evoke a place and the local culture—Bangkok, Tibet, Ghana, Sicily, places I know nothing about first hand—so much the better. Indeed, following an interesting detective around the landscape as he/she interviews witnesses, collects clues, and makes associations is almost all I want in a novel.

Which is why the plausibility factor spoils so many mysteries for me. Who is the killer? What are his/her motivations? (Pure naked viciousness isn't good enough.) Was the murder planned or impulsive? Generally I'm dissatisfied with elaborate puzzle boxes because I find them preposterous, the kind of mystery that concludes with the detective gathering all the suspects in a room and explains the steps that reveals the murderer.

Michael Pronko's debut, The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery is doesn't do that and in fact is satisfying on all three counts: character, place, and plausibility.

According to his bio, Pronko has lived in Tokyo for twenty years. He has a BA in philosophy from Brown, an MA in comparative literature from Wisconsin, and a PhD in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University and has published three collections of essays about Tokyo. He says about The Last Train, "My book goes into the realities of Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, looks at the injustices of economics and the unfair position women are put into. It's not just 'set in' Tokyo, it's about Tokyo, in and of Tokyo."

The book begins by following a lovely, and determined young woman as she throws a drunken man into the path of the night's last express train.

In Chapter 2 we meet Hiroshi Shimizu, a police detective specializing white-collar crime, and his senpai, Takamatsu. A senpai is a senior, superior, predecessor, mentor; someone whose calls you take. The body on the tracks is a problem for the police: An American businessman. No sign of robbery. Unlikely to have simply fallen. Yet not someone who would kill himself. The American consulate is interested, as is the American Chamber of Commerce. Takamatsu wants Shimizu on the case because Hiroshi, after college in Boston and a romance with an American woman, speaks fluent English.

Pronko tells his story from the points of view of both Hiroshi and Michiko Suzuki, a woman strong enough and skillful enough in akido martial arts to throw a man in front of a train (and a former sumo wrestler through a plate glass window). Both are well-rounded and their motivations comprehensible. Pronko has lived in Japan long enough to understand the nuances of Japanese culture and behavior. We understand—if not agreeing with—Michiko's decisions, which echo those of the 47 ronin, the loyal retainers who took revenge on the lord who caused their lord's disgrace and death.

We follow Hiroshi and Takamatsu (until he ends up in the hospital after tangling with Michiko) and Sagamichi, the former sumo wrestler, as they visit the Roppongi entertainment district, goes to temples, corporate offices, and industrial wasteland in their effort to make sense of what they learn. In a set piece at the end, Hiroshi fights his way through the maze of Shinjuku Station, something anyone who has been there can empathize with. You don't have to know anything about Japan to enjoy The Last Train, but if you do, much of it will resonate—even learn something new as I did.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

What happens to literature when English takes over?

Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist I've written about in the past. I've discussed two of her novels, A True Novel and Inheritance from Mother. Her new book—new for Western readers—is The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It was originally published in Japan as When the Japanese Language Falls: In the Age of English (Nihongo ga horobiru toki: Eigo no seiki no naka de) in 2008 where it became an enormous best-seller. The English version, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter, is somewhat different from the original which addressed Japanese readers. The Fall of Language in the Age of English makes a more general, more universal argument.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve years old. She lived in the States for twenty years but never felt entirely at ease here. She studied French literature and literary criticism at Yale as both an undergraduate and graduate student. She has taught at Princeton, University of Michigan, and Stanford and in The Fall of Language she gives her account of her experience in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2003. She currently lives in Tokyo.

Her book makes a clear distinction between a local language, a national language, and a universal language. A local language is the one you grow up speaking; it may or may not have a writing system. As I understand her argument, a local language in Italy is something like Neapolitan, Calabrese, Sicilian, Venetian—more than a dialect or an accent—a language that outsiders cannot understand; the national language would be Italian. In Japan, local languages include Tohoku-ben, Kansai-ben, Hakata-ben, and more local; the national language is Japanese. A national language Mizumura says "is an elevated form of a local language" and a country like Belgium might have two national languages.

A universal language is one used internationally for science, business, diplomacy, and more. In the middle ages, Latin was a universal language. Today, thanks to British colonial efforts, trade and US strength after WWII, English has become the universal language. More Chinese may speak Mandarin, but "what makes a language 'universal' has nothing to do with how many native speakers there are, and everything to do with how many people use it as their second language . . . What matters is that English is already used and will continue to be used by the greatest number of nonnative speakers in the world." (Italics in the original.)

One of the things this means is that translation becomes far more important than most people realize. If an author writes in her local or national language, her readers are only those who can read it. If an author writes in English, her prospective readers are all over the world, not only in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Many more Japanese are able to read a novel in English than Americans are able to read a novel in Japanese. This suggests that if an ambitious author wants a wide audience, she ought to write in English even though her native language may be Hausa, Tagalog, Tswana, or Tigrinya.

Translation, however, is at best a limited answer to the challenge of literature written in languages other than English. As Mizumura points out "the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism." Readers therefore "are not condemned to know that there is thus a perpetual hermeneutic circle—that in interpreting the world, only 'truths' that can be perceived in English exist as 'truths.'"

And machine translating, while clearly improving almost weekly, has real problems with languages remote from English like Japanese and Chinese. In a news article or instruction manual where the meaning rests mostly on the surface, a machine version may be adequate. But in a work of literature where much of the meaning—and pleasure—is in the nuance, the implications, the way words can resonate against one another, machine translation, as I can testify from my own experience, has a long, long way to go. And—sudden thought—by the time it gets there, (which is not a sure thing), it may be useless because English has so overwhelmed all other languages that no one is bothering to write literature in her native language anyway.

Given her interest, Mizumura has much to say about Japanese literature, its remarkable florescence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (i.e., during the Meiji and Taisho eras) and, in her opinion, its current low state. Indeed, when her book was published in Japan, she was attacked for her judgment: "She talks down about contemporary Japanese literature, when even Americans say it's great!" As if American opinion is the measure of quality.

I  found the book fascinating. Anyone interested in language, literature, Japan, or all three can read The Fall of Language in the Age of English profitably. Because most of us tend to think in our native language most of the time, we are usually no more aware of it than a fish is of the water in which it swims. Mizumura helps us consider the medium in which we think and write, what we're doing, and the effect the spread of English is having on the rest of humanity.