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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The translator's delimma - II

Working with a Japanese conversation partner, I am currently translating a Japanese short story in which a young couple, Koichi and Sayo, go to her parents' house in Nagoya for the August bon festival. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The couple met in Tokyo working for the same company, married in March, and while their relatives came up to Tokyo for the wedding, this is the first time Koichi has spent any time with Sayo's parents, a more formal, traditional couple than Koichi's. Koichi and his father-in-law have virtually nothing to talk about and Nagoya in August is too hot for a walk around the neighborhood.

After a huge dinner and strained conversation, Sayo suggests that Koichi be the first to take his bath. (In Japan, one washes and rinses oneself thoroughly before entering the bath tub, which means everyone soaks in the same bath water.) Koichi, respectfully, says he should not go first. His father-in-law, the most senior person in the family, should go first.

The father-in-law says, 「ぼくはいつも寝る前だで」 Or, "Boku wa itsumo neru mae da de." Or: "I always go before sleeping."

Sayo says from the next room,「ぼく、だって」Or: "Boku, datte." Which more than I could translate and once again needed the help of my Japanese conversation partner.

Boku is one of several words in Japanese that can be translated "I." Others include watakusi, watashi, atashi, ore, shôsei. Datte can be translated "because," "for," "but," or "though."

For the daughter to say to her father, "I, because"(or one of the other alternatives) doesn't make any sense.

My partner explained that in this situation, the daughter was asking her father why he used a formal form of "I." Does English even have an informal or formal form of the personal pronoun?

So, an acceptable translation might be, "Dad, why so formal?" Which, of course, uses none of the original Japanese.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What's it like to be an expatriate in Japan? Greece? Medellin?

The subtitle of At Home Abroad tells the story: "Today's Expats Tell Their Stories." Compiled and edited by Betsy and Mark Blondin, the 31 essays discuss the reasons for leaving home and the challenges and rewards of living in an unfamiliar culture. The authors range in age from 17 years to 75, and are American, Canadian, British, Spanish, Hungarian, and more.

They talk about life in Istanbul, Tokyo, Guatemala, Cambodia, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Belfast, Shanghai, Medellin, Thailand,

Panama, Madrid, Brussels, Greece, Ecuador, Portugal, Morocco, Mexico, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Taiwan. Because the essays are relatively short—five to ten pages apiece—they are necessarily superficial, but virtually every one is followed with a link to the author's blog or book that provides more information.

The editors write in their introduction that "the US Department of State estimates that one million US citizens live in Mexico, and that eight million live and work around the globe. According to the Association of American Residents Overseas (AARO). those eight million (excluding military) live in 160-plus countries."

And while there are probably eight million reasons to leave one's home country, certain themes seem common: a desire to see the world, to expand one's horizons, to retire where the cost of living is less than at home. Young people look for adventure; older expats look for inexpensive housing.

Certain challenges are common to expat living: "Making it through the day in a country where you live and don't speak the language brings out the need to be creative in simply living life day to day." Best to pick up as much of the language as you can. It will help in renting an apartment, finding a job (the young expats tend to work), shopping, dealing with the local bureaucracy, doctors, neighbors, and more.

Being an expat also "does strange things to you. It's a real eye-opener and makes you look at your home country with totally different eyes. It teaches you a lot about yourself too." Another expat writes, ". . . there are moments and experiences that change us forever and inspire who we really are. These adventures do not occur at home. A life that is fully lived implies moving from your comfort zone and pushing the limits, exploring new places."

"Comfort zone" appears in a number of these essays. A couple in their 50s who "jumped at the chance to house-sit at several locations in Central America" write: "Two things that will help are preparation and a willingness to let go of your comfort zone. There's a mental as well as physical process to this 'letting go'—whether it's your possessions you're concerned about or not having control of the environment around you. . . ."

At Home Abroad is a well-edited introduction to the pitfalls and promises of pulling up stakes and living in another country. For readers who cannot imagine living any place but where they've always been, the book is a travelogue. For readers who have toyed with the idea of expat living, the book is filled with tips and suggestions. Now you'll have to excuse me, I've got to start packing.