Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere

John Nathan is a brilliant translator of Japanese and he has written a fascinating memoir, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. "Carelessly" is a key word here because by his own account he has abandoned or thrown away one opportunity after another. In some ways, I found it a sad book as Nathan looks back on roads not taken--and on roads taken he might have been better off ignoring. (At one point, when he was rolling in money, he and his wife bought a giant white elephant of a house north of Boston; they were saved only because, after an expensive year in the house, a rock band decided they wanted it.)

Nevertheless, if someone is interested in Japan, in Japanese literature, in the Japanese language, or all three this is a wonderful book, very funny in places and lively and fascinating. Nathan was hired to translate an early Yukio Mishima novel. The title in Japanese, Gogo no Eiko, means something like "An Afternoon Tug." Eiko is the verb "to tug" or "to tow a boat." An Afternoon Tug was not going to work for an American edition, and after trying a number of alternatives, Nathan went to Mishima to ask about it. Mishima had a number of suggestions, one of which could almost be translated word for word and became the English title: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace from the Sea.

Nathan has translated a number of Kensaburo Oe's novels and was with him in Stockholm when Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The memoir includes a wonderful scene of Oe and his family with Nathan and his children in the Oe home in Tokyo. Nathan also tells the story of chiding Oe for writing "the sea urchin raised its head" because sea urchins do not have heads. Oe pointed out that Nathan's translation had confused ウ二 uni, or sea urchin with ワ二 wani, or allegator. That one little eyelash at the top of the first character makes all the difference.

It's been a full, rich life and Nathan writes about it with verve and grace. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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