Friday, November 23, 2012

Tokyo Stories edited by Lawrence Rogers

Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll translated from the Japanese and edited by Lawrence Rogers contains 18 short stories by both famous authors (Mishima Yukio, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Kawabata Yasunari, Nagai Kaifu, Natsume Soseki) and less famous--at least to me. Two writers, Ikeda Michiko and Inabe Mayumi, are translated into English for the first time. Rogers is a professor of Japanese at the University of Hawaii a Hilo, and he provides useful introductions to the book as a whole and to each story, a glossary, and suggestions for further reading.

The stories are all set in the twentieth century, and are organized by Tokyo districts. So for example the first six stories are all set in central Tokyo, the next eight in the shitamachi, the "low city," the more raffish district of bars and theaters.

I think there are two problems in translating from the Japanese--and I'm writing here as one who is translating contemporary Japanese fiction for his own entertainment. First, English acts as a veil or fine screen between the reader and the original. I sense that literary Japanese carries nuances and implications that are either impossible to express in English or that lose all their effect when we do find an English equivalent. I suspect it is a rare translator who is so fluent in both languages that he or she can inhabit the consciousness of the Japanese writer and has the skill to find the identical spirit in English. Which leads to the second problem.

I suspect that, as a translator, I run the original through my consciousness so that what comes out sounds very similar to everything I write. I'm not skillful enough to convey each Japanese writer's unique style. I think that Rogers is skillful enough, which makes this collection exceptionally rich and varied. The stories are all different, different lengths, different situations, different different times, but all set in Tokyo. They include, as the jacket says, "a story of an all-too-brief affair in a burned-out Tokyo, an unsettling tale of high politics and possible blackmail, and reminiscences of childhood. The narrators and protagonists are diverse, among them an Asakusa streetwalker, a lonely apartment seeker who simply wants to keep her cat, and a self-obsessed young man casting off his devoted lover."

As an introduction to (or picture of) Japanese culture from the inside, the Tokyo Stories are fascinating and enlightening.

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