Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Gate by Natsume Soseki (Part 1)

Because I translate Japanese fiction for my own edification, I have a more than idle interest in the subject. One of the things I think about is to wonder whether my English reflects the style of the original. It is difficult enough for me to capture the literal meaning of the Japanese. My knowledge of the language is not good enough to know how high or low to set the piece. That's why I was interested in a new translation of The Gate ("Mon") by the Meiji-era novelist Natsume Soseki.

Here is the opening paragraph from the 1972 translation by Francis Mathy:

Sosuke had brought a cushion on to the veranda and plopped himself on it, cross-legged, and was now basking in the midafternoon sun. After a time he tossed aside the magazine he held in his hands and stretched himself out full length on his side. It was a beautiful Indian summer day. The rhythmic clip-clop of geta in the streets of the hushed town fell pleasantly on his ears. Raising himself up on his elbow, he looked out beyond the eaves of the house at the beautiful, clear sky, blue all over. Viewed from the tiny veranda, it seemed extremely vast. It made quite a difference, he reflected, to be able on an occasional Sunday to gaze leisurely at the sky like this. He looked squint-eyed directly into the sun, but only for a moment. The light was too blinding, and so he turned onto his other side till he faced the shoji behind which his wife, Oyone, was at work sewing.

Here is the same paragraph from the 2013 translation by William Sibley:

Sosuke had been relaxing for some time on the veranda, legs comfortably crossed on a cushion he had set down in a warm, sunny spot. After a while, however, he let drop the magazine he had been holding and lay down on his side. It was a truly fine autumn day, the sun bright, the air crisp, and the clatter of wooden clogs passing through the quiet neighborhood echoed in his ears with a heightened clarity. Tucking one arm under his head, he cast his gaze past the eaves at the expanse of clear blue sky above. Compared to the tiny space he occupied here on the veranda, this patch of sky appeared extremely vast. Thinking what a difference it made, simply to take in the sky in the rare, leisurely fashion afforded by a Sunday, he squinted directly at the blazing sun for a few moments, then, averting his eyes, rolled over to his other side and faced the shoji. Beyond its panels his wife was seated, busy with her needlework.

The choices the translators have made are interesting. Mathy has Sosuke "basking"; Sibley has him relaxing. Sosuke tosses the magazine aside in Mathy, drops it in Sibley. It's an Indian summer day in Mathy (an identification that did not exist in Soseki's Meiji-era Japanese); it's simply a fine autumn day in Sibley. Mathy uses the Japanese word "geta" with a footnote to explain it; Sibley calls them wooden clogs. In Mathy, Sosuke looked beyond the eaves; in Sibley, he cast his gaze past the eaves. In Mathy, Oyone is at work sewing; in Sibley, the wife, not immediately named, is busy with her needlework.

I'm sure both translators could defend their choices here. After all, both paragraphs say essentially the same things. I suspect without looking at the original that Sibley's version is closer in style and feeling to Soseki's. The jacket claims it "captures the oblique grace of the original while correcting numerous errors and omissions that marred the first English version." Be that as it may—and I could not possibly identify the errors and omissions myself—Mathy's version seems to me to be more lively, more engaging. I'll talk about the novel itself in another post.


  1. Is there a Japanese version of The Gate?
    Where can I purchase the novel?

  2. Yes, there's a paperback version available for $7.05 (plus shipping) from the Kinokunia Bookstore website. Try this: