Monday, May 27, 2013

Japanese proverbs

I am currently translating a Japanese short story and in it one character apparently enjoys quoting proverbs (kotowaza / 諺). Fortunately for me, my Canon Wordtank 670 electronic dictionary includes the translations of what are, I suspect, as common in Japanese as "A stitch in time saves nine" or "A penny saved is a penny earned" are in English. In any case, here are two proverbs I've come across:


"A frog in the well knows nothing of the great ocean." And:


"It's better to be the mouth of a chicken than the rear end of a cow." Or, as we say in English, "It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I am finishing a new novel tentatively titled Mt. Koya. While the story is very different from Getting Oriented, Japan still plays a significant role in the lives of the characters. Because Japan plays such an important part, I wondered about a Japanese translation. My Japanese is nowhere good enough to translate it myself, so I wondered what would happen if I ran some of it through Google Translate. Here's the beginning of one of the chapters:

    I’m sitting quietly reading in a Tokyo coffee shop called L’Ambre and only vaguely conscious of the young Japanese woman at another table until she comes over to me and asks hesitantly, “Are you American?” It’s a raw early September Saturday and I’m off duty until eight o’clock tomorrow morning. I’ve taken the train up to Tokyo’s Shibuya station, a half-hour ride from Sagami-shi. I need to get away from the hospital and the Army for a while, if only to sit in a coffee shop and read a book or to walk around Shibuya, so different from Sagami. The big city versus a village.

Here's the result:


My Japanese is good enough to quibble with the translation. My biggest would be the woman's question, "Are you American?" That's what the translation says, but it seems too direct, almost impolite, for the situation. It really gets interesting, however,  when you ask Google to back-translate. To take the Japanese and turn it into English. Here's what I got:

     When sitting quietly reading a coffee shop in Tokyo called L'AMBRE, the conscious vaguely only of young Japanese woman in another table, to come on to me, until I request hesitantly she , "Are you? American?" It
      It's off duty until tomorrow morning at 8:00 I am that it is early Saturday September raw. I have taken the train to a half hour ride Shibuya Station in Tokyo, from Sagami city. In order to read a book while sitting in a coffee shop, to differ materially from the Sagami, only if you want to be walking Shibuya, I, for a while, you need to get away from the army and hospital. Village-to-large cities.

If there is ever going to be a translation, I think I'll need a human being to do it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Middle Men by Jim Gavin

A friend recommended this debut collection of short stories. They are wonderful. Buy the book and read it.

I could stop writing now because anything else I have to say about Jim Gavin and the book is simply a gloss on the paragraph above. Middle Men—as the flap copy says—find themselves stuck somewhere in the middle, caught halfway between their dreams and the often crushing reality of their lives.

We read about a high school boy dreaming of a basketball scholarship, a young man who falls in love with an unsuitable woman, a game show production assistant dreaming of being a standup comedian, and a middle-aged plumbing supplies salesman coming to terms with the death of his wife. The stories are set in Los Angeles, mostly an industrial, lower-middle class, blighted Los Angeles. And while some of the descriptions of the stories sound grim, Gavin is too good a writer to let them be grim only. Here, for example, is a sample of the routine the aspiring standup tries at an open mic:

"I finally found the self-help book that's going to unlock my potential. It's called Mein Kampf . . . I've got the audiobook on my iPod and it really gets me going when I'm doing hills on the elliptical. . . Fine. Let's have some fun. We'll play the dozens. Here we go. You mama so fat…she died of complications from diabetes . . . More? Sure. You mama so stupid…she was declared legally retarded and made a ward of the state. Her kids are now in foster care. It's a vicious cycle people . . ."

It says volumes about a character who believes a routine with this material will lead to a career as a performing comedian.

One more sample. This is the head of marketing for a software company motivating his troops:

"I know things are a little…right now. But still. We're trying to create a go-forward scenario, so we have to get out in front on this. We need confirmation on how our brand is being structured. And if we're serious about sustaining an effective solution environment, then we need to create a strategy for platform leveraging that prioritizes integration. That's the reality."

The reality is that these are wonderful stories.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

Recently a friend recommended a new novel, Life After Life. She did not recall (or I did not retain) the author's name, but I did write down the title and took it out of the library. Reading it became an odd experience. The story seemed to connect in some way to my friend's report, but not well. I thought I'd misunderstood what she told me and kept reading.

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle—her tenth work of fiction—has an interesting structure. Set mainly in and around a North Carolina retirement center, every chapter is written from a different point of view, eight major characters. One of these characters maintains a journal of the last moments of and significant incidents in the lives of the elderly who die in her presence. Plus every dead person gets a page or two of poetic ruminations.

The characters range from a 12-year-old whose parents are on the verge of splitting up to an elderly former school teacher who knew virtually everybody in the small town in which the novel is set. The significant characters (or the ones with which I could identify best) were the elderly. The widow who has moved to this town and signed herself into this retirement home because it's the town her one great love had come from. The retired school teacher who spends her time making pictures for other residents to enjoy. The retired (male) lawyer who adopts a fake persona because he does not want to burden his child.

The lives touch and cross and split off and wind around. McCorkle asks a lot of her reader: that we keep in mind who is who, who is related and in what way, and who is doing what to whom. Nevertheless, I thought the beauty of the writing sustained my interest, and I am glad I've read the book.

It turns out, my friend was recommending Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which was published a week after McCorkle's novel. It sounds like another good and interesting book. I'll try to look it up.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What to do in Tokyo

The Edo-Tokyo Museum, which shows 400 years of Tokyo history, from its founding to 1963.
I have actually been asked by tourists what there is to see or do in Tokyo. I am mildly startled by the question. It's a little like asking what is there to see or do in New York or London or Paris. Tokyo is a capital city. It has over 12 million people. It has something like 160,000 restaurants. It has temples, shrines, museums, theaters. One could live in Tokyo for years and not see or do everything it has to offer.

Recently, The New York Times ran one of its "36 Hours in . . . " Sunday travel sections featuring Tokyo. It told readers about some of the highlights—Meiji Shrine, Ometesando, Shibuya Cross (possibly the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world), the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Akihabara, Yasukuni Shrine, and more.

In a sense, it's an impossible story because everyone is different, and Tokyo could offer dozens of 36-hour tours, each satisfying a different taste. Certainly for someone who has never been to the city, the Times' suggestions are fine. But they barely hint at the city's wealth of possibilities.

The Nakamichi in Asakusa, which is where Japanese tourists go to buy souvenirs.