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.