On translation

By William Wetherall

Rendering Chaucer into contemporary English is diachronic translation. Retelling Beowulf or Romeo and Juliet in English for grade school students is adaptation. Putting the Greek of Homer, the Latin of Virgil, the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, or the Japanese of Genji into English that appeals to present-day readers involves a combination of translation and adaptation.

Most English translations of contemporary Japanese literature are adaptive rather than literal. Readability is more important than fidelity. This does not mean that translations are not generally faithful. Even the worst are usually adequate for popular consumption if they capture the larger structures of stories as told in Japanese.

There is nothing wrong with less than literal translations. So long as people read them just for enjoyment, and don't assume that their metaphors and phrases accurately reflect the originals, then nothing truly important is "lost in translation".

Rendering Kawabata Yasunari or Murakami Haruki into the sort of English that New York editors will accept, for the commercial market in translated fiction, involves more adaptation than some reviewers and readers might imagine. It is amusing to read commentary on Seidensticker's Snow Country, or on Alfred Birnbaum's or Jay Rubin's Norwegian Wood, that impute deep "Japanese" meanings into English expressions that have no foundation in the original narratives.

Most translations of Japanese fiction are made to accommodate the translator's or the editor's "Anglocentric" standards of writing and story telling, rather than truly reflect the author's choices of wording and style. This does not mean they are wrong or otherwise inadequate. It simply means they have lost elements of structure (including style) that probably could have been effectively captured had the translator had more faith in the capacity of English to convey the metaphors and phrasing of the original Japanese, and in the ability of English readers to understand and appreciate structurally faithful translations.

Faithful translations stay as close as possible to the structures of the original narrative. This is not always easy. Efforts to accurately reflect Japanese phrasing and metaphors in English can result in English that is too unconventional for some readers.

Many translators prefer to translate freely for many reasons. Freer translation is easier and faster. The story can be morphed into any style the translator likes. Mostly, though, translators feel that literal translation is either impossible or undesirable on linguistic grounds.

Many translators either believe that English and Japanese are simply too different to be translated literally, or they feel that literal translation results in less than good English. Either way, freer, adaptive translation seeks to assimilate Japanese expression into English, rather than express Japanese in English.


Kawabata Yasunari

Kawabata (1899-1972) was the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he did in 1968, mostly on the strength of Edward G. Seidensticker's translations of Yukiguni (1935-1947) [Snow Country, 1957] and Senbazura (1949-1952) [A Thousand Cranes, 1959]. Alfred A. Knopf even published a special Nobel Prize edition of these two translations under a single cover in 1969.

Kawabata's fiction portrays in fairly lean prose the subtleties of relationships between men and women. He was known in Japanese as a "feminisuto" -- not the sort of "feminist" who promotes women's rights, but the kind that appreciates females for their femininity and elegance. He loved nothing more than being surrounded by actresses on sets of films of his novels, and his own mannerisms were distinctly soft and effeminate.

Born in Osaka and orphaned at two, Kawabata had lost most of his closer relatives by his teens. He finished his secondary education in Tokyo, graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1924 with a thesis on Japanese fiction. He had published a few short stories while in college, and after graduation he continued writing while working as a newspaper reporter.

In 1934, Kawabata moved to Kamakura, where he lived the rest of his life. It was there that he began writing Yukiguni, which first appeared in several parts from 1935 to 1937, and as a single novel in 1937. Kawabata expanded the novel in 1947 and slightly revised it later. Most of Kawabata's novels were first serialized in magazines and even newspapers.

Kawabata on Akutagawa's suicide

Kawabata's death from asphyxiation by domestic gas was controversial in that his wife and some friends did not think he committed suicide. However, Kawabata was himself what I would call a suicidal person, who thought a lot about suicide and apparently once attempted suicide.

If in fact Kawabata killed himself, his decision to take his own life was very ironic. In his Nobel Lecture on 12 December 1968, entitled "Utsukushii Nihon no watakushi" [Japan, the Beautiful and Myself], Kawabata relates how he had condemned the suicide of Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927) in an essay called "Makki no me" [Eyes in their Last Extremity].

The following extraction is from the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker, who interpreted for Kawabata at the Nobel Prize ceremonies.

And yet very similar is the deathbed poem of the priest Ryokan (1758-1831):

"What shall be my legacy? The blossoms of spring,
The cuckoo in the hills, the leaves of autumn."

In this poem, as in Dogen's, the commonest of figures and the commonest of words are strung together without hesitation -- no, to particular effect, rather -- and so they transmit the very essence of Japan. And it is Ryokan's last poem that I have quoted.

"A long, misty day in spring:
I saw it to a close, playing ball with the children.
"The breeze is fresh, the moon is clear.
Together let us dance the night away, in what is left of old age."
"It is not that I wish to have none of the world,
It is that I am better at the pleasure enjoyed alone."

Ryokan, who shook off the modern vulgarity of his day, who was immersed in the elegance of earlier centuries, and whose poetry and calligraphy are much admired in Japan today -- he lived in the spirit of these poems, a wanderer down country paths, a grass hut for shelter, rags for clothes, farmers to talk to. The profundity of religion and literature was not, for him, in the abstruse. He rather pursued literature and belief in the benign spirit summarized in the Buddhist phrase "a smiling face and gentle words". In his last poem he offered nothing as a legacy. He but hoped that after his death nature would remain beautiful. That could be his bequest. One feels in the poem the emotions of old Japan, and the heart of a religious faith as well.

"I wondered and wondered when she would come.
And now we are together. What thoughts need I have?"

Ryokan wrote love poetry too. This is an example of which I am fond. An old man of sixty-nine (I might point out that at the same age I am the recipient of the Nobel Prize), Ryokan met a twenty-nine-year old nun named Teishin, and was blessed with love. The poem can be seen as one of happiness at having met the ageless woman, of happiness at having met the one for whom the wait was so long. The last line is simplicity itself.

Ryokan died at the age of seventy-three. He was born in the province of Echigo, the present Niigata Prefecture and the setting of my novel Snow Country, a northerly region on what is known as the reverse side of Japan, where cold winds come down across the Japan Sea from Siberia. He lived his whole life in the snow country, and to his "eyes in their last extremity", when he was old and tired and knew that death was near, and had attained enlightenment, the snow country, as we see in his last poem, was yet more beautiful, I should imagine. I have an essay with the title "Eyes in their Last Extremity".

The title comes from the suicide note of the short-story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927). It is the phrase that pulls at me with the greatest strength. Akutagawa said that he seemed to be gradually losing the animal something known as the strength to live, and continued:

"I am living in a world of morbid nerves, clear and cold as ice . . . I do not know when I will summon up the resolve to kill myself. But nature is for me more beautiful than it has ever been before. I have no doubt that you will laugh at the contradiction, for here I love nature even when I am contemplating suicide. But nature is beautiful because it comes to my eyes in their last extremity."

Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927, at the age of thirty-five.

In my essay, "Eyes in their Last Extremity", I had to say: "How ever alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form of enlightenment. However admirable he may be, the man who commits suicide is far from the realm of the saint." I neither admire nor am in sympathy with suicide. I had another friend who died young, an avant-garde painter. He too thought of suicide over the years, and of him I wrote in this same essay: "He seems to have said over and over that there is no art superior to death, that to die is to live," I could see, however, that for him, born in a Buddhist temple and educated in a Buddhist school, the concept of death was very different from that in the West. "Among those who give thoughts to things, is there one who does not think of suicide?" With me was the knowledge that that fellow Ikkyu (1394-1481) twice contemplated suicide. I have "that fellow", because the priest Ikkyu is known even to children as a most amusing person, and because anecdotes about his limitlessly eccentric behavior have come down to us in ample numbers. It is said of him that children climbed his knee to stroke his beard, that wild birds took feed from his hand. It would seem from all this that he was the ultimate in mindlessness, that he was an approachable and gentle sort of priest. As a matter of fact he was the most severe and profound of Zen priests. Said to have been the son of an emperor, he entered a temple at the age of six, and early showed his genius as a poetic prodigy. At the same time he was troubled with the deepest of doubts about religion and life. "If there is a god, let him help me. If there is none, let me throw myself to the bottom of the lake and become food for fishes." Leaving behind these words he sought to throw himself into a lake, but was held back. On another occasion, numbers of his fellows were incriminated when a priest in his Daitokuji Temple committed suicide. Ikkyu went back to the temple, "the burden heavy on my shoulders," and sought to starve himself to death. He gave his collected poetry the title "Collection of the Roiling Clouds", and himself used the expression "Roiling Clouds" as a pen name. In his collection and its successor are poems quite without parallel in the Chinese and especially the Zen poetry of the Japanese middle ages, erotic poems and poems about the secrets of the bedchamber that leave one in utter astonishment. He sought, by eating fish and drinking spirits and having commerce with women, to go beyond the rules and proscriptions of the Zen of his day, and to seek liberation from them, and thus, turning against established religious forms, he sought in the pursuit of Zen the revival and affirmation of the essence of life, of human existence, in a day civil war and moral collapse.

See the complete text of Japan, the Beautiful and Myself on the Nobel Prize website, which attributes its version to Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frangsmyr, Editor Sture Allen, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993.


Murakami Haruki

Murakami Haruki (b1949) has at least one thing in common with Kawabata Yasunari, in that he too is from the Kansai area, born in Kyoto and raised in Kobe. Though both of his parents were teachers of Japanese literature, Murakami grew up reading American fiction and has translated numerous works by many authors, from Raymond Carver to J.D. Salinger.

From 1974 to 1982, after graduating from Waseda University, where he studied drama, Murakami ran a jazz bar in Tokyo. His earliest stories, which began to appear from 1979, are heavily influenced by his tenure as a bar owner and his interest in music.

He left Japan in 1986 to get away from his growing fame. He lived for a couple of years in Europe, mostly in Greece and Italy while writing Noruwei no mori (1987) [Norwegian Wood, 1989, 2000], and briefly returned to Japan when it was published, but hounded by its enormous popularity, he settled in the United States, where he now writes and translates while overseeing the commercial interests of his growing literary empire.

The Czech Republic awarded Murakami the sixth Franz Kafka Prize in 2006 for Umibe no Kafuka (2002) [Kafka on the Shore, 2005]. Unlike Kawabata, he is totally plugged into the world outside Japan, and he makes full use of the Internet and public appearances to promote his literature in translation. He is unrivalled among Japanese authors, past and present, for sheer productivity and activity as a writer, translator, lecturer, and personality.


Natsume Soseki

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), whose legal name was Natsume Kinnosuke, is probably the most prominent of Japan's 20th-century writers. He was born in Edo the year before it became Tokyo, and partly raised by a family that had served his parents.

He studied architecture and then English at Tokyo Imperial University, and was sufficiently fluent when he graduated in 1893 that he became an English teacher. In 1895, he taught at a middle school in Matsuyama, which became the setting of Botchan (1906).

From 1901 to 1902, he spent what he later called the worst years of his life in London, living in four different apartments. He wrote that "I lived a runaway life among English gentlemen, like a lone shaggy dog, the lowest ranked in a pack of wolves" [Yo wa Eikoku shinshi no aida ni atte ookamimure ni go suru ippiki no mukuinu no gotoku, ahare naru seikatsu o itonamitari] (Bungakuron, 1907), feeling the weight of both poverty and racial discrimination and p.

Back in Japan, he settled in Tokyo and taught English at various schools, including his alma mater. He published his first work of fiction, "Waga hai wa neko de aru" (I Am a Cat), in 1905, which he continued to serialize in what later became a long novel. In 1907, the year after Botchan came out, he quit his teaching posts to write full time while affiliated with Asahi Shinbun.



I began translating Japanese literature while at Berkeley in the early 1970s. While doing translations of lines and scenes assigned for homework in literature classes, I also translated a few short stories on my own.


Matsumoto Seicho

Matsumoto Seicho (1909-1992) received the 28th Akutagawa Prize in 1952 for the historical novella "Aru 'Kokura nikki' den" [A certain 'Kokura diary' legend]. He received numerous other literary prizes, including the 10th Japan Mystery Writers Association Award in 1957, the 1st Yoshikawa Eiji Prize in 1967, and the 18th Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1970.

The first story I translated was Matsumoto Seicho's "Harikomi" [Stakeout] (1955), probably his best-known short story, in view of the number of times it has been dramatized over the decades.

"Harikomi" is also one of my personal favorites. I first heard of it through a serialized version of the story on TV while living in a geshuku in Urawa in 1970 and 1971. This was also my first encounter with Matsumoto Seicho.

I immediately bought a bunko anthology that included "Harikomi" and read the story while commuting to an English-teaching job in Tokyo. Shortly after returning to Berkeley in 1972, I decided to translate it and submit it with an overview of Matsumoto's life and work to the Journal of Popular Culture.

Ray Browne at JPC said he would take a revision of the write-up on Matsumoto but not the story: the Popular Culture Association did not publish literature. I said no to the idea of publishing only an article on Matsumoto: I was not in the business of writing only biography or criticism. I still maintain this position. I am interested in Matsumoto's stories more than his life.

Theater and TV movies

A theater film, a TV serial, and three TV movies have been made of "Harikomi" over the past half century.

1958 theater film -- A black-and-white film of "Harikomi" was released in 1958. Directed by Nomura Yoshitaro (1919-2005) from a screenplay by Hashimoto Shinobu (b1918), it starred Takamine Hideko (b1924) as Sadako, and Oogi Minoru (b1923) and Tamura Takahiro (1928-2006) as detectives Yuki and Shimooka., and Takachiho Hidzuru (b1932).

1970-1971 TV serial -- Nippon TV, Channel 4 in the Tokyo area, telecast an eight-part version of "Harikomi" in its 9-10 Monday evening Family Theater [Famirii Gekijo] slot, from 12 December 1970 to 11 January 1971. This dramatization starred Kato Go (b1938) as Detective Yuki, Hamada Torahiko (b1919) as Detective Shimooka, and Yachigusa Kaoru (b1931) as the housewife Sadako.

1978 TV movie -- TBS, Channel 6 in the Tokyo area, broadcast a two-hour TV movie of the story on Sunday, 2 April 1978, from 9 to 11 in the evening. The movie was directed by Yanagi Mitsuru using a screenplay by Hattori Kei. Yoshinaga Sayuri (b1945) played Sadako, and Ogishima Shin'ichi (1946-2004) and Sano Aasao (b1925) played detectives Yuki and Shimooka.

1991 TV movie -- Fuji TV (CX, JOCX-TV), Channel 8 in the Tokyo area, aired yet another version of "Harikomi" on its Friday Drama Theater [Kin'yo Dorama Shiataa] on the evening of 27 September 1991. This version was directed by Kawamura Yutaro from a scenario written by Kishida Rio. Ootake Shinobu (b1957) played Sadako, and Tahara Toshihiko (b1961) and Igawa Hisashi (b1936) played detectives Yuki and Shimooka. Ootake and Tahara were the big draws.

2002 TV movie -- TV Asahi, Channel 10 in the Tokyo area, jumped into the act on 2 March 2002, with a two hour TV drama featuring Beat Takeshi and Ogata Naoto as detectives Yuki and Shimooka, and Tsuruta Mayu as Sadoko. The movie was produced and telecast as a Beat Takeshi Drama Special and pulled down an audience rating of 20.7 percent. It was one of several features the network produced in observance of the 10th anniversary of Matsumoto's death in 1992.

The 1958 film is available in VHS and DVD. The 1991 and 2002 TV movies are available in VHS.


Nishino Tatsukichi

Nishino Tatsukichi (西野辰吉 1916-1999) established a reputation as a "shakaiha" writer -- meaning that he built his stories around social issues. He joined the Japanese Communist Party in 1947, the year he debuted as writer. He quit the party in 1969, after quiting the proletarian Nihon Minshushugi Bungaku Domei (日本民主主義文学同盟 Japan democratic literature league), which he helped found in 1965. The league changed its name in 2003 to Nihon Minshushugi Bungaku Kai (日本民主主義文学会, Japan democratic literature association), which also bears the name "Japanese Democratic Writers Association".

"American Japanese"

Nishino is best remembered for his short story "Beikei Nichijin" (米系日人) or "American Japanese", which was the title story of an anthology published in 1954. The story first appeared in a literary journal in 1952, the year it was short-listed for the 27th Akutagawa Prize. That year, as it turned out, the prize was not given because none of the eleven stories on the list of candidates were considered worthy.

For my translation of this story see American Japanese on the Konketsuji website.

From stateless to Japanese

The story is set during the postwar occupation of Japan. It features a Japanese woman and her child, whose father is an American soldier, and the people who look after the child's welfare. It also about how children, who become stateless because their births are not properly registered, acquire legal status.

The father ships out for Korea during the early months of the Korean War (1951-1953) and is never heard from again. Possibly he is a casualty -- as "abandoned" women prefer to believe, and prefer their "fatherless" offspring to believe.

We are told in the very first sentence, by the city hall clerk who narrates the story, that a "national register" had been created for a "mixed-blood child" -- meaning that the child had acquired Japanese nationality.

The clerk relates the woman's life as it has been revealed in the process of determining her child's legal status. The narrative voice is stylistically convoluted but clear, reflecting the clerk's need to grapple with several problems at once.

Nishino very quickly and effectively sets up the bureaucratic plot of this intriguing human drama about people who fall through the holes in the law. Statelessness due to lack of timely registration, among other causes, continues to affect some children born in Japan half a century later.

The racialization of "kei"

The expression "Beijin Nichijin" is a mirror of "Nikkei Beijin" -- a shorter form of "Nikkei Beikokujin" -- the standard label for "Japanese Americans" more literally "Americans related to Japan [by ancestry]". The "kei" is usually taken to mean that one is a former national, or descendant of a national or former national of the country of ancestry -- Japan, the United States, whatever.

While legally "descent" or "ancestry" based on nationality is a legal rather than biological connection, such terms -- and "kei" -- tend to be racialized in popular usage.

Masaaki Kishi racializes "kei" as "extract" in an article called "Images of Americans in Japanese popular Culture" in Journal of Popular Culture, 11(1), Summer 1975, pages 1-13). Kishi does not discuss "Beikei Nichijin" [American Japanese] or give its Japanese title, but in a table following the body of his article, he lists "Japanese of American Extraction" as a "novel" published by "Tatsukichi Nishino" in 1954 (page 10).

The table is titled "A List of Novels and Short Stories with a Title in Which the Word 'America' or an American Place or Personal Name Appears" (Table A, pages 10-11). Kishi italicized the word "American" to signify that this was his reason for including the work in the table.

Significantly, in a brief remark about Anri Gold, a character in Hirayama Roko's Chinaboats (1926), set Nagasaki in the 1890s, Kishi called Gold "a Japanese of American extraction" (page 3) -- though in the story, he is described only as an "Amerikajin" [American].

Nishino's "American Japanese" involves a child born to a Japanese woman who had been living with an American solider. Nishino describes the boy's hair as "the color of flax" and says his nose is oddly pointed. These appear to be clues to the raciality of the boy's "Beikokujin" [American] father, in contrast to the color and shape of the "Nihonjin" [Japanese] mother's hair and nose -- which Nishino does not describe but leaves to the reader's imagination.

Similar devices are employed in the vast majority of American novels. "White" writers in particular are likely to describe the skin tones and other conspicuous "racial" traits of characters the writer wants the reader to imagine are not "white" -- without directly calling them "black" or whatever -- in contrast with other characters who, if their skin tones are not described (except perhaps to say they are "lightly tanned" or "bronzed"), are by default supposed to be imagined as "white".


Oda Makoto

Oda Makoto, born in 1932, is known as much for his peace and human rights activism as for his poetry, essays, short stories, and novels. Born in Osaka in 1932, he finished his secondary schooling after the war, graduated from Tokyo University in literature and language, and went on to graduate school, also at Todai, studying "western classical studies" [seiyo kotengaku].

While it might appear that Oda abandoned classical studies, he never entirely left the field. His main interest was the Greek rhetorician and philosophical critic Cassius Dionysius Longinus (c213-273), and he wrote his graduation thesis on Longinus. Decades later, in 1999, he even brought out the book Ronginosu (Kawai Bunka Kyoiku Kenkyujo), and in 2001 he published some essays on ancient Greek views of the world.

In 1958 Oda enrolled in the School of Arts and Science at Harvard on a Fulbright scholarship. When the scholarship ended, he spent some time at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, then returned to Japan via Mexico, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, visiting over twenty countries.

Nandemo miteyaro

Oda arrived back in Japan in 1960, and the next year Kawaide Shobo, which had published two of his novels in 1951 and 1956, brought out his account of his travels called Nandemo miteyaro [I'm going to see everything]. The book became a best seller, made him a hero of college students, and continues to be one of his most popular works.

The book narrates Oda's discovery of social conditions in other countries and his loss of political innocence. He had a plane ticket but little money or food, so he slept on the streets in places like Calcutta. Elsewhere, too, he mixed with the poor and diseased, and what he witnessed totally radicalized his thinking about the United States and Japan.

Beheiren days

During the 1960s, Oda taught English and other subjects at various Tokyo college-prep schools and universities, while continuing to write. He still wrote fiction, but mostly he wrote essays and books criticizing the US-Japan military alliance, the Vietnam War, and Stalinist and Maoist communism, and he promoted activism for freedom, democracy, and peace.

In 1965, Oda and other activists founded "Betonamu ni heiwa o! shimin bunka dantai rengo" [Alliance of citizen culture groups for bringing peace to Vietnam]. In 1966 the name was shorted to "Betonamu ni heiwa o! shimin rengo" [Alliance of citizens for bringing peace to Vietnam]. The anti-war group, better known as "Beheiren" [Vietnam peace alliance], disbanded in 1974 after the signing of the Paris accords that ended the war.

Beheiren ran an underground railroad to help American soldiers opposed to the war find asylum in other countries. Oda appears to have been black-listed for helping deserters, for he has talked about being detained and questioned by immigration officials when visiting the US (see Foumiko Kometani's article on Oda in the Asia Edition section of Time Magazine's website).

Stomping on 'aboji'

"'Aboji' o fumu" [Stomping on 'aboji'], the story posted here, was first published in the October 1996 edition of the monthly magazine Gunzo. The story received the Kawabata Yasunari Prize for Literature in 1997. The following year it was anthologized with stories going back to the 1950s in 'Aboji' o fumu (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998, 292 pages). A madangguk [street theater style] version of the story was first performed by the Mt. Halla Troupe on Cheju island late in 1999, then in Pusan, Seoul, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

"'Aboji' o fumu" is Oda's eulogy to his father-in-law. It ends with an account of his burial on Cheju island after the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 17 January 1995. The earthquake was also the subject of Oda's novel, Fukai oto [Deep sounds] (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2002), first published in the February 2002 issue of the monthly magazine Shincho.

Oda's wife is a Korean, born and raised in Japan, and among the many causes Oda continues to champion are the social conditions of minorities in Japan. His Cheju-born mother-in-law was the subject of Omoni Taiheki [Mother's Great Peace Chronicle] (Tokyo: Asahi Shuppan Sha, 1990, 282 pages).


Oda's most recent exceptional work in English is Donald Keene's translation of a novella called Gyokusai (Shinchosha, 1993) as The Breaking Jewel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003). The story features Sergeant Nakamura and Corporeal Kon (who prefers "Kon" to "Kim"), and Private Second Class Kaneshiro from Okinawa.

Tina Pepler turned Keene's translation of Gyokusai into a radio drama, which was broadcast by BBC on 6 August 2005 or "Hiroshima Day". The original story, Keene's translation, Pepler's radio drama, and some commentary have been published in the single volume, Gyokusai / Gyokusai, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2006, 279 pages.


Oe Kenzaburo



Takagi Nobuko



Yanagishita Kunioki

Kunioki Yanagishita was born in Yokohama in 1944 to a Hawaii-born mother and a Japan-born father. He graduated from St. Joseph College in Yokohama and International Christian University in Mitaka. He was for many years an English teacher and English ability test writer and evaluator, as well as a translator for Ōe Kanzaburō and a tutor to Ōe's children. For many years he has also been, and as of this writing (spring 2021) is still, a translator and English guide writer and recorder for bunraku and kabuki performances in Tokyo. And he is most recently (2021) the translator of Dick Gregory's autobiography nigger (1964).