Seventh Asian Studies Conference Japan
    Saturday, June 21-Sunday 22, 2003
    Ichigaya Campus of Sophia University



ASCJ Executive Committee
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Contact the organizers: Asian Studies Conference (ASCJ) c/o Institute of Asian Cultural Studies, International Christian University 3-10-2 Osawa, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181


Session 2
Taking Japanese Literature Abroad: The Role of the Translator
Organizer/Chair: James M. Vardaman, Waseda University

Scholars in the field of modern Japanese literature are frequently translators as well as critics of the writers they deal with. Frequently they are making a particular work available in a foreign language for the first time at the same time as they are writing a critical essay of some length to be published together with the work. Academic circles tend to emphasize the "critical" element as worthy of appraisal, overlooking the fact that without the motivation to translate the work in the first place and do it well, the audience for the criticism would be limited to those who are acquainted with the original. This panel will address what goes on in the process of translation, from the original motivation, through the actual work of putting one language into another, to the finished product and what happens to it after that. Panelists will draw on their experience with individual translation projects in so far as those experiences elucidate what it takes to be a devoted translator of Japanese literature.

1) Charles DeWolf, Keio University. "On the Role of the Translator: Medium and Messenger"

In a better world, all good writers would have good translators, and all good translators would have plenty of publishable work to do. Needless to say, such a description does not hold for modern Japanese literature. The purpose of this paper, however, is neither to bemoan that reality nor to offer a remedy but rather to examine how it lends added importance to the role of translators as active interpreters and critics of literary culture. To that end, a broad, comparative survey will be offered of the reception of modern Japanese literature abroad, mostly in Europe and America. Unlike those who translate into Japanese, European-language-speaking translators are generally immune to the temptation (i.e., the likelihood) of becoming rich as philistine purveyors of pop-cultural vulgarity. Thus, they find themselves in the odd position of being able to pick and choose what they do. Clearly, however, the perspectives and preferences of literary translators cannot be fixed, at least if they are not to wash their hands of contemporary Japan and seek sole refuge in the pre-modern era. Determining what is "worth translating" requires more than sticking to one's principles; it also means refining them through ongoing, critical interaction with Japanese society and culture as a whole. This may further necessitate striking a difficult balance between playing the role of cultural interpreter and serving the cause of literature. Here the function of translators as "neutral" conveyors of information and viewpoints inevitably comes into conflict with their equally important task as contributors to art.

2) Michael W. Ainge, Keio University. "Kawabata Yasunari and Modern Japanese Literature"

Kawabata, Japan's first Nobel laureate in literature, may seem like an obvious, maybe trite, subject of discussion. His works, now translated into dozens of languages and widely appreciated abroad, have been studied and dissertationed more than most Japanese Showa Era authors. At least until the Yoshimoto Banana phenomenon, many readers' first or sole encounter with Japanese literature, has often been, anthologies aside, with Kawabata's Snow Country. As a reader, I consider the sensual pleasure of reading to be one of Japanese literature's primary attractions; as a translator, my main task is to reproduce the gestalt. In this paper, I shall describe my own pleasure in reading Kawabata and outline how I go about first recognizing, then recapturing it. Finally, I would like to touch on the oft-posed question of whether Kawabata, in any language, remains relevant to contemporary authors. As a reader-response-oriented literary and film critic, I find that translation must begin with a personal experience of the work. If the original draws me into an intimate relationship with its world and elicits a deep aesthetic response, as Kawabata's prose nearly always does, then I consider the possibility of translating it. Sometimes this decision takes place, semi-consciously, as I am reading. Then comes the (sometimes divinatory) process, or reproducing in English a style, a rhythm, and a yogic sense of breath, or creating a prose that induces in me something of the gnosis I sense in the original. Through the analysis presented, I hope to make this intuitive experience more explicit and specific.

3) Juliet W. Carpenter, Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts. "On the General Impossibility of Translating (Japanese) Literature"

Edward G. Seidensticker, surely one of the greatest translators of Japanese literature of all time, has summed it up with typical candor and brevity: "Translation is impossible, but necessary." This could be paraphrased as a sort of good news/ bad news summary of the translator's task: "The bad news is it can't be done; the good news is the world is counting on you to do it anyway! Of course as we all know, execrable and mediocre translations of literature are only too possible. Seidensticker's point is that perfect translations are Platonic, existing only in the realm of the idea. Between two languages and cultures as dissimilar as Japanese and English, the problems of translation inevitably loom high. It is not a little comforting to think that even flawed translations of literature are better than none. But if perfection is impossible, one still owes one's author and readers (and oneself) the closest approximation to it that one can muster. The purpose of this paper will be to examine some of the persistent problems involved in producing a readable, satisfying translation, and how at least one translator deals with them-and manages to enjoy the process.

One example: because in Japanese the subject is often omitted, and few personal pronouns are used, narrative can drift from the first-person to third-person and back with the reader scarcely noticing. This sort of sleight-of-hand is impossible to pull off in English. Differences in distribution of meaning are another inescapable problem that may allow the translator more leeway: should one domesticate or foreignize? Cut or adapt? What external sources can help? In the end, the very complexity and impossibility of the task may explain the fascination of translating Japanese literature: it is at once an act of scholarship and a unique form of creativity.

Discussant: James M. Vardaman, Waseda University


list of panels