Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is post WWII Japanese literature mostly brainless crap?

That seems to be what Minae Mizumura thinks. Her book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, is reviewed by Jay Rubin, emeritus at Harvard, in The Times Literary Supplement. The review is itself a fascinating document which I will not attempt to summarize.

But, way back when, a long time ago, the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system. The Chinese writing system is one of the most complex in the world and not very well suited to Japanese. So the Japanese supplemented it with, not one, but two phonetic systems (and now the English alphabet is creeping in as well). So, written Japanese is very difficult, but Japan nonetheless managed to produce fine literature. But with this and that culture change bla bla contemporary Japanese are moving farther and farther from their literary heritage. As far as Mizumura is concerned, contemporary Japanese literature is being produced by “brainless writers of crap”.

So, even if The Fall of Language in the Age of English is true, it is also an example of the traditional lament that things were better in the past. It's not clear to me just what Rubin thinks of Mizumi's argument. He seems both sympathetic and bemused. But one should note that he IS a translator of modern Japanese literature, including Haruki Murakami.

Here's a passage from the review:
The wonder of this book is that it exists at all. The author tells us of her native language: “What a bizarre and amusing language Japanese is . . . Fast and loose in its logic . . . ” and “As unbelievable as this may sound to the users of Western languages, Japanese sentences do not require a grammatical subject”. She says that having an “orderly brain” is “a trait common among American intellectuals but rare among speakers of Japanese, a language that doesn’t even require a clear distinction between ‘and’ and ‘but’”.

And yet, despite the language’s many deficits, this book actually was written in Japanese, and it very often seems to make perfect sense in English. Take this passage, for example:

“Seated in the back of the bus were several buff East Asian men at the peak of their manhood, Chinese or Korean or both. In the middle of the bus was a woman with the air of a girl. The line from cheekbone to chin, as keen as if carved with a knife, reminded me of the women in the film The Scent of Green Papaya, which I had seen about ten years earlier. She must be Vietnamese, I thought, or some other Southeast Asian nationality”.

Mizumura is, after all, a novelist, and she often appears to be describing people and places with the eye of a seasoned observer, even though she is writing in Japanese. If we examine the original Japanese text, however, we find that much of the graceful style and linguistic precision of the English are due to the translators. A more literal rendering of this paragraph would look like this:

“Large rickshaw back floating, Middle Kingdom Han Country full crotch muscles bulge. Large rickshaw middle floating girl woman. Skull bottom sharp like Green Melon Smell 120 lunar cycles. My brain Vietnamese? Something else? Not know”.

No, as we American hayseeds like to say, “I’m just funnin’ with ya”. But be honest: did you, if only for a second or two, think that my “literal rendering” might be a true representation of the Japanese? There is so much nonsense circulating about the ineffable mysteries of the Japanese language that it’s hard to know what to believe. That old red herring Mizumura cites about Japanese sentences not having subjects, for example, is a myth. All Japanese sentences have subjects.
Cool, no?

FWIW, I've been told by a native Japanese that my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil, has been translated into fine literary Japanese.

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