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Archive for the 'Asian fiction' Category

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man

Notes of a Desolate Man

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar tries to explain why Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man is so awesome.

I have been struggling to write about Chu T’ien-Wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man, which I read in Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin’s translation, because by starting with one aspect of the text, I am unavoidably not starting with any number of other aspects, all equally deserving of attention. In other words, I am finding hard to write about this book because I love it so much.

It is a book about belonging and mortality and art, which is just about the least informative thing I could say. It is also a book about a Taiwanese gay man, Xiao Shao, watching his best friend die of AIDS. The beginning of the novel foregrounds this information, as though the implied author is conspiring with the first-person narrator to show the reader that being out and proud kills you. But the narrator’s language of guilt, sin, and unnaturalness only partially obscures a life rich in love, art, and, above all, words.

Theory and narratives—particularly from films—provide a structure with which the narrator makes sense of life, but words provide comfort. When his partner leaves on an extended business trip, Shao combats debilitating loneliness and anxiety by reading lists of colors from an article on visual imagery in Chinese poetry: “moist red, light primrose red, fingernail red, vale red, light peach red, light poppy red, apple red, cheek red, melon pulp red, molten iron red, strawberry red, distiller’s red, escargot red, cassia red, pomegranate red, mercury red, cooked-shrimp red, blush red, and crab-pincer red” (65). These reds return, in a lover’s well-kissed lips, in a sister’s first lipstick and menstrual blood, in the communism of a mainland China Shao will never see.

Shao’s alienation from what he sees as normal family life is reinforced by the book’s non-linear chronology—and how could it not be, with a narrator whose default touchstones are arthouse cinema and French theory. But in the novel’s penultimate chapter, Shao recognizes that the China he both longs for and shuns, which he has been conflating with the space on the map occupied by the mainland, doesn’t actually exist, or if it does exist, exists only in language, only as a concept that he himself creates. I would argue that on a higher authorial level, a symmetry is being drawn between the false outsider status of the homosexual and the Taiwanese people. That is, perhaps in time Shao will recognize that his idealized notion of a heterosexual nuclear family that flawlessly insulates its members from loneliness and loss cannot be found in reality, and to the extent that a family can mitigate sorrow, his own is no less capable.

As a Slavist, I can’t help but compare Notes of a Desolate Man to Notes from the Underground, and there are many similarities: the intimate tone; the defiant embrace of irrationality; the loneliness; the non-linearity; the centrality of thoughts about sex and power. Even the way Shao weaves together personal reflections with critiques of social theory mirrors the narration of the underground man. And the narrators, both of whom are 40, are going through something of a midlife crisis. But Dostoevsky’s narrator is an outward-facing one, ranting to an audience, seeing himself as set against all of society. Shao’s narration is quieter. He’s unreliable, but not slyly so. This is a man attempting, if not quite managing, to be honest with himself, to gain meaning through details and grand theory alike. The underground man would scoff at Shao’s naiveté, but I appreciate his attempt to use the tools at his disposal—Lévi-Strauss, Fellini, Miyazaki—to make sense of a life not governed by reproductive cycles, and that will eventually end in death.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel

The Blue Wolf

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on the (unfair) expectations readers put on translations after reading The Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi, translated by Joshua Fogel.

I am wary of treating literary texts as windows into the soul of a people. Presupposing the existence of the individual stable concepts of “soul” and “people” is bad enough; putting them together inevitably smacks either of nationalism or racism. I think of Dostoevsky’s 1880 Pushkin speech, where he calls Tatiana “the apotheosis of the Russian woman.” I find Belinsky’s equally political remark about Eugene Onegin—that it is “an encyclopedia of Russian life”—to be more congenial, if also limiting. (This is, after all, the same guy who told Gogol that his books could be aesthetically bad as long as they weren’t bad for society; not really an art for art’s sake type.) This is a very roundabout way of saying that I am so pleased that we published Joshua Fogel’s translation of Inoue Yasushi’s The Blue Wolf: A Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan.

It could easily never have been translated. Originally serialized (I learned from the brief but informative Translator’s Note) in 1959-60, and immensely popular in Japan, it took almost 50 years for the book to appear in English. And I can imagine why. There’s something rather odd about the idea of translating a Japanese novel about Mongolia into English. But why is that?

I think some of it has to do with our tacit expectations of a translation. With some exceptions for genre fiction—Swedish crime novels, say—we expect a translation to be excellent literature; after all, a translated book has been elevated above its peers, one of the chosen few to appear on a world stage. But at the same time, we expect it to fulfill an anthropological function. We want to learn something about its country of origin. Our (well, my, at least) ignorance is so vast that the simplest of details becomes a revelation. We don’t read Wordsworth and think, “oh, so daffodils grow in the Lake Country, how interesting,” but we may well have such a thought about the flora of the steppe.

The Blue Wolf is remarkably effective in this way. There isn’t, granted, much discussion of flora, but in reading the novel I learned a great deal about social mores, battle tactics, and political maneuvering on the Mongolian plateau. As for any historical novel, these details are the result of painstaking research, not the chance-met details a reader might glean from reading something of foreign origin. According again to that very useful Translator’s Note, Yasushi was well regarded in the academic community for taking the time to get these details right. All that is missing is the reader’s feeling of delight (if we’re being charitable) or self-righteousness (if we’re not) in the immersive, two-for-one nature of reading something set in the same foreign locale that produced the author. That is, the feeling that you are increasing your knowledge not only of Japanese literature but also of Japan.

Perhaps a Japanist would feel comfortable drawing some kind of conclusion from the fact that this book was so popular. I do not. But I found it to be an enjoyable and fascinating look at the life of Chinggis Khan, and the book’s language of origin, in regard to that basic fact, is neither here nor there.

Friday, March 11th, 2016

Five Aftershocks in Japan: Five Years After the Fukushima Disaster

Today, in memory of the Fukushima disaster, marketing intern Kalle Mattila has delved into five aftershocks as described by Hideo Furukawa, author of a recent Columbia UP book: Horses, Horses in the End the Light Remains Pure.

Hideo Furukawa is a novelist from Fukushima, the center of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that devastated northeast Japan on March 11, 2011. His new book, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima, is a fusion of fiction, history, and memoir in post-3/11 Japan.

STIGMA

“When someone from Fukushima tries to make a reservation at a hotel in a different prefecture, they’re told they can’t stay there. When they try to go to a gas station in another prefecture, they’re told that cars with Fukushima plates can’t fill up there. I’ve heard people say that women from Fukushima will have trouble getting married because of the belief that the radiation might affect their future children. The people who think this way might represent a minuscule minority of the whole country, but for me the saddest part is that because of the radiation leak we have lost that sense of unity that we had after the earthquake. As the victims of the earthquake and the tsunami, the people of Japan had the world’s sympathy. I still believed that if we joined together we could bring things back to the way they used to be.” (The Nation)

URBAN GUILT

“All of the electric output from the Fukushima Nuclear plant was destined for Tokyo—indeed, the power plant is administered not by any local entity but by Tokyo Electric Power Company, which means that the most insidious changes from the radiation, which affect every aspect of the living beings of Fukushima, are caused solely by and for Tokyo.”

ANIMAL SHOCK

“I didn’t expect these sorts of horses: refugee horses, horses that had been driven out by the tsunami, injured horses. Some were in the pasture, some were in stables. The stables were being managed by an NPO. Young S had heard that volunteers were taking care of the horses. I realized only later that the horses being cared for here had been temporarily evacuated to a separate prefecture in a forced immigration, probably one step toward becoming permanent evacuees, outside Fukushima Prefecture.

“Hair loss. Easy to deduce that this was a symptom of stress. From fear, I assume. There was hair there on the tip of its muzzle. There was, of course, hair covering its body, and bangs, but also transparent hairs sticking out from its chin, like cat whiskers. Ten or so. I didn’t know that horses had hair like that, like whiskers.

“I assume he was frightened. I looked down at his feet. I could see that he was not using all the available area. He stayed in one space, the area right near the entrance, the space, that is, where he could be petted, where he could be in contact with those who came to visit. Back and forth, endlessly, in the confined space no larger than two square meters, kicking the ground with his hooves.”

SPOILED GROUND

“Twenty-eight elementary and preschools within the Kōriyama city limits would have the surfaces of their open schoolyards removed. They were going to remove of the top layer of soil on the playgrounds because they had become repositories of radioactive material. Although I didn’t hear about this through newspaper reports, I later learned that heavy machinery also entered the grounds of the elementary school where I had spent six years. I imagined what it must look like. A bulldozer is scraping the open spaces of my school. Layer upon layer.” (The Nation)

“One of the rituals of grade school in Japan is for the students to fill up a time capsule at graduation and bury it in the ground at school. They are supposed to dig it up in twenty years, but in my school the ground that held our memories was contaminated by radiation. The bulldozers carted it all away.”

NEW PERCEPTIONS

“One positive, unexpected outcome of the 3.11 disaster was that it promoted another, or new, image of Japanese people to other countries. I think this was due simply to the fact that the disaster hit no other region but Tohoku, whose people are known for characteristics that surprised the foreign media: they are patient, extremely well-mannered, unselfish, cooperative, and so forth. Those virtues might not be the first image people in other countries have of ‘Japanese’ people before 3.11, though these are very Japanese in my view.” (Asymptote)

Sources:
The Nation
Asymptote

Read an excerpt here.
See Furukawa’s NY author tour schedule here.

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom

Trees Without Wind

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Russian Library editor Christine Dunbar muses on sound, names, and the ethical stakes of translation after having read Trees Without Wind by Li Rui, translated by John Balcom.

In their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky propose translation as a way out of having to choose between a fragmented world, rich in cultural specificity and a more culturally homogenous, English-speaking world, rich in unmediated communication. Translation, they argue, “works to strengthen the pluralism of world languages and cultures by giving writers in all languages the opportunity to reach English’s global audience while still writing in their native tongues” (xv). However, Allen and Bernofsky do not ignore the ethical dangers inherent therein: “As a writer of the language of global power, the translator into English must remain ever aware of the power differential that tends to subsume cultural difference and subordinate it to a globally uniform, market-oriented monoculture” (xvii).

To look at this binary from a slightly different perspective, is the role of translation to give the reader a glimpse of a piece of the fragmented world to which she would otherwise not have access, or is it to bring stories to a larger audience, who will appreciate their universal appeal? Is it in service of celebrating otherness or commonality? Like many binaries, I find this one fascinating to contemplate and not all that useful to answer. It’s a little bit of both, of course, or maybe that means it’s neither.

At an event during Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week 2015, Mark Krotov told an anecdote about his mother’s take on this question. She was frustrated by Anglophone readers using the difficulty of parsing Russian names as an excuse to avoid reading Russian literature. She advocated a simple fix: Anglicize the names. After all, the names aren’t the important part. Later the same week, if my memory does not fail me, Marian Schwartz supported a similar, if slightly less extreme, solution. If a character is called by five different variations on his name throughout the book, she’ll choose two (I think she said two—it could have been three—but the principle stands) and use those throughout.

But what about when the names themselves carry meaning? Or when the sound of the name plays an important role in the aural landscape of the work? Or, heaven forbid, both?

I recently read Li Rui’s Trees Without Wind in John Balcom’s translation, a book in which sound is important not only for establishing a sense of setting but also for maintaining a link between the stream of consciousness narration and the outside world. The text is full of people chewing “crunch, crunch, crunch,” a donkey digging “dig, thud, dig, thud,” a saw sawing “chi-la, chi-la, chi-la,” leaves rustling “hua-la, hua-la,” and other such sounds. This selection of sounds combines words that refer to sounds and pure sounds. This same dichotomy is preserved in Balcom’s decisions regarding the names in the book. He has chosen to identify most characters by their transliterated names—and I am assuming here that he has not simplified them for an Anglophone audience, but I do not know. In any case, I did not find them difficult to follow. For some characters, however, he has translated their “speaking names”—for example, Uncle Gimpy, Second Dog, or the name of the town where the action takes place, Stunted Flats.

This decision—which, for the record, seems to me to be entirely the right one—does limit the instances of non-English words in the text, but Balcom has chosen to leave some non-name terms in the source language as well. The most common example of this is “kang.” In phrases like “how could you wet the kang again?” (47) this is clearly something akin to a bed, but in other contexts it appears to have an even more central role in daily life. Choosing one English word would have fixed the meaning. In a book set during the Cultural Revolution, a time that erases boundaries between public and private (which is to say, a time when who is sleeping with whom has potentially stark political consequences) stating that two characters were eating in bed—when the kang is in fact an entirely standard place to eat—would have been significantly misleading. At the same time, for better or for worse, the unfamiliar word kang draws the Anglophone reader’s attention in a way that is probably not the case for a reader of the original text. This seems to me to be not a tragedy, as it is a productive place for the reader’s attention to be. It highlights questions of gender disparity, outside scrutiny of communities, the meaning of home and belonging, etc. that are important in the novel. But it is an interpretive lens that is maybe not forced, but at the very least thrust upon the reader of this translation.

It will come as no surprise, I think, to hear that I enjoyed Trees Without Wind for both its specificity and its universality. The passages that mock the formulaic heroes of proletarian fiction remind me of similar responses to socialist realism in Russia, and the use of kang solves a problem readers of Russian literature face when they read that so-and-so was sleeping on the stove, a completely standard activity for certain designs of pech’, but rather masochistic-sounding for the initiated. (The Wikipedia article references the Kang bed-stove, further cementing this similarity.) Drawing connections between two pieces of the fragmented world to discover commonalities—yet another way in which translation defies binary thinking.

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

The Lost Garden

On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, Author Li Ang, arguably Taiwan’s most controversial feminist writer, discussed her newly translated novel The Lost Garden with a panel that included her translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt as well as her editor Jennifer Crewe.

Her fiction is known for her frank depictions of female sexuality and violence. In the video below, she discusses her motivation for writing The Lost Garden, Taiwan’s national identity, and the decadence of capitalism. Goldblatt and Lin discuss the problems of translations and the censorship of the White Terror Period.

Thanks goes to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of New York and Columbia University’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library Reading Room for sponsoring the event. Please enjoy!

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

An Interview with Minae Mizumura, author of “The Fall of Language in the Age of English”

Minae Mizumura

The following is an interview with Minae Mizumura, the author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English  

Question: It is ironic that your book on preserving languages from the tidal wave of English has now been translated into English. Can you speak about the relationship between you, Mari Yoshihara, and Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translators of the book?

Minae Mizumura: Mari Yoshihara has long been an enthusiastic fan of my novels, especially of my second, autobiographical novel that traces my growing up in the United States. She has a similar background. As soon as The Fall of Language was published, she contacted me from Hawaii, where she teaches, and offered to translate it herself. I was initially taken aback; as you point out, it seemed rather perverse that a book warning about the dominance of English should be translated into English. It took me some time to realize that what she proposed underscores the whole point of the book: in our age, ideas can spread only when translated into English. After Mari finished her translation, I worked on the manuscript to make it accessible to a wider readership. I then asked Juliet Winters Carpenter to go over it and also to let me work with her at the final stage. I knew she would say yes. Julie translated my third novel, called A True Novel, and despite being one of the most highly regarded translators in the field, she had no objection to working with me closely in Kyoto where she teaches. Very flexible and open-minded. The English version of this book owes itself to two generous souls.

Q: How did you react to the controversial reviews when your book was first released in Japan?

MM: Very much bewildered, though I never actually saw those reviews. So I said nothing publicly. Like many writers, I avoid reading what people say about my books on the Internet and ask others to filter information for me. It seems that this was a particularly wise decision when this book came out. Japan lags behind in putting together quality online book reviews. As is often the case, the online controversies took place mostly among people who hadn’t read the book. The firestorm got out of control. Rumor has it that a famous blogger, the one who unwittingly initiated the controversy by declaring that my book was a “must read for all Japanese,” got so fed up that he no longer blogs or tweets. He apologized to me for having incited such vociferous reactions but was relieved to learn that I had only a vague idea of what was being said.

(more…)

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Fall of Language in the Age of English

This week our featured book is The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Fall of Language in the Age of English to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, February 13 at 1:00 pm.

“A dazzling rumination on the decline of local languages … in a world overshadowed by English. Moving effortlessly between theory and personal reflection, Minae Mizumura’s lament—linguistic and social in equal measure—is broadly informed, closely reasoned, and — in a manner that recalls her beloved Jane Austen — at once earnest and full of mischief.” — John Nathan, translator of Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Soseki

Monday, December 15th, 2014

A Q&A with Janet Poole on Modernist Literature in Korea

When the Future Disappears

The following is an interview with Janet Poole, author of When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea.

Q: Your book deals with an extraordinary group of writers working in Korea at the height of Japanese occupation during the Asia-Pacific War. How did you first become interested in their work?

JP: When I was first studying Korean and living in Seoul, there were these uncanny ways in which the colonial past seemed to exert an ongoing effect in the present. For instance, old people would come up to me in the street, when I was standing at a bus stop for example, and start talking to me in Japanese. Luckily I had learnt Japanese and could answer! But what really intrigued me was that they would not be surprised when I answered them in Japanese, but would just carry on having a regular conversation with me. This had never happened to me in Japan. I became interested in the history of colonialism and especially the ways in which it left traces in language and language use. Naturally—as a fiction lover—I started to read novels and short stories from that time. I had learnt that colonial occupation had been brutal and, most of all, that it had prevented Koreans writing in Korean, especially as the Asia-Pacific War intensified. But when I picked up books of canonical short stories—the best loved in the nation and the like—so many of them were written in the late 1930s. It seemed such a contradiction that the stories most heralded still today had been written when supposedly Koreans had the least possibilities for expression. That’s what got me interested. (more…)

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: Haïlji and The Republic of Užupis

In a post from earlier this year we featured the recently launched Library of Korean Literature Series, published by Dalkey Archive Press. Next week, Dalkey and the Korean Cultural Centre UK are having a big, two-event launch party on November 4th and 5th, with Haïlji, author of The Republic of Užupis.

On the 4th, there will be a book launch with Hailji; John O’Brien, CEO of Dalkey Archive Press; and Richard Lea, a writer from The Guardian. On the 5th, there will be a discussion and screening of The Road to Racetrack, based on the Haïlji’s controversial novel of the same name.

For more on Haïlji’s work and books from the library, here is a sampler that includes excerpts from the initial books from the series:

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: My Father, by Hwang Sunwon

Lost Souls

“What a fine son I had turned out to be, so enamored of Seoul that I had uprooted my parents from the ancestral home and dragged them here, and now look at me! For their part, Father and Mother made sure that this fine child of theirs understood that when times were difficult it was even more important to do the right thing.” — Hwang Sunwon

In addition to distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation, Columbia University Press also boasts a strong in-house list of Asian fiction in translation. In today’s Father’s Day-themed Thursday Fiction Corner, we are happy to present “My Father,” a short story from Korean author Hwang Sunwon’s collection, Lost Souls: Stories, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Library of Korean Literature Series

Yi Kwang Su

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! Today’s Thursday Fiction Corner comes courtesy of Esther Kim, a publicity assistant at Columbia UP who works with many of the books on the Dalkey Archive list, including the books in Dalkey’s much-discussed new Library of Korean Literature series.

The Library of Korean Literature and Us
Esther Kim is a new publicity assistant at Columbia University Press. She is interested in fiction, Korea, clients, and presses.

In the fall of 2013, Dalkey Archive Press published its “Library of Korean Literature” series, an ambitious, unprecedented project designed to introduce Korean writing to English-language readers. The “Library of Korean Literature” was created in collaboration between Dalkey Archive Press and Seoul’s Literature Translation Institute of Korea, and the series totals twenty-five volumes that feature a range of Korean writers from the colonial 1930s to the present day. Like much of Dalkey’s fiction, the writing in the series demonstrates proclivities for the controversial and avant-garde.

While Japanese and Chinese writing of the twentieth and twenty-first century, such as the work of Nobel-prize winners Kenzaburō Ōe or Mo Yan, has garnered international praise and attention, Korean writing receives relatively little attention. A small nation surrounded by ‘giants’ on all sides—China, Russia, and Japan—the Koreas are easily overshadowed. Popular Western understanding of Korean culture is limited to journalistic horror stories, ‘Gangnam Style,’ and Kim Jong Un’s hairstyle. Dalkey Archive Press’s series “Library of Korean Literature” amends this oversight by bringing forth English-translations of literary works to a broader audience. As the first English-language series of major Korean stories, the Library of Korean Literature series provides a more nuanced, literary venue for understanding Korea. (more…)

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Excerpt from Natsume Soseki’s Light and Dark, Part II

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Sōseki, translated with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have an excerpt of short chapters ten through fifteen of Light and Dark. Read chapters one through nine here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Light and Dark!

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

John Nathan’s Introduction to Light and Dark

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Sōseki, translated with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. John Nathan is an internationally renowned translator and schoalar who has brought the novels of Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe to English-speaking audiences. Today, we provide his Introduction to Light and Dark, in which he puts the novel into historical and literary context.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Light and Dark!

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Excerpt from Natsume Sōseki’s Light and Dark

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Sōseki, translated with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have an excerpt of the first nine short chapters of Soseki’s novel.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Light and Dark!

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Book Giveaway! Light and Dark: A Novel, by Natsume Sōseki

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Soseki, translated and with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Light and Dark. To enter our Book Giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on December 13th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Interview with Michael Emmerich, author of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature

The following is an interview with Michael Emmerich, author of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature. In the interview, Emmerich discusses, among other subjects, how The Tale of Genji became a classic of Japanese literature, how it changed reading habits, its place in world literature, and his first experience with the novel:

The Tale of Genji, Michael EmmerichQuestion: We tend to think of The Tale of Genji as a kind of immortal classic but in fact its history is more complicated. How did it become a national classic or emblematic of Japanese culture and literature?

Michael Emmerich: Genji was written in the early eleventh century, so of course the story of how it achieved its present status as one of the preeminent classics of both national and world literature is very long—a millennium long, in fact—and very complex. I argue that while Genji came to be regarded as a “treasure” very early on at an elite level, ordinary readers had little or no interest in the tale until surprisingly recently. The work that first managed to interest a truly popular readership in Genji—if only indirectly—was a sort of early modern graphic novel called A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji that was published over the course of thirteen years, from 1829 to 1842. The way I see it, Bumpkin Genji was crucial because it inspired for the first time in a popular readership the desire to know more about Genji, and then offered itself up as an enjoyable means of satisfying that desire, without actually having to read Genji itself. In other words, Bumpkin Genji popularized the notion of the complete translation of Genji into vernacular Japanese. Then, almost exactly a century later, from 1939 to 1941, the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō published a translation into the Japanese of his day that became a best-seller. That was when Genji really came to be re-canonized not just as a celebrated but unread “treasure,” but as a “national classic” in the sense of “a classic of the Japanese people”—as a work for which, and to which, Japan and its citizens were somehow responsible.

Q: What has been the role of The Tale of Genji in the popularization of Japanese literature in English?

ME: Scholars have long recognized the importance of Arthur Waley’s translation of the tale, The Tale of Genji, which was issues in six volumes from 1925 to 1933. Waley’s version was widely read, and was praised by reviewers from the time its first volume appeared as one of the great works of world literature. In my book, though, I explore the role an earlier partial translation that has now been largely forgotten played in making Genji known—though less as a literary classic than as a portrait of eleventh-century Japan, and as a work by a woman writer. This translation, published in England in 1882, was done by a young Japanese named Suematsu Kenchō. At the time, the publication of a work translated from Japanese was such a rarity that it was actually considered newsworthy, and the notion that women writers had played such a crucial role in creating what is now known as classical Japanese literature made its appearance even more sensational. It’s hard to say how much of an effect the attention Genji garnered, first in 1882, then in 1925, then in 1976 with the publication of Seidensticker’s translation, and again in 2001 when Royall Tyler’s appeared, has had in popularizing Japanese literature more broadly, but I do think it has helped give people an image of Japanese literature as something worth paying attention to.

Q: How has the reception of The Tale of the Genji changed over time?

ME: To tell the truth, I’m somewhat skeptical of the notion of “reception.” In the case of Genji, hardly anyone reads it in the original classical Japanese these days, and even fewer people read it in the form in which it was originally circulated—in calligraphic manuscript rather than typeset book. Instead, most people come into contact with Genji through what I call “replacements.” Translations are perhaps the paradigmatic form of replacement, but there are all kinds of other replacements, too: digests, guides, movies, manga, artworks, designs on kimono. So many people have created so many different kinds of replacements of the tale over the millennium since it first appeared that it would take a book even to begin to explore the trajectory they have followed—as it happens, Columbia University Press has published just such a book: Envisioning the Tale of Genji, edited by Haruo Shirane—but I think one might at least say that, over the centuries, the forms Genji’s replacements take have moved further and further away from the forms in which it was first circulated.

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Friday, September 13th, 2013

Julia Lovell on Zhu Wen

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

We conclude our week-long feature on The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China,with an excerpt from Julia Lovell’s Translator’s Preface to Zhu Wen’s earlier collection of short stories, I Love Dollars.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan! Today is the final day of the giveaway!

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Interview with Writer and Filmmaker Zhu Wen

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

In keeping with our featured book this week, Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, we cover today a 2011 interview of Zhu Wen, conducted by the Wang Ge of Timeout Beijing.

In the interview, Wang discusses the multitude of Wen’s creative personas, namely as a novelist, engineer, philosopher and film-maker and he interviews Zhu about his upcoming movie release, Thomas Mao.

Wang first heard of Zhu Wen in 2002 when the bad-boy writer-film director was a guest on a radio talk show where the interviewees had been asked to bring along a book, a film and an album to represent themselves. According to him, Zhu was automatically painted as some kind of anarchist:

Ge: In 2002, he [Zhu] was still better known as a novelist, having quit his factory job in 1994 to become a writer. He didn’t join the directorial ranks until 2001, with cultish debut Seafood. The film chronicles the story of a Beijing prostitute who travels to Beidaihe to kill herself, and it flew under the radars of most film lovers. It wasn’t until his second feature, South of the Clouds (2003), the tale of a doleful-eyed retiree’s journey of self-discovery to Yunnan, that Zhu announced himself to the world. Then he disappeared. Many thought the director had quit filmmaking for good, but now he’s back with Thomas Mao – and it’s every bit the head trip you’d expect.

The film [Thomas Mao] is divided into two parts. The first half shows the cultural clashes between an Inner Mongolian yurt owner (played by artist Mao Yan) and a foreign artist (played by Thomas Rohldewald), who shares his tent for a night. The twist comes in the second half, where fiction transforms into ‘documentary’, and Zhu turns his camera on the real-life Mao Yan and his working relationship with Rohldewald, a long-time artistic collaborator.

Zhu: Both of them are good friends of mine, but it all came together when I finally figured out how the two artists are connected in their own separate realities. There was this ancient Chinese philosopher called Zhuangzi, and he dreamt of becoming a butterfly. Then he woke up and was confused as to whether he had dreamt he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. The boundaries between reality and dreams can blur together so easily that I can only explain them through their different incarnations.

The plant I worked in was built to produce machine parts, but then the Soviet Union was gone, production was stranded. So I spent my days and nights gathering my colleagues together to play poker. The factory authorities found out about this and threatened to fire me for gambling, which is illegal. Then, all of a sudden, the plant recovered, production began and skilled engineers were needed. So they called me back when I’d already packed my bags. But one day, when I finished work for the day, I looked at all these assembly lines and thought: What am I doing here?

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Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

An Interview with Translator Julia Lovell

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

In keeping with our featured book this week, Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, we cover today an interview with the book’s translator Julia Lovell, conducted by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

In the interview, Lovell discusses the compelling points of translating The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, especially as the book compares to both Zhu Wen’s previous collection of short fiction, I Love Dollars, and other prominent contemporary Chinese writers.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan!

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha.
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Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Excerpt: “The Apprentice,” by Zhu Wen

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

This week our featured book is The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell. Today, we have an excerpt from one of the eponymous stories of the collection: “The Apprentice,” a tale of the comic vexations of life in a more-or-less planned economy, as an enthusiastic young graduate is over-exercised by his table-tennis-fanatic bosses, deprived of sleep by gambling-addicted colleagues, and stuffed with hard-boiled eggs by an overzealous landlady.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan!