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Edging Toward Japan: A 'classic' translation has a character, style and impact all its own

Natsume Soseki

By Damian Flanagan

There are few translations which achieve truly "classic" status and assume an identity all of their own. In the field of Japanese literature, there are lots of good translations of literary works, and nearly all of them are serviceable, albeit that a few are terrible.

But the "classic" translation is a rarer animal. To become "classic," the translation has to have a character, style and influence all of its own. It might not necessarily be a particularly accurate translation -- it simply needs to recreate the work in a way that cannot be reproduced by anyone else.

The ultimate "classic" translation is Arthur Waley's 1920s translation of the great Heian masterpiece "The Tale of Genji". Waley translated Genji in a loose, poetic manner influenced by his readings of 19th century Victorian novelists such as Jane Austen. This meant that his translation was read with considerable appreciation by notable British authors such as Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.

In turn, Waley's translation has received the ultimate accolade of being twice translated back into Japanese -- producing a work that is revelatory for Japanese readers, too.

In the postwar era, one of the "classic" translations of a Japanese literary masterpiece is Alan Turney's rendering of Natsume Soseki's magnificently poetic 1906 novel "Kusamakura". It was this novel, perhaps more than any other work, that was a tour-de-force demonstration of Soseki's unmatchable literary gift, fusing complex philosophical ideas, beautiful imagery, wit, pathos, tragedy and occasionally high comedy.

A novel like this is in many senses untranslatable -- the richness and beauty of its language in the original Japanese, its dense references to Chinese poets and Enlightenment thinkers -- seems to demand of a translator both years of careful scholarship and a tremendous natural flair for writing. Yet Turney set about translating it in the mid-1960s after only having started learning Japanese six years earlier. Giving it the English title "The Three-Cornered World", he produced something both unique and of its time -- full of 1960s quirkiness.

Glenn Gould (Don Hunstein / Glenn Gould Foundation)

If Waley could boast of influencing some of the greatest literary minds of the West with his creation, Turney could match him with what his "translation" achieved. In the summer of 1967, the world's most famous pianist and all-round creative thinker Glenn Gould was travelling on a train between his native Toronto and Nova Scotia when he met a professor who told him about this book and later sent him a copy.

The novel would utterly obsess Gould for the remaining 15 years of his life, becoming not only his favourite book, but one that he kept in numerous different versions and that he read out in its entirety over the telephone to his cousin, broadcast on his radio show, wrote copious notes about and was planning on turning into a play before his untimely death in 1982. A copy of "The Three-Cornered World" was discovered alongside the Bible on his bedside table.

A really intriguing question is the degree to which Glenn Gould's obsession with Soseki's ideas affected his playing of Bach. Listen to Gould's iconic 1955 playing of the Goldberg Variations, then read a few chapters of "The Three-Cornered World," then listen to Gould's transformed, slower, more ethereal reworking of the Goldberg Variations in 1981 and consider whether there is a sense in which Bach has been partly transformed by Turney's translation of Soseki.


(This is Part 19 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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