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Celebrating 100 years: Translating 1,720 'Yoroku' essays into English

A newspaper clipping of Tsunezo Sasai's first English translation of the Mainichi Shimbun's "Yoroku" column, titled "Origin of Freemasonry," which appeared in the May 31, 1981 edition of the Mainichi Daily News. (Provided by Tsunezo Sasai)

By Tsunezo Sasai

    It all started with a phone call from the editor of the Mainichi Daily News (MDN, now The Mainichi) in mid-May of 1981. He was one of my colleagues in the years I had been with the MDN -- a total of 22 years, the last three years of which I spent in Tokyo away from my family living in Osaka. I had quit the Mainichi Shimbun at the end of 1975 to take up a teaching job at Kyoto Women's University.

    "Would you do me a favor?" the editor began, "I'd like you to translate the Yoroku column for the MDN twice a week, if possible, every other day." Sensing the enormity of what such a commitment would entail, I said, "Give me until tomorrow to say yes or no."

    The next day I called him back and said, "My answer is yes and twice a week." Given my teaching load at the university, "every other day" was out of the question. Thus, my answer launched me on a journey with the Yoroku, a journey sometimes uneventful and many a time agonizing.

    On May 31, 1981, this announcement was printed in the MDN:

    "New Column 'YOROKU'

    Starting today, the Mainichi Daily News will twice a week carry an English translation of essays selected from the 'Yoroku' column carried daily in the morning edition of the vernacular Mainichi.

    The 'Yoroku' column is a kind of editorial, special to Japanese newspapers and refers not only to political and economic affairs but also to many aspects directly related with daily life. Humorous or cynical touches are extremely popular among Japanese readers. Moreover, the 'Yoroku' writer, who will remain anonymous, is regarded as one of the most prestigious columnists in Japanese newspapers.

    The English translation will appear in Wednesday and Sunday issues, in principle. -- Editor"

    The editor and I agreed on having "Sidelight" side by side with the kanji characters for "Yoroku" as the standing head for the MDN column.

    On the morning of May 31, I felt a surge of relief as I read my first translation of a Yoroku essay which I had titled "Origin of Freemasonry."

    Having found no funny idioms and typos, I proceeded to my second Yoroku piece for the June 3 issue in high spirits. Right from the very first words, however, I found myself up against a real tough nut to crack. The original Yoroku began with these words:

    "'Kirei wa kitanai. Kitanai wa kirei.' Raimei no naka de sannin no majo ga jumon o tonaeru to, tsuzuite arawareta Macbeth ga tsubuyaku. 'Konna iya na, medetai hi wa nai.' Shakespeare no higeki 'Macbeth' no makuaki da."

    Part of a newspaper clipping of the original "Yoroku" column that was translated by former Mainichi Daily News associate editor Tsunezo Sasai and appeared in the June 3, 1981 edition of the Mainichi Daily News as "'Macbeth' Tragedy."(Provided by Tsunezo Sasai)

    After nearly five hours of struggle, I managed to complete the translation of the Yoroku piece and titled it "Macbeth Tragedy." The first paragraph read:

    "Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair." In thunder and lightning three witches join in a chorus of the magic words. Soon Macbeth enters and murmurs, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." This is from the opening scenes of Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth."

    The 46-word first paragraph alone took me more than an hour trying to locate Macbeth's enigmatic soliloquy by looking up my resources in my small private library -- the "Oxford Dictionary of Quotations" with a 280-page keyword index and Britannica's 54-volume "Great Books of the Western World."

    A newspaper clipping of an English translation of the Mainichi Shimbun's "Yoroku" column, titled "'Macbeth' Tragedy," which appeared in the June 3, 1981 edition of the Mainichi Daily News. (Provided by Tsunezo Sasai)

    The Yoroku writer, Masato Suwa (1930-2015), borrowed Macbeth's aside in his witty, satirical observation on the impending return of the U.S. Seventh Fleet aircraft carrier Midway to its home port at Yokosuka. Whether the Midway had nukes on board or not had been a hot issue between the local mayor up for reelection and the central government. The then Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, just back from summit talks with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, insisted that "nonnuclear is nonnuclear." Suwa wrote, "From across the Pacific echoes the eerie voice proclaiming 'nonnuclear is nuclear.'" Suwa identified three high-ranking U.S. officials including U.S. Ambassador Edwin. O. Reischauer as three witches. He concluded the Yoroku piece with another soliloquy by Macbeth: "False face must hide what the false heart doth know."

    A graduate of the University of Tokyo where he majored in French literature, Suwa joined the Mainichi Newspapers in 1953. He served as chief of the Geneva and Paris bureaus before becoming an editorial writer. As a veteran journalist, he had been well known for his in-depth grasp and analysis of contemporary national and global issues and his ability to write about them in pithy prose sprinkled with refined humor and satire.

    When I stumbled on phrases or sentences I couldn't fully understand, I would give him a call at the Mainichi editorial board to ask for clarification. On several occasions when I needed his help urgently I took the liberty of calling him at his home. He was always most cooperative and I appreciated his readiness to help me out.

    As an editorial writer and finally as Special Adviser, Suwa wrote the Yoroku column single-handedly and non-stop from April 17, 1979 to June 19, 2002 -- a period spanning 23 years and 2 months. With the power of his pen, he had produced an astonishing 6,354 Yoroku essays! He won the 1990 Japan National Press Club Award for his outstanding contribution to the nation's journalism, particularly as the Yoroku columnist.

    A newspaper clipping of Tsunezo Sasai's last English translation of the Mainichi Shimbun's "Yoroku" column, titled "Not-guilty ruling for Dr. Abe," which appeared in the March 30, 2001 edition of the Mainichi Daily News. (Provided by Tsunezo Sasai)

    My journey with the Yoroku came to an abrupt end on March 30, 2001 with the last piece titled "Not-guilty ruling for Dr. Abe." (Dr. Takeshi Abe, a leading hemophilia specialist, had been indicted for causing the death of a hemophiliac by treating him with unheated blood products and infecting him with the HIV virus that causes AIDS.)

    The following day saw the last issue of the MDN's printed edition, to be reborn as an interactive internet newspaper on April 19.

    The number of Yoroku essays I translated totaled 1,720 over 20 years from May 31, 1981 to March 30, 2001. My track record was a far cry from Suwa's, but comments by readers, favorable or otherwise, sent to the "Readers' Forum" always inspired me to do my job to the best of my ability. As a former staff member of The Mainichi Daily News, I wish The Mainichi well at the start of its second century.

    (Tsunezo Sasai is a former MDN associate editor.)


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