Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Every time I sit down to read a book by a Japanese author, I curse myself for forgetting all the Kanji I learned when I was still living in Japan. I can still converse in Japanese without too much trouble (although my vocabulary has been slowly dying a pathetic, tortured death) but I can no longer read much of anything. This is so frustrating. Especially when I come across a text that seems like it might actually be somewhat accessible in the original. 

I finished Jay Rubin’s translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories last night with mixed feelings. The book is extremely well researched and well presented. It was a delight to spend a few weeks inside these powerful and vivid stories. But I’m a little ambivalent about the translation. Rubin is a terribly experienced translator so I really shouldn’t start ranting about work that I probably couldn’t even attempt to accomplish myself. Still, there were moments when I couldn’t help scolding myself that I hadn’t just gone ahead and ordered a copy of some of these stories in Japanese so I could at least take on a few of the sentences myself. 

Most of what troubled me occurred in the last half of the collection, the stories gathered under Rubin’s titles, Modern Tragicomedies and Akutagawa’s Own Story. These were written during the latter period of Akutagawa’s very short life (he committed suicide at the age of 35) when he finally succumbed to peer/social/literary pressure and started writing about his own life. At that time (cir. 1920), most Japanese novelists wrote fairly undiluted autobiographies and that was it. Akutagawa would have preferred to write fiction, but no one would have understood. This frustration definitely contributed to the decline of his mental health. 

Most of these later stories are like volatile portraits. One of my favorites from this section is titled The Life of a Stupid Man and it works as a mosaic of Akutagawa’s life presented in 51 very short impressionistic flashes. To me they read very much like unregulated haiku. Regardless of length or syllables, many of them had two flat beats and a long mournful downbeat.  

18. Moon

He happened to pass her on the stairway of a certain hotel. Her face seemed to be bathed in moonglow even now, in daylight. As he watched her walk on (they had never met), he felt a loneliness he had not known before. 

26. Antiquity

He was nearly overwhelmed by peeling Buddhas, heavenly beings, horses and lotus blossoms. Looking up at them, he forgot everything – even his good fortune at having escaped the clutches of the crazy girl. 

37. “Woman of Hokuriku”

He met a woman he could grapple with intellectually. He barely extricated himself from the crisis by writing a number of lyric poems, some under the title “Woman of Hokuriku”. These conveyed a sense of heartbreak as when one knocks away a brilliant coating of snow frozen onto a tree trunk.  

Am I the only one that thinks some of these read a little stilted? Maybe it was the time period, the cold, narrative distance that young Japanese writers adopted to be able to write about their own lives so intimately. Maybe it was simply because Akutagawa didn’t feel comfortable in that form. Maybe I am just being overly censorious. 

In any event, this Akutagawa reading is the first for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature challenge. If you are interested, please join in. She has some wonderful prizes lined up and I am eager to read thoughts and reviews of what the other participants have chosen. 

Logophile’s newsflash – I just found all of Akutagawa’s works in Japanese here. AND, I have found what I’ll be using to finish out Dolce Bellezza’s challenge. The Tale of Genji. This site gives you the classical Japanese, the modern Japanese and the Romaji version, in three interactive panes. Plus I have my English translation to follow along. This will be great.        

10 Responses to “Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories”

  1. Stefanie

    I like the first one. The second is ok. The last one isn’t bad but doesn’t give me enough information for me to make sense of it. Maybe if I knew the whole story it would be different. I think it’s great that you can read Japanese.

  2. snackywombat

    i really like them! especially the first two. they remind me of the essays in zen buddhism. stylistically, i think they are very compelling, sort of like the early ancestors of flash fiction or something.

  3. LK

    I have heard of this book — and considering reading it. But you raise good points about the translation. I’m with Stefanie — great you can read Japanese.

  4. Dorothy W.

    I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about The Tale of Genji; I read it a year ago or so and enjoyed it, although it was LONG and strange at times. But its atmosphere stuck with me for a long time.

  5. Ann Darnton

    I couldn’t use much of my Japanese to help me translate formal literature as it was learnt from my father who still spoke it when I was growing up after four years as a POW. Whatever else it is, it isn’t formal! I’m working with Japanese post grads at the moment and could ask them if they know of this translation and whether they think there is a problem, if you would like. Their English is so good it puts me to shame, I’m afraid.

  6. びっくり

    Ah-hah! I am in the middle of Hana (The Nose) which he wrote in 1915. Unfortunately it has a lot of priestly jargon and very special vocabulary, so even my well educated colleagues are stumped. I am using Giles Murray’s “Breaking into Japanese Literature”. Original Japanese is written on the left pages; English translation on the right; and glossary at the bottom of the page. It is a very convenient layout, regardless of ability level. I read the left side, referencing the vocabulary at the bottom as needed, and check my understanding against Giles’ translation.

    Rashomon is also in this book, and I will probably read it for the Japanese Challenge as well.

    I also think it is great you can read Japanese. 🙂

  7. verbivore

    Stefanie – if only I could read as fluently as I once did, that would be really great. It is frustrating that I feel like I am experiencing the stories through someone else’s filter. That’s probably what is bothering me the most.

    SnackyW – I agree they are very compelling. I really enjoyed reading all 51. Some of his other stories aren’t quite so impressionistic. Although the eeriness is the same.

    LK – I think you would enjoy them. I am unsure about the translation, I will take a look at some of the original and see what I think – now that I found them online.

    Ann – I would love to hear more about your father’s experiences. That’s incredible that he kept his Japanese. I suspect it isn’t very formal…but you never know.

    Dorothy – I read Genji when I was in college and I loved it. I am so looking forward to looking at it again. But it will be slow going. I seem to be collecting long projects at the moment!

  8. Idetrorce

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  9. verbivore

    Bikkuri – I read The Nose as well in the Rashomon book, what a very strange story and I am sure the vocab must be quite difficult. The book you are describing sounds wonderful. I will have to find some Japanese texts like that – what a great way to get through the Japanese.

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