Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Just over ten years ago now, when I was living in a small town in southern Japan, I read my very first book by Banana Yoshimoto. It was called Amrita (1994), and it was about a young woman with amnesia, whose sister has just committed suicide, and who has a strange relationship with a man that leads her (or maybe she just goes on her own) to the island of Saipei. I don’t remember much about the book except for the mood of it, which was dense and dreamlike, and a bit mysterious, and the fact that it introduced me to a different kind of Japanese literature than I’d been used to.

Before moving to Japan, I’d studied a lot of Japanese literature but almost all of it was pre-1950, and most of it was much older. I think that up until then, the most recent Japanese fiction I’d read was A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe (1964). So Yoshimoto’s more contemporary writing was an eye-opening discovery. Since then I’ve gone on to read other contemporary Japanese writers like both Murakamis and Yoko Ogawa, and, interestingly, Yoshimoto actually seems quite tame in comparison.

But it was high time I read another Yoshimoto, and so I picked up a copy of her short story collection, Lizard, published in 1993 and translated by Ann Sherif. There are six stories in Lizard, and while all of them have merit, the first two pieces really stand out. The first tells of a near-magical encounter on a train between a recently married young man and a homeless person, the second is about childhood trauma and how it can shape a person’s future. Both dealt with feelings of alienation and with love relationships.

Yoshimoto has an interesting style, one that in general I would call light, especially when busy with narrative summation and dialogue. This gives the stories an easy feel, almost too easy. But every once in a while, Yoshimoto lets her narrator linger on a description or a deeper observation and the result is quite different. Take this example, from “Newlywed”:

It seemed as if we had toured Tokyo from every possible angle, visiting each building, observing eery person, and every situation. It was the incredible sensation of encountering a life force that enveloped everything, including the station near my house, the slight feeling of alienation I feel toward my marriage and work and life in general, and Atsuko’s lovely profile. This town breathes in all the universes that people in this city have in their heads.

When she does this enough in a story, the story is transformed, becomes more universal, and I think this is what made “Newlywed” and “Lizard” stand out among the six.

Interestingly, every narrator in Lizard, male or female, is a first-person narrator with a somewhat conspiratorial but also colloquial mode of expression. The shared confidences tend to sound like they’re being given directly to the reader, like this:

I won’t deny that I admired some of the residents, those who didn’t pompously claim that they had achieved spiritual enlightenment—you know, satori and all that.

While reading, I couldn’t help thinking how a translator is going to have a lot of impact on how this type of sentence reads. There were moments throughout the collection when the little sentences—the explanatory phrases, the dialogue tags and transitions—felt unnecessarily wordy, and I wonder if it was a translation issue. In the sense that in making certain decisions, the translator had gone a little overboard to make what was implied (happens often in Japanese) into something overly explicit. Or, in the opposite direction, allowing a lot of narrative filtering that might be innocuous to a Japanese reader but that can slow things down for an English reader.

I don’t have a copy of Lizard in Japanese or I would have done some comparing, but I have an example from another book. In Kitchen, Yoshimoto’s most famous novel, the narrator opens with the line: 私がこの世で一番好きな場所は台所だと思う. A strictly literal translation would be: I think that my favorite place in this world is the kitchen. Note the “I think,” which finishes off the sentence in Japanese. In Megan Backus’s translation of Kitchen, the novel begins: The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. It is a tiny difference, but Backus makes a choice to make the sentence more immediate, to get rid of the second layer of narrative filter. We could debate this choice, but I think that for an English reader, the second sentence is much smoother. And a novel made up of sentences requiring this kind of decision-making can be translated in two different directions.

I’ll get through Kitchen and see if I have a similar reaction to the writing as I did while reading certain stories in Lizard, and this time I can read along with the original and do some meaningful comparing.


9 Responses to “Banana Yoshimoto – Lizard”

  1. mamieberry

    I am currently reading Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” and next in my list will be “1Q84 (ichi-kew-hachi-yon).” What draws me to Murakami is his surreal style in writing and the way I can relate to all the Japanese aspects he includes in his books. The way he writes them makes me reminisce the exact moment I encountered those things when I was in Japan.

    Thank you for your post, now I will be finding a book written by Banana Yoshimoto. Seems interesting as well.

    • Michelle

      I haven’t found a favorite Murakami yet, but I read his Norwegian Wood first (besides giving up about one third into Dance, Dance, Dance) and I think the fault lies with me. I’d like to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and then decide. But I’ve good things about 1Q84.

      • mamieberry

        I’ve also read “Dance, Dance, Dance” and I really loved the book. It’s alright, we really have our own preferences, don’t blame yourself. Try to read his memoir, though, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” you will get to know him better through that one.

  2. Helen

    Do you know, I have been entirely put off Banana Yoshimoto by the belief (where did that come from?) that she was a chick-lit author – not my cup of tea. But you have made her writing sound not just interesting but fresh and different (bearing in mind that the only Japanese novels I’ve read are by Murakami). So now she’s going on my list – thank you for that!

    What you write about the translation of Kitchen is intriguing. To me, Backus’s sentence is smoother but losing the filter is a significant change, it makes the narrator seem much more definite and maybe that’s not quite her character? Perhaps it contributes too much to the sense of ease you refer to? How interesting that just such small decisions could change the tone of the novel so much. Translation is such a fascinating act.

    • Michelle

      It’s funny you say chick-lit author because I read a review of Amrita that pretty much discounted her work entirely along those lines, and on the one hand, I can understand what gave the reviewer that impression – there is something about her writing that suggests she isn’t very deep, or that the writing is just a little too cliché – but I worry that it is a combination of her style done in English translation and that she was one of the first contemporary Japanese writers to be translated into English and she was maybe marketed as a “women’s author,” which means the covers of her books and the hubbub around her does its best to put her in a certain category.

      But I haven’t read enough of her work to be able to say for sure… so we’ll see!

  3. litlove

    I don’t know quite why your post makes me feel this way, but if you ever have the opportunity, do try Olga Grushin. I read her first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov back in December and was hugely impressed by it. The quotation you liked from Banana Yoshimoton reminded me of her a bit. I said I’d read more Japanese literature back at the start of 2011 and I have done dreadfully so far. Must try to fit more in this year.

    • Michelle

      Oh fun, I’ve never heard of Olga Grushin so that gives me a new name to look up. Thank you!

  4. smithereens

    Thank you for highlighting Japanese language and translation issues I could never have experienced myself.
    I had read Kitchen and NP fifteen years ago, and Lizard was a nice way to reconnect to Yoshimoto’s light yet dreamy word after a bad experience with Amrita. I also enjoyed her novella, Hardboiled, Hard luck (I reviewed all 3 on my blog) and I guess you’d love it too!

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