Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Hideo Levy is an American author who writes in Japanese. Now based in Tokyo, he spent many years teaching at Princeton University, where he translated the famous, and poetic, Japanese historical chronicle 'Man'yooshu' into English. He has said more than once that 'language is a culture', words that are extraordinarily provocative in all the right ways. To immerse onself in a foreign language, irregardless of one's actual, physical locale, is to do battle with the essence of that culture itself. A language has its own rules, contexts, codes and sub-categories; it has implications, biases, nuances and prejudices. It has everything that exists in a real place with people, only the words by themselves create conditions that alter psychological states and impressions. Language by itself defines and creates the circumstances in which we reckon with its form. And through the folks that find a way to express the ephermal shape of their thoughts, we can witness both how the language shapes them, and how the people, in turn, mold the words to reflect the milieu from which they were born.

We all know this, instinctively, but we tend to forget it, cumulatively. Meaning, as time aggregates itself into the unwiedly mess of our lives, we use language reflexively, and persist in recognizing its impact in a manner that's almost offhand. Perhaps children are more attuned to the fabric of words, their placement and power, because it's all still new and unlikely, the whole combination of sounds.

On one of the house-league hockey teams that I played on as a child, we had an assistant coach who inserted into his speech an up-tilted 'okay?' after almost every sentence. This struck me, more than anything else, as amusing. Whether he was giving instructions, or telling us to keep our sticks on the ice, or informing us defencemen that we had to hover at the blue line just inside its margins to avoid a call of 'offside', a pleasant, inquistive  'okay?' was added to it all.

I didn't find it annoying, or peculiar -- just funny. I had never heard anyone do that before. Similarly, I had a good childhood friend who had a terrible stutter, and he was the first (and only) person I'd known who stumbled over his own words inside of every sentence that he tried to construct. That, too, I found 'funny' -- not 'ha ha' funny, but 'funny' as in odd, and unusal, and extremely unlikely, despite its obvious presence and nusiance to the rhythm of his life.

What I'm saying is, these kind of verbal tics were duly noted and examined, if only to myself, because kids tend to latch onto what's unusual, and they either mock it or roll it around in their skull like a mental gobstopper.

Later, after university, living in Toronto, a friend of my flatmate came to visit from Newfoundland, our easternmost province, and I was startled by the twang of his accent, its almost-Irish inflections. I had also never heard some of that slang before, nor his casual affectations. Whereas I would say 'buddy' or 'guy' at the beginning or end of a sentence when talking to somebody, he would say 'bye' -- a novelty to me, like a curious whistle.

Looking back, I can see that my childhood memories of my 'okay?'-obsessed hockey coach, and my young-adult recollections of that Newfound bloke, can both kind of be read as culture itself expressed through the awkward output of language.

By that I mean, my hockey coaches were, by and large, working-class guys, many of them more of then tha not employed by the giant GM factory in town, and their speech-rhythms and vocabulary were usually not sprinkled with excess levels of diction. They sounded like the people I grew up with, the friends of my parents, and ny own friends' parents. These coaches' southern Ontario accents and rather blunt jokes and hockey-playing tips were all of a piece, and that piece was the place that had given them a voice. Ditto with the Newfoundland dude, who stuck out in Toronto like the fisherman's lad that he was. Language and tone obviously arise from the awkwardly spun tapestry of our inital tangled roots.

Yet that's only part of language, and in some ways the most obvious part, the section that sees language as part of  'a' culture, rather than language 'as' culture. As a beast in and of itself, an idea which might be easier to assess if we can look at the complexities of its potential to enlighten and confuse in whatever written form it embodies.

If language is culture, full stop, as Hideo Levy maintains, than it's understandable that a certain misreading of that culture is inevitable at some point. A Japanese book I'm leafing through by Akio Namekata deals with the problems of English education in modern Japan, and as part of his thesis he discusses the complexities of the Japanese language, its nuances and implications that foreigners can never quite grasp. (This is a traditonal, even cliche argument in some quarters of Japanese thought -- that the Japanese language, and Japanese culture itself, is far too difficult for a foreigner to comprehend. Namekata was born in 1931, so it's perhaps understandable that he clings to this view.)

In Namekata's book, two of the most famous post-World War II translators of Japanese literature into English -- Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, both American -- are brought up for debate, and, to some extent, ridicule. Namekata quotes a few passages from Japanese literature that Keene has translated, pointing out that the American has misunderstood exactly who's referring to what, thus resulting in an English version of the text that is acutely misleading.

In a sense, such an error is not altogether surprising; the Japanese language is notorious for not needing a subject (i.e. 'I', 'he', 'she'', 'they', 'it', etc.) at the beginning of many sentences, so that determing exactly the gist of a topic can be an adventure indeed, even for an old Japan-hand. Namekata's point is that here we have the most revered translator of Japanese into English that has ever lived -- and even he is fucking up some pretty basic shit. Keene is not 'reading' it right, in the sense that he's not grasping the mood and atmosphere behind the words that would make the true meaning clear.

Similarly, Namekata cites a famous example from Edward Seidensticker's English translation of Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata's SNOW COUNTRY -- the opening line of the novel, in fact, which I often use myself with my students to point out the different ways that English and Japanese deal with the problem of 'subject'. For Namekata, however, it's not the 'subject' that's the problem, but what's left implied and unsaid which leads to some confusion-in-translation.

Here's Seidensticker's version, in English, of the opening paragraph of the novel: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.'

Pretty straightforward, right? The thing is, in Japanese, there's no mention of a train in the first sentence. It's just assumed that it would be a train that comes out of the tunnel, because, you know, what else would it be, right? You don't need to specify the damn thing. It's possible to write that first sentence in English without mentioning a train, instead merely indicating that a border had been crossed, an exit exited, a new region entered, whatever, but it would give the whole idea a kind of circumspection that doesn't exist in the original Japanese, an avoidance, maybe. Best just to call it a train and be done with it. I always found that idea intriguing -- that even the first sentence of a novel had to be recalibrated when rendered in a completely different tongue.

However, Namekata faults Seidensticker's translation, for reasons that I'd never thought about, and still don't entirely understand. He essentially says that, for a Japanese reader, it's clear that these observations -- the the train leaving the tunnel, and the earth under the night sky, and the train pulling up to a signal stop -- reflect the spirit and heart and interior life of the main character, nuances that are not captured in the English translation.

I'm puzzled by the idea that these rather functional observations in that first paragraph are peculiar to the main character, because they seem to be basic, even clinical renditions of physical actions. How could one emphasize that they are the specific observations of one particular person? And why is it necessary, since even in Japanese the subject (the main character) is not mentioned at all? According to Namekata, Japanese readers will somehow understand that these observations do, in fact, reflect the protagonist's character, his internal essence, whereas the Western translator neglected to pick up on this tone. He couldn't read the culture inherent in the text, in other words.

I don't truly understand what Namekata is getting at, but I don't disbelieve him, either -- if he's saying the Japanese are picking up on something in the text that Seidensticker, as an American, cannot even perceive, he may be right. This is just another example of how words, by themselves, can seem to enfold and display an entire culture's intent, hiding right there in plain sight.

Another puzzling example of the inherently cultural nature of language comes from another book I'm making way through by a Japanese writer named Sukehiro Hirakawa, who's examing Japan after World War II in terms of where the Japanese language has been, and where he thinks it should go. (This is what I'm sort of/kind of/a little bit understanding, anyway; Japanese is an extremely round-about language, and just when I think the topic is 'this', the text somersaults itself into a variant version of 'that'.)

At any rate, Hirakawa, as with Namekata, was also born in 1931, so he has a view of language, and Japan, that is in accordance with someone who hails from that era. The Japanese have a very different version of World War II history than the West commonly depicts; I won't get into whether it's 'right' or 'wrong', but the Japanese don't often see themselves as being entirely to blame when it comes to that conflict. Hirakawa takes issue with the very title of a relatively recent book of Japanese history written by an American, John Dower, named EMBRACING DEFEAT, which deals with how quickly Japan rebuilt itself after the end of the war.

According to Hirakawa, the English words 'Embracing Defeat' are extremely misleading, in that there was no widespread acceptance of loss, as such, and that those very words most likely come from those Japanese prostitutes who serviced American soldiers during the years of military occupation. I read that particular idea and went; "What the fuck?" Had to read the sentence two or three times to wrap my head around its contents, and I still don't think I'm getting it all, but Hirakawa seems to be implying that the very title of the book is setting up a sociological reading of the national situation that is akin to a whore cuddling up to her potential customer. Or something like that. Translated directly to Japanese, the book's name may have a more intimate connotation that brings to mind the prostitution of the time. Or perhaps the conciliatory tone of the title does not accurately reflect the true mood of the people.

Elsewhere in the book, Namekata also takes issue with THE RAPE OF NANJING (the translated title of which would sound just as blunt in Japanese as it does in English) by the late Iris Chang, which deals with the Japanesde military's rampage of that Chinese city during World War II. In the West, this event is pretty much recognized as being historical fact, a slaughter of innocents of almost epic proportion, in Japan, amongst many scholars, there's still the belief that much of the tragedy is exaggerated, if not invented ,and Namekata seems to fall in line with that view. If I'm reading correctly, he sees THE RAPE OF NANJING as being another case of Western historians dabbling in Eastern affairs without having the proper linguistic or cultural understanding to make their case clear.

The question of historical accuracy aside in that particular case, Namekata may have a small point, in terms of linguistic and cultural interpretation. When scholars write, in English, of events that happened in a foreign, predominantly non-English speaking country, it certainly helps if they speak, read and write the language well enough to assess just what the hell did go on. There are countless books about Asian history that I've skimmed through and wondered: "Does 'this' author speak 'that' language -- and, if not, can I trust what he says?"

Through the language, one learns the culture, and if you're delving into socio-political aspects of war and occupation, self-rule and coercion, public response and government intentions, to not be able to access and comprehend orginal sources in their native language is to not truly examine the issue at all. And, in the case of American translators Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, even if you do speak, read and write the language, there will still be accusations that the language by itself is not enough to comprehend the culture. The people themselves lie both in and outside of the words that they use.

Which brings me back to Hideo Levy's phrase -- that language, on its own, is a culture, of its own. The hockey coaches of my youth uttered words that not only reflected the environment in which they were raised, but also created a cadence of their own that created their own casual world; the Japanese books that I'm trying to understand now wonder if the Japanese language can survive as a force in a world dominated by English. The language arises from the people, initially, then shapes the people, subsequently. The words exist on their own, as almost physical things that create meaning by themselves, yet they are always balanced, if not anchored, by those who continually employ their usage, who twist it and bend it and hope that it won't break, or somehow break us in the process of simply trying to make sense of it all.