Friday, 1 August 2014

Its been a while

Hello there again!

Just to let you know that after a long hiatus during which my attention has been taken up by my other blog LEGENDUM and all things Classics related I am finally going to try to get back into the swing of things with this blog.

I took part in a Kuzushiji workshop in Oxford this Spring which I hope to tell you about and also want to push on with the selections from Abe Kobo's Woman in the Dunes translation so - stay tuned!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Chapter 3: Food or Enemy? The Villagers decide

The man continues his search and wanders further into the sand blown landscape where, his theory assures him, somewhere lays his chitinous quarry and a bid at immortality. He stumbles upon a deep pit, at the bottom of which he can make out a dwelling or hut of some kind. He steps to the edge to take a photo and almost loses his footing.

While recovering his composure at the edge of this deep abyss, he is disturbed by the sudden appearance at his side of a nervous old man. The old man seems at pains to find out whether or not the man is here for the purpose of ‘inspection’. He explains that he is an insect collector and the man wanders off. A bit further on he sees three other men, whom the old man joins and the 4 men seem to have a heated discussion…then…the old man returns.





















‘Just as he was about to get back into focussing on his search for the beetle, the old man came rushing back.

‘So, you’re really not someone from the prefectural office?’

‘Prefectural office?, you’ve got it completely wrong.’

As if he was fed up with all this talk, he abruptly took out his business card. The old man took a long time reading it, his lips moving as he did so.

‘Oh, so you’re a teacher then’

‘I have no connection whatsoever with the prefectural office’

‘Hmm, so you’re a teacher’

Finally, apparently satisfied with this explanation, the corners of his eyes wrinkled up and he went back, respectfully holding the business card in front of him. It appeared that the other three men were similarly satisfied and with that they got up and left. But the old man came back again.

‘By the way, what do you plan on doing now?’

‘What am I..well I’m going to look for insects’

‘But the last return bus has already gone’

‘Isn’t there somewhere around here I can stay for the night?’

‘Stay for the night? In this village? The old man’s face tensed.

‘If I can’t stay here, I can walk to the next village’


‘Well as it happens I’m not in any particular hurry’

‘No no, you needn’t go to all that trouble……’ he suddenly became quite voluble in his eagerness to help,

‘As you can see, it’s a poor village, there aren’t any decent houses really, but you just need to say the word and I’ll ask around for you and try to help you out.’

…………………………………………………………………………(Break in text here)

‘Thank you, I would be grateful it if you would, and of course I will show my appreciation……I really like staying in these villagers houses.’


かまわず : Literally, not minding or being bothered. Here I have translated at the man focussing back on his task in hand and by implication not paying any mind to anything else.

県庁 : Prefectural Office. Government Office sounds a bit too vague and I suppose Prefectural Office sounds too specific. Then again there are so many slightly differing nomenclatures that it’s hard to get a catch all term that just doesn’t just ‘slip off’ due to being too loose and general – and I think that this is the very issue with such terms as ‘government office’. Furthermore in British English it sounds very odd and something like ‘Local Authority Office or Council Office might be more suitable…though that falls into the opposite camp. Hence I have decided to go for Prefectural Office to reflect that the novel is set in a Japanese idiom and not necessarily meant to be an everywhere/nowhere in the sense of a Beckett novel. As an aside there are an awful lot of American English translations of Japanese novels. I think that a British English translation would be quite different and for that reason alone this kind of project is quite fascinating.

もう沢山だと言わんばかりに : This phrase literally comes out as ‘as if to say I’m not going to say so much about it’, the sense being that the man is exasperated with the possibility of a long winded Q and A session and going round the houses to explain to the old man that he is not a G-Man. -ばかりに after と (here as -だと) ha the meaning of ‘as if to’

目尻いっぱいに皺をよせ :’wrinkled up the corners of his eyes’. This makes for a vivid description of the coin dropping in the old man’s mind and the light of understanding coming on. An interesting word here 目尻 literally ‘eye ass/butt’.

どうって : I wanted to bring this out in my translation since it I feel that it is indicative of the insect collector’s attitude to the old man – impatience and looking askance at his questions as if he should be able to work things out. It reminds me of the exasperation of Captain Mannering with the slower of his subordinates, or Ollie explaining things to Stan and Stan’s rather simple and child like questions. I think that to miss this out is to miss something of the interplay between the two. This is brought out more in the way in which they speak to each other but that is harder to reflect since modern English no longer has such subtleties and nuances of register that Japanese has. The old mans speech is a sort of countrified way of speaking to a stranger, sort of a hotchpotch of polite terms and his country old geezer dialect mixed up. The only decent parallel I can think of for this are the excellent portrayals in the Ghost Stories of Montagu Rhodes James, where there is often a scholar who comes from a very academic and intelligent background dealing with a local bumpkin in order to glean information on a relic or ancient place. In this novel we have the urbanite educated man with the old uneducated villager trope.

上がりのバス : In Japan the Kanji Up and Down are used for  direction of transport: the Up train would be normally used of the more important or significant station e.g. towards Tokyo or the major town or city on a line and the Down train away from the city towards the suburbs or lesser destination. We have an equivalent in English in ‘going up to Oxford’.

老人の顔のどこかが、ひくついた : E Dale Saunders has this as ‘The man’s face twitched.’ But there is bit more going on here surely. The literal translation has it as somewhere on the old man’s faced twitched/tensed’ and from that alone, you get a sense of a barely perceptible movement – a slight tensing, indistinct because of the どこかが.

I really think sometimes that translators try so hard to get a text punchy and crunchy and tight that something falls off in the process. I think that AK has more poetry in him than a strict new wave minimalist interpretation allows. I feel this is doing him an injustice and it’s why I also don’t put him even remotely in any similar category with other close contemporaries. One, his poetry, often denied in a too tight rendering and two his surrealism or downright irreality..Often imitated by later writers but never with his panache or level of disturbance.

まくし立てるような調子になり : E Dale Saunders has ‘loquacious’ for this phrase (literally ‘bundling or wrapping it all up together’) but I prefer ‘voluble’ since the former means just talkative and voluble has a sense of pouring out words in a rush in a sudden enthusiasm. So for me this is much better in the context of the old man, who, up until this point has been behaving like an exasperatingly (in the man’s eyes) slow dullard. My pocket dictionary has this entry for the meaning:


言いたいことを一方的に言う。「早口で-・てる」 スーパー大辞林 三省堂

民家 : Literally ‘private dwelling’ but in this context ‘villagers house’, I might add it comes across slightly condescendingly from the insect collectors style of diction (pretentious and haughty).

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Woman in the Dunes - End of Chapter 2 - Tripping on the Sand

Woman in the Dunes – Chapter 2 Section 4 end p.16-17

The chapter ends with the man’s/Abe’s meditation on insect collecting and the environment, in particular, the sand. The scientific/Latinate terminology AK uses emphasizes the character of the man as one of reason, science, exactitude – the naming of the beetle he discovers in the riverbed during a childhood hunt, Cicindela japonica Motschulsky, the exact and uniform measurements of sand particles, the scientific rationale culled from learned journals and encyclopaedias for their behaviour. Paradoxically as a result of this language the man is sharply delineated against the barren and endlessly shifting sandy landscape – so that its definition or nature can’t be pinned down and his vaunted hopes of a limited kind of immortality as a result having his name added to the Latin name of a new species he is hunting here seem very much in doubt, barely possible in this surreal landscape that could hardly even support life, let alone immortality.

The novel is often referred to as Kafkaesque, but I think that there is a lot more to this work than the casually bandied about term implies – it’s far too surreal and obscure and downright weird to be limited by such a misleading moniker. Not that Kafka lacks the above upon occasion but with Abe, it’s taken much further, like comparing Les Paul/Chet Atkins with Jimi Hendrix!! There is also the fact that Kafka is a much more familiar name to potential readers and therefore easy to hang other writers on – especially those from less familiar soils. Perhaps like describing a promising African novelist as ‘Amisesque’ rather than on their own terms.

At best we can say that throughout Abe’s works there are signposts with Kafka’s name hastily daubed upon it …but the name is partially obliterated by the shifting hallucinatory Abe-ian sands and on occasion seems to read as something completely different. ‘This way to the beach’ – pointing of course, in the wrong direction.

It would be great if there was a thesis directly comparing the two writers’ work and core concepts. Perhaps somewhere there is- the fact that I haven’t found one so far belies the rarity of such a project. One of the possible ‘problems’ for a comparison could be Abe’s high surrealism, it got him into trouble (political, critical) throughout his life no doubt – could it be otherwise? Like feedback sometimes it gets out of control…it’s still unclear as to what is going on at the deeper or rather further out levels of the novels and by extension Abe’s worldview. In the last paragraph, we are drawn into the shifting patterns of his illusions as he lets his thoughts wander over the sands. The sand seems metaphor for time? The irresistible flow of fate? The universe? Or movement as opposed to stationary existence and stagnation? Even in the midst of apparent death, life goes on.


‘Indeed, sand was not suitable for life. But was a fixed position absolutely indispensable for existence? Wasn’t this very determination to hold on to a fixed position the start of unpleasant competition? If one were to give up a fixed position and give oneself up to the flow of the sands, then competition would soon cease. In fact, even in the desert, flowers bloomed, insects and other creatures lived. Using their great ability to adapt, these creatures were able to escape the bounds of competition -an example of this was his beetle family.

As he concentrated his imagination on the patterns of the flowing sand, he was caught up from time to time by hallucinations in which he began to feel as if he himself was starting to flow.’


こそ I translated it as ‘very’. It’s a tricky emphatic suffix to decide how to translate but here seems to me to indicate that the very act itself is what leads directly to unpleasant consequences.

ありえないはずである Literally ‘inconceivable or impossible’ so it could betaken to imply that giving up your body to the flow, competition would be unable to take place or be waged, since it takes a fixed position to fight from or protect. Competition would cease but using that word (I followed DS since it feels like a slightly tighter fit) on its own is apt but loses the nuance of impossibility or inconceivability.

も ‘even in the desert’ I note it here since it is absent from DS translation. Why? I am not sure since it does have a clear function here and its lack significantly alters the sense, the point being that even here where fixed positions seem impossible due to flow and the harsh environment etc., life still appears.

競争圏外 Literally, ‘outside the field of competition’. I was tempted to use bounds since AK I feel is referring to the competitive arena of the ‘normal’ everyday world and its unpleasant struggles.

ハンミョウ Tiger Beetle or Cicindela japonica

心に描きながら Interesting one. This came up in my dictionary as ‘visualise’ imagine etc. I think that ‘muse’ does not satisfactorily contain the full image for me, the man standing at the brink of this flowing sand world looking at the shifting patterns (or seeing them in his imagination) and being spaced out or hypnotised by the hallucinatory effect. Musing just doesn’t do it here for me – that’s more of a sitting down and not looking at anything in particular but just thinking deeply about something. I think that there is a visual hypnotic dimension here that should not be missed out. Also I feel that the verb 描く  especially lends itself to a visual interpretation and needs to be in there.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Woman in the Dunes - Chapter 2, Section 3 continued p10-11

Woman in the Dunes – Chapter 2 Section 3 continued p.10-11

The story continues with the man reaching some signs of habitation at the coast as the landscape gradually becomes more sandy and barren. He stumbles across a village and as he make his way through it notices something strange.

I chose this section to highlight since it reminds me a little of what Abe Kobo has said about his novel being a tribute to Lewis Carroll. It is a physical landscape which seems to develop a topsy-turvy logic where walls, floors and even sand hills create a strange almost illusory atmosphere. It’s a prefiguring of the trap he is unwittingly walking into, as he minutely observes through the man’s eyes, each house sitting at the bottom of a sand depression, isolated or trapped in their own individual prisons. At this stage, however, the passages still have a dream like rather than overtly nightmare quality.


‘The road gradually began to incline more steeply and became sandier, and the strange thing was that the walls of the buildings didn’t get any higher. Only the road did. The village itself stayed level. No, that wasn’t quite it; it wasn’t just the road, the spaces between the buildings too were getting higher, just like the road. So from one viewpoint, although the whole village was sloping uphill, the actual buildings were being left behind on the surface. This impression became all the more pronounced as he continued forward until finally all of the houses became buried in the sandy slope and looked as if they were each standing at the bottom of a deep hollow. In fact the height of the slope went higher than that of the roofs and the rows of houses gradually sank deeper into the hollows created by the dunes.’



Literally ‘the sand became more and more sandy/sand like’. The sand before was presumably a mix of hard ground and sand and the text has previously alluded to the consistency of the terrain underfoot. Here we have the sand to hard ground ratio gradually leaning toward the sand part. The line is quite vivid for me as I remember that feeling of walking from the start of the beach towards the dunes (say at Camber Sands in the UK) and the increasing softening and loss of purchase of the foot. Again a metaphor for the protagonist losing control over the physical environment and becoming caught helplessly up in it.


It’s a great moment of vivid drama where you can almost hear the man’s inner voice, urging him to correct his initially unsatisfactory description of the elusive Cagliariesque landscape around him. A moment of self doubt and an attempt to pin down this dream like and bizarre environment he is stumbling through.

境 (さかい)

Lit., border or boundary/divide. Here I thought ‘spaces’ more appropriate since he seems to be referring to the areas between the buildings (and the sand levels) are also rising.


I had a bit of trouble with this. I thought does this mean, from a point of view (any) it could appear to be so, or from his point of view, or one way of looking at it. It could even be ‘seen from this angle’ in the sense of his current ‘camera position’. So I plumed from the old translators cheat; a word or phrase which in English could mean both or either. It could be much like the Japanese and possibly even intentional from the authors POV. I suppose it depends how directly/indirectly you are going to take the word or phrase. I get the image of him looking down around him at what is happening to the houses so it’s directly for me. Of course comments re this are most welcome.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Tale of the Heike - New Translation out in Penguin Books

Just a quick Bookflash. I am always a bit slow regarding these things but a new translation of the Heike Monogatari has been published in Penguin Hardbacks by Royall Tyler. Its been out since January this year (hence my apologies for the slow flash) but has been garnering some decent reviews. It retails at 30 GBP but can probably be resting in your laps at a much reduced price via Amazon...

I am reading through the Bruce Tsuchida translation published by the Tokyo University Press and using it as a crib with the Iwanami Koten series text. It will be interesting to compare the two since the styles are bound to be quite different the translation I am using currently seems quite loose in some places.

It's one to put on the wish list for sure and for more details you can go here

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Woman in the Dunes -Chapter 2 - Section 1 continued. p-8-9

Woman in the Dunes – Chapter 2 Section 1 continued  (p.8-9)


‘Finally, the houses petered out and gave way to pine forest. At some point the ground changed to fine grained sandy soil that clutched at the soles of the feet. Here and there, clumps of dried grass cast their shadows upon the sandy hollows and still, as if by mistake there appeared the odd meager-looking aubergine plot, the size of a single tatami-mat. But of any human presence there was no sign. There was no doubt now that the sea lay just ahead.’

松林 Pinewood. I see the trees here scattered and increasing in frequency as part of the change of the landscape as opposed to a discrete outcrop of plants or a grove. The gradual and apparent imperceptible changes in the landscape heighten the sense of unreality or impossibility to pin down the changes, when they happen, exactly what they are, what they mean and here いつか is one of the words in this passage that conveys this indistinct, vague and dreamlike quality to the description. It’s one of his key words and crops up from time to time as well as others (and not only in this novel) to make sure the reader never really feel that he is on solid ground.

I am hammering on about this a bit because I think it’s important not to lose sight of Abe Kobo’s lyrical/poetical sense when translating. It is very deceptive when encountering his prose and I think that a lot of translators including my humble and oft mistaken efforts) can fall into the trap of seeing only the stark modernism in his writing. I have a feeling that we can tend to project the ‘minimalist’ image a bit too much and the underlying lyricism is in danger of being erased with a French style new wave approach to rendering this prose. The only prose I can think that really achieves such starkness is Beckett in the Malloy series. But Kobo Abe’s final agenda is not one of such starkness. Or if on the surface it is his initial intention, it’s a conscious failure almost as a demonstration of his surrealist rejection of scientific logic and communistic utopianism together.

He has stated that this work was homage to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (or possibly Through the Looking Glass, I will have to check that out) and that for me as well his affinity with Kafka’s work leads me to try as much as possible to heighten that surreal otherworldliness.

間違えたように As if by mistake. As if it wasn’t meant to be there.

一枚ほどの The size of a single (tatami) mat. I think you have to put this in since just ‘mat’ might mislead some into thinking we are talking about some kind of micro-farming.

まるで Again emphasis or intensifier of the sense of empty surreal and non-human landscape. This section strikes me a sort of airlock part of the novel where the man has left the known inhabited world and is now passing through a non-world in human terms, his self exile, and his (temporary) freedom from human conditions.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

古典Corner 3: Nuns go crazy on Magic Mushrooms

One of the selected translations I read recently from  the Konjaku Monogatarishu (the tale I am referring to is in the Japan (Honcho) section本朝世俗部 section of the work,  今は昔の物語 二十八巻第二十八 「尼共、入山食茸舞語)  relates the strange tale of some woodcutters who losing their way on the mountains north of the capital, encounter a groups of wildly dancing nuns, unable to stop dancing like crazy due to having eaten some ‘dancing’ or 舞茸 maitake mushrooms. The nuns invite the woodcutters to partake of the same mushrooms and lo and behold, they too start uncontrollably busting a few moves all over the mountain forests until they are all danced out and collapse in a pile of rave weary woodcutters. Well, it is a volume dealing with humourous or ridiculous stories滑稽譚and this one certainly fits the bill but could it also be a very early example of (un)holy drug abuse?
The translation I read is in Haruo Shirane ed. Traditional Japanese Literature, An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, but it also seems to have caught the imagination of some other translators, notably an Esperanto version here . I wanted to see if I could find a manuscript version of the tale in order to have a closer look at the original text (as original as possible) but it does not seem to be a surviving part of the Suzuka manuscript (鈴鹿家旧蔵本) at Kyoto University Library. The collection of tales are from a variety of sources, some other earlier collections and possible transcriptions of orally transmitted tales not written down elsewhere, and according to the Wikipedia entry for the Suzuka Manuscript that it’s likely that it is the source manuscript from which the other later extant fragments and works originate although the whole picture about the Konjaku seems misty at best.
I wonder if there was more than one compiler or a team of compilers (a monk version/s of the Brothers Grimm either travelling around or collecting orally transmitted folk and local tales from travelers from other regions as well as using earlier collections of setsuwa) over many years and in several areas added to the work building it up into the 31 Volume beast that it became…has anyone read all of the tales contained in it?
Maitake (舞茸), or Grifola Frondosa, an edible polypore mushroom which is often found growing at the base of oak trees and common to Japan. It is traditionally used in Japanese and Chinese herbal medicine (as well as being eaten for food generally) as a regulator of blood pressure and a general tonic for fortifying the immune system. It is known in Japan as 舞茸 probably due to the undulating wavy form of its lobes suggesting a dancing image. And yet I can’t help thinking that the nuns may have stumbled upon a patch of psilocybin –rich lookalikes.