The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Culture and Education


Culture and Education

Japanese Literature in Translation

Hitomi Yoshio
Associate Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University

Finding good translations is the biggest challenge of teaching Japanese literature outside of Japan. While classics such as The Tale of Genji have been translated numerous times, and continue to be an inspiring endeavor to aspiring and esteemed translators, a great percentage of what gets published in Japan remains untranslated. As a result, works with existing translations fill the library shelves and bookstores, and are taught repeatedly in high school and college classrooms, creating a canon of “Japanese literature” that may look somewhat different from the original context. Translation is thus crucial not only for introducing new works and authors to international readers, but also for keeping alive the diversity of “Japanese literature” within the ever-expanding framework of world literature.

From 2012 to 2016, I taught Japanese literature in English to American undergraduate and graduate students at Florida International University in Miami. Japanese literature courses in the U.S. typically cover a wide range, starting from the classics and extending to the early modern and modern periods, occasionally touching upon postwar literature. This sweeping overview of literary history is possible partly due to the limitation of translated works, and it’s often challenging to shed light on the less established works and genres particularly when it comes to contemporary literature. This is unfortunate since, as I quickly discovered, students who become interested in Japan through anime or manga are often drawn to the “non-canonical” – especially works from recent decades that resonate with their own experience and engage with their understanding of Japanese culture.

『Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan』Vol.1-7

One source that proved useful in addressing these students’ interests was Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan, a unique literary magazine which specializes in contemporary Japanese literature. I can still recall the excitement on the students faces when they first saw the striking, colorful covers of the magazine, so jarringly different from the classical works they had been reading until then. I gave as little guidance as possible, letting the students work freely through the magazine as they thumbed through the pages. One student was drawn to the name of Haruki Murakami and chose to read an interview. Others immersed themselves in short stories by Hiromi Kawakami, Hideo Furukawa, or Mieko Kawakami. Some challenged themselves to haiku and poems, or graphic novels that were distinctly different from the manga they usually read. It was an experience that allowed students to dismantle the image of “Japan” that is so often conjured when studying Japanese literature, and in a way, to reshape that image into something more diverse and resonant, more cacophonous.

In the fall of 2016, I moved to Japan and joined Waseda University where I am currently teaching a course called “Contemporary Japanese Fiction in English Translation” to Japanese students. In the course, I introduce several major overseas publications such as The New Yorker, Granta and Paris Review, as well as smaller journals such as Words Without Borders and Monkey Business. Through a close study of the fictional works in relation to the international print and online venues, the class explores the diverse themes and styles of contemporary Japanese fiction and examines how selected works and authors have been introduced and circulated in the global market. An underlying objective of the course is to give students an opportunity to see anew the value of Japanese literature from a transcultural perspective, in conversation with and as a vibrant part of world literature.

Comparing the original with translated texts often leads to interesting class discussions about how the process of translating a work into English can open the text to new interpretations. Take, for example, Yoko Ogawa, who was originally translated into French and is one of the few Japanese writers to be published in The New Yorker. When her award-winning short story, “Pregnancy Diary,” appeared in the prestigious magazine, the editors made significant deletions which altered the text. In the story, the narrator meticulously records her older sister’s pregnancy in diary form while she makes and offers her jam made with imported American grapefruit, which she believes to be toxic. Because several scenes which depicted the narrator’s relationship with other family members were deleted, there is increased ambiguity surrounding her motive to “poison” her older sister. As a result, the deletion intensifies the focus on the relationship between the sisters, and opens the possibility of interpreting the two as doubles (or alter egos). This was an example of how a translation has the potential to uncover new dimensions and complicate the understanding of the original text.

In April 2017, Waseda University’s School of Culture, Media and Society launched the Global Studies in Japanese Cultures Program (JCulP), an English-based degree program that aims to study Japanese culture from a global perspective. The program is designed with an interdisciplinary approach, encouraging students to take classes from a wide range of fields such as literature, film, popular culture, history, religious thought, and art history. I look forward to reading and discussing Japanese literature in both the original and in English translation with a diverse group of students from all over the world, cultivating a transcultural perspective that will enrich the study of Japanese literature and culture.

To end the essay on a personal note, one of my most rewarding experiences as a translator has been to build a relationship with the author Mieko Kawakami, whose work I have translated over the years. When you closely engage with works by a single author, especially through the intimate act of translation, you begin to inhabit a kind of worldview that traverses their works, which can be a hauntingly rich experience. When I first began to translate Kawakami’s work in 2011, she existed only as a shadowy figure whom I glimpsed through the words on the page. Then in 2013, I was invited to participate in the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, where we spent a week together appearing in various events. We now discuss future projects together and she often asks my opinion on how her work would be received by the English-speaking audience. My experience as a translator has inspired me to continue my work as a teacher and a scholar to help make Japanese literature and culture accessible to a global audience, as a dynamic and integral part of world literature.

At the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) held in Toronto, Canada

At a literary event in Brooklyn, NY with author Mieko Kawakami

The audience gathered at a publishing event for Monkey Business in Brooklyn

Hitomi Yoshio
Associate Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University

B.A. Yale University, Department of English, 2001.
M.A. The University of Tokyo, Department of English, 2005.
Ph.D. Columbia University, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (Japanese Literature), 2012.

Florida International University, Assistant Professor (2012-2016)
Department of Modern Languages and the Asian Studies Program

Specialty: Modern Japanese literature, women’s and gender studies, translation, comparative literature.

Research Interests: History of women’s literature in Japan, women’s coming-of-age narratives, literary modernism, reception and translation of western literature in Japan.