2013 Translation Projects
I began studying East Asia more than 20 years ago as a young college student fascinated by Japanese art and literature. But I understand even better today how important forms of culture are in educating people around the world about East Asian society and history. Having gone on to graduate school and acquired a very specialized understanding of East Asian culture, I remain especially interested in narrative fiction for its capacity to endow words with a subtlety and social significance that normally they do not carry in their everyday usage, for its remarkable ability, in other words, to convey a rich understanding of the human experience that need not resort to a specialized academic idiom.
It is in part for this reason that making available to English speakers a far more representative selection of East Asian literature has been one of my greatest ambitions as an academic. The National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship will help to dignify my efforts to expand what counts as Japanese literature to include works written by and about people often on the margins of society. With the addition of works like Crimson to the canon of Japanese literature in translation, we can begin to more adequately account for the rich array of narratives that emerged in the modern period around the world.
Excerpt from Crimson by Sata Ineko
The moonlight cast a sharp, almost chilling, glow on the steel railings of the bridge. Its reflection floated gently on the surface of the river, occasionally flickering out of sight as the water flowed by.
"Let's sit down here for a while."
Akiko was keen on calming the trembling of her heart, and knelt down on the gravel beside Koichi.
"The moon sure is bright, isn't it?"
She could see the moon's reflection in the boy's eyes as he looked up into the sky where she was pointing.
Oh, what a darling little boy! My darling little son sitting here so joyfully at my side.
With these tender thoughts caressing her mind, Akiko noticed a pebble at the side of her shoe. She picked it up, shook it around in her cupped hands, and then separated her hands into two fists, which she then stuck out in front of Koichi.
"Now, tell me, which one is the pebble in?"
Huh? Koichi smiled with surprise, looking up at his mother. Once it became clear to him how to play the game, however, he set himself to the task of comparing his mother's two fists with a mischievous determination.
"This one," he said, tapping firmly on one of her fists with his finger.
"Oops, you lose . . . Now you try, Koichi."
In his childish way, Koichi imitated what his mother had just done, his growing smile now illuminated by the moon. Then he thrust his two fists out in front of him.
"Let's see. How about this one."
"Nope, you got it wrong, mommy. It's this one."
The boy triumphantly opened his clasped fists, then raised his hands once again to his ears, shaking them around.
A chill from the gravel she was sitting on passed through Akiko's cotton robe. Her shoulders, too, felt cold in the white light of the moon.
Akiko paused for a moment to listen to the murmuring river as it flowed along ceaselessly. Rippling and rolling this way and that, the river turned here and curved softly there, eventually flowing into downtown Tokyo. The river would pass alongside filthy alleyways, crammed with small houses, as the sounds of its rippling waters were drowned by the screeches of electric trains. It would then shimmer in the harsh light of daily life as it meandered through the city center. At the prefectural border it would finally merge with the larger river and pour out into the sea. The water kept coming and coming, flowing on until who knew when.
From time to time there blew a whistle of a commuter train heading far to the north -- these were trains from Tokyo bound for Kawagoe.
There was something sad in the sight of Akiko sitting there like this, hiding her feelings in a game of stones with her son. With his back and slender neck forming a soft, round silhouette, the boy himself looked like a little monkey, sat there ever so small beneath a sky crowned with the rising moon.
About Sata Ineko
In the late 1920s, Sata Ineko became famous for drawing on modernist techniques to highlight social inequalities. She has long been cherished by feminists in Japan for articulating the struggles of working women in the novel form, and for showing in complex and nuanced ways how social forces such as class, gender, and ethnicity shape individual experiences. Sata is known in particular for the subtle power of her narrative fiction to communicate human feelings, and for the embrace of that power as a force for social change.
Samuel Perry is the translator of From Wonso Pond (New York: The Feminist Press, 2009), a serialized novel written in 1934 by the celebrated Korean writer Kang Kyŏng-ae. He has also translated many Japanese and Korean works of poetry and fiction (by Kobayashi Takiji, Tokunaga Sunao, Murayama Kazuko, Chang Hyŏk-chu, Yi T'ae-jun, and Chŏng Chi-yong), and publishes widely on the revolutionary cultural movements of 20th-century East Asia. In 2011, he won the William F. Sibley Memorial Translation Prize for "White and Purple," a translation of Sata Ineko's work "Shiro to murasaki" (1950). Currently interested in narratives and cultural practices related to the Korean War as it was experienced affectively in Japan, he is now an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at Brown University.
Photo by Samuel Perry