Translator’s Note

March 24, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard


I was over at Sonnenzimmer the other day – we were figuring out how to press the 7″ for the Gazette (I still can’t believe it – we’re about 3 weeks away from having the thing in our hands. Isn’t that amazing? Of course then we’ll be assembling the thing (i.e. inserting the 7″ and John Huston photos), and trying to promote it before its release, but still – we’re so close!). Anyway, Nadine loaned me this book, “A Personal Matter” by Kenzaburo Oe. I’ve only just started it, but it’s pretty incredible. Also there is a really great biographical note here, Oe, it seems, was writing on both sides of World War II. He was also the first person in his family to leave his village and go to Tokyo – which, if you read the bio, is of special note. Oe won the nobel prize for literaturei in 1994.

What I’ve transcribed for you, however, is not any text from Oe’s book. Rather, I’ve included the translator’s (John Nathan’s) note. I thought it would be interesting to supply this meta-text – to reveal something about the person who is making Oe’s work accessible to the Western audience.


“There is a tradition in Japan: no one takes a writer seriously while he is still in school. Perhaps the only exceptin has been Kenzaburo Oe. In 1958, a student in French Literature at Tokyo University, Oe won the Akutagawa Prize for a novella called The Catch (about a ten-year-old Japanese boy who is betrayed by a Negro pilot who has been shot down over his village), and was proclaimed the most promising writer to have appeared since Yukio Mishima.

“Last year, to mark his first decade as a writer, Oe’s collected works were published–two volumes of essays, primarily political (Oe is an uncompromising spokesman for the New Left of Japan), dozens of short stores, and eight novels, of whish the most recent is A Personal Matter. Oe’s industry is dazzling. But even more remarkable is his popularity, which has conitnued to climb: to date, the Complete Works, in six volumes, has sold nine hundred thousand copies. The key to Oe’s popularity is his sensitivity to the very special predicament of the postwar generation; he is as important as he is becaus ehe has provided that generation with a hero of its own.

“On the day the Emperor announced the Surrender in August 1945, Oe was a ten-year-old boy living in a mountain village. Here is how he recalls the event:

‘The adults sat around their radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment. We were most confused and disapointed by the fact that the Emperor had spoken in a human voice, no different from any adult’s. None of us understood what he was saying, but we all heard his voice. One of my friends could even imitate it cleverly. Laughing, we surrounded him–a twelve-year old in grimy shorts who spoke with the Emperor’s voice. A minute later we felt afraid. We looked at one another; no one spoke. How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?’

“Small wonder that Oe and his generation were bewildered. Throughout the war, a part of each day in every Japanese school was devoted to a terrible litany. The Ethics teacher would call the boys to the front of the class and demand of them one by one what they would do if the Emperor commanded them to die. Shaking with fright, the child would answer, I would die, Sir, I would rip open my belly and die. Students passed the Imperial portrait with their eyes to the ground, afraid their eyeballs would explode if they looked His Imperial Majesty in the face. And Kenzaburo Oe had a recurring dream in which the Emperor swopped out of the sky like a bird, his body covered with white feathers.

The emblematic hero of Oe’s novels, in each book a little older and more sensible of his distress, has been deprived of his ethical inheritance. The values that regulated life in the world he knew as a child, however fatall, were blown to smithereens at the end of the war. The crater that remained is a gaping crater still, despite imported filler like Democracy. It is the emptiness and enervation of life in such a world, the frightening absense of continuity, which drive Oe’s hero beyond the frontiers of respectibility into the wilderness of sex and violence and political fanaticism. Like Huckleberry Finn–Oe’s favorite book!–he is impelled again and again to “light out for the territory.” He is an adventurer in quest of peril, which seems to be the only solution to the deadly void back home. More often than not he finds what he is looking for, and it destroys him.

A word about the language of A Personal Matter. Oe’s style has been the subject of much contraversy in Japan. It reads a thin line between artful rebellion and mere unruliness. That is its excitement and the reason why it is so very difficult to translate. Oe consciously interferes with the tendency to vagueness which is conosidered inherent in the Japanese language. He violates its natural rhythms; he pushes the meanings of words to their furthest acceptable limits. In short, he is in the process of evolving a language all his own, a language which can accommodate the virulence of his imagination. There are critics in Japan who take offense. They cry that Oe’s prose “reeks of butter,” which is a way o fsaying that he has alloyed the purity of Japanese with constructions from Western languages. It is true that Oe’s style assaults traditional notions of what the genius of language is. But that is to be expected: his entire stance is an assault on traditional values. The protoganist of his fiction is seeking his identity in a perilous wilderness, and it is fitting that his language should be just what it is–wild, unresolved, but never less than vital.

March, 1968


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