Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Psychology and Japanese Fiction

Kate: Light novels seem to always have a psychological component, discussions of why people behave the way they do. Would you say that capturing inner beliefs is difficult in all writing, easier in Japanese, more difficult . . . ?
Eugene: It's probably easier in Japanese, as the writer is less likely to get bogged down in a morass of first-person pronouns. Japanese literature created the genre known as the "I-novel," and many works of poetry going back to the Heian period are intense first-person explorations of the psyche.

Anime series from Kanon to Madoka Magica can easily be interpreted as journeys through the mind of the protagonist, and Kokoro Connect makes this explicit. The entire last third of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro has "Sensei" explaining at length to the narrator why he is the way he is.

At the end of the day, when it comes to talking about yourself, it's the skill of the writer that makes the biggest difference.
Kate: People are people and relationships are difficult. In the romance light novels as in the American paperbacks I read, the difficulties rest on miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misreading. The ultimate desired outcome is closeness.

So far, so good: people are people. However, one difference seems to be that in Japanese light novels, the closeness is achieved by figuring out exactly how much power to give up while in American paperbacks, closeness is achieved by dismissing or supposedly rising above issues of power. Consequently, Japanese light novels seem closer to Jane Austen/nineteenth century literature with the ongoing negotiation of hierarchy, power, and money. Would you say this is a fair assessment of Japanese literature and society?
Popular series Emma by Kaoru Mori
tackles servant and master relations
in Victorian England.
Eugene: Yes, very much so. The Faulkner quote, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past," is a good way to approach Japanese sociology. The feudal Edo period only ended in 1868 and it didn't really end until 1945 (if even then).

Feudalism arises out of the common denominators of human interaction. There will never be a "classless" society, so the gravity of feudalism will always exert a force. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

No, romantic love doesn't overcome it either. As C.S. Lewis has written at length, it is more likely to royally screw everything up. Candid discussions of power, money, and sex will prove more productive in the long run.
Kate: Regarding psychological trends, are the Japanese more nature or nurture oriented? Some American readers complain/point out that light novels are still (in the 21st century) filled with Freudian (“nurture-centered”) arguments. Is Freud popular in Japanese culture?
A trope in shojo and yaoi manga/
light novels is when one character
discovers how hard another works.
Eugene: Japan actually came up with its own sort-of-Freudian theory, that was energized by the Nihonjinron movement, which naturally proclaimed it uniquely Japanese. It was popularized in The Anatomy of Dependence by Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, published in 1971.
"Amae is the nominal form of the verb amaeru, which Doi uses to describe the behavior of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as a parent, spouse, teacher, or supervisor, to take care of him. The behavior of children towards their parents is perhaps the most common example of amae, but Doi argued that child-rearing practices in the Western world seek to stop this kind of dependence, whereas in Japan it persists into adulthood in all kinds of social relationships."
Amae is seen as arising out of "Japaneseness" rather than genes. Japanese are nurture oriented. Although "IQ" is mentioned all the time--brilliant detectives always have high IQs and attended institutions like Harvard and Cambridge--what matters for everybody else is the ganbaru variable.

A movie like Stand and Deliver belongs to its own genre in Japanese entertainment, epitomized by television series like Dragon Zakura. Almost the entire emphasis is on EFFORT. Shoulder to the wheel and nose to the grindstone, that's what success is made of.
Japanese can be VERY introspective. As my Japanese theory of everything goes, the mysteriousness of Japan is often simply the result of it being a country of introverts who rarely see the need to spill all their mental anguish to a shrink. The stigma of mental illness is pervasive.

That's what books with thinly-veiled fictional protagonists are for.

Again, we get back to the "ganbaru" mentality. People have problems because they're not trying hard enough not to have them.
From Culture Map by Erin Meyer
Kate: Some sociologists argue that Asians see things/people in terms of their relationship to their surroundings while westerners see the person as emphatically an individual. So a portrait of an Asian by an Asian would place that person in context while a portrait of an American by an American would focus on the face.

Almost all light novels I've encountered are heavy on dialog but also go out of their way to provide setting details--where exactly things are spatially in an apartment or business, city or country. Is this specifically Japanese (people/things in context) or a product of the light novel genre?
Eugene: It's a Japanese thing (granted, my sample size here is two).

Japanese television has the usual travel shows about adventurers venturing off the exotic locations along with the more sedate Rick Steves-style tourist guides. But there are a whole lot of shows that focus exclusively on Japan, including the relatively mundane.

NHK has a series on one or two-day mountain hikes (not climbing, hiking to the top of a hikeable mountain). And there are a ton of series about accessible railway travel from point A to point B, with hardly a tourist trap in site.
Fans flocking to an area reminds me of
pilgrimages by young women to visit
"J. Dawson's" grave when Titanic came
out. No, Leonardo DiCaprio's character
wasn't based on him--the real J. Dawson
was a crew-member.

Granted, with 2000 years of recorded history, you can go anywhere in Japan and find something interesting to say about practically anything.

A show called Bura Tamori has a guy named Tamori (famous for hosting a pop music show a la Dick Clark), who walks around a city in Japan with a local historian and cartographer in tow and talks how the city grew to be the way it is. (I find stuff like that fascinating.)

 Asadora are always linked to a specific geographical settings. A five-minute addendum is appended to the end of every Taiga historical drama episode that explores the episode's past and present-day setting, how to get there and what to see.

 Then there's the "holy sites" phenomenon:
"When an anime is set in a certain locale, or even if background scenery strongly resembles a certain locale, that anime's fans will flock to the area to see the sights for themselves and buy local merchandise."
Kate: When you are writing/translating, does geography pose a problem? Do you rely on maps? You've lived in Japan—but of course, construction and new projects do change landscapes. How reliable is Google Maps? Did you go by memory or web images to write Serpent of Time and Fox and Wolf?
Mount Koya: a important location in Serpent of Time.
Eugene: Geography is a big challenge and Google Maps is a massively useful tool. When I was writing Serpent of Time, Google Maps let me drive the same road that Ishibashi-san takes from Kii Kamiya to Kudoyama. I had visited the area in person, but hadn't taken that particular route.

I also made use of Meiji Era maps of Osaka and Wakayama published online by the East Asia Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

In Fox & Wolf, Google Maps let me I drive from Hiraoka shrine to Mt. Ikoma and then to the Ikoma Skyland Amusement Park. And when I was translating Demon City Shinjuku, Google Maps and Google Images helped to clear away the confusion on several occasions.
COMING NEXT: The Act of Translation

No comments: