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Thursday, May 13, 1999

Miyazawa comes to life for young English readers

Staff writer
GAUCHE THE CELLIST; SNOW CROSSING; THE STORY OF THE ZASHIKI BOKKO and Three Poems; THE RESTAURANT OF MANY ORDERS (4 vols. with four CDs and read-along booklet in English and Japanese), by Kenji Miyazawa, translated by Roger Pulvers, illustrated by Osamu Tsukasa. Tokyo: Labo Teaching Information Center, 1998; books 2,100 yen, 2,100 yen, 2,000 yen, 2,000 yen respectively, 4-CD set 8,600 yen.

Kenji Miyazawa, the centenary of whose birth was celebrated just three years ago, needs no introducing to Japanese readers. Most Japanese could recite or at least recognize lines from his best-known poems, including the modern inspirational classic "Ame ni mo makezu," (here translated as "Strong in the Rain"), and many have been familiar with his fables, satires and fairy tales since childhood.

Miyazawa is not nearly so well-known outside Japan, but English-language readers have had some access to his richly imagined world in recent years, most notably through John Bester's excellent translations of the principal works -- including "Ginga tetsudo no yoru (Night Train to the Stars)" (Kodansha, 1996) and two dozen of Miyazawa's best stories (collected under the title "Once and Forever," revised edition, Kodansha, 1997). Bester's version of "Night Train to the Stars" is especially valuable in that the original Japanese text is printed on the facing pages -- a rare boon for the language student.

The distinction of this new sequence of translations by Roger Pulvers, a Kyoto-based writer, lecturer and stage director, is that it opens a window onto Miyazawa's original Japanese for very young students as well.

(The question of whether Miyazawa's stories should properly be considered "children's fare" or not is an old one; the best answer is that while most of them can indeed be understood on a literal level by quite young readers, they generally contain deeper levels of symbolism and allusion that are not grasped until much later. But since the originals are widely read by Japanese children, it seems reasonable to pitch translations to English-speaking children too.)

In fact, this multimedia kit of brightly illustrated books and accompanying CDs appears to have been specifically designed for use in the schoolroom, rather than for independent readers.

Here is how it works. Each of the selected stories or poems is given, sentence by sentence (or sometimes clause by clause), first in English, then in Japanese. As they follow the printed bilingual text, students can see what the Japanese looks like; as they listen to the audio version, they get to hear what it sounds like.

Interleaving the pages of printed text are colorful, abstract paintings by Osamu Tsukasa, with hints, varying from book to book, of Miro, Kandinsky, Matisse and Braque. Enhancing the spoken text are appropriate musical selections (for example, when the orchestra is rehearsing Beethoven's Sixth Symphony at the start of the story "Gauche the Cellist," strains from the symphony are heard in the background). "Once Around the Stars," which Miyazawa himself set to music, is actually sung, not spoken. And so on.

In the case of longer stories like "Gauche the Cellist" (interestingly, Bester translates the name as "Gorsch," which has quite a different ring to it), the original text has been trimmed, presumably for reasons of space. However, the cuts, though substantial in parts, do not harm the narrative "skeleton" of the story or detract significantly from its peculiar atmosphere -- half-funny, half-solemn, like a fable from Aesop, if much less clear in moral intent.

As an introduction to Miyazawa for young readers, Pulvers' selection of texts is sensible, favoring stories that are strong on action, character and humor rather than the more poetic or mystical tales whose meaning remains somewhat opaque even to the most sophisticated reader.

One cannot help thinking, though, that the audience for whom these books are intended -- English-reading youngsters whose Japanese is good enough to follow the texts in the original -- is a fairly small one. It is perhaps worth pointing out that language students of any age, if they can momentarily overlook the fact that the set constitutes No. 27 of the Labo Teaching Information Center's "Sounds in Kiddyland" series, may find this package an invaluable learning tool.

Labo Teaching Information Center can be contacted at 8-4-5 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0023; tel. (03) 3367-2422.

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