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Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2000

Ordinary life made transcendent


EVENING CLOUDS: A Novel, by Junzo Shono, translated by Wayne P. Lammers. Stone Bridge Press, 2000, 222 pp., $12.95.

I remember being startled when I read Wayne Lammers' translation for the first time. That was when, back in 1985, I was reading for review the two-volume "Showa Anthology," a collection of 25 writers, each represented by a single entry, mostly translated by different hands. Lammers had translated excerpts from Shono Junzo's "Seibutsu" (Still Life), and his rendition didn't read like a translation at all. If you ignored the names and such, that is.

I had the same impression reading "Evening Clouds," Lammers' translation of Shono's "Yube no Kumo," so this time I decided to compare it with the original.

An early chapter, "End and Beginning," opens with the narrator overhearing his wife helping one of their sons, Shojiro, do his summer-vacation science assignment. Like "Still Life," published in 1960, "Evening Clouds," published in 1965, is a series of vignettes of domestic life -- the daily goings-on of a family made up of father, mother, daughter and two sons. In reality, of course, the family is Shono's, though the family name is changed to Oura.

The chapter begins:

" 'Oh, here it is!' Oura heard his wife say in the other room. 'It's called 'sea tigertail.' " " 'Weird name!' " 'Never mind that. Hurry up and write it down.' " 'Okay.' This voice belonged to Shojiro, the third-grade boy. 'Se-a-ti-ger,' he sounded it out as he wrote. " 'Not just tiger. Tigertail.' " 'Oh, right.' " 'Be sure not to leave off the tail.' "

In Shono, the mother and son sound Japanese; in Lammers' translation, they sound American. How does Lammers do it?

In the original, the son's response to the mother's command, "Sassa to kakinasai" (Hurry up and write it down), is "Hai," which, in the Japanese context, conveys correct filial obedience. By avoiding "yes" in favor of "okay," however, Lammers deftly creates an atmosphere that suggests a somewhat more relaxed American mother-son relationship. A similar thing may be said about the son's response, "A, souka," which Lammers gives as "Oh, right."

The scene goes on to play with a verbal association, a difficulty Lammers solves with seeming effortlessness. Mrs. Oura dictates "umi tora-no-o," "sea tigertail" (a literal translation, by the way), and Shojiro starts writing "u-mi-do," saying it aloud, and that prompts the eavesdropping narrator to muse. To render the passage as faithfully to the original as I can:

"Say umi tora-no-o, and it sounds like the name of some seaweed. What sort of seaweed Oura wouldn't know, but there should be no mystery whatsoever if there were such seaweed growing somewhere. But just give a single voiced sound to it, and the feeling becomes totally different. Say 'umi-dora-no-o,' and you feel as though something ferocious were stalking the bottom of the sea."

As you see, doing it this way makes it necessary to include Japanese words, mystifying the uninitiated reader: How can changing "to" (voiceless sound) to "do" (voiced sound) make such a difference? So Lammers makes the mother tell her son "not to leave off the tail," rather than correcting the voiced sound he had introduced, as she does in Shono's original. Then, he adjusts Oura's musings accordingly.

"Sea tigertail sounded like a fitting name for some seaweed, Oura thought. Not that he had any idea what kind of seaweed it might be, but it didn't surprise him that something growing in the ocean would have a name like that. Taking away the tail, though, gave it an entirely different ring. It sounded like some kind of ferocious sea beast prowling about the ocean floor."

Another thing Lammers does to bring about a natural American narrative flow reminds me of what Edward Seidensticker once said. A dozen years ago, he gave a caustic talk in New York. Japanese scholars -- those who think they can read English, mind you -- fussily inspect his translations. Then they point out, grumbled the redoubtable translator, that in "Yukiguni" (Snow Country), for example, he deploys an array of English verbs where Kawabata, the master of simple Japanese prose, uses the verb "iu" (say) more or less consistently.

So, in a chapter called "Knob Sticks," where Yasuo, the Oura's other son, brings home an unusual flower he's found on a piece of land near their house, still not bulldozed by developers, Mrs. Oura, who's been taking an afternoon nap, wakes up and notices it.

" 'Oh!' she exclaims, jumping to her feet. 'You have a new flower. Where'd you find it?' "

By checking a children's encyclopedia, the family learns that its name is "ebine," or "shrimproot." Yasuo reads aloud the entry explaining why the plant is called by that inelegant name.

" 'But it has such a pretty flower,' Mrs. Oura protested. 'You'd think they could come up with something much nicer, instead of naming it for its roots.' "

You guessed it. For both "exclaim" and "protest," Shono uses the verb "iu." And that's what Shono does more or less throughout the book.

I must hasten to add that there is nothing intrinsically American about replacing "say" with "exclaim," "protest" and similarly more active verbs. One thinks of Hemingway or, to name the author a Japanese friend who has read him has brought up for comparison, Raymond Carver. Yet, in view of the avuncular tone Shono maintains in his narrative, Lammers' approach seems to work just fine.

Shono once explained to a friend how he chose the title for this "novel." One evening he was lying on a grassy patch near his house, looking at the clouds right above him. The clouds changed colors moment by moment. Then it occurred to him: This moment of my life will disappear the next moment, never to be repeated again. . . .

In "Evening Clouds," the worst that befalls the family is a leg injury one of the sons sustains on a playground, which compels him to use crutches for a while. Otherwise, nothing momentous happens. Nevertheless, in describing daily affairs, Shono enacts a series of stories that "sometimes make you giggle, sometimes move you to almost tears," to quote the friend who brought up Raymond Carver. And Shono does this in a way that makes you very reluctant not to follow what he has to tell to the end, once you start doing so.

Wayne Lammers has published a complete translation of "Still Life" (Stone Bridge Press, 1992). He has also translated an equally remarkable novel, though in a different way, Ooka Shohei's "Furyoki" ("Taken Captive: A Japanese POW's Story," John Wiley, 1996). I recommend both as highly as "Evening Clouds."

Hiroaki Sato's next book of translation is "A Girl Who Turned into Tea: Poems of Minako Nagashima."


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