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Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001


A story that just doesn't translate

DRUNK AS A LORD: Samurai Stories, by Ryotaro Shiba; translated by Eileen Kato. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001, 253 pp., 3,500 yen (cloth)

Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996), a distinguished historical writer, brought Japan's past alive by examining many of its important historical figures and the personal struggles they faced in meeting the challenges of their times. Although Shiba wrote prolifically and enjoyed widespread popularity in Japan, this is only the second of his works to be translated into English. The first, "The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu," met with critical acclaim in the West. Why, then, does the bulk of Shiba's work remain untranslated?

Shuji Takashina, director of the National Museum of Western Art, writes that Japanese, who are familiar with the figures in their country's history, are "more apt to be stirred by accounts of their exploits or excited by a new interpretation of their character. For non-Japanese lacking any prior historical knowledge, however, Shiba's novels would doubtless be rather inaccessible." This second book just might prove his assessment correct.

"Drunk as a Lord" is a collection of four novellas (the first shares the same title) set during the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate. The drunken lord is Yamauchi Yodo, daimyo of Tosa, also known as the Inebriate Lord of the Cetacean Sea (and yes, that means he drank like a fish). Shiba, who writes with affinity for Yodo, calls him a drunkard for the first time on page 103, at the very end of the story. I was calling him an alcoholic and a bad word that also begins with "a" by page 12, and things only got worse.

Even foreign readers familiar with Japanese history will encounter a gaping cultural chasm in this novel that can't be bridged by translation alone. For example, when Shiba describes the nursemaid in "The Ghost of Saga" as a rare beauty with great wisdom, readers expect a followup that fits the general description. What they get is a vignette of an abusive, yet common (for the time), punishment that she practiced on her young charge's playmates when he misbehaved -- moxa burning. The boy soon develops a compulsive hand-washing disorder. Westerners will hardly be surprised, though they will wonder what prompted the writer to call her wise in the first place.

Similarly, when Yodo is described as a poet, intellectual and peerless debater in "Drunk as a Lord," the reader is hardly expecting a double-talking, pompous tyrant who tortures political prisoners. Of course, having wisdom and a fine intellect does not exclude the potential for base conduct, but some warning would be helpful.

"The Fox Horse" and "Date's Black Ship" are less problematic. In "The Fox Horse," Hisamitsu, father of the successor to the Satsuma domain, is a wannabe scholar who connives for power, but is defeated by his second-rate intellect. Here is the prototypical clueless master manipulated by retainers who are superior to him in every way except rank.

"Date's Black Ship" presents another superior mind in a morass of snobs, dimwits and flunkies. Kazu is the neighborhood pariah and paper-lantern repairman with a genius for engineering. He almost succeeds in building an operable steamship, but the aristocratic blockheads on his development team keep mucking things up. Is it irony that the "back-alley slum dweller," the "lowest of the low," is the only major character with genuine integrity?

Even if the Western reader agrees with Shiba's character assessments, he still must plow through a cast of unpalatable personalities. This is, of course, the same cast that appears in "The Last Shogun," but with an important difference. "The Last Shogun" features a wonderfully complex, central character with universal appeal. Also, in that book, translator Juliet Winters Carpenter managed to rein in Shiba's rambling, discursive style, which reads well in his native tongue but confounds in translation. In the "Translator's Notes" she admits to editorial tweaking by providing explanations and trimming passages. What a difference it made.

Not only translation, but also judicious choice of material, interpretation and editing are necessary if Shiba's work is to find an audience outside of Japan.

Margaret Stawowy, a former Yokohama resident, is a poet and critic who has relocated to the San Francisco Bay area.

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