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Plumbing the Haunted Imagination of Yoko Ogawa

By Austin Woerner

Austin Woerner reports on the discussion between Stephen Snyder and Allison Powell at the Idlewild bookstore last Thursday, January 8, in New York City. You can find the video from the event at the Words Without Borders Youtube channel—Editors

As a translator of a language very different from my own—Chinese, in my case—I think of reading a foreign novel as something like dancing with an invisible partner, or trying to sketch the back of a statue in a museum just by looking at its front. As I read, my mind is busy trying to reconstruct the context of every detail: when so-and-so says such-and-such, what does that say about his personality? Does it mean the same thing as if he were an American character saying the same thing in English? You can't just translate the words—you must somehow translate the cultural assumptions that give them their resonance, and that's the trickiest thing of all. A bell cannot sound in a vacuum—so you must recreate both the bell and the air around it.

At Idlewild Books last Thursday, Stephen Snyder discussed his translation of The Diving Pool, a trio of spare, crystalline novellas by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. Trading musings and anecdotes with fellow Japanese translator and editor Alison Powell, Snyder entertainingly dissected the peculiarities of Ogawa's writing style, as well as the facets of Japanese culture that they illuminate. Listening in on this exchange—not knowing Japanese or having much familiarity with Japanese literature, "listening in" seems the proper verb—I felt like I was hearing the other end of the one-sided telephone conversation I overheard as I read The Diving Pool.

By calling The Diving Pool a one-sided conversation, I do not mean any slight to Snyder's craft, which is superb—the novels are beautiful to read in English, the prose graceful and limpid, the images bright and lucid. Subtleties of characters' emotional lives are rendered with a minute precision that reminds me of gem-cutting or arranging flowers. In no way do the stories seem "translated." But still the habitual questions kept popping up—how does this play in Japan? What does the other side of the statue look like?

It is The Diving Pool's peculiar brand of eeriness that seems most alien to me—and which this untrained reader, falling back on memories of anime and Spirited Away, is tempted to label as "Japanese." Within every luminous miniature is something strange, unsettling, out-of-place—it is as if, leaning close to a realist portrait, you noticed that the face was assembled out of tiny teeming earthworms. The title story's dolorous, self-scathing protagonist lives in an orphanage run by her parents, the only child in the dormitory to actually have parents—she is, in a sense, an orphan in her own home. Sour with resentment, she feeds rotting cream-puffs to one of her young foster-siblings, making her sick.

The discussion circled around the theme of eeriness. Snyder noted that the bizarre-lurking-in-the-mundane aspect of Ogawa's writing has precedent in Japanese literature, harkening back to the literature of the Edo period, which is in turn indebted to Chinese ghost stories. In the more recent past, it echoes Murakami, whose trimmed prose style and sense of fantasy Ogawa says were a major influence on her.

Most illuminating, though, were Snyder and Powell's musings on what this sense of the bizarre says about Japanese culture, or rather, what it is about Japanese culture that gives rise to it. Snyder linked Ogawa's obsession with food and decay—rancid pastries, rooms stacked full of rotting kiwis—with the centrality of food in Japanese culture, and a fixation on hygiene and purity which may have roots in the Shinto religion. He recounted an anecdote about accompanying a Japanese author to lunch at a high-end sushi restaurant in Tokyo, a bare white room where he was treated to sushi served on a slab of cedar "so clean that it hurt to look at it." In a culture in which the cleanliness of food is sacred, the notion of feeding an infant a rotting cream puff would not just be mean-hearted. It would be sacrilege, an unthinkable transgression.

Each of the three tales in The Diving Pool also features a family arrangement that is somehow "malformed" or unnatural, and this too contributes to the sense of eeriness. Children are often objects of cruelty or put in vulnerable situations. Yet, Snyder said, the vast majority of Japanese live in stable, nuclear families, and children are cherished to the extreme. Why do the imaginations of Japanese writers like Ogawa—or Murakami, or any of the other authors of "eerie" fiction—so consistently stray to such themes?

Well, go figure. Why does anybody watch a horror film? Snyder quoted his friend Ryu Murakami (different from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer most well-known to American readers), who said that he writes disturbing stories because of the safety and comfort of life in Japan—in order to remind people of the darkness that lurks beneath. Powell, in her essay printed in the program, puts it thus:

…Perhaps it [is] the relative safety and conformity of Japanese society that create[s] such a vast array of violent and disturbing—not to mention overtly sexual—books, manga, and anime (and the regularity with which one can observe such things being read unabashedly in public). Perhaps the stark contrast between reality and the imagined worlds of these art forms [is] so clearly delineated that fantasy could simply be acknowledged as just that.

I left the discussion entertained and enlightened. If reading a translated novel is like listening to one hand clapping, then Snyder and Powell, by casting light on the culture with which this literature resonates, helped me hear the other hand.

Austin Woerner is an editorial and publicity intern at Words Without Borders. He recently graduated from Yale University with a degree in East Asian Studies, and is now working as a freelance writer and Chinese–English translator in Brooklyn, NY. He is translating a novel, Tropic of Shadow, by the expatriate author Su Wei, a tale of sexual and supernatural intrigue set in southern China during the Cultural Revolution.

Published Jan 13, 2009   Copyright 2009 Austin Woerner

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