Charles De Wolf (author of the Tomo story “Borne by the Wind”), Professor Emeritus, Keio University, is a writer, linguist, and translator of Japanese literature, both classical and modern. His translations include numerous stories from Konjaku monogatari, a twelfth-century folktale collection, excerpts from The Tale of Genji, and works by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Hyakken Uchida, Keizo Hino, Ryu Murakami, Haruki Murakami, and Akiko Itoyama. He has spent most of his life in Japan.
What led you to a life in Japan and to settling as a permanent resident with a Japanese name?
|Charles De Wolf|
“Borne by the Wind” is a combination of a retelling of a translation and original fiction. What led you to combine a twelfth-century tale with a story set during and after WWII?
The story-within-the-story is an adaptation of a folktale that is included in an early twelfth-century compilation written in Classical Japanese. I had translated the tale some years before but hadn’t been thinking of it, when it occurred to me that its themes of trust and courage in the face of uncertainty might appeal to English-speaking young people. In the original, the boys are already grown men, the author merely noting that they are not of “high estate.” They have no names, no leader, and no distinct voices. As through almost all of the collection, the tale concludes with a moral drawn by the compiler, who (predictably) suggests that the good fortune of the fishermen should be seen as a karmic reward for good deeds in previous lives.
The great short-story writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose work I have also translated, likewise drew from Konjaku monogatari, adding personal and psychological elements. I have, I suppose, tried to imitate him, adding a sense of uncertainty that is absent in the original.
Can you give us some background about the fire bombings in the “great air raid” mentioned in the story, about children evacuated during the war, or about Japanese in Manchuria captured by Russians at the end of the war? Can you give us any historical background on these topics?
|Japanese soldiers captured by the Soviet Union's Red Army|
Have you spent time in the Kanazawa area where this story is set?
No, not yet, but descriptions of the area from other translation work I have done make me most curious.
Do you enjoy translating and representing local dialects? What are some of the challenges to translating dialects in Japan?
A fundamental challenge for translators is the need to keep themselves hidden from view; that is, they should not remind their readers that the story they have before them is being filtered through another language. English-speaking readers may readily take it for granted that a Japanese character is (somehow) speaking a general sort of English, but if suddenly that character begins to sound like someone from Yorkshire, New Orleans, or the Australian outback, there is very likely to be a feeling of: “Huh?” Thus, unless the author makes a specific issue of different ways of talking, including dialect variation, it is generally better to be bland than clever. My excuse for not erring on the side of caution in this piece of fiction is its setting: In 1945, before the age of television and cultural homogenization, the speech of a boy from Tokyo would very likely have stood out in Kanazawa and thus played into the hands of local bullies. Those who have been newcomers in a strange land or region will find Toshio’s plight familiar.
You have translated many works of fiction. What fascinates you about Konjaku monogatari—the twelfth-century collection of folktales of which one is featured in this story?
|The oldest manuscript of Konjaku monogatari, circa early 12th century (courtesy of Kyoto University)|
You translate and write. Do you find you have to change gears with each process? Or can you move easily from one endeavor to the other?
As a translator, I do not have to worry about the plot line or the development of the characters. That might suggest that the process is fairly mechanical and that the chief concern is accuracy. In fact, translators are constantly “fussing” with their style and choice of words, endeavoring to be true both to the original text and to the spirit of their own language. As a writer, I can actually produce more words in a single day than as a translator. Of course, how many of them survive the revision and editing process is quite another story. Unlike translators, original fiction writers have to take full responsibility for their work. That makes for an exciting but also intimidating challenge.
Do you have plans to incorporate other stories from Konjaku monogatari into short stories?
Until I wrote this story, I hadn’t given the idea the slightest thought, but now I think I would like to try it again.
Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
My message would be: Some years before you were born, there was a lot of exaggerated talk about Japan as the world’s emerging economic superpower. It might be said, however, that Japan had many admirers but not many friends. Japan has now experienced a series of adversities. The courage and calm with which the Japanese have faced the natural disaster of March 11, 2011, has inspired a new sense of genuine affection. This to me is the true spirit of the country. Don’t be afraid to love and believe in your homeland.