Monday, January 23, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Charles De Wolf

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
As a young man, I was what one would now call “Eurocentric.” As a boy, I had read about Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan; later in university I took a survey course in Asian history. I remember seeing a young instructor and his students in a campus café, looking through a pile of Japanese weekly magazines. It seemed to me to be quite a different world. I thought that any attempt to acquaint myself more than superficially with any non-Western culture would either take too much time or prove to be frustrating. And then, as fate would have it, I wound up spending two years in Korea. With the vague idea of becoming a specialist in East Asian studies after all, I came to Japan, mostly to learn Japanese. I did not intend to linger. But then after graduate school, I was hired by a Japanese university, and so I returned, together with my Japanese wife and the first of our four children. Eventually, I was granted permanent residence; more recently, I have become a Japanese citizen. As my wife and children all go by the same surname, Suda, I have adopted it as mine as well, adding Rōan, which literally means ‘wolf’s hermitage’, as my personal name. I have never been a starry-eyed romantic about Japan but nonetheless feel a deep attachment to this country. It is now home. 

“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
The bombing of Tokyo on March 9/10 1945 was the single most destructive air raid of World War II. At least 100,000 people were killed in the terrible firestorm. (My elder brother-in-law, living to the north of Tokyo, was among the earlier evacuees. Like Toshio in the story, he suffered bullying.) The Soviet Union declared war on Japan in early August of that year and immediately invaded Manchuria, then part of the Japanese Empire. (My father-in-law was among the soldiers captured there and sent to a labor camp in Siberia.)

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)
Much of Classical Japanese literature is written by aristocrats, for aristocrats, and about aristocrats. Konjaku monogatari, on the other hand, covers a wide social and regional range. There are emperors and Buddhist monks, men and women, saints and sinners, gods and monsters—and, as we see in this story, fishermen. Many of the stories are rather quaint, even stodgy, but some are entertainingly earthy and, for all their magical elements, remarkably realistic.

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.

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