The Weight of Words
Having spent a lot of my time translating Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe, two diametrically opposed writers, I can contrast them for you in terms of the immense challenge that they present to the translator. Oe considers himself a liminal writer, working on the periphery of Japan. He’s an outsider looking in, and his language accordingly constitutes an assault on everything the Japanese language has inherently and naturally inside itself, as a means of expression. Junichiro Tanizaki, the Japanese novelist at one time, reading Oe, said, “If this is Japanese I am going to kill myself,” because it was such a strange and a contorted language, which nonetheless, in Oe’s hands, becomes poetic. It’s basically impossible to translate. Each sentence is an agony and an ordeal. Mishima, on the other hand, insisted on his place at the very center of the Japanese tradition of words. That longing for beauty and so on that he took inside himself and embodied was his notion of himself as being inside the language. And as a result, he’s much easier to translate, because he was a gorgeous word-master, and he weighed out every word very carefully in a kind of a mosaic. And if the translator is able to understand him, and spends enough time looking for the proper stones, it is possible to inlay them into the syntax of an English sentence, paragraph, and book, without breaking the back of that sentence, which is what happens with Oe, and so it is possible to represent Mishima in English that is at least close to the beauty of language that he achieved.
Talking about Mishima the writer is difficult without invoking Mishima the individual and Mishima the suicide. A lot of what’s been said tonight—by me principally—is extratextual. The question is: How important is he? Near the end of his life, Mishima said about himself, in the kind of paradox he learned from Oscar Wilde, “I am a realist who attempts to depict with complete reality a romantic psychology which cannot be found in nature.” It’s dangerous to take a writer at face value when he’s saying something like that, but I think Mishima was telling the truth. He was a man not to be found in nature, in the sense that he built himself into the complex creature he became. Individual works of Mishima are often marred by a kind of contrivance; characters can tend to dangle somewhat helplessly from the strings of a master puppeteer, who has them move in dramas and reveal themselves in ways unfamiliar to us because they’re not something we have experienced. The result, I think, is that we can be moved by the gorgeousness of the man’s work, which is often gorgeous, and by beautiful and unforgettable scenes, but finally, with some exceptions, we find it hard to identify and hard to feel that this man’s art has opened a window for us on a world that we know as our own and shown us something about our own lives.
Still, I think there are writers about whom it can be said perhaps that their entire oeuvres, their complete works, can be seen as monuments to invention, and diligence, and passion, which are possibly greater and more important than any individual work. Balzac may be such a person, Thackeray may be such a person; certainly Mishima, I believe, was such a person. However, it remains a truth that this man’s enormous commitment, and his passion, and his focus, and his invention, move us, even if we are put off by artificiality in some of his works. At the end of his life, he wrote, “If I could remember each hour of my life I spent weighing out words like a pharmacist with his scale, I would surely go mad.” Before that kind of passion and artistic commitment, we finally must stand in awe.