Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Plurality Of Languages

It should go without saying that international literature is enjoying one of its strongest periods, and looks to continue that way in the coming years. While a lot of my essays in this realm tend to be heavy on Roberto Bolano, I'm hoping to add more diversity to my readings (however, there will be more Bolano reviews and essays coming). Elsewhere, one could point to Haruki Murakami's steady place in both critical circles and mainstream bestseller lists. The books published by Europa have a wonderful variety of titles available, most notably the bestseller The Elegance Of the Hedgehog, which, as a bookseller in the past year, I've noticed has not waned in reader enthusiasm. Most of us are introduced to international literature in high school, and it's safe to assume that works like Crime and Punishment or The Stranger were on your high school syllabus. This may seem like a basic introduction, but it's necessary as I begin to discuss a lesser known title, but one that's one of the best, early examples of a Western translation. Soseki Natsume's I Am a Cat had been on my reading list for quite some time. In addition to being a work that radically goes against most generalized notions of international fiction, the work also brought up many issues in my mind, most notably the idea of the potential limitations in certain translations.

I Am a Cat was originally intended to be a short story, but was expanded by Soseki into an epic, three-volume novel that was completed in 1906. The nameless narrator is a kitten who's wise from day one, and serves as the ultimate critic on human nature. He stumbles into living with Mr. Sneaze, a Japanese schoolteacher and henpecked, unhappy family man. In this living situation, the cat is able to see the comings and goings of a peculiar cast of characters, namely Mr. Waverhouse (who provides a bulk of the comic relief) and Mr. Coldmoon (an intellectual given to long pronouncements and rambling educational monologues). While the cat ages, his mentality never dims nor grows, although when interacting with other neighborhood cats, his preference of engaging in more human mentalities makes him "less" of a cat in some fashions. With the exception of a late-night burglary in Sneaze's home, none of the actions in the novel are particularly climactic. The activities of the people are what one would expect in everyday life, but the cat's narration highlights both his feline makeup and distance from human nature. His personality ranges from hilariously astute....

"To say that I 'sneak in' gives a misleading impression: it sounds vaguely reprehensible, a term to be used for the self-insinuations of thieves and clandestine lovers. Though it is true that I am not an invited guest, I do not go to the Goldfields' in order to snitch a slice of bonito or for a cozy chat with that disgusting lapdog whose eyes and nose are convulsively agglomerated in the center of its face. Hardly! Or are you suggesting that I visit there for the sheer love of snooping? Me, a detective? You must be out of your mind (Soseki 119)!" very somber and thoughtful:

"Now the cat is a social animal and, as such, however highly he may rate his own true worth, he must contrive to remain, at least to some extent, in harmony with society as a whole. It is indeed a matter for regret that my master and his not treat me with that degree of respect which I properly deserve, but nothing can be done about it. That's the way things are, and it would be very much worse, indeed fatal, if in their ignorance they went so far as to kill me, flay me, serve up my butchered flesh at Tatara's dinner table, and sell my emptied skin to a maker of cat-banjos (Soseki 178)."

What was the most notable to me in my reading was the realism and modern tendencies in Soseki's writing style. Granted, having a house cat narrate a novel lends itself to notions of fantasy, but for the most part, the reader becomes comfortable with this notion, especially given the cat's eye for detail, plus the fact that he himself sees nothing out of the ordinary with his ability to see human beings on their own level. That's not to say that a little more fantasy would have helped. Once the novel gets going, it ranges from brilliant observations to semi-tedious pages upon pages of dialogue that seems to not move the story along. The discussions between the humans, most notable the back-and-forths between Sneaze, Coldmoon, and Waverhouse have stretches of philosophical ideas, humor, and an obvious dedication by Soseki for writing dialogue that reads very naturally. Virtually all of the conversations between Sneaze and his wife are arguments, but they're written carefully, highlighting the simmering tension and unhappiness between the two. Some of their conversations read like a stage play dialogue, an uncomfortable banter that comes very close to an all-out argument.

"'But they say it's very good after eating starchy things. I think you should take some.' His wife wants him to take it.
'Starchy or not, the stuff's no good.' He remains stubborn.
'Really, you are a most capricious man,' the mistress mutters as though to herself.
'I'm not capricious, the medicine doesn't work.'
'But until the other day, you used to say that it worked very well and you used to take it every day, didn't you?'
'Yes, it did work until the other day, but it hasn't worked since then,' an antithetical answer.
'If you continue in these inconsistencies, taking it one day and stopping it the next, however efficacious the medicine may be, it will never do you any good.'
'......I don't care. I don't take it because I don't take it. How can a mere woman understand such things? Keep quiet (Soseki 24-25).'"

I Am a Cat was translated by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson, and the time in which the novel was written, combined with losses given in any translation, gives the novel a decidedly non-Japanese feel. The novel comes from Japan's Meiji period, a time in which Japan began to open up to international relations (despite its inconsistencies, the Wikipedia page on this era provides some excellent, more detailed information). Soseki also studied in London, giving another side to understanding the Western "feel" to his novel. As with any major transformation, there was undoubtedly some tension between Soseki and Western culture, and that presents itself in I Am a Cat. The characters have their own problems, and it doesn't help when they're engaging in activities that try to strike a balance between Japanese society and Western influences.

Translations are never perfect. Translators should work to provide the most honest translations, but native and linguistic differences can make this impossible, especially considering the idiomatic differences between English and Japanese. As I've mentioned before, it's wonderful to have such a vast bibliography of translated works in English, but it's never the same as being able to read a work in its native language. This led me to seek some outside essays, and I garnered some excellent thoughts from a valuable collection called Theories of Translation. Some eloquent thoughts from Octavio Paz, in his essay entitled "Translation: Literature and Letters," highlights the sometimes treacherous balancing act that presents itself to even the best translators. This opening of the passage below is slightly, uncomfortably xenophobic, but moves into more thoughtful prose.

"The sounds of a tongue we do not know may cause us to react with astonishment, annoyance, indignation, or amused perplexity, but these sensations are soon replaced by uncertainties about our own language. We become aware that language is not universal; rather, there is a plurality of languages, each one alien and unintelligible to others. In the past, translations dispelled the uncertainties. Although language is not universal, languages nevertheless form part of a universal society in which, once some difficulties have been overcome, all people can communicate with and understand each other."--Octavio Paz

While I admire I Am a Cat as a piece of historical, international fiction, I'd be hard pressed to count it as a favorite. For all of the insights into human nature, as well as the relationship between two vastly different cultures, I found some stretches to be too inconsequential. While Soseki has to be saluted for his attention to detail, most of the chapters work much better as short stories, a fact that is acknowledged in my edition's introduction. However, Soseki's natural humor works wonders, giving the novel a comic, satirical side that is evident over one hundred years later. Despite my personal critiques, that is a sign of a novel that can be deemed a "classic." Some classics are wonderful historical sketches, and some are written in fashions that make certain texts continually relevant. Soseki provides both, even in a work that isn't perfect. In the aforementioned anthology of translation essays, I came across a passage by a Mexican writer named Jose Ortega y Gasset. The passage comes from a recap of a colloquium on translations, but inadvertently serves as a perfect introduction to Soseki's novel, almost good enough to work as a summary to the novel's themes. This may be excessively pessimistic, but also provides a wonderful highlight into translations and literary criticisms at their best. How else could an essay from a Mexican writer in 1937 so amazingly highlight a Japanese novel from 1906?

"Animals are normally happy. [Humans] have been endowed with an opposite nature. Always melancholic, frantic, manic, men are ill-nurtured by all those illnesses Hippocrates called divine. And the reason for this is that human tasks are unrealizable. The destiny of Man--his privilege and honor--is never to achieve what he proposes, and to remain merely an intention, a living utopia. He is always marching toward failure, and even before entering the fray he already carries a wound in his temple."

Work Cited:
Soseki Natsume. I Am a Cat. Copyright and translation 2002 by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson.

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