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A Conversation with Kyoko Yoshida and Masatsugu Ono

Masatsugu Ono and Kyoko Yoshida / Photos courtesy of Masatsugu Ono and Kyoko Yoshida

On March 28, the Garden’s Yanai Classroom turns into a pop-up literary salon with “Navigating Literary Seas: An Evening of Readings and Conversation with Kyoko Yoshida and Masatsugu Ono.” Hosted by writer David Karashima, the event includes readings in Japanese and English from new works, and a spontaneous conversation about language, identity, translation, and sense of place. The event is a presentation of the International Japanese Garden Training Center. Center director Kristin Faurest asked Yoshida and Ono to reveal some of the philosophy behind their craft.

KF: What are the most limiting factors of Japanese as a literary language?

Kyoko Yoshida: Perhaps the most limiting factor of the Japanese language for me is its literary floweriness. But it is not just the matter of Japanese—it’s a part of the East Asian literary tradition, beautiful eloquence of set phrases and literary expressions. In that kind of inherited hyperbole, it is easy to deceive yourself that you are actually saying something.

Masatugu Ono: Writing in Japanese, I sometimes experience difficulty describing scenes with precision. In Japanese writing, it is perfectly natural not to distinguish between the singular and plural form of a noun. We can write a series of phrases without a subject, we can mix phrases in the present tense with phrases in the past tense in the same paragraph. These linguistic features of Japanese tend to make the description very ambiguous, like a picture with low resolution, as if the main concern for Japanese writers is to give readers a general idea of the place and the people in the story, and to make them feel the ambience of the place described. The writer doesn’t need to explain the nature of this ambience, for — probably because of the imagined cohesion of Japanese culture and language — he/she believes certain implicit shared knowledge deciphers the meaning of the text.

The writer doesn’t need to explain the nature of this ambience, for — probably because of the imagined cohesion of Japanese culture and language — he/she believes certain implicit shared knowledge deciphers the meaning of the text.

KF: Kyoko, you have said you “discovered that writing in English is uniquely liberating.” Why? Is it a difference in the structure and scope of the two languages, or is it because you feel freed to assume an alternate identity when you write in another language?

KY: It’s more of the former than the latter. The two languages are so different to start with, and it’s scientifically proven that you use a different part of your brain when you use a second language that you are not fluent in. When I started to write in English, I literally felt like I had some muscle sore in my brain from using a different part of it. Now I don’t have this sensation anymore, but English still remains a second language that I have acquired in my adolescence. It is this structural difference of the two languages that invites me into a suspended state of imaginative writing. I haven’t made it my rule to write in English only. But I’d rather write in the language that my chosen family member can read than in the family language I was born into. Every language is a structure to fit yourself into however you can bend it in your creative process. I would like to think that writing in English for writers like me is one way to fight the hegemony of English language among many other languages of the world (though this may sound contradictory), and to fight a centralized version of American English.

Every language is a structure to fit yourself into however you can bend it in your creative process.

KF: And, to reverse the question, what is most often lost when a piece is translated from Japanese into any other language?

KY: The flexible structure of the agglutinative language combined with graphic images of kanji (Chinese characters). A very long sentence in Japanese without a subject is perfectly fine, but does not work in English, for instance.

MO: The lack of the exactitude in Japanese descriptive language makes it possible for “un-Japanese” writers to write very freely, liberated from constraint of the tense. When I translate an English or French piece into Japanese in a very literal way, the result is often a little bit rigid and heavy. If I want to make my translation feel natural in Japanese, I need to remove a certain number of personal pronouns, and to change the tense of some phrases.

KF: Ted Hughes famously ‘translated’ from Eastern European languages he didn’t actually speak, using a translator to create a literal word-for-word translation and then honing it with his own poetic interpretation. How deeply do you think that you have to understand a language and a culture to be able to effectively translate its poems or stories?

KY: I’ve done co-translation with an American poet and a playwright. Forrest Gander is not fluent in Japanese but knows some Japanese, and he asks the kind of questions that native Japanese speakers may never come up with. He knows how poetry works. Each poem has an internal structure as a literary construct and he notices that in depth. I am more interested in literary translations that treat the original piece as an autonomous world. Of course, it is not independent of its linguistic characteristics and milieux, but translations that put too much stress on cultural and linguistic contexts tend to fetishize the work as an exotica. In translation, I want the work to be alive.

I am more interested in literary translations that treat the original piece as an autonomous world.

MO: I translated many Japanese poems into French with the French poet Claude Mouchard, who doesn’t understand Japanese (except for a few swear words). The result was always fantastic. In our discussion, I always felt that Claude went right to the heart and essence of each poem. And it often happened that his poetic interpretation based on my explication of a poem made me discover poetic aspects and effects of the work that I had not noticed as a Japanese native reader. If you cooperate with the person who understands deeply his/her own language and culture, having a sincere respect for your own language and culture, and if this person is open to foreign literature — you can always get interesting results.

KF: Masa, your stories are primarily set in the very specific landscape, a fishing village modeled on your own hometown in Kyushu. How often do you return, and what do you look for to inform your writing when you’re there?

MO: I return to my hometown once or twice a year. I do nothing special to inform my writing. As always, I talk with my parents as well as their friends. All of them are elderly — as you know, Japan is now facing a very serious depopulation in rural areas. The decline of the community is so visible that I feel pessimistic in regard to its future. But each return gives me material or a subject to think about in my writing.

Learn more about the contemporary Japanese literary landscape as Yoshida and Ono are joined by David Karashima in the Garden’s Yanai Classroom on March 28 at 5 p.m. for “Navigating Literary Seas: An Evening of Readings and Conversation with Kyoko Yoshida and Masatsugu Ono.” The event is part of the Garden+ Lecture Series and is presented by the International Japanese Garden Training Center. Tickets are available at japanesegarden.org.