The Missing “I”: Translating Natsuko Kuroda’s autobiographical prose

By Asa Yoneda

Natsuko Kuroda's a b sango, the novel of which the chapter “Waymarkers” is an extract, divided opinion as an experimental work following twinning Japan’s most widely-publicized literary prize, the Akutagawa. In the original, it features several peculiarities, including horizontal writing (not the norm in formal Japanese), nonstandard punctuation, and a heavy reliance on the phonetic hiragana writing system. On a deeper level as well, the text displays several unnerving signs: lengthy, meandering sentences that shift dramatically through time and place, memory and reality; a kind of fastidiousness or taboo against names of certain things—including that of the things described as “waymarkers” in the excerpt—and concepts; and (even more worrying for the translator) a startling lack of both proper names and pronouns.

English, like many languages, has a small, closed set of personal pronouns. Aside from their role in building narrative and structure by ascribing subject-ness (and often agency) to the nouns they stand in for, clarifying relationships (not only between different names, but also, for instance, the identity of one noun across narrative time), and serving as handholds by which readers can begin to identify the perspectives in—and thus form their own viewpoints on—a narrative, these words convey minimal communicative meaning. Being required but semantically transparent, they are taken for granted, often nearly invisible.

Not so the case in Japanese, which has a multiplicity of personal pronouns, each with different social and pragmatic connotations: what word one chooses to translate one's "I" can be a deeply personal choice. At the same time, however, subjects in Japanese sentences are explicitly marked only when necessary: to prevent confusion or to emphasize a particular nuance, for example. Thus a personal pronoun in Japanese can also be invisible, albeit in a different way from the English equivalent.

Reading a work with formal choices relating to structures which have no exact equivalent in the language it has been translated into inevitably calls up (for the informed or suspicious reader) the question of how the translation manages to recreate, or at least respond, to such characteristics of the original. Fortunately (for the translator, as well as the reader), Kuroda’s choice to eschew pronouns in this work is not merely a surface affectation, but one that is fundamentally expressive of the whole work. It also has a slightly paradoxical effect, brought about by the two complementary but opposite strategies employed to expand the space of the pronoun: specifying, and generalizing.

The specified self is the self defined by a single aspect or characteristic: 

When around ten summers had come and gone after the death, both the things and the tired ones tired. The spouse and the child of the one who had died were ever nearer to the exit and the entrance of maturity, respectively…

Here, in being reduced to embodiments of their tiredness, or their relationship with the deceased, “the tired ones” or “the spouse and the child of the one who had died” are illuminated in particular aspects, as in a flash of recognition or sense-memory, in the states or roles they found themselves in at the time. It is a childlike view, with a lack of understanding, and a fear and expectation that the environment—people and things—is unstable.

The generalized self, on the other hand:

Everyone was wholly heedless of the fact that there would come a summer when the custom was not repeated, when the flat, somewhere slightly grubby and somewhere slightly battered cardboard boxes would no longer be taken down from the back of a high cupboard, and the lightweight cylindrical hollows with their naturally collapsible structures no longer unfold along with a faint smell of the previous summer, so it never occurred to anyone that they ought then to observe and make certain of them.

Here, the translation uses plural indefinite pronouns for which there are no antecedent nouns or agents. Yet it is fairly straightforward to see these "everyones" and "anyones" as a stand-in for the reminiscing self, which may be too conflicted about the events being recalled to integrate (and take responsibility for) this supposed multitude. Here again, there is a childish, powerless sense that the failure could not have been one’s own (because the ability had never been one’s to begin with), and must be distributed throughout the family home, vested in shadowy figures.

Thus, in brief, the two fragmentary selves—the over-specified and the over-generalized (to take a normative view)—between them limn the outline of an antecedent self that was lost almost before it was even formed, and which the entire novel is an attempt to recover.

When I first encountered a b sango, I felt immediately certain that this somehow both familiar and unrecognized loss could be felt and expressed in English, in a way that was no less (and hopefully no more) clear than in the Japanese. Although I probably would not have undertaken the translation without this strange certainty, to trace it back to my own childhood experiences of operating in the two languages is a trivial and ultimately irrelevant exercise. In either language, it is the sureness of the narrator’s memory, the real protagonist of the novel—its utter familiarity with those well-worn paths of recollection—that allows the reader to follow the narrative’s thread through time and place, weaving in and out of fact and experience, outside the confines of the self we normally take for granted, in its quest to find the missing "I."


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