I first picked up Don't Laugh at Other People's Sex because of the author’s cool name. Nao-Cola Yamazaki.
That's not the whole story, though. I had heard about the book from a friend, and I knew it won an award, and then I happened upon it in a bookstore. But I don't know if I could have connected my friend's story about an impressive book by a young female author who won the prestigious Bungei Prize, for new authors, with the physical book staring me in the face in some bookstore, if not for that name.
The book's title is also really good: Don't Laugh at Other People's Sex. The title piece is narrated by a nineteen-year-old art school student, Mirume Isogai, who recounts his relationship with Yuri, his teacher, who is twenty years his senior. The unrelated short story, “Cavities and Kindness” is appended to the end. In his afterword to the book, author and critic Genichiro Takahashi actually says he knew this book would win the Bungei Prize based on the title and the author's name alone. He wonders, “So, what kind of name is 'Nao-Cola,' or 'Naoko + Cola?' Why would she pick such a strange name?”
Translators talk a lot about things that are untranslatable, and the visual effect of seeing this name in Japanese is completely lost in English. In Japanese, the family name comes first, so it's Yamazaki Nao-Cola. Yamazaki is a fairly common family name. It doesn't really stand out. But then comes Nao-Cola. There's no hyphen in the Japanese. The hyphen is a way to let the English reader know that two things are being forced together. There's the name Naoko, which is also quite common. And then cola. In Japanese, the cola part comes like the punch line to a joke. You see Yamazaki, then Naoko, but then the name just keeps going. Nao-Cola. Takahashi says that “it is the name of a woman who lives in an advanced capitalist society” and that “it signifies her will to live on gallantly in this world.”
I bought the book, took it home, stayed up later than I should have that night, and finished the whole thing. I was absolutely blown away. The next day I started translating “Cavities and Kindness” without even thinking about what I would do with it. I just thought it was a really great story and that it would be nice to work on something short that I could finish and show to people.
This was in October of 2013, almost ten years after Don't Laugh at Other People's Sex debuted. I finished a first draft of the story and then didn't look at it again until March of the following year, when I got an email from Michael Emmerich saying that Words Without Borders was looking for a Japanese piece to include in their queer issue. I remembered that I had “Cavities and Kindness” in a folder somewhere on my computer, and I thought to myself, “Wow, I should finish that.”
I don't remember the initial translation process, but I feel like it went relatively smoothly. When I started editing there were, of course, tons of problems, but most of them weren't so serious. Some sloppiness about tenses here and there. A bit of dialogue that sounded off. But there was one tiny scene that really stuck out. It bothered me, and I didn't know what to do.
“Cavities and Kindness” is the story of Kawanishi-san. It's almost Christmas, he has a few cavities, and he is in the process of breaking up with his boyfriend. He spends a good amount of time sitting at his cute dentist's office, recollecting his relationship with Ito-san. After Kawanishi-san gets his second tooth extracted, the dentist says that if his teeth hurt later, he can take Bufferin. Or she can give him stronger pain-killers.
Kawanishi-san replies, “Are they made half from kindness?”
And she laughs.
Bufferin is a low-grade pain-killer much like aspirin. It had a very famous ad campaign in Japan with the slogan: Bufferin is made half from kindness.
It's a single line, but it matters so much. Kawanishi-san is supposed to be smart and funny, and here he is, making a joke. He works at a company that publishes magazines about television, and they always have a bunch of TVs turned on. That kind of pop culture pun must have come to him completely naturally. The dentist appreciates his attempt at humor, and laughs.
I thought about changing the ad. But I couldn't think of any American painkiller ads that really had any cultural relevance. To be honest, I couldn't think of any American painkiller ads at all. There was another problem, too: kindness is in the title. After that, Kawanishi-san has a dream about a woman who he asks to become his kindness. I couldn't take out that word.
So I explained, just a little bit. I wrote:
“'Are they made half from kindness?' I joked, quoting the old ad.”
The literal translation neither mentions the joke nor the ad. Kawanishi-san just asks if they're made half from kindness. But the Kawanishi-san I read is there in that line. He does joke. He does quote ads. He's the kind of guy who makes his cute dentist laugh. He is a man (who happens to dress as a woman) living in an advanced capitalist society, who has bad teeth and a relationship that's falling apart.
Takahashi also wrote that, “It is not only men who wail out in suffering under advanced capitalist societies. Women do too. And just relating that it's hard won't change anything. That is the origin of the name Nao-Cola.” Her name is a sign of our collective suffering. But it's also a joke. It starts with suffering, but ends in laughter.
Every time I hear this slightly strange name, I think about Kawanishi-san and his cavities and his relationship with Ito-san.
Every time I hear “Nao-Cola,” I wonder, if we can't even relate our suffering, what can we do?
Maybe, we can be like Kawanishi-san. We can face the person we're about to break up with and smile and tell them to do their best. We can hold a guerrilla concert and play them a song. We can try to make our dentist laugh after undergoing a painful procedure. We can try to be someone's kindness. Relating our suffering might not mean much, but maybe trying to understand others' can.
And that, I think, might be the origin of this strangely memorable name.