Clowns falling from the sky

A few months ago, I finished reading Wang Xiaobo’s cult favourite, Wang in Love and Bondage. This slim volume comprises three novellas, all of which were translated by Jason Somer and Zhang Hongling. The first tale, “2015”, is a brilliant pastiche of hilarity, satire, and the dreamily picaresque. I’ve never read anything like it; I raised my hands in praise for having found a brilliant new author (who, unfortunately, died quite young and therefore didn’t leave much of an oeuvre behind). It seemed as though my incredible good luck with Library Roulette was continuing unabated.

That rejoicing was premature. The other two stories–“The Golden Age” and “East Palace, West Palace”–were recognizably by the same author and fueled by the same irreverent nose-thumbing at literally everything. These two wallowed in their characters’ wallowing just as the first one did, but they read like deflated versions of the first. The energy that made “2015” one of my favourites of the year had slunk away to die somewhere, making the latter two completely tired and forgettable. I read them; I recognized the same Wang Xiaobo in there, but so weakly that it just all slid off my mind and was gone.

So, what’s the problem here? As a non-speaker/reader of any Chinese languages, I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the translators were rushed or bored or distracted or unpaid when they dealt with the second two. I know what happened in each story; Somer and Zhang are certainly adequately literate, but “The Golden Age” and “East Palace, West Palace” seemed, for lack of a better word, perfunctory.

I will, of course, not (never! not ever!) give up on Library Roulette. Literary romances for the ages begin that way, all the time. And I don’t want to miss out on finding the love of my life.

But translation. I haven’t had so much luck with works in translation lately. Having finished Soseki Natsume’s Mon “The Gate” a few days ago, I’m mildly tempted to vow to read books only in my native language for the following year (at least) just to not have to be confronted with brilliant writers chewed up and spat out by incompetent “translators.” Have you read this novel? No? Whatever you do, DO NOT read the Francis Mathy translation. I don’t even know if this novel has been translated by anyone else; if it hasn’t been, wait for it to happen or simply put the thought of reading this one to bed and then smother it.

I have read Soseki in good translation (which to me, as a nothing but English reader means, “I never noticed I was reading a translation. All I noticed was that I was reading a good book.”). I know that Soseki’s reputation as one of Japan’s greatest writers is something I can get behind. I Am a Cat, Kokoro, And Then–all lovely and ingenious and perfect. I didn’t like Botchan but now I wonder if that was another case of the translator just failing to do an adequate job.

You see, I know that Mathy was the problem with Mon “The Gate” because I was struck several times by the writing’s grammatical incomprehensibility. The words, they all meant something, but not together. But what was much, much worse was the more subtle nuances of commentary, of simile, of trope, of mood. Soseki did not write novels that could be called action-packed; his books, in my experience, comprise delicate portraits of human disasters presented in quiet, delicate shades. Mathy’s writing is ham-fisted at best; these two should never have been put in the same universe together, never mind on the same pages.

I am not the first person to rend their cheeks and tear their hair over this particular translation of Soseki’s novel either. Six long years ago, Quentin S Crisp wrote a piece that conveys my feelings about Mathy exactly, and supports those feelings based on the lucky fact that he can actually read Japanese. There is one passage, on the penultimate page of this hacked up bloody disaster, that brings the whole massacre to its shudder-inducing conclusion: “He seemed neither happy nor sad about it. In fact, at that moment he looked to Oyone like a clown fallen from the sky” (p. 212).

There’s so much to say about this; there are also a multitude of reasons to just put our heads down and weep. But let’s see what the erudite Crisp had to say:

What I would like to ask here, is, what exactly does that last phrase convey to you? Like a clown fallen from the sky. Oh yes, I know the experience very well. Clowns are always falling from the sky in front of me.

I would not have even read this sentence if I had not wished to check on the particular nuance of the word ‘kokkei’ in the original. It is usually used as an adjective, but here was used as a noun (translated as ‘clown’). As an adjective it means something like ‘comic’ or ‘absurd’. I looked at the translation and found the ridiculous sentence quoted above. Checking in the dictionary I discovered that, as I suspected, nowhere does ‘clown’ appear in the definition of ‘kokkei’. Not only that, but what Mathy has translated as ‘sky’ is really much closer to ‘heaven’. Okay, I can accept that maybe he/she does not want to make a literal translation. However, what about making a translation that is at least comprehensible?

Yes, exactly; thank you, Quentin, for six years in advance of my reading this novel, putting my enraged apoplexy into words–words that, together, mean something!

This raises the question of what’s more important: the widespread availability of other cultures’ greatest authors, or a few brilliantly rendered examples thereof. Personally, I’m in favour of quality over quantity, and not just because I wasted time on this mangled horror when I could have been reading something better. My concern is this: What person, tentatively OR bravely giving Japanese lit (in this case) a go for the first time is going to go back for a second try if the first thing they’re confronted with is a total piece of shit? Only the especially brave or the masochistic, and I suspect neither of these types represent the majority of readers who would come to someone like Soseki in the first place.

Now, luckily, I just finished Irene Nemirovsky’s Le Bal, translated by the ever lovely, literate, and respectful Sandra Smith, and I will NOT be giving up on literature in translation. But it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that tomorrow, I will be diving back into the warm safety of the uber-British Anthony Trollope.

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3 thoughts on “Clowns falling from the sky

  1. Pingback: Reading Soseki: A memoir « Jam and Idleness

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