‘Ten Nights Dreaming & The Cat’s Grave’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

IMG_5481My J-Lit library takes up a fairly respectable corner of my shelves, and from the very beginning much of that has come from a certain Haruki Murakami, with my collection of his works in English extending to around twenty books.  However, over the years, a few other writers have started to catch up, and if I continue at my current rate, it won’t be long until Natsume Sōseki needs a shelf of his own too.  Which is as it should be – after all, he is pretty much the forerunner of modern Japanese literature, and an excellent writer too 🙂

Ten Nights Dreaming (translated by Matt Treyvaud, published by Dover Publications) is a short book, a collection of ten brief stories, but it’s also a fairly well-known work.  This is at least the third time it’s been translated into English, with earlier versions entitled Ten Nights’ Dreams (tr. Lovetta R. Lorenz and Takumi Kashima) and Ten Nights of Dream (tr. Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson), which means that there’s obviously a demand for the work.  Is there really a need for a new translation, though?  Well, let’s come back to that question later…

The book consists of ten stories each running to three or four pages, and the content is exactly what it says on the cover.  Each piece is a description of a short dream, with Sōseki introducing a variety of topics in several different styles.  Some of the stories are lyrical, some fairly clear, while others are more difficult to decipher – all, however, are fascinating, thought-provoking vignettes designed to be reread and pondered over.

Several of the stories take us into the past, with a good example of this being one of my favourite pieces, ‘The Second Night’.  In this one-scene play, a samurai seeking enlightenment at a Buddhist temple is smarting from an insult received at the hand of a priest, and he has decided that one of the two is soon to die.  Who?  Well, that depends on how elusive enlightenment proves to be.  ‘The Sixth Night’, in a typical dream-like manoeuvre, confuses eras, as a twentieth-century narrator walks down to a local temple to see a twelfth-century sculptor at work on the statues outside the entrance.

Other dreams move even deeper into the realm of fantasy.  In ‘The First Night’, the narrator (or dreamer) witnesses the last breaths of a beautiful young woman, before remaining at her grave for a hundred years, waiting for her return.  While this is a sombre tale, others have a touch more humour.  Perhaps the best example of this is ‘The Tenth Night’, in which a man explains why he disappeared for a week, a story involving a beautiful woman, a cliff, a big stick and a line of angry pigs extending into the distance…

For the most part, the writing is excellent.  Among the stories that stand out are ‘The First Night’ (with its fairytale air) and ‘The Fourth Night’, a piece set in ancient times.  A captured warrior requests one last glimpse of his wife, and when the conquering chieftain agrees, she sets off into the night:

The horse flew through the darkness towards this light.  Its breath erupted from its nose like two pillars of fire as it ran.  Still the woman urged it on, kicking its belly again and again with her slim legs.  The horse galloped so quickly that the sky rang with the sound of its hooves.  The woman’s hair streamed out in the darkness behind her.  But still she did not arrive at the campfire.
‘The Fourth Night’, p.27 (Dover Publications, 2015)

The writer does an excellent job of evoking the woman’s desperate race against the daylight, with the story culminating in an act of deception.

Understanding what it’s all about isn’t an easy task, but the reader is given plenty of assistance.  Treyvaud’s brief comments before each dream provide useful hints as to the gist of the story, and Susan Napier’s introduction discusses links with the writer’s background, focusing on Sōseki‘s family woes and memories of his (miserable) time in London.  In addition, the uneasy tone of the collection is supposedly a reflection of the uncertainty of the Meiji Era, with Japan attempting to catch up with the Western powers without sacrificing its unique cultural inheritance.

Despite the added extras, Ten Nights Dreaming flies by, and the addition of ‘The Cat’s Grave’ (a more realistic piece depicting the death of the cat who was the model for Sōseki‘s first major work) is little more than a bonus to up the page count.  As entertaining as it is, this isn’t a book I’d recommend as an introduction to the great man’s oeuvre.  However, if (like me…) you’re already a fan, this is a must-read, whichever translation you choose 🙂

And speaking of the translation…

This edition features a short foreword by renowned translator-from-the-Japanese, Michael Emmerich, one in which he praises Treyvaud’s efforts – and who am I to disagree with him?  Obviously, the Japanese is out of my reach, but I do have one point of comparison.  The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories contains the Ito/Wilson version of the most famous of the dreams, ‘The Third Night’, a sinister, allegorical piece in which a man walks through the darkness, carrying a blind child on his back.  It’s a standard of J-Lit, one taught in schools, and it’s thought to allude to the writer’s own unhappy childhood – but which of the two English versions is better?

From the very start, there are clear differences between the two texts:

This is what I dreamed.
I was carrying a child of almost six on my back.  It was clear to me that he was my son.  Mysteriously, however, he had gone blind at some point, and his head was shaved blue.
(Treyvaud, p.13)

I dreamt.
There’s a six-year-old on my back.  And it’s certainly my child.  But, oddly enough, without my knowing how or why I know it, I know that the child is blind and that his head is blue; clean-shaven blue.
(Ito & Wilson, p.28)

For me, Treyvaud’s version of the famous introductory line works much better, drawing the reader into the tale, and already in these first few lines we can see one of the major trends, with the Ito/Wilson version slightly longer.  Also, Treyavud describes the child directly while the earlier translation focuses more on the narrator – again, I prefer Treyvaud’s approach.

Later, the man and the child start to talk, with memories of a past event beginning to emerge:

“‘What was!'” the child sneered.  “As if you didn’t know!”  And with this I began to feel as if I did know, somehow.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had happened, but I felt sure it had been an evening just like this one. (Treyvaud, p.15)

‘What was? But you know well enough,’ the child answered scornfully.  And then I began to feel that I had some idea of what it was all about.  I was still quite clear-headed; but I did begin to have a vague feeling that, yes, it was just such an evening. (Ito & Wilson, p.29)

Both the use of punctuation and vocabulary here give Treyvaud’s version a more cutting edge regarding the child’s response.  Again, the Ito/Wilson version feels a little wordy, and I wonder whether that line about being ‘quite clear-headed’ is correct – it certainly seems a little odd in context.

The trends described above continue when we look at another section, where the two continue on their journey:

It had been raining for a while now.  The path grew darker by degrees.  But the little boy clinging to my back shone like a mirror from which nothing escaped, casting a merciless light on every part of my past, present and future. (Treyvaud, p.15)

Rain had started some time back.  The path grew darker and darker.  I moved as though delirious.  The only thing of which I felt quite certain was that a small brat clung to my back and that the brat was shining like a mirror; like a mirror that revealed my past, my present and my future, no smallest fact unblazoned. (Ito & Wilson, p.29)

There appears to be a lot of repetition in the Ito/Wilson version, and I find the Treyvaud text reads much more smoothly.  Of course, in fairness, you’d probably have to ask yourself whether Treyvaud is improving, or taking liberties, with the text.  There’s enough here to suggest that the older translation is, perhaps, trying to be more faithful.  Whether that’s the right approach or not depends on your own views of translation.

Another interesting point is the use of the word ‘brat’ in the Ito/Wilson translation.  In fact, they use a variety of terms (boy, child, brat, incubus) over the course of the text, where Treyvaud tends to stick to ‘boy’.  My guess would be that the subject is often missing in the original and that the two texts chose very different ways to add it in the English.  Once again(!), I’m going with Treyvaud here as I don’t see the need to jump around with this term.

Overall, on the evidence of this one story, Treyvaud’s version is indeed an improvement, but that should hardly come as a surprise.  The art of literary translation moves on like any other, and the Ito/Wilson text dates from 1974 – coincidentally, the year of my birth…  Perhaps it’s true that translations age more quickly than the original, and if so, new translations are necessary if new generations are to enjoy foreign classics.  Yes, it’s nice to discover new voices from overseas, but there’s also a case to be made for making the classics enjoyable for the new generations too 🙂

2 thoughts on “‘Ten Nights Dreaming & The Cat’s Grave’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

    1. Kaggsy – The problem with making these kinds of judgements is that Asian languages are very different to Indo-European languages. In French and German, while there are things which are tricky to bring across into English, you’d have to pretty much stick to what’s there, but in Japanese and Korean, there may be unnecessary repetition, missing subjects and a completely different grammatical structure, all of which means that *any* attempt at translation is necessarily subjective. Having studied all of these languages at some point, I feel there’s a lot more room for translator’s licence here, and that’s why I’d give Treyvaud the benefit of the doubt 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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