The Translations of Natsume Sōseki

We’re rapidly approaching the end of another January in Japan, but in addition to a final couple of upcoming reviews, I have one more little morsel to share.  This is another of those posts I had published elsewhere, and which I’m now welcoming back to the blog – and given the content, it’s only fitting that I do so now!  Back in May 2018, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) had a whole month of guest posts on J-Lit, and my contribution was all about a certain Natsume Sōseki, and the fact that his voice in English is rather scattered and inconsistent.  Am I right, or are these just the confused ramblings of a dilettante with no idea what he’s talking about?  I’ll leave you to be the judge of that 😉

Part of the joy of reading literature in translation comes from discovering new voices and enjoyable writing, and without the actual translator that wouldn’t be possible.  The words we read come not from the writer but their foreign-language representative: Yōko Ogawa’s sinister prose is really that of Stephen Snyder, and Michael Emmerich recently brought Yasushi Inoue’s wry style into English. At times, of course, the task is shared, as is the case with Haruki Murakami.  With a large back-catalogue (and many impatient readers and publishers), Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen have managed to share the load, without any discernible drop in quality.

However, for the biggest name in ‘modern’ Japanese literature, Natsume Sōseki, the path into English hasn’t been quite as smooth.  As I look through my collection of his work, occupying a whole shelf of my personal J-Lit library, a worrying trend emerges.  Over the eighteen works of fiction, one work of non-fiction and the two extracts from longer works featured in anthologies, I managed to count a grand total of twenty-two names – which is interesting, to say the least.  While it’s obvious proof of Sōseki’s appeal that so many gifted translators (and several of the field’s biggest names are included here) are willing to bring the writer’s work into English, it does pose a problem for the casual reader: what is Natsume Sōseki’s true style, and is it really coming across in English?

Heredity of Taste210th DayI am a CatKusamakuraSanshiro

I’d have to say that I have a few doubts about that as there are some rather stilted efforts among those I’ve tried.  Two books translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu (The Heredity of Taste and The 210thDay) seem particularly heavy-handed in terms of translation, with some pompous, unnatural speech.  This is a shame, especially for the latter work, a brief, light-hearted story of two men on a pilgrimage to a volcano (with touches of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat).  Another example is Sōseki’s first major work, I Am a Cat.  While overall it’s an enjoyable read, there is a slightly unnatural feel at times to Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson’s work.

These books stand out because of the more impressive effect made by other early works.  Meredith McKinney has done an excellent job on Kusamakura, the story of a man’s journey into the mountains, as has Rubin with Sanshirō.  This sensitive take on a young man from the provinces at the mercy of the big city is a novel showing the best of the writer’s style.

Ten Nights DreamingOxford Short StoriesBotchanModern J LitGrass on the WaysideLight and Dark

Of course, it’s important to be careful when making judgments without recourse to the original text, but there were a couple of pieces I was able to compare thanks to differing versions in English.  Matt Treyvaud’s recent translation of Ten Nights Dreaming allowed a comparison with one of these vignettes, which was included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories in Ito and Wilson’s translation.  While the versions are similar in content, they are rather different in style, and on the whole, Treyvaud pulls it off more skilfully.

Another example comes from one of the first Natsume books I ever read, Botchan, the raucous story of a young teacher in a new environment.  It’s a true Japanese classic (a high school staple), and great fun, even if I was initially a little disappointed with J. Cohn’s version (a very American take on the tale).  A few years later, I tried Burton Watson’s version of the first chapter, included in Donald Keene’s Modern Japanese Literature anthology.  Surprisingly, the crazy kid of Cohn’s text had morphed into a more solemn, pompous voice, giving me a far greater appreciation for Cohn’s work…

So, is the voice all down to the individual translator, then?  Not quite. While Sōseki had a relatively brief writing career, cut short by an untimely death, his style evolved considerably from the carefree satire of I Am a Cat and Botchan to the nuanced psychological novels of his final years, such as Grass on the Wayside and his unfinished final work Light and Dark.  None of his books are entirely devoid of the trademark humour, but the more he developed as a writer, the darker and subtler these moments became.  With the writer’s protagonists evolving from helpless young students to even more helpless old men, it’s unlikely that his style could remain unchanged.

For the native speaker (or the fluent foreigner), part of the enjoyment of reading Natsume Sōseki’s work will undoubtedly come from watching this development in the style and themes of his writing, but those of us with less of an affinity for kanji must thank the translators who bring his texts to us, while remaining mindful that the approach taken may contain a little of the translator mixed in with the writer.  Yes, it’s gratifying that so many people are willing to spend time on providing access to his work, but in a way, it’s a pity that his body of work is so fragmented in English, spread between so many translators and over so many publishers.  If only there were a move to create a collected works, with one publisher coordinating a small team of hand-picked expert translators to help the writer finally obtain the acclaim in English he deserves…

…but that’s a story for another day.

The full list of translators from my shelves:

Sammy I. Tsunematsu, Matt Treyvaud, Beongcheon Yu, Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein, J. Cohn, Norma Moore Field, Jay Rubin, Meredith McKinney, Edwin McClellan, Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson, Francis Mathy, Damian Flanagan, William N. Ridgeway, John Nathan, Michael K. Bourdaghs, Joseph A. Murphy, Keith Vincent, Rachel Hutchinson, Atsuko Ueda, Burton Watson

8 thoughts on “The Translations of Natsume Sōseki

  1. That *is* an awful lot of translators. I always hope that an author can meet their perfect translator so that the latter renders all of their work in one voice and in one language. I always felt that Calvino and William Weaver had that bond, working together, and going back a bit further the Maudes with Tolstoy (although I dislike the anglicised names.) It’s a very tricky subject…


  2. I am 24 on my count of Thomas Bernhard translators (well actually 30 individuals but 24 ‘teams’) although there the voice is so distinctive that it still largely comes across consistently.


      1. One important Soseki translator not on your list is Alan Turney, who produced a classic version of Grass Pillow under the title The Three-Cornered World, as well as one of Botchan, now out of print. I like ’em both (though since they are 50 years old, I can understand the recent re-translations).

        I’m fond of the Ito/Wilson duo, especially their Cat which I find really very funny for translated humour. Their writing is always lively, which is the important thing for this kind of book, even if it isn’t uniformly smooth. Their Heredity of Taste is similarly lively, much superior to Tsunematsu’s. 10 Nights of Dreams isn’t my favourite work (perhaps it reads better in Japanese), but compare their version of the first ditty in the Fourth Dream to Treyvaud’s:

        “Turns to a snake, you wait and see / What the pipe pipes has to be” vs “Now any moment now, a snake it’ll become / Yes it’s sure to happen now, hear the flute’s song”. No doubt the second version is more literal, but the first is much better as a little poem. And up to 10 footnotes for each two-page story is really far too much!

        Overall, the works I like (up to Sanshiro, or perhaps Sore Kara…) have been served well in translation, and I don’t mind too much that the result is a bit of a jumble sale – as you say, those books are a bit of a jumble sale too.


        1. James – Thanks for this comment, which was actually captured by the spamware – it’s a miracle I happened to be flicking through the bin!

          Yes, I know of Turney’s work, but I don’t have these on my shelves – those names are only the ones who grace my study… As for Ito v Treyvaud, well, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree there 😉


          1. Oh dear, it is a bit wordy – nothing turns you into a bore like a niche interest! Anyway, I’m grateful for your reviews of this interesting author. I’m giving Spring Equinox a try after your positive comments, and I’ll keep an eye out for your future reviews.

            Liked by 1 person

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