Musical Discoveries and Two Translations

Just recently I watched the first two installments of the new Ghost in the Shell OVA (titled “Arise”). One of the many great aspects of the new OVAs has been the outstanding musical selection. Today I’d like to introduce two songs (artists) from the series (both EDs) and my translations of the lyrics.



Miyazawa Kenji, Strong in the Rain


(Image: Bricks with ceramic fragments, Arita, Japan)

While interpreting for some visitors from the USA recently, Miyazawa Kenji’s poem 「雨ニモマケズ」(Strong in the Rain) came up in conversation–as one would expect, they had never heard of it. The poem, which had already been a widely-known perennial favorite in Japan for decades, became almost ubiquitous in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.  As simple as the poem is, I decided I would just jot down my own translation. And, having already gone that far, I thought I would also upload said translation here.

Classical Japanese Literature and the New Year

The past few months have gone by between the pages of a number of philosophical texts and books on literary theory, in addition to my usual fare of modern and contemporary Japanese fiction. I don’t have any prior experience with literary criticism as a discipline, so reading about the history of literary theory has been new and challenging. Equally new and challenging, I could say, have been my little forays into more classical Japanese literature since the start of the New Year holiday.

In Japan there is a well known New Year’s game called Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首) or Uta-garuta (歌ガルタ) [see here] which uses a collection of 100 classical poems by the same name. Each poem is divided onto two cards. The goal of the game is to match the phrases correctly. This is done by first arranging all the cards that display the bottom phrases of a poem on the floor or a table. Then, one player reads off the upper half of a poem, and the other players compete to claim the bottom half of the same poem from the pile.

I first heard about the game in high school, and was totally blown away by, well, how cultured it seemed. My admiration remains, although I still haven’t even gotten around to reading, let alone memorizing, the collection of poems. Both Y and I have been interested in learning how to play, and during our stay with her former host family in Sasayama in late December the topic came up. Y’s host mother jokingly suggested that we all play a round–an idea that was quickly chuckled away. But then, Y’s host mother introduced to us one of her favorite poems from the collection, and it quickly became a favorite of ours as well. (Poem 15, by Koko Tenno)

君がため 春の野に出でて 若菜摘む
   我が衣手に 雪は降りつつ

kimi ga tame   haru no no ni idete   wakana tsumu
waga koromode ni   yuki wa furitsutsu

As for the meaning, while I’m sure a quick search would lead to many professional and amateur translations, I decided to just make two poetic translations of my own. Of the two, the first one below recreates, in my mind, an atmosphere closer to that of the original poem, while the second rendition protects the meter (because why not?). In both renditions I’ve moved the first phrase and placed it after the third.

Out into spring fields
I go to gather herbs
   For you

Upon my sleeves
Snow falls gently

Out into spring fields
I venture to gather herbs—
A present for you

Upon my outstretched sleeves, look:
The snows gather quietly

In addition to this poem, Ghibli’s newest animated film, Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, has also piqued my interest in classical Japanese. I went to see the film yesterday evening, and was not only extremely impressed, but deeply moved. It’s the kind of film that I want to show to my (currently nonexistent) children some day. As soon as the film ended I ran over to the bookstore and picked up a copy of Taketorimonogatari (the original story) that contains both classical text, notes, and a modern translation.

Before going to see the movie I had tried to explain to one of my friends what the original story was about. It had been years since I read an abbreviated version in English, and I did a horrible job relaying the tale in Japanese. I’d like to spend some time memorizing classical stories and poems this year, not only as a way of improving my Japanese, but as a way to spend more time with oral narration in general. It’s a great tradition, and it feels like something that has less and less of a place in people’s lives these days. At the very least, it has steadily disappeared from my own life over the years.

Enjoe Toh 146th Akutagawa Prize

平成二十四年二月十二日  立春 黄鶯睍睆(次候)

There are already a number of English blogs and news sources that have provided timely coverage of the details regarding the 146th Akutagawa Prize, so I’d like to skip over the general information, and just dedicate my first entry to Enjoe Toh’s winning piece, 道化師の蝶 Dokeshi no Cho.

As a result of both my focus on older Japanese literature and my general lack of experience, I only heard of Enjoe Toh for the first time last month when he was announced as a prizewinner along with Tanaka Shinya. Since a decent number of Akutagawa prizewinners have yet to be translated into English, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Enjoe Toh has already had some of his work translated, appearing in Speculative Japan 2 and elsewhere. Hopefully the trend will continue, and Dokeshi no Cho will enjoy a speedy translation.

The Bungeishunju special march edition hit stores on Friday, so after I got off work I was finally able to go and casually pick up both of the winning pieces for only a fraction of the cost. What with all the drama surrounding Tanaka Shinya and the numerous book reviews describing “Cannibalism” as dark, graphic and disturbing (go figure?) I decided that I’d start off by reading Enjoe Toh’s story, which seemed more appealing.
I’m aware that 道化師の蝶 is already being translated on different blogs as “The Clown’s Butterfly,” but after a read through it’s apparent that “The Harelquin Butterfly” would be a more appropriate title. (I have changed the word “clown” to “harelquin” because Enjoe Toh assigns the reading「アルルカン」to 道化師. I have also reinterpreted the particle の because within the text the butterfly itself is directly compared to a harelquin.)

Over all, I thoroughly enjoyed the text; it’s a satisfying flight of fancy that muses about many facets of linguistic theory and more. Most striking, of course, is the story’s unconventional plot structure, which mimics a mobius band. (If you’re not sure what that would look like, then I recommend you read the story!)

Up until now I haven’t spent any time doing literary translation, but I thought it might be fun to put aside a little time after dinner tonight in order to translate the very first part of the story. Honestly, the radical changes that occur over the following sections are not easy to predict from the opening, which I’ve provided below; at the same time, I figured that translating any more than I have would be overdoing things.

And so the below is my quick attempt at a translation of the story’s opening, with all respect to Enjoe Toh, and the sincere hope that this translation will encourage readers to go, pick up a copy, and read the rest of the story. Enjoy!

The Harlequin Butterfly by Enjoe Toh

First, to the people whose names begin with an A.
Then, to those whose names begin with a B, a C, and so on.
Similarly, to those whose names begin with a vowel.
And then to those that begin with an F sound, then a V sound, and so on.
One after another, according to all the kinds of divisions that happen to exist.
I no longer know how to decide what is referred to by the intersecting points of the net, but what other method could there be other than this?


One should have a book that can only be read while traveling. Only having a book that can also be read while traveling is boring. There is a proper place and time for everything, and something that can be tolerated anywhere is nothing more than a lackadaisical sham.

The sort of book made to be read while traveling would surely be similar to something like “The Book That Can Be Read In 2 Minutes While Doing A Handstand,” which would of course be a book that has been written to be read while doing a handstand. If such a book were read while not doing a handstand, then the meaning of it would elude the reader. Naturally, they would be able to open the book and run their eyes across the characters on the page at any time—but the reading experience would be incomparable to that of reading while doing a handstand. It would surely be a story that cleverly makes use of the blood that rushes to the reader’s head. By applying this line of thought, one could easily create moments like “The Revelation That Occurs When You Become Enraged.”

It was something that occurred during the flight between Tokyo and Seattle. Resting on my knees was a copy of “A Confession To The People Who Have Three Arms,” which I had purchased at a kiosk. While I tried flipping through the pages, as usual none of the content made it into my mind. Whether by some fault of the speed at which the plane was traveling, the letters on the page had fallen slightly behind, and almost seemed to be hurriedly trying to catch up. Distracted by the letters’ panicked movements, rather than grasping the content of the book, I could only register that I was looking at a publication, and was utterly unable to convince myself to continue reading.

Once I gave up on any meaningless attempt to persist, I began thinking instead about a book that would make use of the letters’ movements. Whenever I go on a trip, I always have the same problem. Despite the fact that I travel with two or three books in my suitcase, and always buy another book that catches my attention at my destination, I’m never able to make any progress reading.

Salesmanship must be the witty ability to turn indecisive sensations not into words, but into money.

Even if you would not call him extremely wealthy, the reason that Mr. A. A. Abrams was able to acquire a considerable fortune was because he very seriously picked up what was nothing more than one of my casual musings.

It was something that occurred during the flight between Tokyo and Seattle.

Mr. A. A. Abrams is a man who flies year round, with no particular destination. Rather, he makes a living flying around, riding in as many airplanes as he can, and only staying at a hotel near the airport when it can’t be avoided. But he is neither a flight attendant nor a pilot; he’s a passenger with no particular destination.

Having forced his obese body into his economy class seat, Mr. A. A. Abrams waited for his fat to acclimate to its new restraints. By the time the plane reached cruising altitude his fat had settled and, after ordering one bottle each of red and white wine, he reached into his jacket pocket to remove something.

What he produced was a small bag sewn from silver thread, wrapped around a grease-stained spindle that shown with a black luster. Using his sausage-like fingers, Mr. A. A. Abrams delicately removed the bag from the black pole, and as though he were arranging a doll’s hair, opened it up with almost licentious movements.

From between his hairy fingers, a small insect net appeared. Like the giant in Brobdingnag, he carefully put his pointer finger and middle finger together, and then, gently pinching the net between his thumb and two fingers, held it level.

As though conducting a hum, he began to lightly twitch the net.

Out of the corner of his eye he gave me a searching look where I sat in the seat next to him, and then after a brief glance at the book resting on my knees, knitted his brow. Plainly assuming that I would be interested in what he had to say, Mr. A. A. Abrams began to ramble to me in his strong American accent.

“You see, my work is to go around collecting ideas. I’ve tried doing this in a number of different places, but in the end I discovered that the best place to catch ideas is in flight on large passenger planes. While traveling, people have all sorts of ideas, which then leave their bodies to float around in the air above us. There’s a lot of useless rubbish in the bunch, but it’s far better than sitting around in a conference room and trying to squeeze out bits of wisdom that never even existed in the first place. The long and short of it is that ideas hold everything together, and a business is an animal that constantly requires new ideas in order to stay alive. Essentially, what I do is go around catching food to keep the beast alive.”

Taking the net in his left hand, Mr. A. A. Abrams turned to me and pretentiously began again, saying, “This, you see, it made of silver thread. It was produced using the same methods for making filigree, and is interwoven with countless invisible incantations. I had a worker in Afghanistan specially order it. You see, ideas hate metal, but you can’t catch them with anything taken from an animal. I invested a lot of time and money before finally discovering that silver thread was suitable to the task. Bad spirits seem to avoid silver. In other words, as bad ideas naturally avoid this net, I’ve managed to avoid catching anything unnecessary—two birds with one stone, if you will.”

While complacently shifting my gaze back and forth between Mr. A. A. Abrams and his net, I bought the time I needed to translate what he had said. I waited patiently for my mind to rearrange the sentences and check the vocabulary against the little dictionary in my head. Once I felt that I understood the gist of what this giant meatball had suddenly said, I smiled and replied, “I see. I think I know what you mean. After all, I can never read when I’m traveling.”

Whether or not Mr. A. A. Abrams was able to understand my clumsy English, he seemed unable to make up his mind about something I had said, and knitted his brow again. The casual flicking movement that had been lightly jerking the insect net ceased. After examining my face for a moment, Mr. A. A. Abrams ceremoniously lifted up his log-like arms for me to see, and then gently placed the silver net over my head.

“Would you care to tell me about it?”