Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

When Culture Discounts Aesthetics: Tomoko Mitani's Will Not Forget Both Laughter And Tears

by Michael Tsang


Tomoko Mitani (Author), Yukari F. Meldrum (Translator), Will Not Forget Both Laughter and Tears, University of Alberta Press, 2013. 205 pgs.


Consisting of 22 short stories in two sections and a novella, and largely based on the author Tomoko Mitani's life, Will Not Forget Both Laughter And Tears is a rich record of Mitani's personal experiences mediated by both the act of writing and of translation. The premise explored in this book is straightforward: both laughter and tears exist in life, and we should not forget about them easily as they form part of us.

Given that most of the stories describe incidents encountered in daily life from a married woman's point of view, the book celebrates the cheerful and depressing moments of the quotidian. What draws readers to Mitani's stories is the universality of laughing and crying as ways to deal with different situations. Indeed, readers will recognise that laughter and tears come in different forms: the guffaw when witnessing other people's suffering, the shy smile when hiding our own embarrassment, the casual chuckle that writes off small obstacles, the tears of anguish at seeing someone dear suffering from illness, the grievous wailing when a family member passes away, and the regretful sobs for past wrongdoings.

The novella "Yōko" captures especially well the pain of losing a family member. The narrator Asako gives a balanced portrait of her sister Yōko's physical and emotional agony through her husband's affairs, her battle with cancer and her love-hate relationship with her mother-in-law. Asako is also sensitive to the impact Yōko has on other people, whether positive or negative. Hence she balances the distress of losing her sister with the opinions of Yōko's children about their mother, and discovers that Yōko has not been a particularly good parent. This newfound honesty—one that is perhaps similar to the sincerity Mitani found in writing her own stories—proves to be a silver lining as events and feelings hidden in the past finally get properly acknowledged. Asako's own family is also changed by Yōko's death, be it in her father or her daughter, showing that the passing of a family member can have a long-lasting and profound effect on others. The sensitivity in Mitani's prose certainly speaks to those who have undergone a similar journey of grief.

As with many literary translations, the translator's introduction is important in framing the context of the work. Thanks to her personal connection with Mitani, the translator, Yukari Meldrum, provides useful background to Mitani and her works. Despite these merits, the book suffers from a number of weaknesses. I found myself unable to fully appreciate Mitani's work in English, because Meldrum's role as a translator is too prominent and stifles Mitani's voice. One of the most obvious issues with this book is Meldrum's decision to treat Mitani's stories as vehicles to promote an alternative picture of Japanese culture and society. Meldrum means well by showing that Japanese society is more complicated than traditional samurais and popular idol groups, and that there is nothing wrong with celebrating the ordinary. However, Meldrum constantly elevates the lives depicted in the stories to a periodical and national level. She spends great lengths in the introduction listing many characteristics of the Japanese language and culture between the 1950s and 80s, from religious, economic and racial conditions to what people wore or how they addressed each other. Some of these explications are even repeated in footnotes. It is as though Meldrum wants her readers to understand every cultural reference in the text, but the information given is often short and generalised, and therefore of limited explanatory use.

This is ironic in three ways. First, Meldrum relies on generalisations about Japanese society in certain historical periods; phrases such as "Japanese people in the 1950s" abound. Readers are left with no freedom to draw their own conclusions about what it meant to be a middle-class Japanese woman in that period. Hence, Meldrum's attempt to use the texts to edify and illuminate readers on the broader economic, cultural and social climate in post-war Japan remains unconvincing. Second, although the blurb says Mitani's stories "explor[e] memory as a site of both laughter and tears," this exploration becomes highly conditioned by a reader's knowledge of Japan, or on whether he/she has been enlightened by the introduction. Third, Mitani did not allow many people aside from Meldrum access to her stories, suggesting that these personal and reflective recollections (despite a deliberate authorial distancing on Mitani's part) were not intended to shed any light on Japanese culture, least of all to educate North American readers about Japanese society. In other words, the way that the book is introduced—as one that provides an alternative, non-consumerist version of Japan—appears to be entirely Meldrum's intention and mediation. In this sense, she interferes far more than necessary in the reader's understanding of Mitani's works.

Unfortunately, such weaknesses have a spillover effect in the translation. At times, Meldrum puts various translation strategies to good use. For example, big chunks of undivided dialogue in the original are broken down into shorter paragraphs to make it clearer who is speaking. As Meldrum explains in her introduction, she also rewrote some conversation in free indirect speech, saving the confused reader from having to differentiate between speakers. She is also flexible with simplifying Japanese rhetorical expressions; instead of a direct translation for "picked the path," she readily opts for "chose."

At its least effective, however, Meldrum's translation appears to be mechanical and dry, more like a laboratory report than a narrative. Burdened by academic theories and torn between what she calls "domesticated" and "foreignised" approaches to the translation—in other words, the extent to which foreign words, expressions and concepts are appropriated in the interpretation—Meldrum unfortunately pays little attention to the tone, stylistics and register of the Japanese original. For instance, although she correctly notes the authorial distance in the stories, she does not explain how this distance is achieved or how her translation has attempted to deal with it. The distancing effect comes in two forms: in Japanese the short stories in the book are written in the polite form (also called the "desu masu form"), and, where the name of the character Tomoko is written out, "Tomo" is written in katakana—a script usually used for foreign words or emphasis—to differentiate from the author Tomoko Mitani. It is difficult to satisfactorily render in English such stylistic devices unique to the Japanese language, but the absence of any acknowledgement in the introduction is indicative of the translator's general negligence towards the aesthetics of language.

There are other examples. Although Meldrum recognises the "conversational" quality of Mitani's prose, her deliberation in translation strategies kills off the light-heartedness of Mitani's literary style. Word choices such as "this is because," "nonetheless" or "prior to" make the English narration a lot more formal than the Japanese version, while the original narrator is usually more affective and sympathetic. Consider also the first story, "An incident of 'You must say it!'" The rather clumsy "You must say it!" comes from the word osshai—a shortened, formal and somewhat old-fashioned imperative that demands that someone say something. Meldrum renders the word into a complete, grammatical sentence, but while it may be formal enough, it does not sound natural. Alternatives such as "speak!" or "speak up!" would have been as formal but more succinct. In the novella "Yōko," the title character receives an unsolicited phone call from her husband's mistress, and shouts angrily: "Why do you call and tell me these things!?" Here, despite the helpful, added emphasis of the italics, the use of present tense, instead of the present progressive ("Why are you calling and telling me these things?"), sounds forced and fails to convey the character's irritation, even though it matches the tense used in the original.

These issues with the aims of the project and in the translation lead to the bigger and more difficult question about the instrumentalisation of literature and translation. Simply put, the biggest weakness in Meldrum's translation is her preoccupation with uncovering cultural references and nuances. She treats these stories as cultural artefacts, not as literature. Writing as creative expression is reduced to a mere tool for cultural, but not aesthetic, exchange, and is demoted to a subordinate role that serves the now clichéd project of intercultural communication (which is still necessary). But if Mitani's prose can remind us about the power of memory reminiscing about joy and sadness in daily life, or the cathartic effect the act of writing has on Mitani, it cannot only be achieved through dense explanations about language and cultural habits. It also requires bridging the different aesthetics of the original and translated languages creatively and meaningfully, such that readers are given the space to hear the universal echo of the beauty in laughter and tears.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.