Good, new and much needed translations of the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) have recently begun to appear. Last year there was the Penguin edition of 18 stories, translated by Jay Rubin, and now comes this Archipelago edition of 15, translated by Charles De Wolf.
Both contain works never before translated into English. The Rubin collection (reviewed in this column on Aug. 20, 2006) contained nine of such, and this new De Wolf collection contains three: “An Enlightened Husband,” “An Evening Conversation” and “Winter.”
In addition, the two collections do not much duplicate each other. The translators share only two late works: “The Life of a Fool” and “Cogwheels.” The interested reader will need both volumes because of this lack of duplication and because of the excellence of the translations themselves.
To be sure, these two late (posthumously published) stories are among the Akutagawa works already adequately rendered into English. “Cogwheels” was translated by Beongcheon Yu in 1965 and by Cid Corman in 1987. “The Life of a Fool” was translated by Will Petersen in 1970 and, again, by Cid Corman in 1987.
Translations, however, are a product of their times. Arthur Waley’s “Tale of Genji” with its Edwardian prose still has its admirers, but the original is best displayed in the Edward Seidensticker translation. The fusty exoticism still perceived attached to Akutagawa’s work can in part be attributed to his early translators.
In building what has been called an identical structure side by side with the original, the translator must choose words and expressions that both mirror and explicate the original. The excellence of the translation (or the lack of it) depends largely upon how good the translator is in his own language. In any event, his interpretation is based upon the stylistic choice he shows us.
Below are two translations of the same passage from the 1927 “Aru Aho no Issho.” Rubin translates this as “The Life of a Stupid Man,” and continues with “#18. Butterfly. A butterfly fluttered its wings in a wind thick with the smell of seaweed. His dry lips felt the touch of the butterfly for the briefest instant, yet the wisp of wing dust still shone on his lips years later.”
De Wolf translates it as “The Life of a Fool,” and continues with “#18. A Butterfly. A butterfly fluttered in the seaweed-scented breeze. For an instant, he felt its wings touch his parched lips. Even many years later, the powder on those wings that brushed his lips still glistened.”
One translation has no advantage over the other, both impart the purport. The Rubin translation (40 words) is slightly longer than De Wolf’s (33 words), a ratio that is maintained throughout both books. At the same time there are indications of intent.
In his notes, De Wolf makes a distinction between “aho” and “baka,” feeling that the latter is the more restricted and that the former is not always a term of abuse — as in August Strindberg’s “Confessions of a Fool,” a work Akutagawa knew well and mentions in the text. Perhaps that’s why the translator chose a word like “parched” rather than “dry,” the term chosen by Rubin.
“Dry” is a statement, like “wet,” but “parched” (like “moistened”) implies a cause. I have no idea what the original Japanese is so I can only guess that De Wolf, with reason, wanted to connect this fool with other fools (Strindberg, Dostoevsky) who had anxious reasons for having parched lips.
Rubin in his notes (both collections are richly annotated) would seem to have supported the “stupid” thesis since these notes mention the women in Akutagawa’s life and the very similar problems he had with them. Could that be the reason behind the choice “shone?” Doesn’t “glisten” imply something less steady, more intermittent — when what the translator perhaps needed (and found in “shone”) was a word that implied permanency?
Whatever. Both translations are useful and defendable and their differences are illustrative of varied interpretations. And both offer us the opportunity of meeting old acquaintances in new clothes and introducing us to enchanting strangers.