Translating Izumi Kyoka

Rick Broadaway

  When Professor Ohara approached me several years ago about collaborating on a translation of a hundred-year old play by Izumi Kyoka called Yashagaike, my reaction was simple: Why not? After all, it was a chance to learn some Japanese and experience something that few Americans had ever had a chance to experience. Like most Americans, I had never heard of Izumi Kyoka and had no idea what kind of literature he wrote.

  By sheer coincidence, my landlady at the time, Ms. Nagae Teruyo, gave me an English translation of Kyoka’s most famous work, The Saint of Mt. Koya. As it turned out, Ms. Nagae had allowed the foremost American Kyoka scholar, Professor Charles Inoue, to live in her second home while he was doing research for a new book on Kyoka’s life, The Similitude of Blossoms. She was also instrumental in getting Prof. Inoue’s English translations published. It was one of these translations that she had put in my hands. What’s more, I was living in the house where much of the work to introduce Kyoka to English-speaking world had been done. The timing was uncanny. It seemed that fate was at work.

  I recall the scene when I sat down to read the book. It was a rare sunny day in Kanazawa. I was sitting on the veranda of my old Japanese-style home that looked out over the cherry blossoms and tiled roofs of the old neighborhood. It was a quintessential Japanese experience. I immersed myself in Kyoka’s world. I liked the story. It was unusual, not like anything I had ever read before. It was visually striking, dreamy, and a bit spooky. I was excited and eager to get to work on the translation of Yashagaike with Prof. Ohara.

  Our first translation session was a sobering experience. The Japanese that Kyoka wrote was not at all like the Japanese I knew. It was old-fashioned, eccentric and used Chinese characters that I had never even seen before, much less could read. Prof. Ohara would patiently explain each sentence of the original in English, and then sentence by sentence I tried to render them into English. The going was slow, but after several months of careful work we managed to finish the first scene or two. However, when I read over the English version it sounded horrible: the story was full of holes and inconsistencies, the characters seemed flat and uninteresting, the dialogue stiff and unnatural, and the humor decidedly unfunny. Where were we going wrong? Were we misinterpreting the story? Misunderstanding the characters? What was missing? This was going to be harder than I had thought. At one point, I had even decided that Kyoka’s reputation was overstated. In my opinion this was not literature. I just didn’t get it.

  So that is when I decided I was going to take control. I resolved to be bolder in my English renditions. Evoking creative license, I would breathe life into the characters. By God, I would make the story work! I rewrote almost every line in the first couple of scenes, and out of the chaos wrought a text that finally made sense! To me, anyway. Oh, it felt good at the time. That feeling was short-lived, however. My rendition was clever in its own way, but it was not Kyoka. Translation is not a work of force, but of finesse.

  And faith. I had to believe, without the proof of my own eyes, that Kyoka was a great artist. I had to keep an open heart and trust that the problem was simply that I did not understand his art. If we were going to succeed in our translation, I would have to understand what Kyoka was up to. I had to try to get inside his mind. So, I started talking to people who understand Kyoka. Prof. Akiyama Minoru was invaluable with his ready advice. I started reading everything I could find about Kyoka. Prof. Inoue’s essays and books in English were most helpful. Slowly the veil was being raised. We persevered in our work and eventually finished a rough draft.

  Meanwhile, Cody Poulton, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, had completed a translation of Yashagaike, entitled Demon Pond, published in book form with several of Kyoka’s other plays. I confess it was disappointing that he had beaten us to being the first to publish an English translation of the work, but we set that aside and put the finishing touches on our own translation, purposefully ignoring Poulton’s work so as not to be influenced by it. When we eventually did read it, we were quite surprised! They are very different renditions of the same story. But, that is the nature of translation – the translator brings his own perceptions, interpretations, and tastes to bear on the work. That is why it is good to have more than one translation. Rather than continue to ignore his work, we re-evaluated some of our own interpretations, and, whenever we agreed that Poulton had it right and we had it wrong, we changed the text so that the reader would benefit from the accumulated knowledge. However, the translations remain very different, reflected in the fact that our title is Demon Lake, not Demon Pond.

  I am happy to say that I am now a Kyoka fan. It took me many years to arrive at a genuine appreciation of his work, but I can now honestly recommend that you read him. This publication is bilingual, so it is also useful for studying English or Japanese. Enjoy!


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