Speculative Japan 2

Although cover, front page and spine are all in disagreement about this book’s exact title, it contains stories of SF and fantasy from Japan, many lifted from a 2006 best-of survey. The oldest story here is Naoko Awa’s fairytale “A Gift From the Sea” (1977), while the most recent are a bunch from 2007. Clustered among them are superlative works such as Yasumi Kobayashi’s super-hard SF “The Man Who Watched the Sea” (2002) and Issui Ogawa’s “Old Vohl’s Planet” (2003), a first-contact tale told by the last survivor of a race of creatures from a gas-giant planet. There is a wide range of tone and quality in both stories and translations – one tale inadvisably attempts to make Japanese-speaking space-farers speak like 1930s English sea dogs, while another is a superior translation of a sub-standard sentimental romance. But in bringing thirteen Japanese authors to the attention of a wider English-speaking audience, this is one of the most important contributions to Japanese prose SF abroad in the last twenty years.

Jonathan Clements is a contributing editor to the new edition of the Encylopedia of Science Fiction, with special responsibilty for Chinese and Japanese material. This review first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.

5 thoughts on “Speculative Japan 2

  1. Thanks for your comments, Jonathan. I’m so glad that in my first attempt at translating fiction you recognised my intent. The original 20th-century Japanese story is full of such anachronisms as the central character and narrator whose hobby is reading physical books by C.S. Forester and R.L Stevenson in the library of an interstellar carrier which is equipped with CRTs and printers, and a male crew. And navy language to match.
    I did consider writing them all out of the story and bringing it up to date, but the physics which is explained doesn’t quite match what we know today either, so I decided to keep the retro atmosphere of unintended steam punk.

    I’d be most grateful if you’d clarify what was inadvisable about the choice and offer some alternatives. There are several more of this author’s works pending translation and I’d like to do them justice. TIA.

  2. Simon, I just don’t like the tale itself. It is, one hopes, surely not indicative of what Tani has to offer. I have to write the SF Encyclopedia entry on him some time soon, and this doesn’t strike me as the sort of work that would go on to win him several awards. If anything’s inadvisable, it is surely choosing this story over something better!

    There is a very interesting time lag here, between the expectations of modern SF in English, and the expectations of audiences in Japan in 1984. It’s a very early Tani story, and I can’t see a place of publication for it (it’s not actually on the publication list at http://homepage2.nifty.com/te2/j/j38.htm ) and both Wikipedia and Amazon Japan imply its first appearance in print was in an anthology. It’s certainly odd to see such early work set in print in an English-language anthology alongside, say, more accomplished works from others, such as “The Man Who Watched the Sea” or “The Whale That Sang on the Milky Way Network.”

    In Japan, the lag normally proceeds in reverse, with “old” stories from the Anglophone world sometimes appearing years later, in a different context. Sometimes, as in the case of the Lensman retranslations, this makes old stories seem much more up-to-date. I think in the case of “Q-Cruiser Basilisk” it’s not necessarily so.

    None of this diminishes the achievement of Speculative Japan 2, however, in dragging so many Japanese authors to the notice of the English-speaking world. Koshu Tani would have got an entry in the SFE anyway, as a Seiun Winner (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/Entry/seiun_award) but certain other authors in the collection will now get covered simply because one of their stories is available in English.

  3. Thanks for your very prompt response and apologies for my tardy one.
    Yes, I’m afraid the only choice I had was which story from the already-selected contents to translate. The other titles were being snapped up fast so I asked for the longest and apparently least popular, to make sure I got something.
    The story was the title work in an anthology on the site you mention above:
    1982年「仮装巡洋艦バシリスク」literally: “disguised cruiser ”Basilisk'”.
    There is also a fan site, where it is listed third from the top:
    Is there any advice you’d be willing to give me, as a beginner in the world of translating fiction, on developing a style for Tani’s books? There are better stories of his that I’d like to work on, but if I haven’t done “Basilisk” justice, I’d like to work on whatever it is I need to work on before unwittingly ruining his reputation in the English reading world.
    best regards

  4. Hello Simon

    Yes, I saw it on the list — my point was that it appears to have appeared first in the anthology, and not in a magazine. That, at least, is how things look based on those online sources. I’ll check closer when I write the Tani entry, although I really should do Chohei Kanbayashi first. Chiaki Kawamata’s entry has just been uploaded. Slowly, slowly…

    Firstly, don’t panic. Fiction is always a matter of taste, and people can decide that they don’t like it without any bad reflection on the translator, or even author. I am never bothered by negative reviews of my fiction, only by negative reviews of my fact. So I don’t necessarily think that you haven’t done “Basilisk” justice. Nor are you ruining his reputation in English. He doesn’t have a reputation. Every story of his translated into English, is another shot at awards, at readers, at simple recognition denied to the majority of other Japanese authors. So he’s ahead of the game.

    However, idiolect is one of the most difficult things to translate, arguably second only to poetry and song. It’s certainly worth experimenting with the text devoid of a particular accent or voice, or trying to determine precisely what kind of idiolect is used by the character in Basilisk, particularly if he crops up again. Is the language he uses demonstrably arcane? Or is he just dropping his H’s? Translated idiolect, sadly, requires considerably more effort than usual, and often goes unrecognised or unappreciated.

    Is he an uneducated man using educated words, or a heavily accented person who happens to like books? Is his use of dialect a pretension on his part, as how integral is it to the text? Those are the sort of questions you should be asking yourself — I can’t supply the answers. As I have suggested above, I am not entirely sure it’s worth the effort; as you subtly note, there are other issues with the story that make it seem quite dated anyway.

    I once met an old lady in Shimabara who spoke the oddest Japanese I have ever heard, like Joanna Lumley trying to audition for Eastenders. Part posh, part Japanese cockney. I couldn’t work it out, until she said: “I is from the land of morning calm,” using the proscribed colonialist term for Korea — when she grew up there, it was “part of” Japan. The way she spoke was hypnotically odd, but very difficult to convey in English. I can translate basic elements of her speech, and replicate the deviations from normal speech, but nothing will convey to another person the all-over goosebumps I got when I heard Chosen instead of Kankoku.


  5. Pingback: Speculative Japan 2 | Kurodahan Press

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