Taka's Reviews > Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
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Dec 05, 07

bookshelves: japan_jul07-aug11, japanese_lit
Read in December, 2007

Good, but...

Yes. I did it. I've committed one of the ultimate literary sacrileges of all time. I read Akutagawa Ryunosuke in translation when I could have read it in original Japanese. I am guilty as charged; there is no question about it. I just couldn't resist a book with such a cool cover and Murakami's introduction plus his trusted Jay Rubin doing the translation. I just had to buy it.

Having said that, I did read it along with the actual Japanese text in front of me to see how well Jay Rubin has grappled with difficult early 19th-century Japanese and rendered it into English. And the result was somewhat disappointing. I think he does a good job translating Murakami's works, but here with Akutagawa, he pretty much butchers most of his early stories that take place in medieval Japan (which stories, by the way, are usually extolled as his masterpieces). The original Japanese is, of course, in medieval Japanese, and it is quite different from modern Japanese (but not as different as modern English to Chaucer's middle English). But Mr. Rubin sometimes translates conversations into highly colloquial English, and that just doesn't work with Akutagawa's early stories.

The Japanese language - still today and even more so back in the day - is a very polite language, which logically makes it a very vague language as well, where curse words don't really exist and you say things in a very roundabout way. And to render this into modern colloquial English is like equivalent of rendering Shakespeare into today's slang with an abundance of "F" and "N" and other such words. Now from a reader's point of view, Mr. Rubin's translation is very readable. Very. It could have, however, been a lot more conservative on the use of colloquialism and slang without compromising its readability.

For example, in one of the scenes, a lord tells his trusted servant to kill someone, and the original reads more or less, "Kill that man, that Rin'emon," which Mr. Rubin translates as "Kill that bastard!" Alright. This does show the degree to which this guy is mad (in fact crazy), but I'm sorry, that just doesn't work. The word "bastard" is just way too much a bad word for someone like a lord himself could utter (and I don't think there was an equivalent in medieval Japanese). I do recognize the difficulty since the Japanese here is very very subtle. The meaning is close to "bastard," but a LOT less blatant than what the English word conveys. In many many instances Mr. Rubin resorts to colloquial English that sounds too jarring to a Japanese ear when compared to the subtle nuances and beauty of the original Japanese. But that's just me, who is fortunate enough to be able to read both Japanese and English with more or less equal fluency. So as far as the translation is concerned, hats off to Mr. Rubin for making Akutagawa's stories easily available for the English-speaking public, but as an artistic work, it could have done much better by avoiding too much colloquialism and using more formal (and even a bit archaic) English to better convey the original voice of the text.

W/r/t the stories, they are really good. I'd even say he's Japan's Chekhov. In fact, you could see an exotic blend of Kafka, Gogol, Chekhov, and even Dostoevsky at work behind these stories. My personal favorites are his famous "Hell Screen" (intense and just awesome), "In the Bamboo Grove" (Kurosawa's Rashomon is based on this), and "Horse legs" (which is very Kafkaesque and just funny). "Loyalty" is also excellent in terms of it psychological insights. Though I wasn't a big fan of his later, autobiographical stories, they were strangely engaging. It's just too bad that one of his most famous stories, "Kappa," is not included in this collection. Overall, it's a good short anthology of Akutagawa's stories.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Hilson Thank you for your insightful review on Rubin's translation. MY Japanese is not at the point where I can read Akutagawa in the original source, but I found much of what your said to make sense. I will return to these stories in a few years time, but in Japanese and will keep what you have said in mind.


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