Translating a 100 year-old Japanese Master – an interview with Ryan Choi

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa inspired Murakami and Kurosawa, but what’s it like reading his work today?

The Akutagawa Prize is one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes. Kurosawa’s beloved 1950 film Rashomon, was inspired by Akutagawa stories, and Haruki Murakami counts him as a favourite. But what would today’s readers think? And what about translating it? Ryan Choi’s In Dreams: The Very Short Stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is a new collection of  previously untranslated very short stories by the Japanese master and his translation style alone makes it a treat to read. 

Choi is a largely self-taught translator who began his career on a whim. When reading through Akutagawa’s catalogue, he found a slew of engaging, untranslated, and very short stories. Starting with “Old Age”, he began translating these stories. The curious mix of creation, investigation, and puzzle-solving caught him, and he decided to create a collection of these very short, untranslated stories – In Dreams

An Akutagawa story is instantly recognizable, but what would you say it is that makes him unique?

Akutagawa was a writer’s writer and a storyteller. To craft memorable tales and sterling sentences is a feat much rarer than it sounds. Most writers are more one than the other. 

Akutagawa pondered the nature of his tools like a carpenter musing on his hammer and nails before, during, and after his swings. As a participant in the timeworn debate on the relationship between content and form, with himself and with contemporaries like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (who appears in this collection), Akutagawa bemoaned the misframing of the issue (as if content and form are separable) and that he was targeted critically as a “formalist” with a secondary interest in intellectual or human content. 

To his detractors, his writings were the prim crystals of a shallow stylist. But most Akutagawa partisans would agree that this is a crude reading of his artistry. Indeed, he lived by his pen, so a dud here and there was to be expected. But even Akutagawa’s weakest works are luminous and illuminating—yes, he was attentive to styles and forms, but as he argues in “Art and Other Matters”, form cannot exist without content and content cannot exist without form. And the author’s taste for “form” was hardly new to Japanese literature anyway, which has borne many famous set forms. 

At his best, we see clearly what Akutagawa defined as the hallmark of great literary writing: elevation of content and form into singularly sublime objects. A prime example of this is Yabu no Naka, or “In a Grove,” a story about a young samurai’s brutal slaying on the outskirts of Kyoto. It is told by seven narrators whose testimonies form a chapter each. The story contains many noteworthy and grisly images—a body lying dead in a thicket of bamboo, a woman defiled by the local ruffian—but none are as striking as the narrative structure of multiple voices itself, which persists in the mind as an image on its own. As the story’s most defining facet, without which it would forfeit its identity, this “form” is likely to be the first thing a reader would submit when asked to summarise the story. 

Did you pick In Dreams for the title story because of this, or was it something else?

My working title for the collection was Old Age: The Very Short Works of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, reflecting my feeling that “Old Age” is the book’s true centrepiece. It is the story that began Akutagawa’s brief but potent career, and the story that lured me into assembling this collection. 

The final title, however, was the decision of my publisher, who felt that replacing “Old Age” with “In Dreams” and “works” with “stories” would be more fetching to potential readers. I don’t disagree with this, and am more or less happy with the title. Though, to be honest, I preferred “works” since the collection isn’t limited to fiction, and I fear that “stories” misleads one to believe that it is. 

But booksellers, for sound financial and marketing reasons that I’m not criticising here, prefer books that fit into one category instead of two or three. After all, there’s the practical issue of where in the bookstore the book will be placed. 

Akutagawa (centre back) at a publication party for his friend Izumi Kyoka.
Akutagawa (centre back) at a publication party for his friend Izumi Kyoka.

The collection is quite different from his iconic short stories, do you think it shows a different side of Akutagawa?

Yes. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but a writer of Akutagawa’s breadth is more than “just” a short story writer who lacked the mettle to write a novel. One aim of In Dreams is to showcase an unseen side of the author. To give a fuller picture of his multidimensional conception of the short form. 

I chose all of the pieces in this book because they fit the theme in the “very short” part of its title. I’m not suggesting that Akutagawa was the father of flash—far from it (Japan had been writing in fragmentary forms for centuries—see zuihitsu); the style is anything but new, neither in Japan nor in the broader world. One can mine Robert Walser and Franz Kafka for early modern examples; or, going further back, the works of the Brothers Grimm, Pu Songling, and Aesop. Even religious scriptures feature examples of the compact. 

What is new, at least in the English-speaking world, is that flash has crystallised into a genre, or sub-genre, of its own. This is in a territory that had been dominated by the “fable” or the “myth,” and we have now an expanded paradigm through which we can “see” and make meta-sense of these miniature literary objects. These objects that consist of contents that go beyond the tropes and tones of fables and myths. 

This phenomenon (i.e., the emergence of a form, or a paradigm shift) is not confined to literature but is observed in all disciplines of thought and perception in general. Our “seeing” is filtered through frameworks or sieves that preexist us, and just because you can’t see something doesn’t imply nonexistence, only nonexistence in your paradigm. This ties into the question of why translators ignored Akutagawa’s “very short” works. 

Of course this is pure speculation, but in the same way that blue is seen as a shade of green if the word for it is absent in the viewer’s language, translators neglected Akutagawa’s flash fiction: the works were “seen” only as half-born pieces or scribblings. Which to us they are anything but; but to assert this too stridently is to neglect our privilege of the present paradigm.

This collection also feels very modern. Do you think that is because of the more personal stories?

You’re right to point out the link between modern fiction and the personal. In literary history– a history of man’s sense of self and his place in the cosmos– there’s an undeniable trend that takes us from the ancient, almost selfless-sounding works of the mythic, religious, or epic, to the self-awareness of the modern age.

One wonders if we’ve reached an apex on this front of perspective, and where matters will stand in another two or three centuries. Either way, it’s no surprise that the appeal of confessional writing grows stronger than ever, and I think this is because of and in spite of the emergence of social media, which seem as much a product of this self-izing trend as a perpetuator of it. But to contextualise Akutagawa and his “personal” stories (a subject he turned to as his mental health crumbled) in the literary scene of early twentieth-century Japan, I would point readers to the genre of the I-novel.

The I-novel, or I-fiction, was a major literary movement in Akutagawa’s time, epitomised by Naoya Shiga, another god of the Japanese short story, whom Akutagawa admired and was quite possibly influenced by in his shift to the personal in some of the stories in In Dreams. Shiga was Akutagawa’s senior by nearly a decade and began publishing some years before the latter’s debut. The prose of Shiga, in contrast to “classic” Akutagawa, has been celebrated for its light and vivid touches and fresh focus on the personal, or the earthly.

While it’s challenging to assess the “influence” a writer has on his contemporaries and subsequent generations, being more famous—which Akutagawa is, more so than Shiga, both in Japan and abroad—doesn’t automatically qualify one as more influential, and a distinction can be made between imitability and admirability. Akutagawa, was such a consummate writer in his “classic” period that his style represented more of an aesthetic endpoint or peak than new ground, making him more admired than copied. 

Because Akutagawa’s virtuosic writing and literary persona were so bound up with his rigorous learning and the cosmopolitan span of his intellectual, literary, political, and spiritual interests, he was on these grounds a more formidable act to emulate, compared to Shiga and his—deceptively—simple prose that pulled from everyday life.

Perhaps then it’s natural that the I-novel has persisted into the present, yielding along the way, Osamu Dazai, the author of the 1947 novel The Setting Sun, one of Japan’s best-selling novels of all time, who, interestingly enough, despised Shiga. 

The influence of Akutagawa, a monolith with a most coveted literary prize named after him, isn’t as straightforward. Akutagawa died in his mid-30s, Shiga died in his late 80s. Is it a stretch to wonder whether the Akutagawa’s complex style became unwieldy as his mind unravelled (hence his shift to a “lighter” style and “personal” subjects, a conspicuous outlier being his 1927 novella, Kappa), or was it his omnivorous, roving mind itself that was the main driver of his demise? In any case, though Akutagawa isn’t associated with the I-novel, these “personal stories” of his are surely enough to grant him an honorary membership. 

osamu dazai

And what about your voice as a translator? Was there an intentional choice to add a modern feel to the stories during translation?

As for the sound of my Akutagawa translations, I gather this has more to do with me than with the original texts. I write (translate) to appease my own sense and ear. Not to include myself in the work, but every strong translator has a readily identifiable style, and it’s shortsighted to criticise a literary translator for injecting their voice into their work. This act of injection is one of the things that breathe life into a text that would otherwise be stillborn (if literary translation is a “selfless” endeavour, as I have seen it romantically described, this is much ado about an industry that dehumanises its practitioners, so far as the US and the UK go). The magic of creation must be present in the act of re-creation. Scholarly acumen and literalist accuracy alone will fail to conjure this. A literary translator is required to be, at minimum, as great of a writer in your own language as the writers you seek to translate, or become. If you’re translating Hermann Broch into English, you better be able to write in English as well as Broch did in German.

I would even go so far as to say that supreme skills in the target language paired with a so-so grasp of the source language can produce more worthwhile results than the opposite. Which is to say that a mediocre text, through the act of literary translation, can be transformed into platinum or diamonds (some haters of Edgar Allan Poe aver that his reputation is so estimable in France “only” because his works entered the language through the womb of Charles Baudelaire; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself claimed Gregory Rabassa’s English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude to be superior—but try to find Rabassa’s name on the cover). So I repeat, great translators, like great writers, have styles. I can pick out an Arthur Waley or Edwin McClellan translation from miles away in the same way I can pick out a paragraph by Nabokov or Lovecraft, or Austen or James, or Woolf or Proust. 

For myself, when I begin a translation, I have no idea what the voice will sound like in the end, and I don’t labour under the illusion that what I’m doing is something definitive that will render all other attempts obsolete. My aim is to create sturdy works that stand on their own. Readers benefit from having multiple versions of Genji Monogatari, just as viewers benefit from having multiple versions of Batman. One more thing worth disclosing here, which may affect the final voice, is that I never read through a text before deciding whether to translate it. I jump right into the water instead of surveying the tides. And so for me, it becomes a question of staying in or climbing out of the sea. Sometimes I like the temperature and current of the water, and sometimes I do not, and oftentimes when I decide to proceed, the swim is long and arduous. For these very short Akutagawa stories, I sometimes did over fifty drafts before, in the manner of Valery, I abandoned ship, lest it become my grave. 

Translation is hard to describe. I’ve heard it’s like melting an ice sculpture, only to refreeze it and sculpt it again. How would you relate it?

I can liken it to many things, but literary translation is ultimately nonpareil or sui generis, on par with those other modes of creation that are as fundamental to humankind as tastes are to the tongue. Perhaps a better illustration would be to ask what you would compare the act of painting to, or, to return to tastes, sweetness or saltiness? It’s a trying task because of the atomic nature of these acts and sensations. On some level, all work deals in the translation of things from one state to another, where they can commune with the economy of bodies and minds. 

But your melting-ice analogy, which I haven’t heard until now, is quite a fascinating one, especially as it pertains to questions about language, the relationships between languages, how it’s even possible for translation to occur, and what the relationship is between language(s) and their world(s). 

The ice analogy is about water, which we know can adopt many forms—ice, liquid, vapour—while retaining its integrity. If you melt an ice sculpture and reconstitute it, it remains H2O throughout the process, even as its shape changes. To me, the most compelling question about this is if the two sculptures, before and after, correspond to a pair of languages, source and target, what does the H2O correspond to? The answer lies somewhere in the query about languages and their worlds. This question seems like asking about the relationship between colours and the world of painting; or the relationship between musical notes and the world of music. In these examples, it’s an understatement to say that colours are merely a part of the world of painting, or musical notes merely a part of the world of music, when colour and music and their formal arrangements are their respective worlds. Are languages and their worlds related like this too? For the sake of illustration let’s say that the world of Japanese is Japan and the world of American English is the US. Despite the unintelligibility between the two languages, there’s enough equivalency between their worlds that translation is possible without the need for copious annotations. Japan and the US, after all, are both first world countries that share similar amenities and levels of technology and capital development; there’s even a degree of familiarity that an American has with Japanese food, and vice versa—hotdogs and hamburgers, sushi and ramen—which didn’t exist three centuries ago.

But to underscore a further point about “worlds” and their languages, consider the old literatures of Japan and their “worlds”—of the Man’yōshū, of Genji Monogatari, of The Pillow Book—and the old literatures of English and their “worlds”—of Beowulf, of The Dream of the Rood, of The Canterbury Tales. Evidently, the worlds of contemporary Japan and the US have more in common with each other than do the worlds of The Canterbury Tales and the US, or even the UK of today. But there still remain things which, between Japanese and English, are difficult to translate because of the lack of an equivalent on the other linguistic shore. For example, in Japan, there’s a heating device that’s a kind of low table covered by a quilt with a brazier inside (formerly charcoal, now typically electric), which people sit at on the floor with their legs crossed within for warmth. This is called a kotatsu, and it’s ubiquitous in Japan. But as I have shown there’s no one- or two-word equivalent in English, because no such thing exists in the world of English. If we were translating from Japanese into the language of another “world” that had a device like the kotatsu, there would be no need for a note and the use of the original word in italics. Because bicycles exist in the world of Japanese as they do in the world of English, we can say bicycle without hiccup when translating the Japanese word jitensha. But if we’re translating bicycle or jitensha into a language where bicycles don’t exist in that world, then we would have to append an explanation similar to what I did for kotatsu

All this being said, I have compared literary translation elsewhere to acting. This isn’t an exact analogy, but it does capture some key aspects. In drama, you have a role on the page (the original) that’s brought to life (or translated) by an actor. Give Hamlet to John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Benedict Cumberbatch, and you’ll end up with four divergent versions of the same role with each actor animating the role in his own way with his distinctive physique, timbre of voice, and sense of phrasing and pace. And then there are the other factors in a stage production—co-actors, director, costumes, make-up, lighting, set design, the book equivalents of which would be the editorial staff, the design elements of the book itself, the style of font and pagination, the cover art, the paper it is printed on. You can see a parallel in the performance of classical music. Give the score of Schumann’s Tocatta in C Major, Op. 7 to Sviastaslov Richter, Igor Pogorelich, and Martha Argerich, and all of them will produce stunningly individual interpretations. 

And I know translating presents many unique challenges– selecting the right idiom, knowing highly specific words. What was unique to translating Akutagawa?

At this point in my career, it’s hard to answer by way of comparison to other Japanese writers since I have yet to translate any other prose besides Akutagawa’s. I can say only a few things here, which I’ve already talked about earlier. Akutagawa was one of the most well-read writers of his time, learned not only in the Japanese and Chinese classics, but in the literatures of Europe, Russia, and the US. This erudition is reflected in the sophistication of his writing. In his subject matter, word choice, and syntax. 

In what are considered his “classic” stories, which don’t appear in In Dreams, Akutagawa is noted for his elegant, dense, and rich style; at his most difficult, his sentences are baroque edifices, ornamented with multiple subjects, allusions, and references. The best example of this “classic” style in my collection is “Old Age,” and perhaps “The Heron and the Mandarin Duck.” 

One challenge was the fact that the Japanese is a language where pronouns are dropped, and it’s on the reader to sort each sentence’s scenery (the English mind simply isn’t accustomed to this), not to mention that Japanese, like German, allows for longer and more serpentine sentences than English does before bad taste is breached. But as the very short stories of this collection show, Akutagawa had another side to his style and was more than capable of writing with a lighter and more “personal” touch.

Do you remember any lines that were especially challenging, or that you were especially proud of translating?

No single lines stick out, but the biggest sigh of relief came after I finished “Old Age,” because of the thickness of the prose and the litany of obscure references relating to kimono patterns, names of old places and personages, and the traditional performing arts, many of which I couldn’t locate by the usual means. I understand why translators avoided this story all these decades, despite it being Akutagawa’s first publication. “Old Age” may be the heaviest handed piece in his whole oeuvre. On the first approach, I barely made it through one paragraph before quitting. I took a few weeks off, then returned to the story in a steelier frame of mind. I am glad to have done it but just as glad to be over with it. 

Well thank you for translating these stories for us, and I’m looking forward to your next work: Three Demons: A Study on Sanki Saitō’s Haiku!

In Dreams: The Very Short Stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is available now from Momentum Books. You can grab yourself a copy from Booktopia, Dymocks, and Kogan. You can also request In Dreams for your local library at The Book Place.

A list of Ryan’s other works at his site– including the forthcoming Three Demons: A Study on Sanki Saitō’s Haiku (Open Letter, 2024). 

Branden Zavaleta

West Australian Writer & Photographer