On Translating Mishima

Boris Akunin, delivering the annual Sebald Lecture:

You see, Mishima is not a clever author, most of his ideas about life and society would leave you uninterested. Neither is he an especially gifted builder of plots. The story isn’t his forte. With Mishima, the nuances are more important than the ideas he advances; Shade means so much more than Light. But his narration is so elegant, his style so powerful, that it makes up for the banalities and showing-off. There is plenty of shallowness in Mishima’s works, but strangely it only increases the impression of genuineness and beauty. It turns into a melody that I can always hear when I am reading Mishima.

In the English translation this melody was silent.

The saddest disappointments were the descriptions of nature. Mishima is famous for his “landscapes”. Everybody knows that describing skies, meadows and mountains is the hardest thing in modern fiction. It usually looks so unnecessary, so pretentious, so boring. I always miss out those bits when reading. When writing I keep to the golden rule: the shorter the better. “It was raining”, “the sky was cloudy” – and that’s it.

Not so with Mishima. You can actually see what he describes, and landscape is always an important part of his narration. His descriptions of nature can be quite long, but you are never bored.

How does he achieve this, I wondered. And how can I reproduce this effect in translation?

I remember how I tried to translate a fragment describing a sea view from “Kinkakuji”. I did it several times, each time differently, and still I was not satisfied. (There was no deadline, you remember). Then I understood that the secret lay in the sounds. The passage had to be read aloud. It was like a mantra, the combination of sounds and words – the trick was to capture this combination, not the meaning.

And when I translated the passage again, making it sound like a mantra in Russian too, I liked the result.

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Thank you for writing this! I much appreciate your thoughts on translation. I feel very disadvantaged to understand no japanese and have only the english translations.

But as a storyteller myself, I must disagree with you on the point “Neither is he an especially gifted builder of plots.” !

Look at “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea.” Does it pull you in like an action movie with big, loud twists and turns on every page? No, but look at the midpoint and how it raises the stakes. Look at the shocking but inevitable ending. It’s a slow build at times but his work has a strong scaffolding of dramatic structure holding the beautiful descriptions in place. It breaks down with the perfect symmetry of a Kubrick film.

Anyway, I do appreciate your thoughts on the translation! Just couldn’t stand the idea of his plots being dishonored anywhere, for I truly admire them.

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