Yoko Tawada on Ideograms and Dostoevsky

For all its noise, Facebook can still be a great way of keeping up with what your friends are working on. For instance, over the weekend, Susan Bernofsky posted about a Yoko Tawada she recently translated for the “Japan Focus” issue of the“Asian-Pacific Journal.”:http://japanfocus.org/ The article — The Letter as Literature’s Political and Poetic Body — is a fascinating piece on reading habits and ideograms. Especially this bit about why the new Japanese translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has been so wildly successful:

In November 2006 a new translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov appeared that soon had sold 500,000 copies. I knew the translator, Kameyama Ikuo, as the author of a fascinating book on Stalin and the artists of his time.

Just as in other countries, people in Japan have been lamenting since the 1980s (if not much longer) that young people no longer read the classics of world literature. First it was the culture of manga and television that was seen as the culprit; later it was the internet, computer games and obsessive text messaging. The number of books sold each year has actually been rising, because manga, the autobiographies of TV stars, internet literature and even text-message literature have come out in book form—but nonetheless people have been complaining that the old canon of world literature is no longer being taken seriously. And so this new Karamazov boom was a pleasant surprise. But I asked how this new translation of the novel could be so different that suddenly hundreds of thousands of Japanese readers were in such a hurry to buy it and were reading it with such enthusiasm. Even in times when literature supposedly had many more readers than today, Dostoevsky was never a bestseller. [. . .]

Can the novel The Brothers Karamazov be translated in such a way that it reads smoothly and fluidly like a bestseller? I bought the new translation, read the first hundred pages, and concluded that each phrase used in it appeared easily accessible and had a good rhythm. In this book, the odors and dust of a foreign society are suppressed. The characters are readily distinguishable from one another despite their inconsistencies. Regardless of whether one values these attributes of the new translation, the difference between the new and old translations seemed to me insufficient to explain this explosive boom.

Several months later I happened to have a chance to chat with a young editor from a Japanese publishing house about this new translation. He said that readers today have developed a manga or text message way of seeing, meaning that their eyes grasp one entire section of text as an image and then go on to the next. For this reason, the sections cannot be too long: ideally, no longer than would fit on the screen of a cell phone or in a single manga picture. [. . .]

The editor told me that in his opinion the secret of this new translation was that an unusually large number of paragraph breaks had been added to the novel. Manga readers can read the novel by passing from paragraph to paragraph as if from one manga image to the next. They are no less intelligent than their grandparents, but they have a different organ of vision, or a different cable connecting their retinas to their brains.

A Japanese translator I spoke with several weeks later confirmed the editor’s theory. She was just translating a book for the world literature series in which the new Brothers Karamazov had also appeared, and her editor kept repeating the same sentence: Give me more paragraphs! [. . .]

I don’t know whether I myself have manga eyes or not. Sometimes at a manga café in Tokyo I see young men flipping through a manga incredibly quickly. I could never read so fast. At home I secretly measured the amount of time it took me to read a page of Tezuka’s manga. Ten seconds per page. Then I measured how long it took me to read the new edition of Karamazov: twenty seconds a page. The old translation, on the other hand, took me nearly sixty seconds. The difference between the manga and the new Karamazov was much smaller than the difference between the new and old Brothers.

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