30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., which was translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich and published by Kodansha International.

We’ve already mentioned this book on Three Percent several times, including in this JLPP interview with Michael Emmerich, and more interestingly, in relation to this piece he wrote for CALQUE and the “ensuing debate/exchange it provoked.“http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=1171

As if those pieces weren’t enough to get one intrigued, this is a book about a woman who wakes up with a penis growing out of her big toe and runs off to joint a “traveling performance show with other sexual misfits.” Sounds pretty crazy and fun, no? Well, unfortunately, Monica wasn’t as enamored with it as she had hoped to be:

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Monica does love the translation though . . . To read the full piece, click here.

30 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In fiction, there are dangers—dangers for the writer and dangers for the reader. In Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P., we have an unhealthy combination of both. When the writer takes a risk, the reader is either going to take that risk with the writer without question or stay with the idea of the risk long enough to get rewarded. I stayed with her throughout the whole book, but I didn’t feel rewarded for doing so. This may seem difficult to fathom considering the premise: a young woman wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe. Sounds easy enough, right?

Unless, of course, the issue becomes so convoluted with intellectual musings that character development and story land a distant second to the premise. The reader has to willingly suspend disbelief when something unrealistic occurs. But if the author continually taps on the window of our dream world, it’s difficult to drown in the author’s own conceit. I wanted to like this novel and, as a reader, I wanted it to pay off. But Matsuura makes this difficult for herself and the reader. Matsuura introduces us to Kazumi Mano, a twenty-two year old who is a supremely naïve, young waif of passivity. She is passive about her job, how she is treated by her boyfriend and by her friends. But she wakes up one morning with a penis growing out of her big toe and this is when she begins to question society’s beliefs and assignations about gender and sexuality. She leaves her boyfriend who is so freaked out he tries to cut off her toe-penis during an argument, joins a traveling performance show with other sexual misfits and discovers the joy of having a penis (even though it is coming out of her big toe).

Not only does Kazumi appear naïve, but perhaps a bit daft. For instance, when she questions her boyfriend, Masao, about being homophobic, her ruminations sound much more authorial than an authentic voice of a innocent twenty-year old whom just discovered that she had a penis:

Come to think of is, was the fact that Masao had sex with women proof that he wasn’t a faggot? He thought penises were dirty and he didn’t like the idea of sex with men, but he felt no qualms about sticking his dirty penis into my mouth at the same time that he emotionally felt closer to men than women. He was so confused, his emotional life so riddled with contradictions, he couldn’t possibly be normal! . . . But then who was I to talk? I had a penis.

Exactly. The main character does have a penis and this it what it takes for her to recognize someone else “riddled with contradictions” because apparently, she hadn’t noticed any of his contradictions in the three prior years that they had dated. This is what makes the main character inconsistent and then, unbelievable. Throughout the book, Kazumi is sickened and frightened by the idea of lesbianism, finding the idea of sticking her toe-penis in a vagina “gross.” Later, she experiments with a woman after she leaves her current boyfriend, Shunji, and finds that perhaps it isn’t as disgusting as she thought it was, but still not convinced that lesbianism or any other relationship is worth it:

Then he began preaching: “Forget this lesbian stuff! Nothing ever comes from two women getting together. I guess it can’t be helped if a woman is too ugly to attract a man—that’s a reason to turn lesbian. But you’re cute. Don’t you think that you should just stay with this Shunji kid here?”

I hardly knew what to make of these bizarre statements. True, maybe nothing came from two women getting together, but nothing came from a man and a woman getting together either—nothing but babies. Or did he know something I didn’t know? I had no idea whether or not there women who turned to homosexual love because men wouldn’t have anything to do with them, and I couldn’t help wondering what led Utagawa to believe there were. And what made him think he could be so arrogant as to decree, even if he wasn’t explicit about it, that women who could attract men were better off in heterosexual relationships—that they should mold their sexual proclivities to the needs of men, rather than stay attuned to their own desires?

Again, this sort of interior monologue runs contrary to Kazumi’s alleged innocence. Also, I get nervous as a reader when the author has the character asking questions. Matsuura has Kazumi asking questions in her mind frequently and it wears on the reader because it’s a lazy way of developing character. The reader is smart enough to ask those questions without the character doing it. So, this kind of intellectualizing does nothing for the reader in terms of believability of Kazumi as an innocent or even as a fully developed person.

Ultimately, the characters in this novel are thinly veiled stereotypes of what sexuality is. They give method to the intellectualization of gender and sexuality, but no meaning or passion. Matsuura intellectualizes the hell out of any attraction or passion so that by the end of the novel, the idea of sex of any kind seems joyless. More time spent on investing in the characters would have made me care, made me believe in Kazumi and her “apprenticeship.” As grating as this novel is, I found the translation above the material and hoped at some point, the writing would match the translation. Instead, I felt relieved that I was rid of her and her sexual musings and wished someone more fun would have grown a toe-penis.

24 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Today on the Calque blog, there’s a fascinating exchange between translators Daniela Hurezanu and Michael Emmerich regarding the editing of Matsuura Rieko’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, which Emmerich translated and is forthcoming from Seven Stories.

In the last issue of Calque—one of, if not the, finest journals of literary translation being published—there appeared an interview with Michael Emmerich followed by two versions of the opening paragraphs of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, an unedited version, and the one that’s actually going to be published.

The huge differences between the two versions—and Emmerich’s explanation of why certain changes were made—really set off Daniela Hurezanu, who wrote a substantial letter to Calque, asking them to publish it. They did so online along with Emmerich’s response.

Both letters are way too long to accurately summarize, but needless to say, the issues that come up are at the crux of literary translation, the editing of literary translations, and the nature of fitting a book to a particular country’s aesthetic and commercial desires—all of which are really fascinating and well presented in the two letters.

From Hurezanu:

In comparing the unedited translation with the edited version, one can see that the changes have been made according to a certain pattern, which obviously reflects the esthetic view of the editor(s). The first two long sentences have been chopped into much shorter sentences, and what is conveyed indirectly in the first version is expressed telegraphically in the second one, as if the narrator was answering a police questionnaire and was summoned to give the most unambiguous, direct answers possible. But the narrator is not answering a police questionnaire. She is telling a story about a woman whom she doesn’t recall very well. The first version has two paragraphs about the narrator’s difficulty in remembering who this woman who showed up at her door was, and the style parallels her mental hesitations. The sentences in these paragraphs have the oral feeling of an inner monologue, and contain words expressing hesitation that have been deleted in the edited version. All the nuances, the words that don’t convey specific information have been deleted, and only the bare bones of the text—its “message” has been kept. Why? Do the editors believe that we read fiction in order to get some “information,” and the shorter and more clearly it’s conveyed, the better? Do we really read in order to find out that the narrator didn’t remember Mazo Kazumi? So what? I can’t speak for all readers, but when I read a book it is to be transported not only into another physical universe—which, in the case of Japan, some might equate with a desire for exoticism (and I understand Emmerich’s frustration regarding such expectations)—but to be transported into another universe of thinking. It is not a book’s “message”—whether the narrator remembers or not Mazo Kazumi—that represents another view of the world, but the way a writer’s thinking is articulated through the flow of the words, that is, his/her structure of thinking. When a paragraph begins, as some do in Emmerich’s unedited version, with a subordinate clause or a sentence that draws us slowly into the story’s atmosphere, the text has an entirely different rhythm than when these sentences are either deleted or replaced by short sentences starting with “I.” There is a huge difference between a structure of thinking that places the I and its “actions” at the center of the world and a structure of thinking in which the I is less important than the background on which it is placed. If one alters a text’s syntax, it is this very structure that is altered.

And a bit from Emmerich:

When I proposed printing the two texts together, I assumed that this might make some readers uncomfortable—indeed, that was the point. I decided to present the most drastically edited section of the entire book, the opening paragraphs, because I have the sense that few readers are conscious of what goes on behind the scenes before a translated novel, or any novel, is published in the United States, and I hoped that putting these two texts on display might give Calque’s readers some insight into this process. At the same time, I expected that translators who believe, as I do, that it is important to consider the political, ethical, and economic choices we make when we engage, not only in the nearly impossible task of translation, but also in the all-too-frequently flat-out-one-hundred-percent impossible task of finding publishers willing to assume the daunting financial risks involved in paying for and publishing our work, might also be made uncomfortable by some of the points I made. My aim was not, after all, to repeat comfortable truths: it is true that editors often do things to translations that many of us find deeply objectionable, not infrequently without allowing translators the option of undoing their edits; it is true that English prose in the United States has been deeply influenced by the “shorter is better” aesthetic, and this has had an effect on the editing of translations, even in cases where strong arguments might be made in favor of preserving the prolixity and complexity of the original text; it is true that this imposition of a local aesthetic on translated foreign writing seems contrary to the purposes of translation as they are understood by many translators active in the United States today. While fully aware of these truths, I wanted instead to consider in discomfiting detail the fact that practical, real-world benefits can accrue from compromises that we might, in an ideal world, prefer not to make.

The whole exchange is fascinating and definitely worth reading, and hopefully we’ll be able to discuss this in more depth when Michael Emmerich comes to Rochester for a Translators Roundtable on October 1st. (An event that will be recorded and posted here.)

There’s such an interesting web of concerns related to how a translator relates to the original text, what liberties he/she takes when translated it, and what the American editor then does to the translation to make it “more appealing” to American readers. Personally, I’m very much against the idea of American editors altering the style of a book to make it more like crappy American neo-realism, but there are a number of people I respect who would probably disagree with this. To me, it’s the differences in the style and the structure of international books that is so intriguing . . .

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