27 November 07 | Chad W. Post

In Michael Orthofer’s most recent post on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s The Mandarins, he focuses on the writer himself:

As we slowly wind up the discussion, moving towards The Life of a Fool and Cogwheels (which I figure will be the appropriate notes to end on), I’m still struck by how much a proper (?) sense of the author eludes me. Try as I might, Akutagawa remains something of a mystery-man to me. And though I’m generally not big on worrying about the author behind the texts I find myself looking for more of a hold here—in part because even after reading this collection, which comes after I’ve read quite a few different Akutagawa translations over the years, I still don’t feel I know him or his writing that well.

Part of the problem with being able to identify a “Akutagawa story,” may be the various translations made of Akutagawa’s work, and the nature and quality of these early translations. Quoting from Donald Richie, Orthofer brings to the forefront the negative effect marketing can have on the publication of translations:

“Another problem with the foreign translations, besides their sheer number, is that Akutagawa was translated early. As a result, these first translations range from the unscholarly to the appalling. One of their unwelcome qualities is that they insist upon the exotic—this being one of the few ways to sell Japanese literature in the early days. An unfortunate result is that Akutagawa is made to seem quaint and curious, a mere purveyor of the exotic.”

I’m not so sure things have changed that much when it comes to selling Japanese books, or any country’s literature for that matter. Although nowadays there seems to be two marketing trends that reflect some of the things we’ve been discussing in terms of the goal of translation: emphasize the foreignness, the oddness or make the book so smooth it doesn’t appear to be a translation at all.

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