Episode 56 – Dr. Indra Levy (Stanford)

Originally published on August 31, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Indra Levy, Associate Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Dr. Levy is the author of Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature, published by Columbia University Press in 2006, as well as editor of Translation in Modern Japan, published by Routledge in 2009. Dr. Levy, thank you for talking with me today. 

Indra Levy: Thank you for inviting me. 

TG: Much of your research has looked at translation, and we often think about the Meiji period as this moment of transformation in Japan, modernization and Westernization of course. What is the role of translation in this Japanese transformation during the Meiji period? 

IL: Oh well, that’s a great question. Actually, translation, I think, is one of the most important drivers of linguistic change in modern Japan, and we can actually trace it back to…You know, there’s a history behind that that goes back, really, a millennia, and it’s just fundamentally a part of the history of Japanese writing. And that history has to do with the techniques that Japanese people developed to read texts that were written in Chinese characters. The technical term is kanbun kundoku. And to describe it verbally without any visuals is a bit difficult, but to give people an idea of what that is: if you imagine a string of Chinese characters on a page or handwritten out or what have you, a Chinese person would read those in Chinese, right? Chinese and Japanese are very, very different languages, and that was the form in which writing entered Japan. Prior to the introduction of Chinese characters, Japanese was an illiterate culture. So, Japanese people saw this technology, they spent a tremendous amount of energy learning how to make use of it, and they developed these techniques for reading Chinese characters in a kind of what I think of as a hybrid language that partly reconstitutes the Chinese words in a form of grammatically and syntactically Japanese that is familiar to people in Japan. 

And so, that was a practice that, you know, had a millennia of history by the time that the Meiji era opens up, and it was a practice that also didn’t always produce a separate text, so people would look at a Chinese text, and read it mentally, and I consider that to be a form of translation, really. So, there’s this long-standing practice. In the Meiji period, when you have this incredible influx of new terms, and this very strong desire to understand what’s coming in from the West (the culture that’s coming in from the West, all these new things), people quickly figured out how to make use of these long-standing techniques and strategies for getting to know another culture by learning the language, and then by translating it, making it available in forms of Japanese that would be more familiar and easier to use for Japanese people. 

There’s this very long history. And you know, when we look at translation specifically in the Meiji period, we discover, of course, that a lot of the terms that we take for granted today as very fundamental to how we think about all sorts of things from categories of knowledge to even emotions, right (so, the term “love,” for example), were translated into Japanese, or Japanese words were created to import Western concepts during the Meiji period. So, that’s one way in which translation is really important to all sorts of things that happened in the Meiji era. And I got interested in this, really, not from…I didn’t start out looking at the Meiji period in translation. I started out much later in the early 1920s with a novel by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, a very famous novel that’s been translated into English as Naomi (the Japanese title is Chijin no Ai), and that’s about – I’m going to change topics rather radically here to talk about gender – a man who falls in love with a young woman who, by the end of the novel, her name is Naomi, which he notes from the very beginning is a Western name, which excites him. And he takes her under his wing, and by the end of the novel, she’s transformed herself into a woman who is almost unrecognizable to him. She looks so Western. 

I thought: Wow, that’s a really interesting story. Why? You know, this seems to be some kind of story about a form of exoticism, but that one is unfamiliar coming from the Western perspective into which we typically think of exoticism as something that travels abroad and takes something that’s actually foreign as its object, whereas this was taking a kind of hybrid figure as the object of adoration and fascination. So, in the process of thinking about this question: Is it possible to think of an exoticism that stays at home?, I tried to trace that figure back. Were there other examples in modern Japanese literature of female characters of this kind? And lo and behold, I found myself in the Meiji period and looking at what’s considered to be the first modern Japanese novel in Meiji. And the more I looked at that novel and tried to figure out what was happening with this character and why we have this full-fledged lineage of such female characters in modern Japanese fiction, I discovered that that figure was deeply tied to concepts of language and that in turn, those concepts of language were deeply tied to [the] process of translation. 

TG: And so, when we think of the things that are being translated of…You know, you could think of political treatises that are coming into Japan, technical manuals, and you say these things that are impacting Japan in these practical or more physical ways, how is translation also impacting Japanese language and Japanese literature? 

IL: That’s another great question and something that I’m really interested in talking about. So, one of the things that makes us go back to the Meiji period as literary scholars is to think about this fundamental change in the written language to what’s known technically as genbun icchi style. Genbun icchi: there’s four characters in that phrase. Genbun means spoken language and written language, and icchi means “to unify.” The easy way to translate that into English is just to talk about vernacular writing. There was a movement in the Meiji period, as part of all of these other reform movements to build the infrastructure for a modern nation-state, to bring the written language into a form that was closer to what people spoke everyday. So, the idea was to make it more accessible to people so that it was easier to disseminate information to educate a modern citizenry. 

And translation actually played an important role in that process as I came to discover in more ways than one. First of all, the entire idea of vernacular writing and reforming the language (the  written language) in this way came from exposure to modern Western vernacular writing. And so, that’s one way in which, you know, a broad idea of translation comes into play. But another thing is when people think about the development of vernacular writing in the Japanese context, there’s a very strong, expository discourse that treats language as fundamentally instrumental, and that’s where this whole concept…I mean, it’s easy to understand if we think about language as instrumental, why people would be clamouring for simplifying the written language of Japan at this time, so that it would be easier to educate people. It’d be easier to produce texts that more people could read because at that time, the written language was quite distant, actually, from what people were speaking everyday. That’s a fact of a thousand years of Japanese literary history that had to do with, again, this long-standing history of, for example, reading Chinese texts in this kanbun kundoku or Japanese kind of style, and also a separate strain of Japanese writing writing in classical Japanese that had verb endings and all kinds of words that were very poetic, but that weren’t spoken everyday. 

So, there’s this very strong assumption that language is instrumental embedded in that whole discourse of language reform. But if we look at, actually, what people did and in literature, the strength that we get from looking at literature as opposed to looking at that expository discourse that I find really interesting is that in order for written language to be accepted by people who have a 1000 year history of literary texts, the language that it’s written in has to be accepted as something that’s precious, and the spoken language was not considered to be precious. So, it’s easy to talk about, it’s easy to say: “Well, you know, we need to bring the spoken language and written language closer together,” but it’s very difficult to do that in a way that people will embrace. This is actually where translation also, again, came into play, but in a way that’s kind of surprising. Some of the texts that particularly were written by authors of fiction, literary figures, were done in such a way as to bring this idea of vernacular writing not only closer to spoken Japanese, but also to bring it closer to their understanding of written Western literary texts. So, there’s this kind of hidden, exotic flavour to a lot of these foundational texts that then developed the modern vernacular style of writing. 

The first modern Japanese novel that I mentioned before, Ukigumo, was written by a man named Futabatei Shimei, was written over a three year period from 1887 to ‘89, and while he was writing that or before he finished that work, he was also publishing his own translation of Russian fiction: a piece [which had] the Japanese title Aibiki. He was working on this in 1887, and that’s known as the first work of modern Japanese vernacular literature. That’s quite astonishing when we think about it: the first work of modern Japanese vernacular writing was actually a translation, and that’s actually the text that then, 20 years later, later writers (the naturalist writers) are going back to and saying: “It was a transformative moment for [them] in [their] understanding of literature and language.” And it was something that then, they sought to emulate. 

TG: You were talking about the genbun icchi movement and the unification of written and spoken language. And I mean, this is all, of course, happening at the same moment in the Meiji period when there’s the formation of the national language as this kind of homogenizing project to create the nation-state. What role does literature play and the formation of this literary canon play in the creation of national unity? 

IL: Oh, that’s a very broad question. Well, what I can say about this is not particularly original, but one of the ways in which literature plays a role in the formation of the modern nation-state, I think, is pointed out by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: novels are ways in which people imagine themselves to be connected to a citizenry, a vast mass of people who they actually will never be able to get to know personally. And I think Ukigumo is representative of that capacity of the novel. One of the main characters in that text…Ukigumo has been translated into English as Drifting Cloud, and the female character in that text who is this source of fascination for the male protagonist…Her name is Osei, and her name, we find out from reading the author’s diaries, [was] a shorthand for kokusei, which is the state of the nation, the national trends. And so, he very much had in mind almost an allegory about where the nation is going and trying to create a narrative that portrays that through specific characters. So, that’s one example. And I think, you know, the novel has long been considered to be on a literary end for that reason, is the ability to tell a story, a narrative to be part and parcel of the infrastructure of a modern nation-state. And this is something I think that Japanese intellectuals were aware of in focusing on reform. 

Literary reform focused not only on language, but also, it really did focus a lot of energy on developing what they would consider to be fitting into the category of the novel. They came up with the term in Japanese, shōsetsu, for that, and Tsubouchi Shōyō’s famous treatise from I think it was 1885 (on “The Essence of the Novel,” or “Shōsetsu Shinzui”) was really trying to lay out this idea, this kind of historicist notion that the great novels are representative of great civilizations and great cultures. 

TG: So, if we want to compare Osei in Ukigumo to Naomi in Chijin no Ai, Osei in Ukigumo is maybe this embodiment of the national trends, the way that the nation is going. But then by the time we get to the Taishō period in Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s writing about Naomi, it’s more of an ambivalent image, isn’t it? 

IL: Yes actually, it’s ambivalent in both, I would say. They actually have a lot in common (these characters Osei and Naomi). Osei is educated in [the] English language, right? She takes classes in English, she can speak English, she reads the most hip women’s education magazine of the Meiji period, which is Jogaku Zasshi, or Women’s Education, and she spouts this kind of discourse. She peppers her conversations with people with the terms that she picks up from these magazines, so her way of speaking and performing modern femininity is what I call “Westernesque.” 

And Naomi shares that, although by the 1920s, it’s not women’s education so much as films – imitating in women’s magazines more generally, but fashion magazines actresses and the like. And she also has ways of talking that are not considered to be fitting into traditional or acceptable Japanese categories of femininity, which makes her attractive, but also kind of dangerous and potentially unattractive. 

And I think they both share that, and the view, at least from the male writers’ perspective of these kinds of women, I think has, from the very beginning, been ambivalent, that almost inevitably, the male protagonist is going to be betrayed by this kind of woman. And that was the lineage that I found going from 1924/25 in Chijin no Ai all the way back to the 1880s, and tracing going through, on the way, back to Futon, written by Tayama Katai, which was one of the key representative works of naturalist fiction written in 1907. 

TG: Naomi is one of those novels that I often assign in my classes when we get to the Taishō period and start introducing novels and pop culture. And the students are always commenting how much they enjoy reading it because Tanizaki has this wonderful way of words, and this really dark humour. 

IL: Yes. 

TG: And I understand humour is something that you’re doing more research on now. Can you tell us what you’re finding in humour? 

IL: Yes, so humour is a topic that I got interested in through working with this other set of issues to do with gender and language. While I was working on that, I came across this text by Tsubouchi Shōyō who, as I mentioned before, is the figure who is, I think, best known for having written this treatise on the essence of the novel as a theorist and reformist of literature. And in the 1890s, he had a couple of articles that really struck me as interesting about this question of humour in the novel, and he said: “Well, these days, there are some people clamouring for a return to comic fiction, and here’s why we don’t need that.” (Laughter) He says: “We’re in a transitional period right now, and we have to take things seriously. We’ve got to learn this is not the time to be laughing. Who laughs the most? Women and children.” And it was very clear that laughter in itself was not something that he valued. In fact, it was something that he looked down upon. And then in the process of discussing this issue, he talks about this idea of kokkei as a comedy that should be elevated. The goal should be to develop an elevated form of comic literature, which according to him, didn’t really exist at the time, and he couldn’t find examples of it looking back over the history of Japanese literature. 

So, I was really struck by that, and I thought: You know, I wonder if this has something to do with his position as a Japanese intellectual being caught between what we think of as a Western gaze/the Western view of Japan on the one hand, and then on the other hand, the popular tradition of laughter/the commoner look of the intellectual class that we would be more familiar with from looking at trends in the Edo period. There’s [a] tremendous amount of laughter that is stored up in the Edo period, in all kinds of parodies. Every different literary genre seems to have some interest in stirring up laughter. And he seemed to have a very strong interest in suppressing all that and saying: “No, that’s not what we want to continue doing. We want to do something else.” 

That was how I got interested in this question, and I’m in the middle of this. This is work that’s ongoing, but what I’m trying to figure out, really, is whether we can think about humour and laughter in the context of modern nation-state formation and how that modern nation-state formation may change, what people think is acceptable to laugh at, and how this affected modern Japanese writers. And I guess I should talk a little bit about the kinds of things I’ve discovered: laughter really is striated. There’s a hierarchy of laughter and there’s a hierarchy of concepts and practices. Tsubouchi Shōyō really represents the intellectual elites’ approach to laughter and this desire for a more elevated form of literary laughter with comedy (comedy in the sense that Western philosophers might talk about). 

And besides that, there’s also a performance tradition, and particularly in those genres of performance that were lesser, considered not to be as representative of national culture. So, kabuki would be considered to be representative of national culture. Kabuki reform included, I think, a suppression of certain kinds of laughter, especially body laughter, whereas if you look at the lesser forms of performance, there was a much more open approach to laughter, so that’s what I’ve found so far in my research, and I’m thinking of Natsume Sōseki’s Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (translated as I Am a Cat). It was written in 1905 as a marker of how at least the intellectual class got over this idea that laughter can be fundamentally problematic for the development of a more national community because it could be very divisive in how to create a kind of literary humour that can be shared broadly and be participatory in the development of a national community as opposed to destructive of it. 

TG: In other words, humour is no laughing matter. 

IL: (Laughter) 

TG: And in fact, in some cases, comedy can be deadly as you’ve written about. 

IL: Yes, and I can give you another story of how it’s not really a laughing matter. By the time we get to – and this is also to do with the trajectory and how translation is so important in the Meiji period – the early days of translation of literary texts, we have someone like Futabatei Shimei translating a Russian literary text into a very new form of written Japanese. No one challenges him on how he translated the Russian text, although there are various responses to the style that he employed. 

But by the time we get to 1903 (that’s Meiji 36, three decades in), I actually came across, in the process of looking into humour in Japanaese literature, a story of two translators whose names are really not remembered today at all: Hara Hōitsuan on the one hand and Yamagata Iso’o on the other who got into this knock down drag out fight over [the] translation of a really minor text by Mark Twain, in which the first translator Hara asked for comments from Yamagata on his translation. Yamagata basically told him: “Oh, the way that you translated it and your style of translating it is really not suited to Mark Twain. Mark Twain has this very sly sense of humour that Japanese people are going to find difficult to understand, and especially this particular text that you worked with is probably a lampoon of American journalistic style.” 

And that comment launched this public debate in the pages of the Asahi newspaper about Mark Twain and about humour; who’s got a sense of humour? Who doesn’t have a sense of humour? By the end of that story, the second translator who was asked for the comment was so angry that he re-translated the whole story and published it as a book along with his commentary. He published the whole debate, and then he also appended several pages of what he considered to be the most egregious mistakes in the first translation. So yes, it became a very serious matter. You could translate a minor piece, and you’re going to get called out if people didn’t think you did it well. 

TG: (Laughter)

IL: And if you didn’t make people laugh, you could be in trouble. (Laughter) 

TG: We’ve been talking about the role of Japanese writers acting as translators translating these Western texts into Japanese and how that impacts Japanese literature. I wonder if you could talk more about that kind of dual identity of the Japanese writers. I know, for example, Murakami Haruki, this Japanese writer now, also has translated a number of works, including many by F. Scott Fitzgerald into Japanese. So, is that still continuing today or is he a unique example of a Japanese writer who is still translating? 

IL: Oh, I think that there’s still a very strong connection between active translating/practices of translating and composition in the Japanese literary world. I think it’s a mark, really, of Japanese literary modernity that many of the writers that we talk about, going back even, you know, including contemporary writers, will have done some training in a foreign language or specialized in it. So you know, we think of certain writers as being especially French in style because that’s what they did when they were getting their degrees in college. Futabatei is a strong example of that, and I really think this has to do with a very different cultural status that translation has in Japan compared to the status it has in a hegemonic language like English in which we often don’t even give an attribution to the translator on the cover of a book, right? Sometimes, we have to dig around to see oh, who translated this? And in fact, there are not that many translators into English whose names have the level of recognition that writers of fiction have. 

By contrast, in Japan, you’ll regularly see in the covers of translated books the name of the translator very prominently displayed, someone who’s not only a translator, but also a famous writer. That person’s name actually overshadows the name of the author of the original text. So yes, this is a key point. And it’s also something that I’d like to point out to my students when I teach about translation because I think a lot of our assumptions about translation are really deeply embedded in the fact that we operate, we think, in this hegemonic language of English, and we don’t really think of translation as being transformative or having this status or garnering this level of respect. In fact, in the academy, we discourage people from doing translation until after they get tenure because it’s not included in the kind of work that most institutions would consider to be so-called “serious scholarship.” 

So, I do like to point out to my students that you can have a transformative impact, but sometimes in order to understand what that is, you have to look outside of English, you have to look outside of English-language worldview in order to get at that. And Japan and particularly the Meiji period, but the history and the tradition that was developed as a result of that is a really great example, I think. I was thinking about the Meiji period, and why am I so fascinated by it, and part of it is not just looking at how infrastructure of the modern nation-state and how all the things we’re so familiar with developed. It really was an era of tremendous change, and there were a lot of possibilities. If we look back on it not simply retrospectively, but if we try to mine it for the possibilities that never came to fruition, it’s particularly rich, and one of the possibilities that we see in the Meiji period that hasn’t come to fruition in English as we know it now, at least in contemporary modern day English is this attention paid to translation, and the respect paid to translation and the fact that translation could be practiced and thought of in ways that’s truly transformative, which, to me, opens our horizons in terms of how we relate to the foreign. 

TG: You mentioned these translators in Japanese who are translating a somewhat unknown text by Mark Twain into Japanese. If you could name one lesser known Japanese text from the Meiji period or Taishō period that you think we should pay more attention to, what might that be? 

IL: A lesser known Japanese text from the Meiji period we should pay more attention to…Oh, it’s hard to single out… 

TG: (Laughter) 

IL: I mean this is half going the opposite direction, but I still think we should pay more attention to Ukigumo, actually, even though it’s known, it’s referenced often, it hasn’t really been mined completely, and I’m working on a retranslation of it now to make it more mineable, I suppose, for the broader variety of issues. But let’s see, what else could I think of? 

TG: Well, maybe the other direction too: what’s a text from today that you would like to introduce to the Meiji period? 

IL: A text today that I would like to introduce backwards to the Meiji period? 

TG: Right. 

IL: The one thing about the Meiji period is the female perspective, right? There were certain writers who were beginning to understand and get a different view, a more open view of gender, and that was really foreclosed, which is too bad, right? So, I can’t think of… Fran Lebowitz? (Laughter) 

TG: (Laughter) 

IL: I can’t imagine that that would have gone over so well. That’s a really tough one, going backwards. I’ve never thought about that. 

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening. 


*Citation for this episode: 

Indra Levy, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, August 31, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-56-dr-indra-levy-stanford/

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.