SFU English 380: Mutilation and Foreign Relations in the Japanese Novel

A class blog for students of English 380 - "Literature in Translation" - at Simon Fraser University in Autumn 2005.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Lectures: Translation & Japanese Aesthetic

As you have hopefully noticed, I am studiously avoiding the use of Western labels in my introduction and explanation of Japanese aesthetic concepts. This is consistent with two of the course axioms I have presented in lecture and here on the blog: one, that Japan and the West are two distinct civilisations, each with its own exclusive fundamental assumptions; and two, that translation -- even radical translation -- is indeterminate.

Some of you have offered on your own very good labels for some of the concepts: "pastoral" and "symbol" are two examples. And, indeed, some of the elements of the overarching aesthetic seem to have an easy Western description. What I am detailing, with some labouriousness, as "the positive presence of absence" is very temptingly similar to the Euclidic concept of gnomon, popularised by literary scholarship of James Joyce (from "The Sisters" story in his Dubliners) as indicating absence.

My general objection to this is that once this type of translation is done, then Japan disappears: it is just one more Western colony. Terms like gnomon and lacuna and pastoral have very powerful cultural -- or, better, civilisational -- history, meaning and resonance; none of which apply to Japan. There is superficial similarity but if the concept is pegged to a Western idea then the meaning in Japan is obliterated.

Better to sustain a fresh and open approach and hope for some moment of "no-nous" which will give the thrill of perceiving the literary material with a Japanese sensibility for just a flash: a precious, precious flash.


At 10:36 AM, Blogger Howard makes nice said...

I understand why we shouldn't use western terms to describe Japanese ideas but it seems that we are doomed to do so anyway because the course is in English. We can avoid using terms like 'pastoral' and 'symbol' but it'll be disgustingly difficult to understand the Japanese culture in relation to nothing else becuase language is such a big part of any culture. I'm not saying that it's impossible, I'm just worried because I know from my own readings so far that I can't help but try and compare what I'm reading to what I already know of the world around me ie. the concept of 'wife' in japanese is still completely lost upon me. I will, however, try to read from now on in a state of no-nous and maybe relearn everything I know of the world and become a bat or something. SEE ya.

At 11:58 PM, Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

It's a challenge, certainly. You hit the nail on the head - we *have* to use English language to access Japanese civilisation. My method is (a) state the problem (b) detail the different aspects of the civilisation consciousness of the Japanese (c) resist specific labelling as a means to diminish facile transference of ideas (d) encourage no-mind!


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