At first I was skeptical. A lecture by an American who’d mastered Japanese and was writing novels in Japanese. His name was Ian Hideo Levy (b. 1950). I had homework. It was a Thursday. It had been a long week.
But boy am I glad I went – even though it was just for an hour.
He’d been immersed in Japanese for decades, reading and writing only Japanese. It felt much more natural for him to speak Japanese at lectures, he said, but he chose to speak English. He spoke it beautifully, mostly without referring to his notes. He paced, gesticulated. Sometimes he’d trip over a word, or there would be stoppage in his throat, an English word trying to make its way out.
He used to be a translator of Japanese literature. For many years, he stuck with translation only before a Japanese writer, Kenji Nakagami said to him — after drinking with Levy till six o’clock in the morning, “Join us.” Don’t just translate, Kenji was saying. Start writing in Japanese.
He told a useful story, one I knew I could use in this blog, about the problem of translating plural and singular out of Japanese into English. The same problem exists for Korean. He spoke of the expression “新宿の光” how he’d always thought of it as “Lights of Shinjuku.” He said it wasn’t until he saw the nine thousand or so signboards illuminating the night, bleeding into one another, that the 光 did not refer to many lights, but one innumerable, indivisible thing.
As if that wasn’t good enough, he went on to say this about literature. First he reminded us of the commonplace that we often hear about translations – that good translations should have a sense of being its own original. He turned it around to say that all good literature in these times – no matter where it is set, no matter who it’s about – should have some sense of being a translation, a sense of a way of communicating, a way of feeling, a way of being that has been lost in the final product.
He talked about zainichi writer Yi Yang-ji (Yangji Lee/이양지/李良枝) who wrote in Japanese. One of the themes that zainichi writers explores is the idea of going back. Right now Korea is divided, but the idea is that they will return from Japan once the Koreas have unified. Zanichi (在日/재일) is interestingly untranslatable. Literally, it means “residing in Japan” and refers only to ethnic Koreans. In an English article in Japan Times, he said that Yi had been described as a “South Korean writer residing in Japan” which reminds you of a bestselling writer from Pusan taking some time off in Japan and writing.
He talked about Yi, as a young zainichi woman, going to Korea as a foreign student to reconnect with her Korean heritage. She realizes that she cannot accept the langauge. There is a split between 母語 (mother tongue) and 国語 (national language). She talks about 言葉の杖 (언어의 지팡이) which Levy translated as the “cane” or “staff” of language. Every morning she would wake up and wonder to herself — should she reach for the “아” or the “あ”?
He told a story about how he got a call from a woman who sounded very young, like a freshman in university. The voice said “This is Yi Yang-ji.”
It said, “I read your novel, Levy-san. It was wonderful. Keep working hard.”
You could tell how much this meant to Levy, even as he described the exchange for us. A zainichi writer 先輩/선배 who wrote in Japanese, cheering on her an American writer 後輩후배 writing in Japanese.
He asked her if she could consider herself 韓国系日本人/한국계일본인/Korean-Japanese. She said that was such an American question. She said that is not how identity works, that it is not some social contract.
A few days later, he saw the headline, “Korean writer dead.” He pictured an old male
writer, a Nobel Prize contender perhaps, having passed away in Seoul, wearing hanbok.
They were talking about Yi.