Nonfiction Review by Sally Ito

Tomoko Mitani, Will Not Forget Both Laughter and Tears, translated by Yukari F. Meldrum (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2013). Paperbound, 232 pp., $24.95

Will not forget both laughter and tearsWill Not Forget Both Laughter and Tears is a collection of stories—some silly and others sad, as the title indicates—as well as a novella, “Yoko,” that explores the relationship between two sisters, Asako and Yoko, from Asako’s perspective. The book begins with a lengthy introduction by the translator, Yukari Meldrum. Assuming a reader with a limited knowledge of Japan, it explains how Mitani’s book doesn’t fit within the “canon of the stereotypical” in Japanese literature in translation. It’s not historical fiction about the samurai, or an exotic tale of the geisha, or a popular tale of the anime world of manga. Neither is it the high-minded literary work of a Nobel laureate like Kenzaburo Oe or Yasunari Kawabata. It is, rather, a book of creative nonfiction and fiction by a contemporary middle class woman living in Hokkaido. Mitani’s motivation for writing these stories is modest—as a woman interested in psychology, she wrote them to make sense of her life as a homemaker, mother, and wife. The stories are written in a chatty, conversational manner in a “style that invites us to imagine we are listening to her telling these stories to a close friend or grandchild.” Mitani’s stories are, in effect, a kind of Japanese life writing—a genre of which I have become familiar through translating my late Japanese grandfather’s memoir.

Translation is a tricky business, as anyone doing it can attest. I threw myself into translating my grandfather’s memoir without much consideration of the theoretical aspects of the practice—I merely wanted to find out what my grandfather was saying. That is, I wanted to discover who he was through his words. That was one stage of the translation process. The second stage then involved taking those words and making the discovery of him and his story an engaging read for others who did not know him. This latter stage is about the art of translation, rather than the practice of it, which is the former. In her introduction, Meldrum writes about translation theory—namely the difference between “domesticated” translation and “foreignized” translation. Domesticated translations are those that sound natural and fluent in the target language. Foreignized translations, in contrast, retain characteristics of the source language and become their own in-between texts distinct from a text in the target language. Foreignized translation “tends to be less idiomatic and to feature syntax that is closer to that of the original language than to that of the target language.” Meldrum states that in countries where English is predominant, domestication is the norm for most translations. For Will Not Forget Both Laughter and Tears, Meldrum opted to take the middle road. However philosophical this choice was for Meldrum, the resulting text is uneven, and often displays what could be considered sloppy or unedited writing in English. For example, take the problem of repetition in this sample from the story “Toki and Tomoko’s Guam Trip.” “The next day, Toki and Tomoko went to the swimming pool of the nearby hotel. The swimming pool of the Hyatt Hotel is the most popular pool in Guam, and not only the guests of the hotel but also the native Chamorro people and people from the U.S military base use it.” The word “pool” is used three times; “people” is repeated twice.

Having translated my grandfather’s convoluted sentences with several clauses of explanatory material appended to the main one, I know exactly what Meldrum was encountering in the original Japanese text. And in the early stage of translation, if I were to have done this story, I would have probably produced the same sentence as Meldrum in an attempt to find out what point, exactly, Mitani was making. It could have been beneficial to go back and “domesticate” the English of the sentence further. In reading Mitani’s earlier stories especially, I found myself wandering off or getting frustrated with the text to the point of distraction. I could well identify with Mitani’s characters and the situations in which they found themselves because they were familiar to what I’ve experienced in Japan, but the expression of these situations in English left something to be desired. Having said that, however, the novella “Yoko” in the latter part of the book seemed more smoothly translated, and I was able to sink into the story. “Yoko” is about the problematic relationship the titular character has with her younger sister, Asako. Yoko is in a frustrating marriage with a philandering doctor; she borrows money from her sisters to get a kind of revenge on him; then, falls ill with terminal cancer. While attending her, Asako begins to closely examine her interactions with Yoko over the years, discovering along the way how unhappy her sister really was. “Yoko” has a psychological depth not evident in the other earlier stories, and perhaps this is why the translation appears smoother.

In the battle between domesticated and foreignized translation of Japanese into English (if there is such a battle) I’d go with the domesticated. Stories of the kind Mitani has written here give glimpses of contemporary Japanese life that rarely see the light of day in English translation, and are a welcome addition to the small but hopefully growing Canadian body of work translated from the Japanese into English.

—Sally Ito

As in The Malahat Review, 188, Autumn 2014, 147-148