Colors, Croissants, and Translation Choices

I successfully defended my dissertation, Uno Chiyo: The Woman and the Writer, in December 1985. A few months later, I was on my way back to Tokyo, where I would spend the next five years at International Christian University. On a whim, I had two copies of my dissertation printed and bound at a copier shop in Mitaka, Tokyo. One, I decorated with pretty strips of origami paper. I wanted to present the finished product to Uno Chiyo. By now, following our initial meeting on June 21, 1985, we were in regular contact.

I enjoyed following Uno Chiyo’s career and would frequently spend time at the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku, thumbing through journals for her latest essay. She was nearly 90 and still very active as a writer. Twice monthly she serialized a “mini memoir” in the popular women’s magazine Croissant.

Croissant coverCroissant featured tasteful photographic essays on interior design, kitchen adventures, and beauty regimens, geared toward the single 30-something woman. Uno’s essays covering moments from her many romances, her later encounters with old lovers, and her favorite kimonos, offered a welcomed flash of sass.

Uno playfully titled her mini-memoir the “Cherry-Blossom Furisode Kimono Series.” The title referred to her love of cherry blossoms (her signature kimono-design motif) and her sometimes “inappropriate” sartorial choices.

A furisode is a kimono with long-fluttering sleeves typically worn by young, unmarried women. For her 88th birthday celebration (known as Beijū in Japanese) Uno made a big splash by wearing a number of furisode kimonos (of her own design) at a star-studded party in the Tokyo Imperial Hotel.

I loved heading to the Kinokuniya whenever I could to catch the next issue of Croissant. No telling what kind of secrets Uno would spill!

I was both delighted and surprised when Uno’s secretary, Fujie Atsuko-san, called me shortly after I sent her the bound copy of my dissertation. The editors of Croissant, Fujie-san explained, thought it would be fun to capture me interviewing Uno Sensei for one of her “mini memoir” installments.

“After you give her your dissertation [again], you can ask her questions about her stories and talk about the novella you are translating.”

Fujie-san referred to the fact that I had just begun translating Uno Chiyo’s novella Kaze no oto (The Sound of the Wind), a fictionalized account of a ne’er do well playboy based loosely on Uno’s own father. The work was richly laced with Iwakuni dialect.

Not really certain what to expect, I returned to Uno Chiyo’s elegant apartment in Minama Aoyama. We spent a little over an hour huddled around her heated kotatsu table, conversing about this and that.

There is a photograph of us in the magazine, looking as if we are conversing by lamplight in the waning hours of a winter afternoon.

In reality, her spacious upstairs room was lit up like an operating room with portable can lights on tripods as photographers darted here and there with their cameras.

Our “intimate” conversation was punctuated by the snap, snap, snapping of camera shutters and the occasional sharp hum of the flash.

I could hardly concentrate on what Sensei was saying.

When the session was over, my back ached from sitting so rigidly at the table, constantly aware of being scrutinized. So much for my celebrity career!

I couldn’t imagine how the “conversation” would yield a suitable article.

And then, two months later, the editors of Croissant sent me two copies of the February 10th issue with my “interview.”

Croissant inside

My translation follows:

CROISSANT クロワッサン 2.10.1987

A Mini Memoir
#42 in the Cherry-Blossom Furisode Kimono Series

Uno Chiyo & Copeland Croissant closeup

Here Uno-san is enjoying her visit with Rebecca-san. She does seem a bit more serious than usual, doesn’t she? Surely her earnestness is a reflection of her character. Or does she find it amusing to be put in the position of a “representative of Japan”?

“Rebecca-san is a scholar. Her questions are really tough!”

You see, Rebecca-san is a scholar of Japanese literature at Columbia University. She decided to work on “Uno Chiyo” for her doctoral dissertation. Now she is translating my novella Kaze no oto (The Sound of the Wind) into the English language.

I’m just delighted. This means people in America and England will be able to read my works in English.

Earlier, Donald Keene-san published an English translation of my novel Ohan. Following that someone translated a section of my story Sasu (To Sting) and my story “Kōfuku” (Happiness). It was after reading those translations, I suppose, that Rebecca-san developed a fascination with “Uno Chiyo.”

I think that in “Sasu” my ideas are not unlike what you’d find in an English novel. But there are aspects of Ohan and Kaze no oto that are almost too Japanese for even Japanese people to appreciate fully. I think they must be very difficult to translate.

Rebecca-san came to ask me about some of the words in the novel she didn’t understand. She said terms like “agarigamachi” [entryway step] and “seto no ma” [back room] were difficult. Even most Japanese people these days don’t know what these are!

Then Rebecca-san asked about the hairstyle “shinchō” or “new butterfly.” Back in the old days, this was a very chic Japanese-style coiffure. Mostly geisha and courtesans wore their hair this way. Young girls wore a momoware [peach-cleft style]. Proper matrons wore a marumage [round upswept style] or shimada [high upswept style. I wonder if there isn’t a picture of me with my hair in a shinchō.

When I lived with Ozaki Shirō, before I bobbed my hair, I used to wear it that way. I did it for him. Ozaki loved to see me in a shinchō. As a young woman, I led something of a scandalous life, you know, and arranging my hair like a geisha or courtesan was well in keeping with that!
Can an American truly understand something like this, though, something so subtle? And even then, can she translate it?

Rebecca-san said that the style of Kaze no oto is superb. She said, “the colors in the sentences are particularly beautiful.”

“The red hem of the under kimono, the blue scarf, the white blossom….”

Even the names of the characters in the novel carry color, she said. The male protagonist Seikichi (Blue Fortune), O-yuki (Miss Snow), and the horse, too, Seiryū (Blue Willow). All of their names include color.

I never even thought about the names having colors! Maybe deep inside I was aware of the colors, but what I wrote just bubbled up from my senses. Rebecca-san read everything so carefully, far more closely than I.

I’m very lucky.

“A woman flung her pale blue shawl at the horse, jolting it so, he tore off in a panic.” [Uma ga, aoi katakake wo nagetsukerarete, tamagete monoguruoshiu kakedashimashita.]

Rebecca-san said that if she translated the word “tamageru” simply as “startled” (odoroku) she would miss the nuance of the kanji characters in the word (which literally mean to lose one’s spirit). In Iwakuni dialect, though, we use tamageru whenever we feel surprised. Now I can see how difficult translating really is.

I consider myself very lucky to have met Rebecca-san. For an artist to have her works read abroad is thrilling. I’ve read translations of Dostoevsky’s works, I’ve read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and lots of other foreign works in translation.

This may be going too far but I wonder if there really are separate worlds when it comes to literature and art. This one is foreign; that one is Japanese. Don’t they all belong to the same world? The world of art? I believe they do.

Japanese people are attracted by sophisticated foreign cultures. Foreigners are drawn to Japanese culture. The feelings are the same for both, aren’t they? I think they are.

Rebecca-san said that to read Arishima Takeo and Natsume Sōseki and authors like that you really need to use your head. But not so for Uno Chiyo.

“Your style is gentle [yasashii].”

Having a “gentle style” is a source of pride for me.

A translation of Kaze no oto, Rebecca-san told me, will compare well with Enchi Fumiko’s Onnazaka (The Waiting Years), which is already translated. I know just what she means. Enchi-san writes of womanly matters with an intensity that is frightful. I can’t write of frightful things. My style is “gentle,” after all. Actually, I like to write of frightful things in a gentle way.

Rebecca-san also said she likes Irozange (Confessions of Love). It’s an interesting novel, but as I grow older I realize that it lacks any “moral” import. It’s still my best seller, but that doesn’t make it a good work. What I mean by “moral” is not what the protagonist does or doesn’t do but the moral feeling that courses throughout a book—in my books it comes from way I was living at the time. There is this kind of moral feeling in Ohan and in Kaze no oto.

Earlier I devoted myself to reading works by Alain [Émile-Auguste Chartier] and that’s when I became completely engrossed in thinking about what was moral. Before that, I’d never given so much as a single thought to any of it. Now I believe the morals we practice as we live out our lives and the morals in our literary works are completely the same.

As narrated to Miyake Kikuko.
Photograph by Shibata Hiroki