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Great openers


Pretty much any native English speaker with a high school education can quote the first line of Moby Dick even if they haven’t read it.  Moby Dick aside, here is the opening paragraph of At Kinosaki by Shiga Naoya.  It’s been translated before, but here’s my go at it.

I had been injured when I was hit by a train running the Yamanote Line and I set out alone for Kinosaki hot springs in Tajima to convalesce.  If the wounds on your back develop into tuberculosis of the spine they could be fatal, but, as I had been told by the doctor, that probably wouldn’t happen.  If nothing appears over the next two or three years there will be nothing to worry about, I was told, but for the time being take precaution; and so I went.  I had intended to stay upwards of three weeks — five or so if I could put up with it.

Below is Edward Seidensticker translation:

I had been hit by a train on the Tokyo loop line and I went alone to Kinosaki hot spring to convalesce. if I developed tuberculosis of the spine it could be fatal, but the doctor did not think I would. I would be out of danger in two or three years, he said, and the important thing was to take care of myself; and so I made the trip. I thought I would stay three weeks and more – five weeks if I could stand it.

Besides the addition of some details that Seidensticker left out I tried to more closely approximate the tense of the verbs in the original.  Some recent publications on the story point out that the author, writing from the perspective of three years after the event, mixes tenses so that the narration shifts between the present (three years later) and the past in a way that both feel like the present without being confusing to the reader.

Problems:  flow.  Seidensticker’s translation has better flow and is easier to read.  Pronouns.  Pronouns are rarely used in Japanese and the inclusion of ‘your’ takes a little more liberty with the text that I feel comfortable with.  That said, the second and third sentences are written in such a way that they could be interpreted as either “I”‘s approximation of what the doctor said or a word for word recitation.  Either way they give the impression that for that instant the narrative voice is speaking directly from the doctor’s office.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 26/11/2009 4:27 am

    I think your first sentence is what’s making your translation harder to deal with. One thing I notice about Seidensticker is that he cuts out or changes the proper names to names that are easy for a person who speaks no Japanese to deal with. Yamanote…Kinosaki…Tajima… I have to use a more energy processing those names than you’d probably like, and certainly a lot more than a Japanese person would. “Tokyo loop line” requires much less processing. Obviously I understand why you would keep the names as they are but honestly, I had to read the first sentence two or three times to understand it. I think that’s why Seidensticker cut so much out.

    After that line I like your translation. It makes the narrator seem more detached, which judging by the last sentence is a better reflection of the tone of the original. The way this opens reminds me a lot of Camus’s L’Etranger, in that it seems like a very cold, detached retelling of events. Stuff is just happening to him, with practically no role for his own agency.

    • tincolor permalink*
      26/11/2009 10:47 am

      I never made the L’Etranger connection before, but now that I think about it the two might have more in common that just the opening passage. I’ll try to comment on that later.

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