The God of Bears

The God of Bears
Japanese Title: 神様 (Kamisama)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上弘美)
Publisher: Chūōkōronsha (中央公論社)
Publication Year: 1998
Pages: 205

At the age of 36, Hiromi Kawakami submitted a story titled “The God of Bears” (Kamisama) to the Pascal Short Story Literary Newcomers Prize competition sponsored by Asahi Net, one of Japan’s largest internet service providers. “The God of Bears” was the winning entry, and it was first published online in 1994. “The God of Bears” was later published in print in 1998 in a collection of the same name, which won the prestigious Murasaki Shikibu Literary Prize of that year and the Bunkamura Deux Magots Literary Prize in the following year.

The God of Bears contains nine short stories set in contemporary Japan and connected by an unnamed narrator who encounters a variety of curious people and creatures during her daily life. In the title story, the narrator is invited out on a picnic by a bear who has just moved into their apartment complex. The narrator’s interactions with the bear over the course of a lazy afternoon illustrate both how familiar and how alien he seems as he attempts to adjust to life in human society. Other stories involve similarly supernatural yet mundane creatures, as well as normal people who find themselves in extraordinary situations.

In the second story, “Summer Break,” the narrator spends a few weeks working at a pear orchard, where she adopts a trio of small tree spirits. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. One of these creatures is introverted and oddly neurotic, and its anxiety over its short lifespan resonates with the worries of the narrator, who feels as if the world is slipping away from her. Both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with depression, but the conclusion of “Summer Break” embraces healing and self-acceptance.

The stories collected in The God of Bears are suffused with symbolism and subtext, and their themes emphasize appreciation for the natural world and a nuanced understanding of difference. The narrator is an engaging presence whose mood hovers between gentle amusement and dry cynicism, and she leads the reader along a trail of strange experiences while sharing her unique perspective on the fantastic events that befall her.

The God of Bears has the potential to speak to a broad audience of both casual and serious readers. Readers of contemporary Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa will be drawn in by the quiet elements of the fantastic and the distinctive but non-intrusive narrative voice. The folkloric nature of many of the stories, combined with the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the narrator, will also appeal to fans of anime and manga. Kawakami’s work is rich in visual imagery that lends itself to the development of a rich world for readers to explore, and the stories in this collection are filled with joy and wonder at the delightful weirdness of everyday life.

Aside from the title story, which can be found in the 2012 anthology March Was Made of Yarn, The God of Bears has not yet appeared in English translation.

 

Heaven’s Wind

Title: Heaven’s Wind: A Dual-Language Anthology of Contemporary Japanese Writing
Editor and Translator: Angus Turvill
Publication Year: 2018
Publisher: The Japan Society
Pages: 200

Heaven’s Wind is a collection of five Japanese short stories published in parallel text, with the original Japanese on the left and the English translation on the right. Each of the stories selected by the editor and translator, Angus Turvill, has won an award in a translation competition, and the authors have all been critically recognized as well. Some of these stories are mimetic fiction, while others fall squarely into the mode of magical realism. The thread that ties these stories together is that each of them presents multiple case studies in the methods and challenges of Japanese-to-English translation.

The stories in Heaven’s Wind are followed by a 23-page essay in which Turvill identifies ten key areas where differences commonly arise between a Japanese text and its English translation. Without resorting to theory or philosophical abstractions, Turvill provides concrete examples from the preceding stories, which are explained in simple and commonsense terms. To given an example, whereas the tense of verbs can shift from sentence to sentence in Japanese, in English it usually makes more sense to pick one tense (often the past tense) and stick with it. Whether you agree or disagree with Turvill’s decisions, it’s easy to understand exactly why he’s made them. If you’re an aspiring translator, you’ll more than likely find this list of strategies to be immediately applicable to your own work. Even if you have no knowledge of Japanese, however, Turvill’s concise guide is a fascinating examination of some the nuts and bolts of how language operates in translation.

The stories themselves are fascinating as well. Kuniko Mukoda’s “The Otter” (1980) is about a man whose playful and charming wife doesn’t quite have his best interests at heart. Natsuko Kuroda’s “Ball” (1963) is about a young girl who steals a handball and, by doing so, opens her heart to the darkness of deceit. Kaori Ekuni’s “Summer Blanket” (2002) is about an heiress who is happy to live alone by the ocean until she is befriended by two beach bum college students. Each story offers an intimate portrait of human psychology that is firmly grounded in the rich details of its setting.

Mitsuyo Kakuta’s “The Child Over There” (2011) is a surreal story of a newlywed mother who recently lost a child to a miscarriage. She has moved to the village of her husband’s family, who tell her stories about a child-eating demon that inhabits a house she’s warned to stay away from. Even though she becomes pregnant again, she continues to visit the grave of the daughter she lost, who still visits her in dreams. One day she happens to overhear a rumor about Kukedo, the place where lost children go. Kukedo turns out to be an actual place, so the woman takes train there on a journey that is both mundane and deeply strange. Although she never fully comes to terms with the relationship between the demon and her miscarriage, the young woman is able to achieve something of a catharsis when she joins her daughter “over there.”

The last story in the collection, Aoko Matsuda’s “Planting” (2012), is an anthem to millennial disillusionment. A young woman who calls herself “Marguerite” is looking for the perfect job, ideally one that doesn’t require her to interact with other human beings. She eventually manages to find a position where boxes containing various materials are delivered to her apartment. She pleats whatever the box contains, repacks it, and then exchanges it for the next box. Some of these boxes contain loose fabric and pre-sewn garments, while others contain more disturbing contents, such as garbage, dead animals, and disembodied clumps of hair. Marguerite feels tired all the time, and she doesn’t understand the purpose of anything she does, but she has resolved to take all the negative feelings in her heart and plant them in the dirt outside, hoping that they will eventually grow into something beautiful.

Heaven’s Wind reminds me of the collections of contemporary Japanese literary fiction that used to be published a decade or two ago. The stories included in these collections were often edgy and avant-garde, and it wasn’t uncommon for their editors to focus on female authors. I’ve missed these short story collections, and Heaven’s Wind is a welcome contribution to the body of Japanese fiction available in English, regardless of whether you happen to be interested in its emphasis on the craft of translation. Because furigana pronunciation glosses are included in the Japanese text, it would be practical and easy to use Heaven’s Wind as a textbook for a translation seminar or as a guide to self-study. You can order a copy on the Japan Society online store or at Waterstones.

A review copy of Heaven’s Wind was kindly provided by The Japan Society.

Legends of Localization

Legends of Localization

Title: Legends of Localization, Book 1: The Legend of Zelda
Author: Clyde Mandelin
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 198

Clyde “Mato” Mandelin is a professional translator who is famous on the internet for two things: first, leading the team of fan translators who put together an English patch for Mother 3 (which was never given a commercial release outside of Japan), and second, his website Legends of Localization, on which he posts detailed essays about the changes made to video games as they are prepared for the North American market.

Legends of Localization, Book 1: The Legend of Zelda is an offshoot of this website and the first book in what seems slated to become an ongoing series. As its title suggests, it focuses on the original The Legend of Zelda game from 1986.

The book is divided into six main sections.

The first section, which lists the differences in the game music and sound effects between the Japanese and American versions of the game, is an odd place to start (seeing as how books don’t produce audio – yet!), but the descriptive comparisons are a good introduction to just how far (and deep into the game code) the process of localization can go.

The second chapter, which analyzes the text spoken by the old men and women (and lone Moblin) in the game, explains the linguistic justifications for the bad grammar of the English text. It also bravely attempts to puzzle out what the hints these characters offer the player are actually supposed to indicate.

The third section, which covers the game’s items, explores some interesting cultural differences, including why the “Bible” was called such and why it was changed to the “Book of Magic.”

The fourth section explains the origins of the names of common Zelda enemies, such as Moblins and Like Likes, which are based on Japanese wordplay.

The fifth section, which examines the game manual, is a blast of nostalgia for those of us who treasured the little booklets that came included with game cartridges. This section includes an amazing line-by-line comparison of the introductory story text in Japanese and the English translation (which was surprisingly well executed), as well as several cogent explanations for the mistranslations that litter the remainder of the text.

The final section, “Beyond the Game,” collects information on hardware, promotional materials, television commercials, strategy guides, and spin-off games, including the vastly different Japanese and American board games.

What I especially appreciate about Legends of Localization are its illustrations. In addition to a wealth of screenshots, the book contains high quality scans of various print media, as well as photographs of game consoles, cartridges, and other paraphernalia. All of the images are informatively and appropriately labeled, and many are accompanied by humorous captions. My favorite of these captions are the ones that propose outlandish theories, such as “Link is dead and everyone is directing him to the light.” Because of the book’s uncluttered layout, it’s fun to flip through the pages while letting the pictures and cute captions catch your attention.

Legends of Localization is brilliant, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. Mandelin is a hero of the international gaming community, and this paper-and-ink publication of his work is a treasure. Even if you couldn’t care less about the Zelda games, or video games in general, I still recommend Legends of Localization for its clever insights into both Japanese and American popular culture.

As the cave-dwelling shield merchant should have said (if his dialog had been translated properly), “This is a good value and definitely worth buying.” Don’t keep it a secret to everybody!

The publisher, Fangamer, has put out a number of other gaming books, including the Zelda-themed graphic novel Second Quest and a small guide to navigating The Legend of Zelda in Japanese. They’re good people, and everything they release is golden as the Triforce.