A Maplopo Aftertalk

 —Nakajima Atsushi, Part I

“Legend of the Master,” by Nakajima Atsushi was a bonus release to Maplopo Reading Circle members in February, 2020. But, don’t fret it’s coming soon on Amazon.com. If you missed it,  don’t miss out on the next  quarterly release, and request your invitation today. The very best writing from Japan, direct from Maplopo. Thanks!

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Doc (D) and Reiko (R)

I think we started last summer. It was hot.

R: I want to talk about how I always wanted to share this particular story with you, because it goes way back to before we became a couple. We were just friends and doing this book club thing, and I was trying to tell you how great this story was. And, I couldn’t really explain why it was so important to me, and why it’s a masterpiece. I… I kinda chopped up its essence and all I could say was, “This contradiction is just great!” 

D: [laughter] Yeah, I remember you said a little more than that. I remember sitting across from you at the table that day… you were on the left, and I was across from you and quite enamored by your presence, if not your story telling in general. You were trying very hard to get us to understand this moment and I can remember Haruka trying to help you along, “Get it out, get it out!” [laughter] And, it was just hard because that story is hard. You were talking about this “archery of no archery” thing. He wants it so bad, and this journey he goes on in pursuit of his goal… and how in the end he realizes there’s a different goal, in a way. 

R: I remember this meant so much to me, and I didn’t know if there existed an English translation of this story… I was saying, “I hope this is written in English so I can share this story with you.” And, I remember writing down the title in Japanese for you. 

D: Right, on the little napkin. It’s a cool ass story. Other than it having this meaning at the end that’s really deep, I love this story because it’s so cinematic and super visual. Before this conversation, I was reading it to you and I was enjoying hearing you respond with, “Ahhhs” and “Yeahhhhhs.” 

R: Of course. Yes. It took a long time. I think we started last summer. It was hot. We were working downstairs and sitting on the bench next to each other. And there was this particular sentence—I couldn’t deliver it to you—and it took me more than half an hour… and you were sitting there patiently. And you said, “If you’re stuck, talk to me…” something like that. I was really struggling. It was still the beginning of our process, and I hadn’t found a way, or system, that worked for us. And, I was just struggling to get through it on my own.

D: You were focused on trying to figure out a way to present it to me if I remember correctly—not that I remember—but I remember that feeling in general. I can see you sitting there and trying to struggle through a passage and me saying, “Tell me what you’re reading and thinking.”

R: And it helped. So then, I realized that I could just explain the situation without giving you a sentence. I was telling you, “This is what’s happening!” and drawing pictures. And then, this arrow scene… this is crazy! So, I’m saying this again… but without you, this scene and many other scenes wouldn’t have come together the way they did. Just now I noticed having been read the story again how beautifully you visualized certain scenes. It’s purely you. Your effort. 

D: You were giving it to me, though. I can’t write without you giving it to me first, right? So, I’m able to flesh it out because you are able to vividly give me the picture. So, I’ll end up being… Many, many, many times, I’m wrong. But the process of… um… or, I get part of it, but it’s not completely correct. So the process of you correcting me, again and again, is what enables us to get to the actual meaning—a million pictures later. 

R: [laughter] Yes, sometimes you totally went into your imaginary world and created these beautiful stories for me and I’d say, “Ohhhh… this is so beautiful, but (!) I’m sorry….”

D: [laughter] That’s true. Those are in the “Reiko’s Side Notes” folder. You’d say, “I want to keep this special, for me.” 

R: Yes, only I’ve got them. 

“…it’s like being bound by a sort of linguistic rope.”

D: That happened so often actually… how I’d create something not right, but it still sounded cool. In a way, I wonder if that’s what’s happening when people mistranslate. You and I have this benefit of being able to continually go over a phrase. I wonder if people… sometimes you’ll read a book, for example, and say to me, “This is very close, but it’s not quite right.” I wonder if that’s how that happens, in a way, when a translation is off. The person thinks like me, “I’ve got it!” and doesn’t really have it.

R: Yeah…that’s true. It can happen if you’re not careful. And, it can also happen in your own language. This is slightly off topic, but one drawback I’ve noticed in the past when translating alone is that something often gets in the way of coming up with freer phrasing. When two people work together like you and me, because the idea goes from one person’s brain to another, I can avoid this restraint. Because you personally don’t have this restriction of being overly influenced by the Japanese dictionary definition, you can create this sort of magic with the writing. 

D: Hmmm, true. What do you mean by “restraint?”

R: When translating alone… at least for me, it’s like being bound by a sort of linguistic rope. The rope constricts movement and encourages the choice of specific dictionary definitions. When translating, there is often a singular… or, small set of translations for a word, and if you don’t use those words, people occasionally voice their disapproval and say you’re taking liberty with the language. That you’re being creative, and not being loyal to the original text. 

D: I see…

“In the beginning, you and I were working together, you were very… kinda like a pain in the ass.”

R: I think many translators struggle with this kind of uncertainty. They wonder, “Am I being loyal to the original?” Strictly and stoically following the original text like a machine requires you to follow the text even if it’s bad. If the original text is poorly written, then you have to translate it in the same manner. In this scenario as a translator, you’re just a shadow. You basically have to follow whatever is presented to you—because you’re kinda nothing without the original. You’re forever behind the scenes. That’s at least one perspective on translating. And that, I think, sometimes creates frustration for translators. 

D: You want to make it better in a way, but you can’t? 

R: You have to follow the original, and it’s the right attitude to take, but still, if you’re presenting it to an English speaking audience, why not create something that won’t cause them to get lost, and is clearer?

D: Right. Is it permissible, in a way, to tweak it slightly? 

R: No… not tweak. We talk a lot about transitions, because English focuses on transitions. And in the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I could use them or not when they were not there in the original Japanese. But now, I’m convinced that it’s much better in the end, so things are clearer in English. Now I think… if it’s written in English, you want to follow the English language system. 

D: Mmm…hnnn… the structure is important. Yeah, you’re right. We use transitions a lot. In Sakaguchi, we added this one phrase, “you see,” right? You liked that. I don’t know how to describe it, really. But there’s this somewhat matter-of-fact presentation of a phrase… things are left out in Japanese—transitions seem to be left out in Japanese. So, when you read it literally, it’s not there. In the beginning, you and I were working together, you were very… kinda like a pain in the ass.

R: [laughter] 

D: You were, like, “But it doesn’t say that.” And I’m, like, “But it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t say it. Without saying it, it doesn’t make any sense to me.” Or, it doesn’t make enough sense to me. The impact of it is lost, and that’s what’s important, right? You want to kinda create a story that’s meaningful to people, and if you’re kinda worrying about the literal interpretation of it, you miss the impact. The whole reason for writing is to move someone. And, if you’re not moving them, then you are failing at that. So, I’m thankful that you’ve bent yourself in a way so it allows that to happen. Not too much, though. We’re not by any stretch of the imagination changing things. But, we’re often talking quite literally about a single word. Adding “you see,” in Sakaguchi. In Nakajima, there’s this point where he steps out of the story and talks to the reader, and I was quite insistent on adding, “now.” Now is totally a transitional word and it’s not necessary, really, but it adds this kind of boop! Oh! As a reader, I’m not in the narrative anymore, I’m now in a place where this guy is directly talking to me all of a sudden. Just one word. But it makes a whole huge friggin’ difference. I think, at least, in the ability of the reader to relate to that. But we weren’t good at that in the beginning. 

R: Yeah, I was kind of stuck with this idea that “you have to be really precise,” and probably I was just afraid of people being critical of our work. Now, I’m okay with the idea that every language has its character; Japanese has this character, and English has that character… character traits, right? …so why not? If you’re tailoring a story to a different language character, you kinda have to make it match the traits of that language as best as possible. 

D: Without sacrificing the original. 

R: Right. So, I think we achieve a good balance, and yeah, we’re still learning… and we’ll get better as we go along. I’m so happy with our Nakajima work. With this particular story, I’m so grateful for your skills in that you can depict the scenes so well. So many scenes I love, because of you. Thank you. 

“I remember you were joking, ‘Is this like…? What is this about?'”

D: Thanks… and you’re welcome. I’m pleased to have worked on it. Do you have any particular moments you really liked?

R: I do. There’s that one scene when I was transcribing the story and you were making jokes about the scene on the recording… I couldn’t hold back my laughter… that scene where Kisho and Hiei rush to one another in the middle of the field and hug each other. I remember you were joking, “Is this like…? What is this about? Why are these two men running into each other’s arms so affectionately?” 

D: Yeah, yeah. Your original vocabulary was very odd… “They embraced…” and I’m like, “What’s going on here, really?” 

R: [laughter] 

D: But in that moment, I think what Nakajima is saying is that they are so connected, in a way. There seems to be no second thought given to this sort of comradery that exists… and, it’s a feeling—a physical comradery that quite simply does not exist, at least, in America. It’s a little weird.  

R: Not so much in Japan. It’s an unconscious, and pure admiration of one another. They respect each other’s skill and they also respect their own skills. They recognize excellence in art, and purely appreciate their art of archerythey appreciate what they are doing and what they are. 

D: That’s interesting. So, there’s this scene where Hiei talks like he’s grateful that he was able to survive because of his own skill. They’re thinking, “Thank God, we’re good enough to both be alive.” 

R: They’re purely in awe of what just happened. It’s beautiful to see they’re both appreciating each other’s art. They’ve achieved the highest technical competency in their art form. Upon realizing this, they just have to embrace each other. 

D: That’s really cool… If I think about this sort of affection, at its most familiar level you see it after the Super Bowl. Both teams are so warm toward one another because they’ve both worked really hard… and fought, and fought to beat one another. And while only one team won, they still respect that achievement of greatness that brought them together.

“Nakajima is kinda showing this liberation of ego as the epitome of excellence.”

R: When you reach that level, it doesn’t matter anymore whether you win or lose. They reach this pinnacle that is humanly possible. This story beautifully shows that aspect as well.

D: That’s a good observation. 

Check out the NAKAJIMA Atsushi Book Trailer!

neveR: For this story, one of the themes is enlightenment. 

D: Which is that, for sure.

R: Yes. First, Kisho wanted to be the best archer in the world. And, when the story begins, he’s most driven by his ego—his desire to be the best. And, as he goes on, he reaches the point where his ego ceases to matter anymore, and it gradually dissipates. Nakajima is kinda showing this liberation of ego as the epitome of excellence—having the will to subjugate your ego’s desire. In Kisho’s case, he must let go of the desire to be the best archer in the world, in order to achieve “expertness.”*

*[Benedict, Ruth: “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”]

For an artist, being the best is the highest goal you wish to reach. But, at the end of the story, everybody is ashamed of themselves for possessing their artistic implements, because it’s evidence they still care, and remain driven by their conscious mind. To me, it’s a very, very, very Eastern way of thinking.

D: Sure… do you think at the end that they’re… ashamed because they are wanting in a sense? 

R: Yeah, wanting is already something that interferes with your art. But, you have to go through this process of wanting, otherwise, you don’t start anything. You have to have ego in the beginning. And, you have to suffer and suffer. That’s the journey you’ll have to take. After you go through this fog of sufferingall those negative thingsthen you can reach the goal. 

D: That’s really wild, actually. In order to be free from want, you have to first want. I wonder, though, if you need to succeed in order to be free from want… What if you don’t succeed? 

R: Mmm… That’s life, I guess. 

D: [laughter] 

R: You have to say, “At least, I tried.” Many people… most people are afraid of trying, so they don’t try. But, that kind of life is boring, right? So, that’s again, Sakaguchi Ango’s point of view. He says, “If you don’t try anything, if you are already satisfied, then you are not trying enough.” So, that’s why he wanted to quit his teaching job because deep down, he wanted to be a novelist. It’s interesting to see how different people get there differently.

“Even though Nakajima and Sakaguchi seem to have different philosophies, I love them both.”

D: Wow… that’s crazy… that’s kind of blowing my mind. 

R: This Nakajima story, I immediately fell in love with it. Even though Nakajima and Sakaguchi seem to have different philosophies, I love them both.   

D: Nakajima is a storyteller. Sakaguchi is a storyteller too, but he’s more personally reflective, right? Nakajima is creating a movie in a way. But, the message, like you’re saying, is along similar paths. 

R: Yeah, I think, for Nakajima, creating this character who when he reaches his final destination is depicted as being in a state of muga (無我)… wooden-like, and having lost all his self-consciousness—even forgetting his passion—is different from Sakaguchi’s perspective. I think Sakaguchi would never create a character like this, because he’s more inclined to want people to live fully—not to completely abandon their humanity, even if it’s dirty and vulgar.

D: Hahaha…

R: It’s like Shinran: you are human, so you can’t discard everything. You can’t forget your desire; you still suffer from lust. On the other hand, I think Nakajima is sharing this story as a possible type of beauty—that you get rid of everything, that you even forget who you are, that you go to nothingness. 

D: Sakaguchi is, on the other hand, continuously aware. 

R: Yes, continuously aware, because that’s how humans are. Nakajima is more about liberation, more Buddhist-like. 

D: He was a Buddhist himself? 

R: Ummm… I don’t think so… I’m not sure… But, I definitely think this story is heavily influenced by Chinese Confucian ideas and Zen Buddhist philosophy.   

D: What else do you like by Nakajima? 

… continued in Part 2! 

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Want more Maplopo Aftertalks? Check out our chat about “Wish Fulfilled,” by Dazai Osamu by clicking below, and then once again when the accordian tab opens!