Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru, or as I translate it, Night on the Milky Way Railroad, is one of the most famous, significant, and enduring pieces of early 20th century Japanese literature by one of Japan’s most incredible authors. In it, Kenji Miyazawa walks the line between a child’s fantasy and a complex literary masterpiece with baffling dexterity. He is a commander of the human voice in all its startling range of emotion, an adept inventor of onomatopoeia, and a master juggler of Japanese folklore, western novels and fairy-tales, and Buddhist theology.
And yet the translations that we have–FOUR!, we have FOUR!–fail on many accounts to even hint towards his brilliance.
My title is a bit strong. “Embarrassments” goes too far. It would be more proper to say “Shames”, which would point towards the fact that it is simply a shame that an English reader cannot properly experience Miyazawa.
The premise of the story: Giovanni is a boy from a poor family in early 20th century Italy, plagued by bullies, with an ill mother and a father currently away on business. His only friend, Campanella, keeps him company and gives him sympathy and relief. One day, when Giovanni lies to rest on a hill, he hears the arrival of the Milky Way train to the stars, bound on a fantastic journey for the land of the dead. I’ll go ahead and stop there, and merely drop the hint that the end of the story is brutally sad.
So what goes wrong in translation?
A lot. Miyazawa uses stream-of-consciousness often to represent Giovanni’s thoughts, which few of the translators render in the English. But Miyazawa’s capacity for describing action is near unparalleled, and it’s one moment of description that I’m going to hone in on to describe what exactly an English reader misses in the average translation.
Context? It’s a moment of utter obliteration, of fantastic, transformative change–when Giovanni passes from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, from the real world into the world of the Milky Way Railroad. Let’s take a look at the Japanese, a literal gloss by me, and two translations, one by Roger Pulvers (1991) and one by Sarah Strong (1996), neither of which are bad per se. They’re just not good.
Then Giovanni saw the weather station pillar right behind him take on the vague shape of a triangular sign, flickering on and off like a firefly. When the blur in his eyes cleared, everything became clear and finely outlined, and the sign with its light soared straight up into the dense cobalt-blue field of the sky…
Giovanni noticed that the pillar of the weather wheel directly behind him had turned into a sort of hazy triangular marker. For a while he watched as it pulsed on and off like a firefly. It gradually grew more and more distinct until at last it stood tall and motionless against the deep steel-blue field of sky.
Japanese and literal gloss:
soshite jiobani wa sugu ushiro no tenkiten no hashira ga itsuka
And then Giovanni right away the behind weather station wheel at some point
bonyari-shita sankakuhyou no katachi ni natte, shibaraku hotaru no yoh ni
with-vagueness-[sound-effect]-did triangular shape becoming, it at once like a firefly
pekapeka kietari tomotari shite iru no o mimashita.
twinkle-twinkle [sound-effect] turning off and lighting on and so on [it he] watched.
sore wa dandan hakkiri shite, tohtoh rin to ugokanai yoh ni nari, koi kohseishyoku
That bit-by-bit clearly [sound-effect] doing, at last not moving becoming, steel blue
no sora no nohara ni tachimashita.
sky’s field on [it] stood.
In the Japanese passage, sound is absolutely paramount. Not only does it clearly have repetitive qualities of consonance and assonance, but there are a number of onomatopoeia. So Miyazawa is not only inundating a reader with images but also sounds: the sound of fumbling indistinctness (bon-yari), the sound of a faint or dulled glitter (peka-peka), the sound of haziness becoming clarity in a flash (ha-kiri!). Miyazawa’s sonic manipulation defines the moment of Giovanni’s passage between two worlds.
Both Pulvers and Strong attempt to replicate this effect through visual fogginess becoming clarity, but the poetry of the scene is already down the drain. Pulvers accidentally stumbles towards a solution by using “flickering”, a verb charged with visual as well as sonic meaning in the English—but he would need to multiply this sensibility by three or four times before he approaches the sensation of the original.
Ezra Pound’s classification of poetry into melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia comes to mind. In the original, there’s a sort of melopoeia present, where the words are charged with sound that lends deeper symbolic and sensory meaning to the language. Rendered as phanopoeia (a casting of images), a reader sees Giovanni as a static observer of a faint, distant change, rather than a kid actively bombarded by the sensory overload that accompanies ascension into the fantasy of the Milky-Way Railroad.
It’s not that English can’t accomplish this effect. Far from it! In addition to our own onomotopoeia and plentiful literary techniques to incorporate sonic energy in prose, we’ve got also words that function doubly as auditory and visual words: crackle, spark, whip, and so on. Keeping some of these strategies things in mind, let’s attempt a sonically tuned translation.
And then Giovanni saw the weather station wheel right behind him at once turn into a murmuring triangular shape, glittering and flickering on, off and on like a firefly. Clarifying bit by bit and at long last clattering to a halt, it stood on the field of a steel-blue sky.
I try to do a few different things here.
One, I’m not adding concepts or ideas that aren’t in the original (like Pulvers’ blur in Giovanni’s eyes) and I’m sticking more or less to the original syntax.
Two, I’m attempting to replicate sonic and rhythmic effects. There’s a whimsicality in the original (~tari tari suru~ form, for anyone who knows Japanese) that I try to capture with the “on, off and on” rhythm. We get our sonic triangle sign, now faintly murmuring, glittering and flickering (which sound a bit similar), and then clattering. The point isn’t to replicate every sound in the Japanese, but to replicate the generation of auditory energy.
That’s what Miyazawa does brilliantly in the passage–engage all your senses and generate energy through sonic effects. You need to feel his prose in your body, not just in your head. That could be one definition of what poetry is–generative energy that affects the body. Surely my translation isn’t close to a true, faithful, and poetic rendition, but I’ve got my eye focused on the things that I believe matter beyond mere meaning.