When my mother-in-law died last August, she left me a
wonderful gift—the opportunity to finish translating my father-in-law Yoshi’s
novel from Japanese to English.
My mother-in-law did
not speak a word of Japanese, and neither do I. The rough draft I inherited had
been massaged from Yoshi’s broken English into her literate but turgid prose.
My job was to tease a novel out of this mess that remained respectful to its
Japanese roots, but would also excite an American audience. Though Yoshi and I
are both published novelists with a mutual understanding of fiction, making the
plot’s cultural nuances and characters’ thought processes understandable to an
American provided a number of challenges I’d never encountered before.
First was that I had to constantly remind myself that this
wasn’t my story. As a compulsive self-editor, and active critic of all I read
(from published work to works in progress from fellow writers) I had to remain
true to the vision that Yoshi had for the story. He is far better at crafting
suspenseful plots than I’ll ever be, but his characters think outside the
limited box of my American brain. Through a lot of internal dialogue they consider
possibilities that I would prefer left unsaid, but Yoshi insists are necessary.
We both understand “show, not tell,” but
it means something different to a Japanese audience. In fact, Yoshi tries to
use it to increase the level of suspense by having the reader consider the
possibilities, while I prefer the spare surprise.
Second, it has been hard for me to wrap my brain around
some of the things these characters
think. They consistently talk of things like “dark auras” when describing
people and “fulfilling their dreams” which to my American mind sounds cheesy.
Yet, I hear this same sentiment expressed when talking informally to Yoshi’s
friends. Also, the characters are far
more humble and easily embarrassed than their American counterparts. I know this
is a facet of Japanese culture, but it’s hard to figure out how to get an
American reader not just to understand, but to fuse with the characters and
feel these things.
We’re currently on the third draft—a process where I tend to
eliminate words and Yoshi tends to put them back in. He tells me he’s learned a
lot from me, particularly my use of “if-clauses” leading the reader to form
their own suppositions. From him, I’ve learned about pacing, and how to make
sure each small detail matters. But neither of us is totally satisfied. I still
think the book is stilted, and Yoshi thinks it’s too breezy. But perhaps this
is also part of the cross-cultural blues. How can we Americans put ourselves in
enough of a “Japanese mind” to fully appreciate the depth of this narrative,
which is more than a simple mystery/thriller. It is about the dilemma of trying
to free oneself from the constraints of thousands of years of tradition. That
alone is a concept that is totally foreign to an American mind. Meanwhile,
Yoshi and I continue to argue (politely, of course) about how much needs to be
explained, and how much the reader can figure out on their own.
Yoshi is 82 years old and finishing this book is his dream.
He wants it to be his final tribute to his wife, Gloria, the love of his life
for more than 40 years. This is what I need to remember on the days when we’re
both gnashing our teeth and spending over an hour on a single paragraph. Yes, I
may have given up a lot of time when I could be focusing on my own writing, but
I’ve also gained the ability to be even more persnickety about language. It’s
different when you have to find the right word for someone else’s thought, and
I’ve begun to gain a small glimpse of understanding into what it means to think
like a Japanese. Yoshi’s been in my life for 32 years, but it’s only been in
the past nine months that I feel I really know him.
We just came back from having dinner together. Yoshi says
he's hoping that this will finally be the best seller with movie potential. He
says he always feels that way about a book when he's in the process of writing
it, and then he's always disappointed. Here's the place where culture doesn't
matter. As a fellow writer, I totally
get this. But I tell him that whatever happens, it doesn't matter. The fact
that we managed to pull this off should be reward enough. Ultimately, it has to
be the process of "translating" what matters to you in a way that
someone else from whatever culture can get it.
My family had such a fun night last night. First was the monthly Old Time Fiddle Session at The Brick pizzeria in New Bedford. These sessions have been going on for three years now. They draw people from the South Coast area and beyond. It’s an open session which means that anyone can show up and play or simply come to listen (like me). All players need is an acoustic stringed instrument (e.g. fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass) and enough skills to play along. It’s casual and fun. People teach each other tunes, play together, and generally have a good time. Plus, we get to enjoy a glass of wine or beer and eat delicious pizza.
Jeff ( @rhubarb_andjelly )added a new event following the session: a free ukulele lesson open to anyone who showed up. And boy did people show up! Jeff has 20 ukes available and they were all in use. At least 6 people had brought their own, and I handed mine off for someone to play. Loads of people had heard about the event and came for it, but others happened upon all of us in Wings Court, paused to see what was going on, and were welcomed in by Jeff. Most people stayed the whole time, but some had to leave after a while (young kids who needed to go to bed, for example). No sooner would the uke be returned than a person would walk up, pause, be invited to join and start strumming on that newly available instrument. It was pretty magical. One couple was from NY. Another woman was from Wisconsin. They told me they felt really welcomed by all of us. And it’s all because of Jeff Angeley’s big heart and vision. He knows music brings people of all ages and backgrounds together. He knows music builds community. He’s building it one instrument at a time and I am grateful for that.
Special thanks to the New Bedford Economic Development Council for seeing Jeff’s vision and helping to fund these free community lessons.
If you want to know about future events, follow the South Coast Lessons page or The Old Time Fiddle Session pages.
Today’s basil harvest. From one plant. We have 10 more. 😳 #PestoTonight
It’s been a stellar #gardening year for heat loving plants.
This lovely lady came to visit us with her husband and teen-aged daughter. More than 25 years ago, she was a Rotary Exchange Student who lived with my family. We’ve stayed in touch for all of this time. She has visited a few times since then and my parents attended her wedding. When we lived in Dublin, my family of 4 flew to France to see her family of 5. (On that trip, we also visited a different, lovely French sister, @florence.pit, who lives in Paris). Watching our kids play together was a real joy. It’s always such a pleasure to have her around. #citizensoftheworld
We have friends visiting from France right now so we took a little day trip to #Boston. Here are some pics from @newenglandaquarium. (Yes, I’m always extra happy to see an octopus). #science #ocean
The newest plane by @dantecusolito #STEM #STEAM #FutureEngineer
Some photos taken around my parents’ farm yesterday. The cozy coop in front of the corn makes me smile. My nephew left it there when he visited. The egg is so small because the chicken just started laying- that was her first egg. Also, my dad grows the best corn around. #farmlife #NoFarmsNoFood
I received THE SONG OF SOLOMON as a gift many years ago, back when I was still teaching. It was the night before winter break ended and I decided to read a little before bed. 100 pages later I had to force myself to stop reading and go to sleep. I devoured that book. Next I read BELOVED. Damn, did that book challenge me as a reader. I had to work so hard to understand it. I had to lean in and really concentrate. I was so thankful for that gift- it reminded me what reading must have been like for many of my 4th graders for whom reading was not yet second nature. It made me a better teacher. And what can I say about PARADISE? Another book I had to lean in to understand due to the complex interconnected family trees. Once I was too far in, I wished I had drawn up family trees to help me remember all of the relationships. I’ve been meaning to go back and read that one and make the trees from the beginning. Maybe now is a good time to do that.
RIP Ms. Morrison. The world is a better place for you having been in it.
Our garden is super prolific right now. I’m harvesting zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, jalapeños, sweet basil, Thai basil, and purple basil nearly every day. There are loads of green tomatoes and bell peppers I’m hoping to start harvesting soon. But the zucchini and summer squash...OY! The last picture shows what I harvested THIS MORNING. And we only have one plant of each. We’ve been eating it regularly, and I’ll freeze some, but we can possibly use as much as we’re getting. (This is what happens when you use compost from your parents’ farm!) There are loads of squash blossoms on the plants. Anybody want some? Because we know what those blossoms will soon become... (Seriously local friends... hit me up if you want some squash or blossoms). #organicgardening #gardening #wondersofcompost
With his gourd banjo completed, @dantecusolito decided to make a remote controlled tug boat. Isn’t this thing the cutest? #STEM #STEAM #summertime