A hazard of one of your favorite books not being in your native language is how much of what you fell in love with might well be a product of its translation and not the book itself. I had to confront this with Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, beloved by me since the first time I read it in the late Nineties or so: how much of my love was with Dazai himself, and how much was with the translator, Donald Keene? It took reading more of Dazai in translation, and more of Keene's other works (translations and otherwise), and finally encountering Dazai in his original Japanese, to better suss out where all those boundaries lay. Now we have an entirely new translation of Dazai's masterwork by Mark Gibeau, entitled A Shameful Life and published by Stone Bridge Press, and through it I think I can see all the more what was Dazai's.
The first version cuts the deepest
Dazai's story has been generally accepted to be at least partly autobiographical — not in the sense that he was describing his life as it had played out, but in that he drew on things that did happen to him to infuse his story with the power of something lived. His character, Yozo, the son of a well-off politician, has since childhood felt alienated from and unable to connect with the rest of humanity. He compensates by assuming the attitude of a prankster and a comedian, but that mask is not able to fully protect him. In college he is befriended by an exploitive fellow student, runs around with would-be revolutionaries, becomes involved in a love suicide with a waitress. All but disowned by his family, he shacks up with different women who all take pity on him, seeking a home but never finding it anywhere. Every step forward in his life is accompanied by two more steps backwards, until he finally slides into the abyss he's been skirting all along.
A synopsis doesn't do justice to the book's emotional power. Much of that is due to Dazai's style — he's focused, to the point, cutting right to the parts that hurt the most or show the most. Keene himself praised this aspect of the book in his introduction to his 1959 translation, released a decade or so after its original publication. Since I encountered the book before making any real headway with learning Japanese, I had to take Keene's word for it — that the fact he called out such things meant he probably had gone through some pains to preserve them along with everything else that was Dazai's.
Over the almost two decades since I first encountered the book, several things happened that brought all this into both focus and relief. First was coming into contact with a larger selection of Dazai's work being rendered into English: Dazai's other major novel The Setting Sun, his travelogue collection Return To Tsurugaru, stories in various anthologies, Phyllis Lyons's study of his life work (with more translations within), Ralph McCarthy's Self-Portraits, and so on. A spate of newly translated or re-translated material has emerged in just the past couple of years alone — his novella Schoolgirl, his anthology of sardonic fairytale retellings Otogi-Zoshi, his final unfinished novel Goodbye, his previously untranslated novel Pandora's Box, and so on. All this provided a broader sense of what the man's work might be like, even when — especially when — filtered through the sensibilities of other translators.
Second was a flood of recent adaptations of Dazai's work to other media — multiple manga versions (Usamaru Furuya's being chief among them, but I'm hoping Junji Ito's version also makes it to these shores), an excellent animated adaptation for TV, a live-action film. All of those were enjoyable on their own, but also enlightening, as they showed how there did not have to be, could not be, any one way to adapt his work — and since translation is a form of adaptation, that meant any number of other approaches might well be possible.
Third was encountering Dazai in the original Japanese. I confess that I read Japanese very slowly and with some trouble, but I'd advanced enough that I was able to see how the original text did, or did not, compare with Keene's version of it. It was clear Keene's version had its limitations — it simplified some parts of Dazai's text (especially his paragraph-long sentences, all but impossible to render effectively in English), omitted various minor details for the sake of a smoother reading experience, and in general read like a translation from fifty years hence instead of a more contemporary one. At one point I attempted to up my game enough to render my own translation, but it proved beyond my own meager ability and I set it aside. Then, earlier this year, Gibeau's new translation was announced, and I bought it sight unseen.
The right choice of words
The first question people are likely to ask is: If I'm new to No Longer Human, should I start with this version? My short answer is "Probably." Keene's version is slightly more polished as a reading experience, but Gibeau's version is a slightly more faithful translation — there's more of a sense of how Dazai's original sentences and compositions came together on the page, even when they are not necessarily reader-friendly.
Gibeau does not go off the deep end with this, though. I mentioned Dazai's run-ons; some of his sentences, like the paragraph at the beginning of the book's third part where Yozo describes the house and business of his benefactor "Flounder", are more like streams of consciousness than anything else. Rendering them with total fidelity in English would probably have required something like the ellipses-spliced sentences of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (an author whose cynicism and misanthropy aren't all that far removed from Dazai's own, come to think of it). Gibeau follows with Keene in this respect and breaks up Dazai's more monolithic constructions, but he still preserves the jagged parentheticals that inject themselves, sometimes for sentences on end, into the middle of Yozo's ruminations.
The other thing Gibeau has elected to do is preserve minor details that might not seem to have been worth keeping in. Here and there Keene left out a sentence or a reference — details about how certain slang worked in pre-WWII Japan, or a fussy note about how sushi should be prepared, or the names of one of Yozo's cartoon characters. Some of these things probably would have been an obstacle for a Western reader in 1959, one already not primed to read literature in translation. In 2018, with an internet search engine in everyone's pockets, these kinds of elisions make less sense.
One of my favorite restored details is the very last sentence of the book's second part: 背後の高い窓から夕焼けの空が見え、が、「女」という字みたいな形で飛んでいました。Keene translates this as "Seagulls were flying by in a line which somehow suggested the curve of a woman’s body," but Gibeau more properly says "A line of seagulls seemed to form the Chinese character for 'woman' as they flew past." I understand why Keene rewrote it that way — few Westerners would know what that character would look like or how it could spur such an association — but the fact of the omission always galled me.
Another change might not be a fixing of a mistranslation, but merely a typo in Keene's English version that eluded people. Keene: "I was intolerably afraid that if I met again a woman I had once slept with, I might suddenly burst into a flaming rage." Gibeau: "I couldn't help thinking that, should I run into a woman I'd once slept with, she would suddenly explode in a furious rage." The Japanese is, as far as I can tell, contextual without a specific pronoun: 感心したような顔をしてそれに耳をその上に自分は、一緒に休んだ事のある女に、また逢うと、その時にいきなり何か烈火の如く怒られそうな気がしてたまらず、... At first I didn't notice the internal inconsistency in Keene's reading, since Yozo is so emotionally unstable, but then I realized his is the kind of instability that doesn't manifest in lashing out at others, only lacerating himself. Gibeau's reading makes far more sense in the context of everything we know about Yozo, both through himself and others.
Some of the changes I'm less fond of despite myself. When Yozo asks himself, in different sentences in the book's last section:
Gibeau translates this as "I ask you, God. Is trust a crime?" and "Is innocent trust a crime?", where Keene rendered it instead as "God, I ask you. Is trustfulness a sin?" and "Is immaculate trustfulness a sin?" Gibeau's version is not only more technically accurate, but a better representation of an internal symmetry in the text (viz., an earlier passing mention of Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment that becomes a point of reference). But my first exposure was through Keene and his choices, and somehow the word sin hangs all the more heavily over Yozo's head, as it is ostensibly meant to.
Something else Gibeau chose not to tangle with, probably for the best, is the way the narrator refers to himself. Japanese has many ways to say "I"; Yozo uses the term jibun (自分), which translates roughly to something like "this one". (Think of how Himura Kenshin used the archaism sessha [拙者] to refer to himself.) When I was planning my own translation, I flirted with the idea of using something like "your author" to embody this sort of egoless feeling. But it probably would have been too obtrusive, even if only used in moderation. Gibeau, like Keene before him, elected to simply let this aspect of the text slide; they use "I", and the self-deprecating tone of the work comes through in plenty of other ways anyway.
What Gibeau strives to bring through, most often and most effectively, is not only Yozo's voice but Dazai's. Dazai's writing in No Longer Human seems best described by a line used by Greil Marcus to describe John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band: "The music didn't cut, it bit." One word does the work of twenty. Instead of trying to immerse us the physical details of a scene, or even bother to identify who's speaking, he gives us the emotional flavor of the moment. Even when the narrator meanders, it feels less like a lack of authorial focus and more an attempt to depict someone spinning in place so furiously they are apt to drill right through the floor. Keene's version caught a good deal of that, but Gibeau's version does too and then some. It finds new ways to fix in the acerbicism, the bitter laughter, the self-cruelty, the way Yozo thought of himself once versus the way he understands himself now.
None of this, though, invalidates what Keene did. His version has not been rendered obsolete by Gibeau's, for the same reason any one translation of a work (save maybe a hopelessly inaccurate or bowdlerized one) remains of perpetual interest: as an artifact of how someone on one side of a language barrier reaches across and tries to bring to the rest of us something that matters to them. Dazai, and No Longer Human, mattered at a time when Japan was reeling from the near-total devastation of World War II; he put a voice to feelings of desolation and isolation that were no longer taboo to hide inside. Seventy years later, he still matters for all the same reasons, and Gibeau's version of his book makes it matter all over again in a whole new way.