Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter


"In the patrol car, X kept muttering the same words over and over again. Why wasn't I Japanese? Why wasn't she American? Like a broken puppet, repeating those words over and over again..."
"Detective Conan"

My reading pile of detective fiction is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet his maker. Which means that I'll have to be content for the while being with my reading pile of secondary literature. Which is pretty fun actually. As a student, I have to write papers regularly and I do like it when I am able to use detective fiction for my academic writings. Even if I have to be a bit... creative at times. Imagined communities and early Japanese detective fiction was a bit of a stretch though. Even by my standards.

Hasebe Fumichika's Oubei Suiri Shousetsu Honyakushi ("A History of Western Detective Novel Translations") is precisely what the cover says it is: a history of translations of Western detective novels in Japan. To be more precise, early Western detective novels. The book was originally published in 1992 and won the Japanese Detective Writers Assocation Price (like Shakaibu Kisha, Kao, Honjin Satsujin Jiken and Geneijou). And it is certainly an entertaining and informative read. Hasabe looks at the history of Western detective novels in Japan by focusing on a set of authors he considers influential to Japanese writers. He looks at both the original publication dates in the country of origin as well at as the various publication sources / various translations in Japan and is thus mainly set in the Taisho and early Showa period (1912~36). Which is not always easy, because not only did early Japanese translations of Western fiction often have altered titles, some early translations were also more like free adaptations of the original story.  Which is also where I have to correct myself. I once wrote that R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris wasn't translated into Japanese until the 1950s, but that's not true. A serialization of the novel had actually started in the very first issue of Shinseinen in 1920 already (the mystery magazine of that time, where Edogawa Rampo also made his debut) under the name Hakkotsu no Nazo ("The Mystery of the White Bones")

Hasabe discusses the following writers in their own chapters: Agatha Christie, S.S. Van Dine, Johnston McCulley, R. Austin Freeman, Gaston Leroux, Freeman Will Crofts, Joseph Smith Fletcher, Alfred Machard, Maurice Leblanc, Edgar Wallace, John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton and several authors he groups together as French writers, German writers and early short story writers. While most names are familiar, a name like McCulley (of the Zorro novels) might seem surprising. Which is what makes this book interesting to read, as it is a Japanese reception history of Western detective novels and occasionally you see how some writers were received differently across the sea. There are sometimes even surprising revelations, like for example when Hasebe writes that Japanese critics had low expectations of American writers in that time and that Edogawa Rampo thought that Van Dine's novels were OK, considering they were written by an American! Hasebe also gives an interesting description of the role of translators, who were actually very active with the material themselves. Translators often identified the materials suitable to translate and some of these men were very good in reading the market, for example finding and translating Agatha Christie's short stories to Japanese at a very early stage of their English publication.

Hasebe's study is pretty detailed on the supply side of the story, with much information on the many translations, publications, adaptations and children's adaptations of the various stories of the authors, but is sadly enough somewhat short on the demand side of the market. There is little to no information about the market itself, with most of Hasebe's story focusing on translators and publishers. He also does not explain why he deemed the authors he chose important. I assume it's because these authors / works had a great influence on early Japanese writers, but it is odd that Hasebe does not try to show this explicitly. He sometimes quotes Edogawa Rampo (mostly from his Forty Years of Detective Fiction memoirs) on how Rampo felt about certain books, but that is pretty much it. It would have made this book so much more interesting if Hasabe had made the connection between Western authors / novels and the Japanese authors / novels more clearly.

The book also misses a clear introduction or contextualization, which is actually quite necessary for the topic. The book is structured by the authors, but is quite unclear how Hasebe decided on this structure. Why Christie as the first author? This book needs more contextualization, especially in the sense of how the period this book describes forms a continuation on the Meiji period translations / adaptations (like by Kuroiwa Ruikou). Yes, I know there are specialist books for that (I have one actually) and I know that this is not a book 'beginners' in the genre would pick up, but I can very well imagine that this would be a somewhat confusing or boring read if you can't place it in the proper context.

Oubei Suiri Shousetsu Honyakushi is certainly a well-researched book, but it lacks a bit in portraying the information Hasaebe gathered as actually being relevant. It is a bit ambiguous now and some readers might find the list of translation publications bit boring to read without proper contextualization within the book. As a standalone book, it is too vague I think and while the topic concerns Western authors, I don't think a translation of this book would work at all, without the larger context of early translation practices and the introduction of detective fiction in Japan.

Original Japanese title(s): 長谷部史親  『欧米推理小説翻訳史』

No comments :

Post a Comment