Kenzaburo Oe: Paul Mackintosh on the hard art of translating Oe

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THE prose of Kenzaburo Oe has been unsympathetically described as like European literature badly translated into Japanese. He is a highly intellectual writer, a deliberate manipulator of complex ideas; quite unlike the orthodox Japanese tradition of mellifluous words from the heart. He describes scenes, objects and feelings in exact and convoluted terms whose often unlovely contours are impossible to ignore.

Much Japanese literature aspires towards the limpid beauty beloved of a famously aesthetic nation. Oe conversely builds his prose in fashions inspired by the comparatively crude strength of the English and French literature. He has stated that he wanted to write in a complex style, at odds with the prevailing simplicity of Japanese. Critics protested that it was a misuse of the Japanese language, but for him it was the perfect vehicle of self-expression. The proverbial vagueness of the language is ruthlessly curbed; Oe's prose is clotted but highly accurate. The coy circumlocutions with which Shiga Naoya and others described the sex organs are replaced by the bold 'penis'. The sum total is a more expressive Japanese, made able to carry the disruptive emotional forces and elemental dramas Oe wants to relate.

Paradoxically, translating Japanese literature that has been heavily influenced by English is far more difficult than translating that which is more rooted in its canon. Part of the power of Oe's style is the way it goes off at a tangent to the native mainstream, heading in the direction of English. When you have to put that style into precisely the language which it is trying to copy, a lot of the original impact is lost.

Yet despite the difficulties of translating Oe, he has been rendered into many languages. German, Russian, Korean and Hungarian translations of Oe have been available for years. In France he is regarded with great respect, and a clutch of his works are available (Gallimard). Only in English is he relatively unknown.

Paul Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama's translation of Kenzaburo Oe's first novel will be published by Marion Boyars in early 1995 as 'Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids'.