Translating Ryotaro Shiba's "Saka no ue no kumo" (Clouds above the Hill)

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2014/01/14 Column

Translating Ryotaro Shiba's "Saka no ue no kumo" (Clouds above the Hill)

by Paul McCarthy

Ryotaro Shiba has been called a kokuminteki sakka (a truly national writer) by many people, including my friend Fumihiko Katayama, chief priest of the Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku, Tokyo, near where I live. Many people I know personally have shown more interest in and enthusiasm for the project of translating Shiba’s massive work of blended history and fiction than for my translations of authors like Jun’ichiro Tanizaki or Atsushi Nakajima, who are better known and more highly esteemed in the West as practitioners of jun-bungaku ("pure literature"). The reason is not far to seek: Shiba’s works are accessible in terms of language and style (as Nakajima’s works often are not) and deal with public events that often reflect well upon the Japanese as a nation (which could not be said of Tanizaki, for example). He has dealt with great historical figures such as the Buddhist saint Kukai and with periods of dramatic transition, such as the shift from the high feudal Tokugawa to the modernizing Meiji period. Naturally, great numbers of people are drawn to his rousing written accounts of larger-than-life characters, events, and periods.

Clouds above the Hill (Saka no ue no kumo) appeared in eight volumes in the most recent Japanese paperback edition, and we have translated these into English in four massive hardcover volumes, each approximately 400 pages long. No major cuts were made, although some passages of recapitulation have been omitted since the Western reader will be reading the work volume by volume, whereas the original text was serialized in a major Japanese newspaper. Japanese readers (like the language itself) are more tolerant of repetition than English-language readers are, so the recapitulative passages are included in the several Japanese editions; but an editorial decision was made by Phyllis Birnbaum and the three translators to omit them in English. There are also a good many digressions, usually introduced by the words Yodan da ga . . . ("To digress for a bit . . ."), but these are so meaty and often amusing that they were retained, so the "personal narrative" flavor of Shiba’s original can come through.

I spoke of three translators: the principal translator was Juliet Winters Carpenter of Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto, who did fully 50 percent of the work (the latter half of each of volumes 1 and 2 and the entirety of volume 3); I did the first half of each of volumes 1 and 2, totaling one quarter of the work; and Andrew Cobbing of the University of Nottingham in England did the whole of volume 4, again totaling one quarter of the work. We worked together well as a team, but when occasional differences of opinion arose, Phyllis Birnbaum as general editor had the final say. It was with regret that I saw the "O-"s of O-tama, O-yae, O-ritsu, et al. omitted, but that was the collective decision. Probably Professor Cobbing had to bear with some of the Americanisms that were inflicted on his style, since we decided to unify according to North American rubrics. With three different translators—one American, one Canadian/American, and one Briton—a unified style and unified conventions had to be cobbled together, with Phyllis Birnbaum as the master cobbler.

As for the content: the first volume covers the historical background of the shift from Tokugawa to Meiji, and the effects this had on Japan in general and on the samurai class in particular. Shiba declared that he would focus on two representative protagonists, the Akiyama brothers, Yoshifuru and Saneyuki. They came from a defeated domain, on the wrong side of the civil war that resulted in the Meiji Restoration, and both had to struggle to gain an education and find their way in the new order of things. With sensitivity and humor, Shiba traces their paths from rural and depressed Matsuyama in Shikoku, via Osaka and other provincial centers, to the new imperial capital of Tokyo. Yoshifuru at first aims to be a schoolteacher, and Saneyuki a man of letters. In the event, Yoshifuru becomes an army officer, later creating the army cavalry units that will best the Russian Cossacks on the plains of Manchuria, while Saneyuki joins the navy and, traveling abroad, acquires the skills that will enable him to assist Admiral Togo in defeating the Russian Baltic Fleet in the Tsushima Strait, between Japan and Korea.

Volume 2 focuses on the training and studies, both in Japan and abroad, of the two brothers and details the diplomatic maneuvering that went on between a chauvinist, expansionist Russian Empire, and the newly modernized Japan. Japanese imperialism/colonialism has a bad name, and it is largely deserved; but there were lights as well as shadows in the decades between the First Sino-Japanese War of the 1890s and the Second Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s, leading up to the Pacific War of the early 1940s. It is useful for the Western reader to see things from a Japanese perspective for a change, as Shiba’s work allows us to do.

It was a time of colonialism, with Britain, France, Holland, and America holding vast tracts of land and sea in Asia (India and Burma, Indochina, Indonesia, and the Philippines, respectively), and the Japanese saw no reason why their country, newly modernized and, after all, an Asian power, should not have colonial possessions as well. This led to the acquisition of Taiwan and other, smaller territories, and to a renewed interest in creating at least a sphere of influence on the Asian continent. Korea lost its independence as a result of this Japanese strategy, and the world didn’t seem to care, so well thought of were the Japanese politically and militarily after their defeat of Russia in 1904-1905. The creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo in the 1930s was a step much too far for the international community, and once Japan’s army made inroads into China proper (Shanghai, Beijing, and most notoriously Nanjing), the stage was set for world war. The West refused to acquiesce, and Japan refused to reverse course. The rest of the tragedy is too well known to bear repeating.

But Shiba’s last two volumes focus on the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 alone, a war which a very progressive Japanese friend of mine once called "the last war Japan could be proud of." Though I was not involved in this latter part of the project, I, like other readers, was stirred by accounts of army and especially cavalry actions in Manchuria, with Yoshifuru Akiyama very much in the lead, and of naval actions in the seas outside Port Arthur (then in Russian hands, but known to the Japanese as Ryojun and to the Chinese as Lushun) and, finally and decisively, in the Tsushima Strait, where Saneyuki’s tactics helped Admiral Togo destroy the Russian fleet. The stirring, detailed description of this naval battle is surely one of the high points of Clouds above the Hill

Even someone not particularly keen on military history cannot but be thrilled by these grand events, narrated with vivid detail, an underlying basic humanity, and even occasional flashes of wit and humor. If we, as foreign readers, are so taken up by the account, is it any wonder that a vast Japanese readership has enthusiastically devoured Shiba’s account of this war, which gained Japan so much, in terms of territory and international prestige? No nation wants to remember only shameful acts of aggression against weak neighbors, atrocity accounts, and the bitterness of defeat. Thus Clouds above the Hill’s popularity as a newspaper serial, in hard- and paperback editions in Japanese, and most recently as an NHK television series is not surprising.

It should also be remembered that, as Shiba points out, the Russo-Japanese War was a popular one from its very beginnings. Government and military leaders were extremely wary; but the general populace, urged on by newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun and by pro-war academics from the predecessor of the University of Tokyo, zealously beat the drums of war. (How ironic that is, given the later reputations of both the newspaper and the university as bastions of progressive, anti-war sentiment!) Shiba further notes that the general public misjudged the reasons for Japan’s victory, nurturing an irrational faith in the nation’s military. That in turn led to the hubris that resulted in the disastrous military adventurism of the 1930s and 1940s. Though the immediate effects of Japan’s successful war against Russia were beneficial in terms of prestige and territorial gains, its ideological and "spiritual" legacy turned out to be disastrous for Japan. In a final note to the last volume, Shiba remarks: "If defeat makes people reasonable, and victory makes them go mad, then victory and defeat in war, when seen over the course of a nation’s long history, can work in mysterious ways indeed."

It is hoped that our English translation will help an international readership to understand the reasons for this massive novel’s enduring popularity, and foster an awareness of the real ambiguities of war and peace, victory and defeat. And, on a more basic level, Clouds above the Hill is, above all, a "good read" that will provide its audience with many hours of interest and pleasure.  

The complex work of organizing the translation team and of financing not only the translators’ own work but also the essential assistance of experts in Russian and Chinese, and in military and naval matters; and the employment of dedicated "checkers," who went over the translation in its various stages virtually line by line, comparing it with the original—all of this work, extending over some four years, was directed and given unstinting financial support by Mr. Sumio Saito of Japan Documents. He was, in a very real sense, the translation project’s "only begetter," its progenitor.

Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War
by Ryotaro Shiba
Routledge, 2013
Edited by Phyllis Birnbaum
Translated by Paul McCarthy (Vol. 1, part 1; Vol. 2, part 1), Juliet Winters Carpenter (Vol. 1, part 2; Vol. 2, part 2; Vol. 3), and Andrew Cobbing (Vol. 4)
ISBNs: Vol. 1: 978-0415508766; Vol. 2: 978-0415508841; Vol. 3: 978-0415508872; Vol. 4: 978-0415508896     

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Paul McCarthy earned his PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University in 1975. He has taught at the Universities of Kansas and Minnesota, and at Rikkyo and Surugadai Universities in Japan. Among his translations are Jun'ichiro Tanizaki’s Childhood Years, The Gourmet Club, and A Cat, a Man, and Two Women; Atsushi Nakajima’s The Moon over the Mountain; and Mieko Kanai’s The Word Book.