Nathan Allan Collins Line

By Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
Translated into English by Nathan Collins
Introduction (Page 2)

Even in his later, more abstract and introspective works, Akutagawa wrote with a precise, almost sparse narrative. Reading one of his short stories, one is faced with a sense that there isn't a single wasted word. Akutagawa was an artist and a craftsman, and his meticulous writing style makes for a unique experience in translation with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Due to a heavy influence from Western literature, Akutagawa's work holds a certain familiarity to a Western reader. Even his most complex sentences have a logical construction, and the most obscure vocabulary (a specific type of hat worn a thousand years previous, for example) is chosen for a very specific effect, leaving, once understood by the translator, little room for guesswork and error. On the other hand, the care given to each word in the original Japanese text demands a similar care in the translation, and even still, much of the original effect is lost.

One of the early issues I faced in translating Rashōmon serves as a good example of such trouble. The nameless main character is referred to as genin (下人), which has a wide range of meaning in the native Japanese. Literally "lower person", it can mean a menial worker, a servant of some sort, a peasant--generally any lower-class citizen. As the story progresses, however, the man's background is slowly revealed--first a mention of dismissal by a feudal lord, then a glimpse of his now tattered robe and wooden-hilted long sword worn at the hip, and an inner monologue illustrating his strong moral compass, all hinting at his stature within the world of genin. I chose the similarly vague "servant" as my translation in hopes of a similar result.

Other issues arose from the admittedly ad hoc nature of this translation. Not knowing any better at the time, and faced with a lot of vocabulary unfamiliar to my third-year-Japanese self, I worked sentence-by-sentence, striving to write down every bit of meaning I could find. This left many translation issues, such as the genin problem above, unresolved until further into the piece, creating many inconsistencies in tone and vocabulary throughout the work in many of the drafts. A severe case of this issue involved another semi-ambiguous word, hashigo (梯子). Hashigo is generally used to indicate a ladder, and I first thought that's what it was. But from descriptions of how wide it was I began to think it was a staircase. Later, as the servant carefully climbs it, I reevaluated it as a ladder, and further still I began to think it was a staircase again. Surely these are issues best settled long before a draft is complete, and I hold this as the most important lesson from this project. When undertaking a serious translation, know the work first. A certain degree of understanding should be required before any translation is begun. It sounds like a simple concept, but it requires a degree of restraint that I was lacking when starting this translation over a year ago.

I chose to translate Rashōmon after studying A Fool's Life in a translation class. Having finished that, I was looking for something to translate on my own, and thought I could keep some continuity by translating another of Akutagawa's works. Rashōmon stood out in particular as his most famous work. This ended up having several benefits--as it is still widely read in Japanese schools, there were many resources available for Japanese students, and I was able to find many different editions of the text, some with additional help for reading the harder words. Unfortunately, being the most famous work of one of Japan's most famous authors, it has been translated into English several times, although I did not use any as a reference. Reading and translating this story has certainly been rewarding, and I hope my version can stand up on its own as a fresh look at the classic Japanese morality tale, Rashōmon.

Next Page

Introduction 1 2 | Main Text 1 2 3 4 5