A fascinating 1965 Robert Trumbull interview with Yukio Mishima (for some reason it’s odd to see him described as “a humorous and youthful man of 40”):

Mr. Mishima always writes in Japanese and never changes a translation. “The translator asks me thousands of questions,” he said, “but I don’t mind small mistakes.” He was amused, not angry, when the translator of an earlier novel rendered the word “yatsuhashi” as “eighth bridge,” which is a perfectly correct alternate reading of the characters that the author intended to mean a kind of cake sold in Kyoto. “The translator really had to struggle with that sentence to have it make sense with a bridge in it,” he said, chuckling.

“It is most important that the translator have a gift of expression in English and Japanese shouldn’t try it,” Mr. Mishima continued. “They read like an English-speaker writing in Japanese. Donald Keene [one of Mr. Mishima’s several translators] is the only American I know of who writes well in Japanese.” He also thinks that John Nathan, a young American and a student of Japanese literature at Tokyo University, did a superb job of writing English in his translation of “The Sailor.” …

“I use a Japanese dictionary to check the accuracy of my characters. They can be incredibly complex.” He dashed off the character for Mount Hiei, a favorite resort near Kyoto, which took 16 separate strokes of the pen. Some have as many as 33 strokes, all conveying nuances of the whole “picture” of the word. “No dictionary contains all the Kanji there are. The first and second proofs often come back with a mark called a geta, because it looks like the imprint of a geta, the Japanese wooden clog, in place of a character that the printer has had to order specially made. He always has it for the third proof,” he said.

Via Matt at No-sword, where you can see an actual geta symbol; his Néojaponisme article “Kawabata, Mishima & the Nobel Prize” is also well worth your attention.


  1. “I have a bridge for you to translate” kind of sounds nicer than “I have a bridge to sell to you.” Although lesser authors would likely not manage to get a chuckle of seeing the meaning of a sentence wrapped around a bridge in a fatal linguistic accident.

  2. It’s interesting that The Sea of Fertility has not enjoyed the same popularity as Mishima’s other books in non-English-speaking markets. While Romanian can now boast good translations of “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, “After the Banquet”, and “The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea” for example, a friend I recommend the books to had to choose between reading it in French and English. The situation is, AFAIK, the same for Finnish, Swedish and Russian.
    Either publishers can’t drum up the resources to translate and publish a tetrology, or this work just isn’t seen as important.

  3. That sameness of the situation does not apply to German, however.

  4. The way I write it, “Mount Hiei” has about 18 strokes in English. That alphabet–so complex!

  5. I wonder how Mr. Trumbull, head of the Times Tokyo bureau, managed to miss such obvious mistakes as calling furigana “furikana”, or saying that hiragana was used for foreign words.
    Nevertheless, it’s a nice glimpse on what a beautiful language Japanese is for literature.

  6. The hiragana one sure looks like an editing error, since the very next sentence has him writing “New York Times” in katakana.

  7. David Marjanović says

    The way I write it, “Mount Hiei” has about 18 strokes in English. That alphabet–so complex!

    The way I write it, it has four strokes: “Mount” is one stroke, “Hıeı” is one stroke, and the i dots are one stroke each. I’ve never understood why anyone in their right mind writes printed letters (Druckschrift) by hand, instead of writing, well, handwriting (Schreibschrift).
    (And no, I was not taught to cross my t’s. Instead they have a loop near the bottom.)

  8. Ha! Step aside, for I can write it with only one stroke!
    (Takes up brush and draws zig-zag representing Mt Hiei.)
    [At this point it would be appropriate for the head priest to strike me on the head and leave the room without a word, upon which I would become enlightened.]

  9. 比叡山: It’s so thick with strokes, you can hardly see how many there are.
    And Nama Yatsuhashi (生八つ橋) is one of my favourite traditional Japanese sweets!

  10. Also, if I remember, the translator of the Golden Pavilion translated the word フルンケル as ‘flunkel’. That should have been ‘furuncle’. フルンケル was originally borrowed from the German.
    Of course, the translator could have been trying to render in English terms how incomprehensible the exotic katakana expression ‘hurunkeru’ was to the narrator of the story….. but it doesn’t seem a very good way of doing it. It only leaves the reader wondering what the hell a ‘flunkel’ could be.

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