15 July 2009

Stairway to hell: Two translations of “Rashōmon”

In my previous notes on Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s Rashōmon and Other Stories (translated by Takashi Kojima and published in 1952 by Charles E. Tuttle Company), I mentioned that there is a more comprehensive anthology of Akutagawa’s works, the 2006 Penguin edition that is translated by Jay Rubin.

Some three or four anthologies of Akutagawa’s stories have appeared throughout the years, but the Rubin translation is considered the most comprehensive as the 18 stories in that collection are grouped according to themes and periods of the Japanese author’s writings. For example, the late literary period of Akutagawa, which is considered autobiographical, is not represented in the Kojima translation, which gathers only half a dozen stories.

As to the faithfulness to the original of Kojima’s English translation, I don’t know. Having no knowledge of the source language, one goes by the approximations and compositional choices of the translator. But here are two comparisons, from the title story “Rashōmon” (1915), between Kojima's and Rubin's versions, respectively:

A. Kojima (1952)

“The rain, enveloping the Rashōmon, gathered strength and came down with a pelting sound that could be heard far away. Looking up, he saw a fat black cloud impale itself on the tips of the tiles jutting out from the roof of the gate.

“He had little choice of means, whether fair or foul, because of his helpless circumstances. If he chose honest means, he would undoubtedly starve to death beside the wall or in the Sujaku gutter. He would be brought to this gate and thrown away like a stray dog. If he decided to steal … His mind, after making the same detour time and again, came finally to the conclusion that he would be a thief.”

A. Rubin (2006)

“The rain carried a host of roaring sounds from afar as it came to envelop Rashōmon. The evening darkness brought the sky ever lower until the roof of the gate was supporting dark, heavy clouds on the ridge of its jutting tiles.

“To do something when there was nothing to be done, he would have to be prepared to do anything at all. If he hesitated, he would end up starving to death against an earthen wall or in the roadside dirt. Then he would simply be carried back to this gate and discarded upstairs like a dog. But if he was ready to do anything at all—

“His thoughts wandered the same path again and again, always arriving at the same destination. But no matter how much time passed, the “if” remained an “if.” Even as he told himself he was prepared to do anything at all, he could not find the courage for the obvious conclusion of that “if”: All I can do is become a thief.”

B. Kojima (1952)

“As quietly as a lizard, the servant crept up to the top of the steep stairs. Crouching on all fours, and stretching his neck as far as possible, he timidly peeped into the tower.

“As rumor had said, he found several corpses strewn carelessly about the floor. Since the glow of the light was feeble, he could not count the number. He could only see that some were naked and others clothed. Some of them were women, and all were lolling on the floor with their mouths open or their arms outstretched showing no more signs of life than so many clay dolls. One would doubt that they had ever been alive, so eternally silent they were. Their shoulders, breasts, and torsos stood out in the dim light; other parts vanished in shadow. …”

B. Rubin (2006)

“With all the stealth of a lizard, the servant crept to the top tread of the steep stairway. Then, hunching down and stretching out his neck as much as possible, he peered fearfully into the upper chamber.

“There he saw a number of carelessly discarded corpses, as the rumors had said, but he could not tell how many because the lighted area was far smaller than he had thought it would be. All he could see in the dim light was what some of the corpses were naked while others were clothed. Women and men seemed to be tangled together. It was hard to believe that all of them had once been living human beings, so much did they look like clay dolls, lying there with arms flung out and mouths wide open, eternally mute. Shoulders and chests and other such prominent parts caught the dim light, casting still deeper shadows on the parts lower down.”

The world of difference between the two versions is enough for the reader to question the artificiality of construction in translations. You can judge for yourself. But for me, one criterion to evaluate them is to determine which better preserved the “comedy” of the situation, whether or not it is meant to be humorous. In that respect, and based on the excerpts above, I lean toward the choices of the first translator, even if there are some editorial decisions on the part of Kojima that condensed some of the passages.

In the first instance, the image of a “fat black cloud” being “impaled on the tips” of jutting tiles looks the more sinister and grotesque than “dark, heavy clouds” being “supported on the ridge” of the jutting tiles. In the second comparison, a neck stretched “as far as possible” is somehow quirkier than a neck stretched out “as much as possible.” In “as far as possible,” it is as if the neck is elastic and can hover closer to what it is trying to recognize in the dark.

I’m not sure either which is the more literal translation, but Kojima’s bring a more surprising take on the pathos of the corpses “lolling on the floor” like clay dolls than Rubin’s corpses “tangled together.” And Kojima executes a punchier line with this: “One would doubt that they had ever been alive, so eternally silent they were.” Now who can top the absurdity of that sentence?

Rubin’s anthology of eighteen stories may have been the more comprehensive in terms of the quantity and scope of selection. But I find that, at least in the story of “Rashōmon” in English, it isn’t the more jaunty adaptation. I prefer Kojima’s English which exhibits better compositional choices, wit, and deadpan (pun intended) humor. Several more side by side comparisons of the passages of the two translators will allow us to spot other revealing choices of words and contexts.

Does it mean that Kojima’s version is superior to Rubin’s? I don’t know. But I think it is the version that will make Akutagawa turn more listless in his grave.

(Image from a detail of the front cover of Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006). Illustration by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.)


  1. Hello, Rise! I just love this short story. I read it back in college where I had the good fortune to have Neil Garcia as my lit prof.

  2. Me, too, Peter. I'm lucky to have discovered a new favorite author. *_*

  3. parang mas maganda nga ung kay Kojima! I will borrow na nga from the library the Akutagawa stories... i've been snubbing it for a long time now (I've been choosing novels kasi).

  4. @Jm—Thanks for the invitation. I will check out your site.

  5. @Miss F—Yes, you do that, check out Akutagawa. I consider his stories “novelistic.” Thanks for taking the time to read the above. I’ll add your blog among those I followed.