Snow, County and the Wildness of Words

May 17th, 2013By Category: Teaching in Japan

Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968, mostly as a result of his novel, Snow Country. Called Yukiguni in Japanese, it is the subtly portrayed account of a businessman who visits a hot spring town in winter and his relationships with a popular geisha there and a girl he sees on a train.

Although the specific place is unnamed, it is suspected to be Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture – it really could be any place in Tokoku, however, as “snow country” in Japanese likewise refers to areas of Japan that receive heavy snowfall. The book reads like an extended haiku, and in this fashion, its sentences are stark and poignant, loaded with imagery of nature. The climax of the book, for example, builds so softly and occurs so innocently that if you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss it altogether. Snow Country is thus an excellent example of all that is great about Japanese literary traditions – its subtlety and slow build, its concept of the fated-ness of things – and indeed deserves the acclaim and prestigious position it has among Japanese people.

Photo by Jessica Fast

Photo by Jessica Fast

A favorite question used by students and also in introductory conversations I have with Japanese people is “What is your hobby?” In response, I usually say reading. This answer is fine, except when their follow-up question is “Who is your favorite author,” a much more difficult query since I can bet they have never heard of any of my favorite authors. I’ve gotten around the problem by explaining my interest in Japanese literature, and then listing famous Japanese books I’ve read. The first, most famous of these is Snow Country.

Knowledge of the book runs deeply in the cultural psyche. I have a group of ninensei (second-year) boys at one of my schools that I spent a lot of time with. They all speak and understand English quite well and often drop by the teacher’s room after class to talk to me (the other English teachers call them my “fan club”). Recently, the topic of Japanese literature came up, and I told them that I had really enjoyed Snow Country. Almost in unison, the four of them quoted the opening line of the book to me in Japanese – 国境の長いトンネルを抜けると、雪国であった. They told me it was very famous, and that most Japanese know it by heart, as they did, even though they hadn’t ever read the book, much like we would know “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” even though not everyone who can recite the line has read A Tale of Two Cities.

I asked my students to translate the words into English for me, which they did, and that alone was impressive, to have four 17-year old instantaneous literary translators standing in front of me. What I found most interesting, though, was their interpretation was not exactly as I had remembered the opening line sounding.

When I got home, I looked it up in my copy of the book.

In a translation by Seidensticker, the opening line reads :
The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.
The boys’ version, however, had been something more like :
I went through the long tunnel and on the other side saw the snow country.

This difference in subject makes more sense in terms of how the Japanese language is structured. Often omitting subjects, the doers of actions, Japanese tends towards passive structures and blameless events without agency. Things just happen. This obviously differs in English, which needs a subject and prefers structures that identify the subject. It is one of the (many) reasons it can be difficult to put Japanese and English in terms of the other. Whole ways of expressing action and agency change, and the implications of meaning change in tandem.

These two versions evoke very different images of the scene. Since I had this conversation with my students, a friend sent me the link to a forum discussing this very issue, since, apparently, the perhaps “faulty” translation of the first line of Snow Country is a bit of a controversy. And this isn’t the first time this kind of discrepancy between expert translators and what Japanese people themselves tell me has come up. My supervisor gave me an English copy of the short story “The Salamander,” by Masuji Ibuse, but she told me that the final lines in Japanese read very differently than the translation – to such a degree that it altered the way the entire story could be interpreted.

This leaves me wondering if such as a thing as a non-faulty translation (of anything) is possible. I’ve been reading translations of famous books for years, but this is the first time I’ve been able to experience “real-time” translators, so to speak, and the differences have been more pronounced than I would have expected. With my own nearly daily attempts at translating my thoughts into Japanese, these experiences have done much to show me the elusive nature of language, of the nuances of changing between languages, how far it can be from a point-by-point transformation, and how there is vast grey area in any such endeavor. I’d never given much thought to how my beloved books went from being in one language to being in another, but in light of the sophisticated attempts of high schoolers to do what I am not able to do myself, but need experts to do for me, I can appreciate more the subtlety of it all, and, by their very nature, the wildness of words.

Author of this article

Jessica Fast

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  • leslie nguyen says:

    Translations can be nice, but I mean sometimes they take away from the original works made in whatever language it is. Interesting story rather. I’d like to read it for myself.


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