Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2019
224 pp. Paper, $22.95
Translation is always a tricky business, especially when it involves the folk tales, legends, and ghost stories that come from a rich oral tradition. Add to this the broader, wrenching historical transition that industrialization brings, which the translator’s country has already capitalized on, but which the country from which his material comes is just approaching. The disjunctions here can raise issues, not only in terms of what to translate and in what style but also, perhaps more importantly, from where to do the work.
For Lafcadio Hearn, translation is not only a literary act. And the resolution he finds to the issues mentioned above is quite personal, so thorough an immersion into the land and culture he writes about as to become its citizen -- and, later, in recognition of his work, a national treasure. The land is Japan at the end of the nineteenth century and the place, Matsue, then a rural town on the southwest coast, stepped in feudal ways, three-hundred plus miles from Tokyo. Here Hearn settles down for a period, marrying into a noble but poor family, and teaches English at a local middle school. In 1896, he becomes a Japanese citizen and takes the name, Yakumo Koizumi. The latter, the family name, which Hearn must adopt to ensure his legal standing, means “little spring.” The former, the name Hearn chooses for himself, means “eight clouds”; a compound of the first words from an ancient Japanese poem.
One of American’s most noted writers at the time finds in Matsue a traditional way of life that suits him perfectly and the quality of content that inspires the final decade or so of his literary work. I mentioned his wife, Setsu. It is from her storehouse of folk tales, legends, and ghost stories that Hearn largely composes the books we most know him for. Having learned enough Japanese to do so, Hearn transcribes the tales as Setsu tells them. Then he revises them in a style pitched to the character of his new home, its Shinto roots and Buddhist currency. Hearn’s clean, clear prose -- an antidote to the Victorian or fin du siècle exoticism that American and European writers favored -- is one reason that these tales resonate a century plus on. The other reason is their content: the transformations they depict, usually supernatural, and the emotional conflicts that undergird them; the surprises they carry, many with dreamlike intensity; and the wisdom Hearn’s characters gain, whether peasant, priest, warrior or from the nobility.
From a young woman weeping bitterly by a moat for the face she has lost, a painting that comes alive and which the artist escapes into never to return, travelers whose heads separate from their bodies at night to sport about in forest revelry, the induction of a man into the lavish court of the king of ants where he lives in splendor, heir to the throne, to the warm, spectral presence of an abandoned wife that the husband returns to years later, sudden encounters with flesh-eating ghouls, and so much more, Hearn evokes a venerable land -- ever present for him, and through his translations us.
Fronted by an authoritative introduction by Andrei Codrescu, these Japanese tales revive, once again, a writer, traveler, and translator whose presence at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries enrich and engage still. Lafcadio Hearn is a singular presence in the canon led by the name he responded to in Japan, Yakumo Koizumi -- the eight clouds that nourish the little spring.