Literature and HSS of Japan: placing translation at the core of a virtuous globalization?

Article by CĂ©cile Sakai

Keywords: Translation, Japan, Literature, Social and Human Sciences, Globalization

The considerable evolution that literary translation has undergone since the end of the 19th century contrasts with persistent difficulties in the field of translation of human and social sciences. How, why and what are the avenues to be explored? In order to understand the issues concerned by this disparity, it is obviously necessary to broaden the reflection to include the whole in a network of bilateral and circular relations.

Translation as a transformative process – the example of mangas

As Roger Chartier points out in his recent book, Éditer et traduire: "Translation and its opposite, the untranslatable, have become essential themes in the history of philosophy and literature, in sociology and cultural history. The reasons for this interest are both historical and methodological. The study of translations, which were one of the first modalities of the professionalization of writing, is an essential instrument of literary geography as well as of connected histories. It allows us to dissipate the anachronistic illusions that forget the great inequality between the translated languages and the languages that translate. " (p. 14-15).

Since the 2000s, and thanks to the renewal of theoretical approaches, "translation" has become a major topic in human and social sciences. Through post-Saïd postcolonial research, in the political critique of a universalist vision, in the resistance to the violence of the exclusive language of scientific (communication) “Globish”, or, on another level, in the acceleration of automatic translation technologies, many works are renewing the field. And some editorial phenomena illustrate these developments.

Therefore, the translation of manga - which we will not present here - has experienced an unprecedented boom over the last three decades and has been particularly strengthened by this last year of pandemic. The June 2021 issue of the professional magazine Livres Hebdo headlined: "Mangas: the great euphoria", indicating that between 2013 and 2020, the market had grown by 80%, and by another 80% in the first quarter of 2021, compared to 2020. Moreover, the annual report on French translations, published by Livres Hebdo in the spring, confirms this trend: for 2020, after English, which covers 58% of the sector, it is Japanese that is in second place (for the past ten years) with 15.4% of translated titles, leaving behind Italian and German, both at 4.7% of the market, followed by Spanish at 3.4%, and the other languages much further behind.

Does this mean that the Japanese influence has become dominant? The answer is affirmative in the precise and limited field of comics, a group of several genres of cultural expression that combine text and image. These are indeed structural effects on the 9th Art, which demonstrate that translation is not only a means of dissemination, but also a tool of transformation with transnational scope. See the manhwa, manhua, manfra... In 2018, wasn't Radiant, a French manga (manfra) by Tony Valente, directly published in Japan and successfully adapted into an anime TV series?

Mediathèque Bayeux

figure 1: Manga section at the media library in Bayeux Les 7 Lieux
© Source: Wikimedia Commons / ActuaLitté, 2019

Japanese literature in France - from exoticism to alternative culture

We can distinguish four phases in the historical evolution of Japanese Literature in France.

From 1871, when Anthologie japonaise, poésies anciennes et modernes des insulaires du Nippon, translated by Léon de Rosny, holder of the first chair of Japanese studies at the Ecole impériale des langues orientales vivantes (later INALCO), was published, Japanese works were gradually introduced into French, at the slow rate of two or three titles per year on average - even though Japonism was in vogue in the Western arts. A paradox that would last until the 1960s. A second period then opened: on the one hand, the main publishers began the systematic presentation of the great authors of the 20th century, mainly Tanizaki, Kawabata and then Mishima, convinced of their aesthetic singularity. On the other hand, it was at the university that classical literature was widely translated by René Sieffert, going beyond the circle of initiates. This is how the Tale of Genji, a masterpiece of the 11th century, but also the haikus of Bashô, or a good part of Noh, bunraku and kabuki theaters became accessible. This dynamic of international recognition was marked by the first Nobel Prize for a Japanese writer: Kawabata Yasunari in 1968. A third phase began in the mid-1980s, with the multiplication of publishers and translators committed to the dissemination of Japanese literature towards a diversified readership. The period is marked by a convergence of interests: Japan, then the second economic power, arouses cultural curiosity to which it responds by financing various soft power networks, while on the receiving end, people want to distance from traditional paradigms to discover the contemporary world.

Anthologie japonaise

figure 2: Anthologie japonaise : poésies anciennes et modernes des insulaires du Nippon,
translated and published with the original text by LĂ©on de Rosny, Maisonneuve et Cie, 1871
© Source: / BnF

The leading work is represented by Murakami Haruki, who began to be translated in France in 1990, and whose several titles, notably Kafka on the Shore (2002), are best-sellers here (Belfond, 2006). In the meantime, the second Nobel Prize was awarded in 1994 to Ôe Kenzaburô, a great intellectual and critical figure who closes this chapter. Finally, during the fourth phase, multiplication becomes fragmentation and segmentation, in line with contemporary Japanese production, between detective novels and “feel good books”, many of which being written by women authors - another notable phenomenon in Japanese literature. Manga dominate the translation market, but they also give to this cultural scene unprecedented visibility.

Japanese HSS: a barrier and its interstices

In contrast with literary translations, the history of Japanese HSS in translation is quite poor. Clearly, and despite many efforts, no real dynamics have emerged. Alain Delissen explains the general context in "La patience de l'Autre : Asie, sciences sociales, traduction", a contribution to the outstanding issue "Traduire et introduire les sciences sociales d'Asie orientale" of the journal Tracés, 2017. A bibliography limited to Japan nevertheless allows us to distinguish here two major sequences: the first, since the 1950s, which concerns religions, philosophy or aesthetics, around paradigms whose first criterion is difference or, even, originality. One thinks of the translations of Zen treatises, the theories of place (ba) or interval (ma). The second sequence, since the 1990s, has been the involvement of academics in making known the work of Japanese specialists in the main fields of history, sociology, psychology and law. But the circulation remains narrow, confined to specialized journals (Ebisu, Cipango, special issues of Annales, Critique...) and to committed publishers (Picquier, Les Belles Lettres, CNRS éditions, etc.). Needless to say, the weakness of HSS publishing linked to the increasing volatility of its public also impacts the system.

But these two sequences come together in the search for another discourse, for otherness that allows decentering, and in the return of this detour through an enlarged vision of the world, whether it first concerns the human being and the context, or whether it subsequently concerns the development of HSS, in a zone of contact with other bases and reflective modalities. This is also the very place of the tension between Area Studies and Disciplinary Approaches. We must be careful not to caricature anything, however: Japanese sources are themselves permeated by plural formations including Western influences, so that singularity is never absolute. Decentralization has to be qualified.

Pour une autre littérature mondiale

figure 3: Book cover Pour une autre littérature mondiale : la traduction franco-japonaise en perspective,
edited by CĂ©cile Sakai and Nao Sawada, Philippe Picquier, 2021

A connected history of translation: for hybridity

This brief overview compares two developments that are incomparable in themselves, but that show commonalities in the search for an exoticism that has been transformed into defamiliarization. In order to better evaluate the positions occupied by the translations of Japanese works in France, this scale of values must itself be compared with its reciprocal, i.e. the history of Japanese reception of French works in all categories, understood under the regime of Western symbolic domination as models - gradually assimilated, giving rise to multiple hybrid counter-proposals, therefore original and likely to be modeled in their turn. This trajectory between France and Japan can be extended to the whole of the power relations, roughly between Europe, former empire, America, dominating the 20th century, and the Asian region, which is no longer at periphery, but the new arena of power conquest. Translation plays an essential role in this necessarily asymmetrical circulation, which draws its dynamics from the very tensions it creates.

As a transformative force, translation is central to a more hybrid and equitable future of multilingual cultures and knowledge. It therefore needs to be valued as a scientific, essential and ethical activity. Or, at least, this would be the political objective to pursue in the framework of a plural globalization that we must make virtuous.

CĂ©cile Sakai, Professor, UFR LCAO, University of Paris, and CRCAO (UMR 8155).

Short Bibliography

Casanova Pascale, La langue mondiale. Traduction et domination, Seuil, 2015.

Cassin, Barbara, Éloge de la traduction – Compliquer l’universel, coll. Ouvertures, Fayard, 2016.

Chartier, Roger, Éditer et traduire – Mobilité et matérialité des textes (XVIème-XVIIIème siècles), coll. Hautes Études, Seuil, 2021.

Coll., Histoire des Traductions en Langue Française (HTLF), XVème-XXème siècles en 4 volumes, Verdier, 2012-2019.

Sakai, Cécile et Sawada, Nao (co-dir.), Pour une autre littérature mondiale – la traduction franco-japonaise en perspective, Arles, Picquier, 2021.

Sapiro, Gisèle (dir.), Translatio – le marché de la traduction en France à l’heure de la mondialisation, CNRS éditions, 2008.

Tracés. Revue de sciences humaines «Traduire et introduire les sciences sociales d’Asie Orientale», Olivier Allard et Christelle Rabier (co-dir.), Hors Série, 2017. (OpenEdition)

Convention de l'animation de l'EPITA 2009 - Stand magas
July 2021
CĂ©cile Sakai
Professor, UFR LCAO, University of Paris, and CRCAO (UMR 8155)