Argentine Hag (2002)

There’s one other novel by Banana that’s been published in English, although this is so scarce as to almost not count.  Her 2002 novel Aruzenchin babā アルゼンチンババア was translated by Sawa Fumiya 澤文也 as Argentine Hag.  I don’t know anything about Sawa except that he studied at SOAS;  that probably explains the Britishisms that pepper this translation;  that’s fine.

This was the third of Yoshimoto’s highly-visible collaborations with Nara Yoshitomo.  I suspect it’s the most elaborate (Hard-boiled was just a normal hardback with some illustrations) but I haven’t seen the original/deluxe edition of the second yet, Hinagiku no jinsei ひな菊の人生.  I understand it’s pretty serious.

This one, if you get the deluxe hardback, is a pretty serious production.  Nara contributes illustrations and/or photographs for nearly every single page, and the whole thing is presented in a very sturdy case.  Impressive.  And part of this package is that the story is presented bilingually with a facing-page English translation by Sawa.

With all these fireworks, one might reasonably expect the story itself to be the least of the attractions, but in fact the Banana rises to the occasion.  The story starts out as Typical Yoshimoto Plot #1-C, “girl narrator loses mother, bonds with father, forms atypical family unit.”  That is, the narrator’s mother dies, and her father takes up with the local cat lady, an old lady in town who used to teach tango (this is only a few years after Shall We Dance, remember) and who, partly as a result of this, is nicknamed the Argentine Hag, living in the Argentine Building.  (Like Happy Together, this really doesn’t have all that much to do with Argentina itself.)  Narrator is freaked out at first, but comes to discover that said Hag is actually a really interesting, engaging, and spiritually uplifting person.  Epiphany.

But it’s handled extremely well this time.  Yoshimoto combines these familiar elements with some of her late-‘90s interest in spirituality, and unlike in Amrita the results here are quite fascinating.  The father, an ex-stonemason who had specialized in tombstones, moves in with the Hag and becomes fascinated by mandalas, eventually constructing a huge one on the roof of the Argentine Building.  With the Hag represented as the center of the universe.  This motif resonates beautifully with Nara’s art, which doesn’t use any mandala motifs per se, but which includes not only his usual pouty girls but also semi-abstract photos of plants, starry skies, luminously mundane suburbscapes, etc., enough to make you feel like you’re getting, in bits and pieces, a mandala of sorts…

So the story is worthy of the presentation, and the presentation enhances the story.  The design of the book is very careful in this regard to make sure that images match up with the text;  colored type and colored paper are also employed to give you the feeling that each page is its own world, its own new experience.

Which raises the question, however, of:  why the English?  I don’t believe this was designed for export.  It was probably available in a few museum shops or boutiques in Portland or Williamsburg, but even then I suspect the thing was meant to be experienced as an objet, rather than as a story.  I say this because the care that was put into making sure the text and the images match up was only given to the Japanese text, not the facing English translation, which typically lags two or three pages behind the Japanese.  If all you’re reading is the English, the careful balance is utterly destroyed, and you may find yourself wondering how indeed the images are meant to relate to the text.

More importantly for my purposes, the translation is mediocre at best.  It’s fairly accurate, in that it’s clear that the translator understood the original Japanese – since the translator is a native speaker, that’s to be expected.  What he lacks is much sense of colloquial English – even though a few Britishisms are thrown in to suggests naturalness, the prose still feels stiff and textbookish.  And, furthermore, doesn’t pay much attention to paragraph breaks in the original.  It reads, in other words, like a translation that was prepared as part of a package aimed at Japanese readers, not English readers.  It’s a translation to be looked at, not read.