An interview with Toh EnJoe

Sayuri Okamoto

Photograph by Kodansha

Toh EnJoe's stories are known for their scientific lucidity and literary impenetrability. His language and his writing style, however, belie his background as a physicist: topics woven into his stories include science, but also linguistics, literary theory, and philosophical approaches to the imagination. His complicated narrative structures are the subject of heated discussions and have even evoked harsh reviews calling his work 'indigestible', 'sleep-inducing,' and 'reader-unfriendly'.

Harlequin's Butterfly, which eventually won the 2012 Akutagawa Prize after a long, vehement argument among the judges, is also hard to digest. The novel explores, among other things, issues of translation and how to put imagination into practical forms. A critic admitted that she tried twice to read it and fell asleep both times, whereupon the book was jokingly labeled as a 'Best Read When You Can't Sleep', a reference to one of the book titles in the story.

Negative comments notwithstanding, few critics would disagree that EnJoe's works tend to stick in readers' minds, often leaving the reader (who has fallen overboard his luxury cruise ship, say—another reference to the section excerpted in this very issue) in a sea of self-questioning.

The comments of Yoko Ogawa, one of the Akutagawa Prize judges, were in a similar self-doubting spirit: "Even if the language I use could only be understood by myself, would I still write a story? The pattern that emerges in the end, to my eyes, is this very important question." Another judge, Masahiko Shimada, more specifically said that the novel was on the one hand a requiem to the whims and ideas that come to us in dreams (and are thereafter ever lost), and on the other hand a great work of value-for-money entertainment.

Granted the opportunity of an interview, I started out from one of EnJoe's key themes: translation while simultaneously developing her own line of questioning: regarding the 'to whom' and 'how' of articulation, storytelling, and translation.

—Sayuri Okamoto

ASYMPTOTE: Could you introduce yourself in uninflected Latin or in its Japanese translation, please?

Toh EnJoe: Heus!
...sorry, Japanese is all I've got, really.

ASYMPTOTE: The opening chapter of Harlequin's Butterfly (excerpted in the Jan 2013 issue of Asymptote) is supposed to be a Japanese translation of 'Best Read Under a Cat', written in the simplified language Latino sine flexione, which was invented in 1903. Did you refer to any works in this language while composing this chapter?

TE: No, I just looked briefly at a summary. I don't even know much about orthodox Latin to begin with. At my level of the language, I can't point out the awkwardness of a text in Latino sine flexione compared to the same text written in Latin, though I'd be able to tell the difference between texts in Basic English and English. I guess the Latin of a novice learner who doesn't perfectly memorize inflections would somewhat resemble Latino sine flexione.

I believe there aren't many Japanese translations from artificial languages. So if asked what my references were, I would name my own non-mothertongues: bits and pieces of foreign languages.

ASYMPTOTE: What about translated literary works in general? And how would you describe the characteristics of the 'imported' literature you read in Japanese?

TE: To begin with, the Japanese I write tends to be a bit odd, and it's simply because I've read more translated literature and scientific essays than Japanese literature. I'm aware that my style or tone seems, as it were, a Japanese translation of scientific textbooks written originally in English. I'm familiar with, and feel sympathy for, the style of translated literature, whereas so called 'natural Japanese' seems far from me.

For instance, I'm aware of my language in this interview being very much like a 'translation', though it might be because I'm writing, not speaking, these words; but this is anyway not intentional. Whenever I write, my writings naturally tend to resemble translations. In this sense, you might say the first chapter of Harlequin's Butterfly is written in my most natural, relaxed manner.

As for the feature of translated works, I think it's their heterogeneity, their otherness. They make me feel as if I'm listening to someone speaking in another person's voice, and that the second person who is supposed to be behind the speaker is blurry, as if I'm buzzed...

ASYMPTOTE: What about the characteristics of 'exported' literature?

TE: In the first place, not that many Japanese novels are exported and translated, especially works of the 21st century.

I can imagine several reasons for this, but I am conscious of, and a bit worried about, the fact that we've had few novels produced for the aim of export. The idea of aiming at foreign markets has long been regarded as wrong or taboo, but the virtue of 'aiming at nothing' was thought of too much in our literary tradition. Like it or not, this is a certain feature of Japanese literature, but we don't need to be too reserved, given that we aren't all Zen Buddhist monks.

One characteristic of Japanese literature in general is, in a word, 'weakness'. A lot of it is written on manners, rules, language within the community, and it's inward looking. It's rich internally, but I suspect it's somewhat difficult to look at  from the outside and find it attractive.

ASYMPTOTE: You've written on themes which are not confined to any one country, and your language is, despite the complexity of its themes, comparatively direct, which makes translation easier. Given these features, how would you divine the future of the 'export' of your own works?

TE: I've written un-local novels, which can also mean they are 'strange' even for local readers. It's because of my character, and I think I have to take a chance on 'export' for the sake of my life as a writer. As the saying goes, some prefer nettles, and my work will only attract a relatively small number of readers: I think a few thousand readers in each country, at most. So I have to choose either writing easy-to-digest works to attract local readers more, or translating the un-local pieces for those few thousands in other countries. The ability to enjoy strange things is not given to all of us, and we must prevent this sensibility from becoming extinct. And so, I naturally keep the 'translation' option open.

I'm not sure whether my works are easy to translate. People often ask me, "How did your works get translated? They aren't easy to tackle even in Japanese!" And I too am wondering the same.

ASYMPTOTE: You've worked as a physicist and published several academic essays in English. Is there any possibility of writing novels in English? What would be a possible obstacle if you tried?

TE: No, really, I can only write, speak and understand Japanese, though I can read English, barely.

I've thought of writing my novels in English, but maybe that's not so realistic given my current level of English. It's possible that I might live in an English-speaking country tomorrow, or have to call somewhere home where other languages are spoken, and this is what people are dealing with everywhere today. Actually, American modern literature has witnessed this through its evolution, and to write in a second language or a third, or to then steer its influence back to one's mother tongue, this is one of the universal themes of contemporary literature.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that even English is just another language, and that to agonize over whether or not I should write in English is somewhat absurd. Just write. That's what I'd say to myself.

Whether or not there would be any friction between Japanese and English in particular, I'd say no. There would be no more problems there than what already happens between English and other languages.

There are of course technical/practical concerns: For instance, we can depict conversation without giving any subject pronouns or names in Japanese. In other words, we don't need to specify the gender (he or she) of a speaker until it's really necessary. We can therefore play the trick of switching speakers halfway, taking advantage of this no-gender-indication feature of the Japanese language; but I think it's difficult to translate this trick. Conversely, the translation of languages that always make the subject's gender clear is tricky in Japanese.

I think, though it depends, Japanese fiction in general tend to disclose the trick at the end of the sentence as there the tone often alters according to the speaker's gender or class. I'm particular about this kind of language feature, and my writings tend to be highly dependent on the character of the language in question. If I wrote in English, I would play with its system and try to make use of its fragility, but since I have no real clue about it, I may end up, at best, with a bunch of awkward puns.

ASYMPTOTE: Did you ever think of translating your own works? Have you worked on any translation?

TE: Translation is a matter of the balance between time and cost. I'd like to be able to translate my own work, but I know there is someone better qualified for it. Even before that, though, I'm not competent at all when it comes to translation.

What I can do and have done so far is to introduce interesting works I've come across to the publishers. In the future, I want to embark on a translation myself: the translation of a novel which would attract only a thousand readers per country. But, you know, a novel of such kind is 'difficult' to work on realistically (laughs).

ASYMPTOTE: In a conversation with Masahiko Shimada, you talked about the effect of novels. What did you mean in saying 'effect'?

TE: In that conversation, we discussed the very practical side of the effect of novels. Harlequin's Butterfly is often said to be a novel which has the effect of inducing sleep, and I said "then we might as well promote a book which has some practical function" and that "then the book is to be positively evaluated as effective for insomnia." (laughs)

It was, however, a sardonic proposal. Imagine how a book generally works: A row of letters moves the reader and this is where the magic of literature lies. We don't evaluate or gauge a book in term of its effect, saying, "the effect of this book is to move you to tears," even though the book has really made you cry.

In this sense, and in most of the cases, the effect of a translation must be different from the original's. For instance, the song "Auld Lang Syne" is titled "Hotaru no hikari" (The Glimmer of A Firefly) in Japanese and it's known as a song of nostalgia or homecoming; it brings you back to your childhood, evokes nostalgia, or suggests the scene of you returning home, saying goodbye to your playmates. But I'm sure it's different in English-speaking countries.

I think lines requiring a certain cultural understanding, or jokes making use of local language are all difficult to translate. In comparison, complicated plots or structures are easier to deal with. The effect of a translated piece might not be exactly the same as the original; but if the impact were equivalent, it would be enough.

Supposing a phrase which invokes sadness in Japanese appears funny in English, what would the problem be, and who would realize it? This question comes to my mind when I go to the cinema in other countries. I often wonder why people are laughing and crying at a scene where I'm not. But the important thing is that I perceive something. I may say this is an effect of the scene: it's telling me something. While I was writing Harlequin's Butterfly, I was thinking about such things all the time.

ASYMPTOTE: In the same talk with Shimada, you said, "At the end of the globalization of literature, when the borders are crossed and regional differences are ironed out, what stands out as trustworthy piece would be a story handed down by word of mouth or a community-based one." The irony, however, is that these trustworthy pieces can't cross regional borders unless they are translated.

TE: Translation is, so to speak, the customs duty to literary trade. It's an obstacle, and the goods must be worth the high tariff. If you can replicate the same stuff in your country, you don't need to import it paying a high tariff, no matter how  useful the item is. It's certainly an irony that being special is a prerequisite of trade, but that being too special hinders it.

But I don't think translation can perfectly convey the very effect of the original, no matter what. It often happens that a frog jumps away from one land to appear on another as a lizard, and I'd call such a transformation 'creation'. In this sense, the key is whether a translator can include as much of the 'worth' of the original into his writing as a writer does. In this sense, translation and creative writing are the same thing.

ASYMPTOTE: You used to say that you were suspicious about the competitiveness of literary works in the international market. What do you think is this 'international competitiveness'?

TE: In reality, so called 'national literature' tends to lack this 'international competitiveness'. I'm thinking of writers such as Ryotaro Shiba, Shotaro Ikenami, Futaro Yamada. I reckon it's quite difficult to translate their works, and ironically the very charm, the deliciousness of their works is what hinders translation. So one possible definition might be 'translatability'.

In another sense, 'international competitiveness' might be the power to overcome 'the tariff obstacle'.

As for me, I'm a man on the fence: I'm the traditional-style sushi chef who can, however, also make international-style California rolls. What is served on the table will be proof of my strengths, though I might end up being reproached for serving un-Californian California rolls (laughs).

ASYMPTOTE: Talking about reproach, you've criticized, in an interview, a certain group of readers for their blind belief in consistency, and apparently Harlequin's Butterfly sets out an antithesis to this faith in consistency and its adoption in reading fiction.

TE: To recognize consistency, we need to remember. Without remembering things, we can't think about coherence. In novels, you'd stop and wonder about inconsistency if a character who has died earlier on would reappear in the story. For those who don't notice and just read on, consistency wouldn't be an issue.

Human beings, by nature, tend to believe we are rational, logical, and consistent. We make up memories, rationalize at our convenience, and believe in baseless rumors. And it doesn't mean that sensible, cautious people are safe. Cognitive psychologists, brain scientists, and behavioral economists have recently shown that everyone is susceptible.

What then is the difference between fiction that seems to be consistent and a life that appears to be coherent? There is no difference: Both of them just seem to be so. What I meant in that interview was that fiction will inevitably be inconsistent if it tries to depict our nature. Fiction has the effect of fabricating a powerfully consistent world, and at the same time, it can also bring the incoherence of our being to light; and I feel there is more reality in fiction that comes out of the latter.

ASYMPTOTE: Modern fiction sees the rise of a style that focuses on formal construction rather linear plot. What do you think about the development of this style in Japan?

TE: The concern is that there are probably only a few thousand people in each country who'd enjoy reading such novels. But it's quite understandable that fiction is now thinking about form, given how our daily life is; we're used to jumping from one thing to another using hyperlinks and dealing with miscellaneous fragments of information gathered in one place as search results. I'm sure the amount of information we receive a day has already surpassed what people in the Victorian age received in a lifetime. It would be difficult to imagine that the way we deal with information hasn't evolved despite the technology.

On the other hand, we should be careful about the received notion that a consistent plot is somehow suited for the print medium, or that the amount of information contained in a novel, with the support of the word processor, is somehow a suitable amount for achieving consistency. It might be interesting to stop and think why novels have come to restrict themselves to more or less the same number of pages.

The reaction of literature to our current situation has been very slow. Our society relies largely on engineers, but I often wonder if there have been any novels that excite these engineers. And so, I think I'll keep writing evenly, at my own pace. In the end, all what we can do is to blindly present more variations of style, many of which are nothing more than rehashes of something which has been done before and forgotten.

ASYMPTOTE: In Harlequin's Butterfly, we come across several motifs relating to handwork, such as a custom-made butterfly net, knitting with three hands, and semi-professional cooking, or related to the dexterity of gestures of the analog realm. Why this focus?

TE: As the expression 'to weave a story' implies, creating a plot has something to do with handwork, including the fact that you have to repeat the same simple action over and over again. What we see in our daily life nowadays are mostly processed things beautifully made up on the surface, but what lies behind the surface is really a chaotic creative process. Our computerized society has produced a lot of engineers immersed in this chaos behind the curtain, but what they are doing there is, in the end, manual work.

Behind Harlequin's Butterfly was my growing interest in this issue, for one thing. But to be honest, it was also a kind of experiment. I've been so often described as a writer who writes incomprehensible novels using a lot of mathematical terms or scientific theories, that I started thinking it would make my novel easier to approach if I replaced the science with cooking or handicrafts. So I tried it.

The result was, well... Nothing much changed.

ASYMPTOTE: Do you cook or knit yourself? I remember you said in an interview you had no ear for music or poetry...

TE: I do cook, but it's nothing that I'd serve other people. Knitting is not my forte either, and I am not very good with my hands (for example, I still can't move to the second row when crocheting). Whenever I do handwork, I always wonder why I am doing this, knowing that there definitely are people who can do it quicker and better. But I still try, because I might come up with some good ideas for my story while moving my hands; a 'four-dimensional knitting pattern', for instance.

I like to work with my hands. When I do handwork, I'm aware of the 'slowness' of reality, in contrast to the 'speed' of thought, and it helps me feel that the world exists, that I am inexorably involved in it. I have an inclination to 'speed' in general, but I've come to realize the need for 'slowness', to keep a good balance.

Asymptote: Inconsistency and unpredictability are words that are often used to describe the character of your works. I'm looking forward to having your unpredictable work surprise us again soon, any plans?

TE: I'm basically a contrarian. I'd turn right if I were told to turn left, and I can't tell what my future work will be like myself either. I hope you'll discover and enjoy my work again in some unexpected place.

Asymptote would like to give special thanks to Kazuto Yamaguchi (Kodansha).