The recent launch in Tokyo of the Japanese translation of David Malouf’s novel Remembering Babylon marked an important moment in the international circulation of Australian literature. Japanese academics and those working in the publishing and cultural industries were among the crowd gathered at the Australian embassy to celebrate. There were speeches from, among others, ambassador Bruce Miller and president of the Japanese Australian Studies Association, Yasue Arimitsu, both enthusiastic about Australian writing and its capacity to generate cross-cultural understanding. I proposed the toast, with a few words about literature and the imagination. Malouf, unable to attend, sent a gracious message of appreciation.
Remembering Babylon is the first title in an unprecedented series of contemporary Australian novels to be published by Gendaikikakushitsu Publishers, a quality press specialising in the translation of literary works, primarily from Spain and Latin America. Their aim is to release at least one title annually from established Australian authors including Tim Winton and Kate Grenville. Tentatively called ‘Masterpieces of Australian Contemporary Literature’, and with some promotional support from the Australia-Japan Foundation, the list promises to be the most significant development to date in the translation and publication of Australian literature in Japan.
Japan is a universally literate society, and books are relatively cheap. The long train journeys of the daily commute are conducive to readers, who often dress their books in removable jacket covers of various hues. Bookshops are numerous and well-stocked. While in Tokyo, I visited the recently opened Tsutaya Books, located in the fashionable suburb of Daikanyama in Shibuya-ku. Spanning three linked pavilions of glass, its interiors are styled in understated high-tech comfort with mood lighting. With exquisite displays of fountain pens and stationery, and a swish café onsite, this is a truly beautiful space for browsing through thousands of books.
At Tsutaya Books there are sections on lifestyle, travel, art and literature, and one of the pavilions is wholly devoted to foreign-language works. The translation of books from world literatures—including English, French, German, Chinese and Korean—is a major concern in Japan. According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Japan is ranked number four internationally (following Germany, Spain and France) in the volume of its foreign book translations.
In Japan, individual translators can attract a following and a profile. The famous novelist Haruki Murakami, for instance, is also well known in Japan as a prolific translator, mainly of American authors and science fiction. Malouf’s translator, Rumi Musha, is an experienced professional who was introduced to Remembering Babylon by a friend who urged her to read it for pleasure. She was so moved by Malouf’s story and his language that she began translating the novel long before finding a willing publisher.
More than 950,000 English-language titles across all genres have been translated into Japanese in the past three decades. In this big pool, the presence of Australian writing is very small. Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne have recently compiled a bibliography of all contemporary Australian adult fiction translated into Japanese since 1950. This totals 961 books, of which 70 per cent are popular romance fiction. The remaining 294 titles are classified as crime (41 per cent), science (30 per cent) and historical fiction (13 per cent). That leaves about forty-six Australian books of general adult fiction translated into Japanese in the past sixty years.
These desultory figures do not mean Australian literature is unknown in Japan. Australian writers who have received prestigious international literary awards, including Patrick White, Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally, have certainly found a receptive and sizeable audience.
In 2008 I co-edited an anthology of Australian short stories (including one by Malouf) entitled Diamond Dog, which was Gendaikikakushitsu’s first venture into publishing Australian fiction. The volume met with critical acclaim, in part because the stories shed light on Australian experiences of immigration and multiculturalism. These issues are of increasing interest in Japan, as its population ages and its workforce transforms. But, of course, Australian literature has to offer more than a portrait of diversity if it is to find a spot on the crowded shelves of libraries and retail outlets such as Tsutaya Books (and I can report that both the anthology and Malouf’s book are stocked in the latter).
What is the attraction of Malouf’s Remembering Babylon for Japanese readers? First published in 1993, and the winner of the IMPAC Award and shortlisted for other prizes, the novel tells the story of an English boy, Gemmy Fairley, who is marooned with a group of Aborigines and must negotiate a return to white society. This is very much an empire tale of the Australian frontier and its racial interactions. When he encounters white settlers, Gemmy utters the memorable line: ‘Do not shoot. I am a B-b-British object.’ But the book also deals with universal themes about living on the margins of society, and the power of language and community bonds.
When I spoke to Japanese friends and colleagues in Tokyo about Remembering Babylon, they all commented on how much they enjoyed reading Malouf, and entering the weird and wondrous world of colonial Australia. It is certainly an imaginative leap (or escape) from modern Japan and all its anxieties and pressures, especially in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. In this context such a favourable response to Malouf’s writing, and thus to the inaugural volume in the Gendaikikakushitsu series, seems an excellent sign for the increased profile and availability of Australian literature in Japan.
© Kate Darian-Smith 2012