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A Tidal Wave of Translations : GHOSTS By Morio Kita , Translated by Dennis Keene (Kodansha International: $18.95; 193 pp.)

March 22, 1992|Karl Schoenberger | Former Tokyo correspondent Schoenberger reports on the Asia-Pacific region for The Times business section. He studied Japanese literature at Kyoto University as a Monbusho (education ministry) Research Fellow from 1977 to 1979.

Naming Japan's most accomplished literati used to be a fairly simple task: All one needed to do was compile a list of authors translated into English by a small gang of Japan scholars and published by Weatherhill or reprinted in paperback by Tuttle. The industry of translating and selling Japanese fiction may have been clubby, but it was selective, and, with few exceptions, critically discriminating.

In the early 1970s, an adventuresome reader could make a blind purchase of almost any Japanese novel in English and find a winner.

But today, it's buyer beware. American Ph.D.s in Japanese literature have proliferated, and with their worthy dissertations on minor novelists comes a glut of excellent, accurate and sometimes readable translations of highly forgettable Japanese fiction.

It appears that the major vein of contemporary literature in Japan has been mined clean. Even an interesting pop writer like Haruki Murakami strikes the reader as a shallow literary midget compared to towering greats like the late Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Survivors Shusaku Endo, Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe have run dry.

Much as with the case of Japan's once-great cinema, the world of Japanese letters is suffering from a dearth of new software.

"Ghosts," a novel by Morio Kita just published in English, is a good example of what's wrong with a lot of the Japanese fiction on the bookshelves these days. Author of the previously translated work of humor "The House of Nire," Kita is a gifted stylist whose lyrical prose can flow like music off the page. He occasionally makes the most ordinary event rich and tactile, as in this remembrance of playing hide-and-seek as a little boy: "The suspense was unbearable, and as I crouched in fear behind the sofa I experienced the illusion that my body had suddenly dissolved, become now totally absorbed into the pitch darkness.

"There was also the weight of that darkness, the way it moved; for the air in it was quite different from that of daylight, having a living quality one could feel on one's skin. The darkness tickled my ears, it crept slowly down my arms."

Translator Dennis Keene does a commendable job keeping the narrative lively and fresh, but no translator can compensate for the flaws of the original. In "Ghosts," Keene has to struggle with a volatile narrative that ranges from an ethereal meditation on dreamlike memory to the tedious and didactic musings of a rather unremarkable young artist in search of his own personal myth.

The blurb on the dust jacket promises a "Proust in miniature," but what's inside the covers is a belabored epistemology in which Kita, who wrote this first novel at age 23, makes a muddled attempt to digest Freud, Greek mythology and the school of Naturalism all in one childish swallow.

"And so, under a downpour of high summer light in the stifling odor of the plants, to the erotic buzzing of the gadflies' wings, and savoring the endless warmth and comfort of the earth, I had my first emission," Kita confesses. "I suppose people will probably laugh if I say that the object of my desire was nature itself."

"Ghosts" ( Yurei in Japanese) was serialized in the literary magazine Bungei Shuto from 1952 to 1953 and published the following year--by the author himself. Only 750 copies were printed until a mainstream publisher reissued it following Kita's subsequent literary success. Why Kodansha International chose to publish an English translation 38 years later is anybody's guess.

If it's any consolation, the Japanese reading public devours translations of many of the most obscure American authors. No one is suggesting they should stop with Hemingway and Faulkner. And reading a book like "Ghosts" isn't a complete waste of time. But it's time that would be far better spent with Tanizaki's "Makioka Sisters," or the "Tale of Genji."

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