Japanese Book Release: “The Spirit Drum” by Kyusaku Yumeno

By | December 16, 2019

The more I study Japanese the more I am attracted by Japan’s literature that boasts a certain mystique hard to find in western fiction. In addition to the many differences between the English and Japanese languages themselves, Japan has a culture that goes back several thousands of years, giving an extra depth to its literary works.

I really enjoy the challenge of translating Japanese fiction into English, and I also like the idea of helping a country’s culture to be appreciated by others around the world that would otherwise not be able to. That’s why I try to divide my time between writing articles for Self Taught Japanese and publishing translations of Japanese literature that I feel particularly deserve a global audience.

Since I was young I’ve had a taste for unusual stories that are had to categorize, though some of these works can be classified as “surreal”. I think one thing in common is being unique without following too many rules of a specific genre. To give you an idea, China Mieville is one of my favorite authors in English, and while I find his works are hit and miss, the once that “hit” I really enjoy (e.g. Perdido Street Station).

In doing research about Japanese literature, I came across the author Kyusaku Yumeno (夢野久作) over a year ago, and have had some interest in translating his well-known novel Dogra Magra (ドグラ・マグラ), a story for which the label of “unusual” would be a gross understatement. However, due to the great length of this work and my limited time available for translation, I didn’t have much confidence about finishing such a large-scale project. So instead I decided on looking through some of his other works, of which only a handful have been translated into English so far. (For those anime or manga lovers out there, there is a character based on Yumeno in the anime and manga of Bungo Stray Dogs [appearing in Ep 19 / Ch 24])

Yumeno’s novella “The Spirit Drum” (あやかしの鼓), a story about the effects of a mysterious musical instrument across several generations, was attractive to me for many reasons––the length, the dark atmosphere, and the fact it was Yumeno’s debut work that gained him critical acclaim in the public eye. This story also has strong connections to Noh theater, a centuries-old enigmatic Japanese performance art that is still practiced around the world today. But on the other hand, the 90+ year old prose of this story is difficult in places to understand (sometimes even by native speakers), let alone translate.

However, with much time and effort, and the aid of several native or fluent speakers helping to clarify a few areas, I managed to produce an English translation that I am proud to release today. I’d like to give a special thanks to Yeti san (author of the blog Shosetsu Ninja) for quality check, and Kaimai Mizuhiro (author of technical books, you can see his latest one here) for help with meaning verification of a few areas. While this project took the most research of any translation project of mine, in the process I learned a great deal about early 20th century Japan. Even as a reader, I think the “period piece” aspect of this story alone makes it a worthy read, with its detailed descriptions of clothes, architecture, and society of that era.

I was also lucky enough to get in touch with Kyusaku Yumeno’s grandson, Matsumaru Sugiyama, who gave me some valuable information about Yumeno and related topics.

You can find the book on Amazon here, on sale for only $0.99 for the next week. (After that, the price will go up to $2.99). The book is part of Kindle Unlimited as well as Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.

By the way, due to the difficulty of the source text I’ve decided to not publish a parallel English/Japanese version for the time being. Advanced students can still find the original Japanese here and compare it to the English translation as a learning experience. You can also find a reasonably good audio narration of the Japanese story here and here.  (If you are looking for a Japanese/English bilingual book for reading practice, check this out.)

I am considering writing one or more posts about the translation challenges of this work, both general and specific. If you would be interested in reading such posts, please let me know.

(Amazon link)

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