In Review: Performing the Politics of Translation in Modern Japan: Staging the Resistance

Quinn Aragorn. Performing the Politics of Translation in Modern Japan: Staging the Resistance. London & New York: Routledge, 2020. 169pp.

Reviewed by Beverley Curran

Volume 8, Issue 3 (Spring 2021)

Performing the Politics of Translation in Modern Japan: Staging the resistance covers a lot of ground in its selective but superb tracing of a century of political performances in Japan in theatre and other media to show both the translation of approaches to history and the shifting meaning of the imported terms “liberty” (jiyuu) and “revolution” (kakumei) in different Japanese cultural contexts. From the onset, Quinn’s work generates excitement in the prospect of exploring alternative, unrecognized, or overlooked performances to present ‘the translation of “liberty” and “revolution”, not through a one-to-one correspondence model, but rather as a many-to-many relationship’ (3) in order to highlight the ways in which performance and translation served as a central hub for the “generation, contestation, and propagation of foundational national narratives and concepts” (3). In doing so, it discusses the work of “well-studied” theatre practitioners, such as Kubo Sakae and Murayama Tomoyoshi, but is more interested in shedding light on players not typically highlighted in historical accounts of performance, translation, and politics in Japan in the century following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, such as sōshi activist performance artists who endure in popular cultural productions. In short, this selective history is an ambitious and interesting study that is intent on understanding performance, translation, and politics from a range of perspectives, but always with special attention to alternative spaces, forms, and practices.

Each of the book’s five chapters covers different aspects of stories of resistance that travel through time and different performance spaces. The dense first chapter, “Weaponizing Meiji liberty,” discusses the challenges of translating such concepts as ‘liberty’ and the role that cultural context plays in shaping them, drawing attention to the “many to many” translation representing the competing expectations and agendas of groups and individuals of different social classes “working in resistance to the Meiji oligarchy to define the modern nation” (12) and the alternative spaces used for the performance of political messages (13). Specifically, it focuses on the first three translations of Shakespeare into Japanese: Tsuboyuchi Shōyō’s 1884 translation and Kawashima Keizo’s 1883 translation of Julius Caesar and Itakura Kōtaro’s 1888 translation of Coriolanus. Quinn provides close comparative readings of texts, paratexts, and contexts to show how each performs different kinds of liberty for different audiences at a time when the relationship of people and state was in notable flux. In his discussion of these translations and how they were performed, Quinn foregrounds alternative modes of performance of these translations, drawing our attention to the “unusual medium of performance texts that were not meant for the stage” (30) and the activist “orations” found in the “brash guerilla theater” of sōshi performance that combined violence and political engagement.

Chapter Two, “There is a specter haunting Communism,” and Chapter Three, “Democracy dies in Gifu,” move to the 1920s to revisit historical and critical assumptions about the relationship of translation, politics, and performance in the Proletarian Theater Movement. It starts with a consideration of the notion of “revolution” [kakumei], a translated term that first appears in 1876 in a newspaper article discussing the French Revolution, but which is associated with a much older history through its Chinese characters that traditionally had a related but different meaning: “the compound ‘kakumei’ was an ancient Chinese word that had been used to describe dynastic change and had its roots in the cosmos like its Western counterpart” (50). In the 1920s, the term is powerfully linked to the Communist revolution and resonates within Japanese leftist culture and performance. Quinn takes a look at what he calls Restoration Plays, such as The Secret Account from Tsukuba by Sasaki Takamaru, which are plays “either set in the early Meiji period or are translations of narratives about revolution seen by their translators as analogs to the Meiji situation” (46). It is interesting to see how the unsettled meaning of revolution in Japanese translation “embod[ies] the proletarian revolution through the analogy of the Restoration, which in the 1880s was […] understood and interpreted by means of analogy to Western precedents” (47). This is presented as the same analogous relationship that the two texts of a translation pair, source and target, have with each other; from the discussion in this chapter, and in keeping with the idea of translation as a ‘many-to-many’ relationship, it seems to be useful to unsettling conventional translation discourse and think about translation in terms of multiple moving targets.

These two chapters, like the text as a whole, confidently provide evidence of sustained and meticulous research into the historical context of Japanese performance, politics, and translation, but the consideration of translation from a theoretical point of view is rather timid. Linda Hutcheon’s work on adaptation seems to extend observations about many on many translation in obvious ways, especially in the context of theater, but theater performance has never been bound by the stubborn demands for fidelity that have dogged translation or that initially plagued film adaptation criticism. It might have been more provocative if Hutcheon’s earlier work on irony had been considered in concert with her thoughts on adaptation, with attention to the translator and audience that recognize the past in a performance and those who do not.

Chapter Four, “Shinsengumi live!” looks at four Restoration plays about the Shinsengumi—a motley crüe of deputized swordsmen from the social margins who fought on the side of the shogunate during its demise—by the Zenshinsa troupe in the 1920s, including hybrid performances that fused stage and film. Instead of a consideration of ideology, the chapter focuses on intersemiotic translation and the cultural implications of form and new world views that are shaped by technology. The continuing return to the Shinsengumi (Quinn mentions a 2015 zombie version) in creative retellings in a range of media is a good example of the cultural translation of a story that continues to be relevant in the popular imagination, although how it signifies in different times is deeply inflected by the form it takes and thus how it is told. Distinctions between genres and turf wars between film and theater criticism seem outmoded from a twenty-first century perspective, where the many on many is nowhere more evident than in our use of media in our daily life; recording and commenting on historical moments; and participating in them through live, mediated, and hybrid viewing, and circulated commentary.

The study’s concluding chapter, “The last sōshi,” continues to look at intersemiotic translation, performance, and politics in the postwar period, and interest in the live and unscripted aspects of sōshi theater by in the Meiji Period by playwrights and filmmakers, such as Fukuda Yoshiyuki or Inagaki Hiroshi, as a way to invigorate the possibilities of an unpredictable, participatory audience in lieu of a passive one comfortably protected by the fourth wall. It is interesting that the productions considered here are all backstage dramas, intent on showing the seams of cultural production, and drawing attention to the ethics of practice and performance.

Performing the Politics of Translation in Modern Japan: Staging the resistance then is a careful historical study that encourages us to look out for alternative, unofficial, and overlooked spaces of performance; and it is an excellent departure text for further exploration into how intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic translation make space for such performances to circulate and their meaning to be revisited.

Beverley Curran teaches interlingual, cultural, and media translation at International Christian University (ICU) in Mitaka, Tokyo. Recent publications include a chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Translation, Feminism and Gender (2020), edited by Luise von Flotow and Hala Kamal. Current research projects are the circulation of hybrid texts for all ages and feminist translation thought and invitational rhetoric.