Open Door

In Conversation: Sho Sugita on Translating Hirato Renkichi & the Japanese Avant-Garde

Sho Sugita

Sho Sugita and I met in graduate school at Brooklyn College, where he was studying poetry, and I was in the playwriting program. Years bulleted, beelined by us, way too fast, and Sho moved to Japan. In 2017, I had the enormous pleasure of coming across his translation work of the Japanese avant-garde, particularly that of Hirato Renkichi (1893-1922), a devoted Futurist poet who wrote rapidly, fervently, in pre-war Japan. When Sho returned to the States last spring to read from the English translation of a collected poems that Hirato never could actualize, Spiral Staircase (Ugly Duckling Presse), I took the opportunity to talk to my new press-mate over a few coffees in Brooklyn. We covered Hirato's community in early 20th-century Japan, connections and incongruencies with Russian and Italian Futurism, some linguistic intracacies of translating in Japanese, how it all came about, how it continues to.

Later in our conversation, we talk about Sho's interest in Dada poet Hagiwara Kyojiro (1899-1938). He's recently published some of Hagiwara's work in the special translation issue of Sink Review. And if it pleases you, also keep your eyes out for translations of essays by Hirato Renkichi, Hagiwara Kyojiro, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, soon to be anthologized by Bloomsbury's Modernist Archives series (edited by Stephen Ross and Alys Moody).

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CC: How did you come to discover Hirato Renkichi?

SS: I was taking a seminar on Modernism in graduate school, and we would talk about the historical Avant-Garde and its internationalist outlook. At the same time that the historical Avant-Garde is described as international, another descriptor that's commonly thrown about is transatlantic, so it got me curious if there were concurrent Japanese movements or East Asian movements during that period between 1909 and 1944. I started digging, and sure enough there was a small group of Japanese Futurists—they were more involved in the visual arts, but there were a few poets—Hirato being one of them, and then a more academic poet, Kanbara Tai, who did the cover work for Hirato’s Selected Poems, published posthumously in 1931. The cover that Pareesa Pourian did for Spiral Staircase was an homage to the original cover by Kanbara. But Kanbara did both visual arts and poetry, and wrote manifestos under his own name, as in "The First Kanbara Tai Manifesto."

Covers for Hirato Renkichi, Spiral Staircase, and 1931 edition of Selected Poems


CC: I noticed that Hirato is similarly self-referential. In one of the prose pieces, he writes, "forthcoming are my books," for instance.

SS: That was in the manifesto—he had a little advertisement at the end for a book that was never actualized. I think he wanted to collect pre-orders to fund this book, but he never had enough orders to print the books. Then he fell ill from some kind of pulmonary disease which eventually took his life, when he was 29. Less than a year before his death, he was distributing these flyers in the busy streets of Hibiya, and in several other places, according to essays that his peers wrote. "Manifesto of the Japanese Futurist Movement" was translated from this flyer, which was housed at the Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature. Selected Poems is the first four sections of Spiral Staircase. And then the fifth section includes 60 or so uncollected poems that I found in smaller coterie journals that were published at the time. I had to go to several places to find them. I dug around a lot of materials during that period from the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature in Tokyo, Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature in Yokohama, and Tokyo University Library. They would have several issues of a journal, there would be missing pieces, and another institution would have the missing pieces. It was like a puzzle. It's just hard to find these journals because they weren't printed in large quantities, and there was also a big earthquake—the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and then the war, which burned down half of Tokyo. Fire-bombings. I'm guessing those events have depleted a lot of copies.

CC: How long did all of this legwork take?

SS: It took about a year to collect and start drafting the initial selected poems collection, and then a lot of time was spent on collecting the uncollected material—I had the bulk of the book from Selected Poems translated, and that was the manuscript I gave to Dan Owen at UDP. Initially, I was trying to get some of the translations out in literary journals to draw some interest.

CC: In your translating process, do you feel like you're given permission to be an "experimental translator"?

SS: I wouldn't say these translations are experimental, but I did take some courses on translation—well, a course on translation theory, and I had never really thought about this negotiation between domestication and foreignization—

CC: Foreignization?

SS: It's a negotiation between fluidity of the target text; or being closer to the source. In this translation, I had to consider the positions of certain words or phrasal units in relationship to preceding or proceeding lines, because the grammatical structure in Japanese is subject-object-verb. You have to flip the verb to make it more fluid, but then if you have lines that bleed into each other, switching that up might disrupt its original intent in some way. I mean, those kinds of things are case-by-case situations. I guess that's the liberty of the translator.

CC: Were you working in connection with anyone in Japan?

SS: I'm not in Tokyo, so I feel pretty isolated from what goes on in the Japanese literary scene. I’m originally from Hokkaido (an island north of the mainland), so I have a habit of thinking of Tokyo as "Japan proper."

CC: Right, you're currently living in Matsumoto. How did you end up there?

SS: Matsumoto: a small city that’s tucked away in the Alpine mountains of central Japan. It's a nice little castle town. The oldest surviving Japanese castle is located there. I used to be a medical device salesman, and that was the first place they sent me. I sold orthopedic trauma devices. I was working with surgeons and selling them plates and nails. It was a British company—Smith & Nephew—they invented the Band-Aid, then called the Elastoplast. I did that for three years, and then I decided to quit to go back to school, and I returned to that line of work for a different American company. But I had some family issues I needed to take care of, so now I translate medical manuscripts as a freelancer for the sake of flexibility.

CC: Have you always been fluent, or did you also study Japanese?

SS: I never studied Japanese formally. In college I took a class on early modern Japanese, because you learn that stuff in high school in Japan, but I never went to high school in Japan. I grew up in Sapporo—where the beer is from—and I moved to Oregon when I was 9, went to college in Chicago; and I graduated in 2008 during the whole global financial meltdown—not a good time for jobs—so I figured there would be some kind of time-lag for that shit-show to reach Japan. I moved back after college, and it took me a while to find a job. I ended up in the medical field, although I had studied history and literature.

CC: Was Hirato in touch with the Russian and Italian Futurists? His manifesto was 12 years after Marinetti's. And there's the war. So much happens, obviously, between 1909 and 1921.

SS: Yes, a little background in terms of the connection to Italian Futurism and Russian Futurism: Marinetti's manifesto in 1909 gets translated into Japanese three months after the initial publication, by Mori Ogai, who was a military officer, but he wrote novels. He was very much interested in the arts, and also the literary arts. He only translated the 11 tenets from Marinetti’s "Manifesto of Futurism," and they appeared anonymously in a literary journal in Japan called Subaru, which translates to "Constellation." The journal still exists today. Ogai, after the translation of the manifesto, leaves a snarky one-liner about "how tame the coterie of Subaru are, hahaha." So he really understood Marinetti's aesthetics. That translation was followed by several, more complete translations of the manifesto, so by the early teens you start to find people reading art-journalistic articles about Italian Futurism and what's going on in the art world in Europe, and there are definitely visual artists taking in some of the techniques used by Italian Futurism. You can certainly find paintings that were proto-Futurist. But there wasn't really much experimentation in terms of the literary arts until Kanbara started writing Futurist poems that are very staccato and speedy, definitely included a lot of motifs about machinery, and what we would consider Futurist experiments in literature.

CC: There was a beginning of a community there.

SS: Yeah, there was a beginning of a community; that's around the late teens or so. Kanbara published a book on Futurism around this time. I think he was directly in contact with Marinetti. If you look through Marinetti's Libroni collection, there are newspaper clippings from Japan about Italian Futurism. Also, Marinetti had a copy of Hirato's manifesto in his scrapbooks—Kanbara and Marinetti also sent each other portraits of themselves—

CC: There was no physical travel?

SS: No physical travel. Certainly, there were painters studying in Europe at the time, but yeah, I don't think there were any Futurists within the literary arts.

CC: I'm curious how that actual distance affected what Hirato would think of as Futurism, his sense of it, versus how we might problematize Futurism now. This sense for Hirato that it is ever-expanding, an expression of oneness, the amalgamated; that it is generous, and inclusive. I'm gleaning that from your introduction, but I wonder what you think.

SS: He mentions these things in his critical essays, his own interpretation of Futurism. His own idea is finding all of these -isms coming into—and more or less around the same time—Dada, and Russian and Italian Futurism, and his idea of Japanese Futurism—taking in all of these movements and amalgamating them into some kind of single unified theory. [laughs]

CC: He does talk about God a lot; how does that figure in? Is God another -ism?

SS: I think that comes from his Catholic education. He went to a Catholic university for a few years, and probably dropped out for financial reasons, eventually going to a Catholic language school. He was reading French literature, and learning Italian. I feel like it's just part of the motif. There are lots of spiritual metaphors in the book, and I think that part of the writing was very important. It's a recurring theme in his writing.

CC: How about the writers more directly around Hirato; were they coming out of a different tradition?

SS: Hirato was mentored, and helped financially, by this poet, Kawaji Ryūkō, who was the first poet to introduce vernacular language and free verse into Japanese poetry. Kawaji was writing around 1908 and onwards, so the first free-verse poem was published then. Hirato's earlier poems in the book tend to be more lyrical. And then it was probably the works by Kanbara that interested him. It was all really quick. Hirato was writing for 10 years, publishing for six, and it wasn't until the last two or three years of his life that he was publishing more of these experimental poems. He worked as a journalist and an art critic. And I think it was Kawaji who would find him the jobs, too. But it wouldn't be enough to support himself, especially towards the end of his life, when he was ill. I think the hospital bills were piling up. There would be advertisements in the literary journals to donate money to pay his bills—they would list the names of people who donated like one yen, or three yen, which was probably equivalent to $500 or so. They really supported each other to continue their interests in the arts. Kanbara was actually fairly well-off financially because he worked in the petroleum industry in Japan. He eventually had a high-ranking position with the World Petroleum Congress. I'm betting that he also acted as a patron to a lot of his friends who didn't have money to buy expensive foreign books.

CC: I imagine you end up in an intertextual space, and possibly well-versed in Hirato's personal history, when you're translating?

SS: There are definitely essays that Hirato’s peers wrote after his death that contextualize some parts of his life that I wouldn't be able to gather from the poetry. I found out that his father was a military sniper, that he had some kind of affair and left the family, so Hirato and his mother went to live with his aunt, who had some kind of importing business dealing with Russia, but the business collapses in the war with Russia, so then his life just flips—financially speaking—and then because of poverty, you know, he's writing these Futurist works but publishing them in proletariat journals. So I get questions a lot about his political ideology, how that relates to Italian Futurism, whether he was a geo-fascist, and so on, but I don't think you can pigeonhole him into that kind of political space, when he's coming from left field…

CC: Were there state-sponsored poets?

SS: I don't know, actually. Japanese Futurism itself isn't a state-sponsored art. So it's hard to label someone as having a particular political ideology, because each individual artist probably had a very different idea. A couple of Hirato's poems were published in a proletariat journal like Tane maku hito, which is "sower," like "seed-sowing," and Kōjin [Farmer] was in a similar vein a proletariat journal. His politics were pretty left-leaning; he had a laborer’s point of view. I wouldn't say there was really state-sponsored literature, then. I think what was popular during that time were the remnants of shintaishi, a kind of work developed in the 1880s, where a group of poets were trying to figure out ways to translate Romanticist poetry and European verse forms. But their Japanese poetry then didn't have meter or lines in the same way that we think of poetry in the West, so they created a form where they would repeat the 5 and 7 syllables or morae that's used in traditional Japanese poetry, and they would repeat that as lines to imitate metered or verse forms—like sonnets, or Western lyrics. They would translate into that form. That was popularized throughout the late 1800s, so that probably carried on into the turn of the century.

CC: So how would you end up figuring line breaks?

SS: There used to be no line breaks. They would have particles to break lines that were specific to poetry. It's usually just one line, when you write haiku. Sometimes lines end up being a lot longer in translation. I think with a system of using Chinese characters, lines and sentences are much more compact. When a Chinese character is used, each character can include two to three phonetic sounds, so it condenses the line. The Japanese language uses three scripts. One's phonetic, called hiragana. There are Chinese characters, kanji. These are pictographic, ideographic, or phono-semantic. And there's another script called katakana. It's also phonetic, but they use it to indicate foreign loan words. So department, like a department store: depaatomento.

CC: Your reading style is in the Futurist lineage. Do you feel as if you've cast yourself as Hirato? I loved seeing you read—it felt like the translation transcends the page.

SS: That reading style came out of listening to Marinetti's recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, and some recordings of Mayakovsky, that tend to be very dramatic and vocal, not necessarily fast, but quite animated—theatrical. So my readings are definitely imitative. Doing all of this translation definitely puts me in a headspace where I can connect with avant-garde poets of that era.

CC: You are reading and translating others then, too?

SS: I'm working on Japanese Dada poetry…

[Sho brings out a beautiful, rare book.]

SS: This book is called Death Sentence, from 1925, by Hagiwara Kyojiro. One of the seven sections is translated, but it will probably take me a year or two to get a draft. Hagiwara met Hirato before he died, and he really liked his work and wanted to extend the legacy of his writing. This is the "Manifesto of the Alphabet." It's multimedia: linocuts and collages together with poems. There's a lot of spatialized text and textual experiments.

CC: Looks like there's much multilingualism, too.

SS: Yeah. In both Hirato and Hagiwara's works, there are many loan words. I usually keep the words in the donor language. The French words—I don't read French, so I just left them untouched. You can find sections in the book that are entirely in French, like the one about the print artist Hokusai in the beginning of the book. I think it might be in the first section … I don't know how it reads! It's Hirato's French.

CC: Are you dedicated to translating now? Or is it more about being compelled by these particular projects and poets?

SS: Well, I'm just trying to fill a void.

CC: You feel a responsibility, then?

SS: In a way—yeah. I feel like there can be a continued dialogue, knowing now how the world was a much smaller place than we imagine that period to be, that there was a pretty radical undertaking in Japan in terms of the three avant-garde movements. I'm hoping that this kind of publication would also trigger other translators to find surrounding movements. There’s much to be translated, not only from Japan, but also from Korea and China.

Originally Published: January 23rd, 2018

Corina Copp is a writer and theater artist based in New York. She is the author of The Green Ray (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015); and chapbooks All Stock Must Go (Shit Valley Verlag, 2014); Miracle Mare (Trafficker Press, 2013); and Pro Magenta/Be Met (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011).  Her poetry, performance texts, and critical writing can be found in Cabinet, BOMB, Corrected...