Kotodama: The spirit of language, the magical power that adheres to language.
In a nation where so few learn second languages, some may consider Ian Hideo Levy’s experience a warning: the Berkeley-born author picked up a passion for Japanese language and literature. Then “a kind of crazy schizophrenic drive probably brought me to the point of writing Japanese.”
Now he holds the distinction of being the only gaijin to write award-winning books in Japanese.
“I haven’t spoken publicly in English for 20 years,” he told a largely Asian audience last week at the Humanities Center (20 years would put it back to the time he left a tenured position as a Stanford prof to move to Tokyo). The audience laughed. “This sounds like a very understanding audience, so I think this will go well.”
“I’ve said in lectures in Japan, when I was in my twenties if there if were a pill I could take to become a Japanese writer, I would have taken it.” Instead, he said, “it was a process that went on for twenty years.”
It seems “kind of silly and stupid” to him now. Recalling his youthful illusions, he said, “I probably had a very arrogant feeling that I could become what people around me described as ‘Japanese.’ My sincerity, my youth, allowed me to believe this would happen,” he said.
“It was probably a very impure desire, from point of view of language. I’ve gone beyond that.”
He settled for translation at first: He began work on Man’yōshū (万葉集 “The 10,000 Leaves”), with its waka, an ancient form of poetry in a 7-5-7-5 syllabic pattern. “Part of me was in the 7th and 8th century, the other part of me was in late 20th century Tokyo,” he recalled.
But one voice stood out at about the point when he began to run out of “stock deification words” for describing the court rituals with the emperor-god. “Once you go to heaven you may do as you please, but on earth, you do as the emperor wishes” almost jumped from the page. The words belonged not to the ritual Japanese praise, but to Asian continental thought — and to the 8th century poet who wrote them.
Kotodama had led him through time to a kindred spirit: the early poet Yamanoue no Okura (660–733 A.D.). Recent research has revealed that the famous Japanese composer of court waka was, in fact, Korean – so Levy isn’t the first acclaimed gaijin writer.
His translation of the Japan’s masterpiece anthology earned him a National Book Award in 1982.
It also led to an unanticipated consequence: the author Kenji Nakagami wrote that Levy’s writing was good, but that he should write in Japanese next.
So he did. His debut novel in Japanese, Seijoki no kikoenai heya (A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot be Heard) received the Noma Prize for New Writers in 1992. Other awards followed: the Osaragi Jiro Prize for Chiji ni kudakete in 2005; the Japan Foundation Special Prize for Japanese Language in 2007, and the Ito Sei Prize for Literature for Kari no mizu last year.
“One begins writing because one reads something, and one wants to try oneself and see if one can write,” he said, in his slightly formal diction that is no longer quite at ease before English-speakers.
Now he’s reached a new turning point: “One who was a translator has become translated.” He just signed a contract for the first Chinese translation of his work.
And a forthcoming English translation of Levy’s debut novel, translated as Ando’s Room and Other Stories, by Christopher Scott, is forthcoming.