mjj (flemmings) wrote,

So I'm translating a Seimei story in which a lady abandoned by her lover goes off and asks a pair of dragon rain gods to turn her into an oni so she can revenge herself. Why ask dragons for this kind of favour? Who knows. That's what's in the noh play the story's based on. (Next question: does Yumemakura ever make up original stories in all that 'think think think'ing he does, or does he always crib from Zeami? Answer: do not ask.)

I'm being poleaxed by a couple of cultural bumps that, natch, didn't bother me immensely when I was just reading the thing. At one point Seimei says he's reluctant to do anything to stop this demented woman from killing her false lover because if she's balked, the force of her passion will rebound back on herself and kill her, like a curse that gets deflected, and he considers her life to be just as valuable as the man's. He expounds to Hiromasa the view, which I must retranslate just to see if its watercolour language is really saying what I think it's saying, that since the woman is in a state of passion, overwhelmed by her emotions, and quite beyond reason, there's basically nothing to be done and nothing he can do. Shrug, affairs between men and women are nobody else's business, I won't interfere.

None of this cold-eyed consideration seems to me to be saying 'The bastard's getting what he deserved,' which is the line I might take. None of it seems to have any reference to notions of right and wrong at all. This approach has western me flapping my arms like a distracted chicken and going 'Yes but- but- bawk-bawk-bawk.' Yes but she's intending to kill someone. Doesn't that make a difference? Apparently not.

There's a common wisdom pronouncement re Japanese culture, the kind that's generally true only not when put into English words, that the Japanese valorize emotions over reason. Er yes. But surely, I say, when someone's life is at stake you must say- well, what we say at the daycare to infuriated toddlers who bite and scratch- "I understand how you feel but I can't let you hurt my friends." Seimei at least sees no need for that. Emotions are emotions, right or wrong; they have value and conviction and must be given equal weight even with a man's life, simply because they are. I keep hoping to find a nuance of 'The horndog was asking for it' behind his words and it may be there, but perhaps it's only there because I'm looking for it. Yumemakura is so unnuanced in basic things like who says what (he *always* has to tell you who's talking) that I'm reluctant to believe he'd be nuanced in why they say it.

However- Seimei does in fact make an effort to save the guy's life. Straw figure as per the movie, which borrowed this plot, and the woman comes in thinking she's attacking the man himself. In the story she thinks she's chewing his penis off, if you're interested. Shocked Hiromasa makes a noise and she comes to her senses and realizes it's not her lover and that people are in the room with her. Up to this point the story's been a fun translate. But then it goes into several pages of whimpering (and wet dear god she is so wet all of a sudden) "Oh my god you saw me, oh my god you saw me doing *that*," only not in so easily expressed a fashion.

When the Japanese are ashamed- an emotion we seem to have done away with entirely BTW- they say Oh I am ashamed. That's bad enough. In Heian they say 'Oh how shameful it is that you saw me in this shameful form.' Emphasis I think on the 'saw' part as much as the 'doing something really shame-making' bit. (We'd be more likely to say embarrassing or undignified, which are both a little weak for the situation of having been found gnawing a straw figure's crotch in the conviction that you were murdering a real man.) As with a lot of Japanese shame-related things, you have to go way back to find English vocabulary that comes near the basic concepts of the Japanese- 'there are things that people of position do not do, hence there are unbecoming or undignified or unworthy actions'- and none of them feel as strong as the Japanese. (In a truly shameful situation I think we don't say anything at all.)

Another of those common wisdom things is that Japan is a shame culture and the west a guilt culture. I never quite believed that, coming as I do from a Catholic background where the two are inseparable: you feel ashamed at having done something wrong and it doesn't matter if someone knows you did it or not, because God always does. But now I'm seeing the difference clearly. What's bothering her is that someone saw her doing something utterly unbecoming a high-born lady, basically, not that someone saw her attempting murder. She doesn't feel guilt, and again the notion that she should feel guilt seems totally absent from everyone's thoughts. He left her, her feelings overcame her and she tried to kill him, and no one, including the ex-lover himself, ever says anything like But she *shouldn't* do that.

What struck me more was that she goes in an instant from screaming vengefulness to wilting moaning Oh you saw me. Now me, if I was in that kind of situation and suddenly found my revenge snatched from me, I'd stay furious. I'd go after the man who tricked me into thinking a straw figure was my intended victim and claw *his* eyes out. Not her. She's all hot on revenge until someone from her own social circle sees her being it. (Earlier in the story she goes all glary-eyed blood-thirsty in front of a servant at the shrine. Servants don't count.) She's actually turned into a demon at this point, as Yumemakura women will do- horns sprouting, eyes turning up and bleeding. Pretty unnatural stuff. But OMG an onmyouji sees her being a demon and that stops her cold. And that says something about the primacy of emotions too. Feelings trump logic but appearances trump feelings.

But because I don't care about appearances and my feelings goad me, I shall add: Ils ont changé ma chanson, for heaven's sake. Though I never got the rules of accordance straight and thought you added an e with a feminine object. This is yet another reason not to quote French unless you are. Or google it, whichever.
Tags: dragons, japan, onmyouji, translation

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