A Poetic Moment: At an Obon Festival

At an Obon Festival

———————————James Au

Shall I celebrate, sweet heart, and say

Adieu to those lovely spirits dying?

Shall I hold my fate, retreat, or stay

To witness the far-flung lanterns glowing?

The evening light, at times dimmed, flickers

Along the sea of lonely eastern isle;

The paper ship I folded quivers

As waves may drown my love just a while.

BUT no motion has she now, no breath;

She sleeps forever in dreams of mine,

Or wait, until the last candle’s death,

That I drink up each single drop of wine.

When sea no longer holds this preach of light,

Then let it live at least one peaceful night.

20160803_obon festival

[First written on 26th August 2016; photo credit goes to  http://ilikevents.com/images/share/event/kyoto-obon-festival/pic2.jpg]

A Prelude to The Eighth Conference of Society for Cultural Interaction in East Asia (SCIEA): A Travelogue to Beijing

I first set foot on the soil of Beijing, to attend the conference co-organized by Beijing Foreign Studies University and Kansai University, from 13th May 2017 to 14th May 2017. Even though many, especially my patriotic Chinese ex-supervisor at Tokyo University, stereotypically decided me to be the same as his other more precious mainland research students, and decreed that Cantonese is a mere dialect, I experienced differently at the capital, which did surprise me a lot.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dare instigate any confrontation between Hongkongese and mainland Chinese, especially when “one country” speaks louder than the “two systems”. But I had to switch off, as expected, all the social networking sites when my plane landed on this great city. Facebook, Line and Instagram were nothing but empty logos on my smartphone. Immigration officers, bus and taxi drivers were mostly sulky faces. Okay, I am not a dumb Mandarin speaker, but I felt uncomfortable with their frequent cacuminal: the natives there rolled their tongues more often when they spoke than I expected. During my less-than-three-day sojourn, I felt myself more like a stranger, a guest than a fellow countryman.

What is ordinary to us can be rare to the citizens. The most memorable is how a cab driver did not have any GPS services installed, nor did he know exactly where the station was located; he opened the car window, and asked in the end a fellow taxi driver, or someone riding a bicycle passing by him, “Brother, excuse me, do you know if this is the right way to get to the south exit of XXX station?”

At a banquet, right after the planetary sessions, I got to know one young boy from Shandong and who had registered to be the audience of this conference. He told me that if I wanted to visit Facebook here, I had to install a special application which connects the phone to US or Japan servers – a way which they call Crossing the Great Wall (翻牆), a metaphor used to describe any Chinese netizens’ attempt to avoid the tight censorship of sensitive content on the Internet and see whatever they want. One of his words struck me the most, “The more the government forbids us, the more the effort we spare finding a way to do it clandestinely.”

Let me reiterate: I didn’t try to despise anybody, but I appreciate and respect their culture, and did observe “When in Beijing, do as the Beijingians do”. Meanwhile, regardless of race and ethnicity, it is important to cherish the differences in various cultures, and to have, with one another, a dialogue with reason, with peace, just as the scholars did in the conference.

[Photo credit goes to SCIEA]

Plateau Periods

By Ma

It has never been easy for me to learn a foreign language, including English, and not even now. The effect of dyslexia made the situation worse. Though dejected in self, I have been told again and again that there is no shortcut to the success of a fluent English speaker.

After years of language, however, I somehow believe that a shortcut is possible, and the only thing is the efforts spared on finding the threshold of that fast track. For example, immersing oneself entirely in another language without an aid of his native counterpart may accelerate the learning process.

The previous entries and videos prove that some polyglots have acquired a new lingua franca in almost no time. Despite all these, I believe some basics, mainly memorizing new words and learning the grammar rules, are absolutely necessary.

In remembrance, an English teacher once defined two periods of plateau when it comes to language acquisition, the first being the beginner level, or the level between elementary and intermediate. If what he said is true, then you will make swift progress in that language having surmounted the two big obstacles.

The second one, he explained, is the early advanced level. A novice at this level needs to read extensively and spend as many hours as he can to fully expose himself under that language. Once you overcome this great hurdle, you will be a near native speaker. You can think, understand and discuss some abstract concepts without restraint in that language.

Using such a framework my English teacher suggested, I feel like I am still an early advanced English learner striving to fight against the avalanche on the second plateau; my Japanese is on the way between the first and the second, and the lack of time inhibits me from proceeding further at the moment; my French, German and Korean learning path, in contrast, remains long as I am still at the point of departure even though the sound of the deafening starter pistol has been heard.

Feel free to share your learning experience with us and comment to us.

[Featured Image: https://fthmb.tqn.com/J00RGPnE02PoWPam14EEFo_OGSQ=/768×0/filters:no_upscale()/about/dictionary-390055_1920-58d7819c5f9b584683a28462.jpg%5D

A Hyperpolyglot – A Review on an Interview of a Translator

By Ma

« lapis qui volvitur algam non generat »

(A rolling stone gathers no moss)

Old Latin Proverb

Recently one of the most eye catching has been a video about a man, Ioannis Ikonomou, being able to speak thirty-two languages, an impressive talent of which makes him fit in the United Nations, where he is working as a translator.

“I live my life in many languages, not just one” is apparently one important motto of Ioannis which may also strike the hearts of most eager language learners. Given the speedily growing interaction between peoples and societies across the national borders, multicultural experiences are becoming more common. The capability of speaking a diverse of languages thus enables one like Iaonnis to accommodate various cultures and to foster exchanges with many others.

One’s learning progress, for sure, relies heavily on the efforts and time devoted, as most agree. Just as Iaonnis had said “to learn a new language, you use it”, the more a learner have access to a new language, the more fluently he will speak. One important prerequisite for becoming a proficient user in a foreign language is thus perseverance in its learning.

It is time to motivate yourself to speak and to learn (a) new language(s) every day.

[Source of image: https://billzart.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/dictionary1.jpg%5D

[Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8iKZEra5I0&feature=youtu.be]


The Moon or the Mirror of the Moon? Reflections on History, Story and Narrative (Part 2)

When we return to the question I evoked earlier related to truth, Bruce Gatenby did offer some of his insights, if not comprehensively, on the intersection between truth, memory and narrative fiction. Quoting examples of Samuel Backett’s Molloy and Fernando Pessoa[1]’s The Book of the Disquiet, he underscored experience of self, and defined respectively truth as ‘facts’, memory as ‘perception of facts’ and narrative truth as ‘a blend of objective, subjective truth, the real and the made up’. According to Bruce, truth also refers to truth values, and values in its plural form imply that different disciplines highlight different values. Although Bruce did not go on explaining what substantiates the statement that ‘facts are objective’, as well as how the process of remembering and misremembering gives rise to a high degree of subjectivity, narrative fiction, nonetheless, is interwoven between what might have happened and what a writer think it did, together with his critiques.

Speaking of the word ‘happen’, it reminds me of its German equivalent ‘geschehen’ (English translation: to happen, to arise), which shares the same etymology and roots with ‘Die Geschichte’ (English translation: history). Judging from the linguistic aspect, German have the tendency to connect what has happened with history, and to elucidate any experience, narrative becomes essential. It is in this essence that fiction does not only offer entertainment, but it universalizes experience as a ‘higher’ truth at least in the continental context, as Bruce chanted. He quoted the expression “ecstatic truth”[2] used by Werner Herzog, which is a mode of representation of one’s “experience of sublimity”[3], if I understand the term accurately. This sublimity, for sure, then cannot sever itself from Romantic ideal of imagination, as the presenter explained painstakingly, citing Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey. Bruce hastened to move on to his definition of memoir, though, without dissecting further how rhetoric devices are employed as tools in the imagination, and how this imagination can be regarded not as conveying paradoxical truth, but as demonstrating what he coined the term ‘higher truth’.

Memoir, he characterized, is ‘self-fashioned’ and is ‘retold in the form of narrative’, and is thus a flow of fact and fiction. The term fiction he employed here seems to signify fictive elements instead of a genre. Nevertheless, Bruce quotes Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Œdipus[4], stressing that “there is always a flow-producing machine, another machine connected to it that interrupts or draws off part of this flow”[5]. This “flow-producing machine” then is controlled by not just the self, but a real force. In this aspect, a writer associated an object or his experience with another, and narrated it with various rhetoric devices not because of his pure imagination, but because he was under specific social and cultural condition that enabled him to tell his story in his own way. In other words, a writer does not fabricate out of nothing but, as Bruce quoted Geoff Dyer’s words, he always moves his pen “between reliable fabric and fabrication” in such a seamless way that a reader can hardly notice.

Again, if we accept the discourse of Platonic intangible truth, can we at least see His shadow through some sort of mirrors? In Raphael Foshay’s presentation, he highlighted that literary drama is a means to Platonic discourse, however useless art may seem to Plato. Meanwhile, Raphael brought in Derrida’s interpretation of “pharmakon”, which signify both poison and medicine, depending on the context[6]. Here the ambivalence of the word and several others (such as the famous différance proposed by Derrida) implied the impurity in the pursuit of truth. The incompleteness of écriture has shied a lot of literati and thinkers from the reality and most of them embraced nihilism, just as Nietzsche and Adorno Theodor did. In the book Of Grammatology[7], Raphael cited, Derrida prioritized speeches over écriture, and in the near end, he mentioned William Desmond[8], a contemporary philosopher and ended his speech by concluding that philosophy should be possession rather than practice and pursuit.

While following that truth should not be pursued through philosophical discourse, we may also ask whether idea has, should there be any, any ties with truth and/or imagination, and whether this idea is transferrable from one culture to another, or from one nation to another. In Samuel Malissa’s lecture on translation of Japanese literature, he introduced Miyamori Asatarō (宮森麻太郎;1869-1952)’s translation discourse among which a famous statement would be “only Japanese can translate Japanese literature” because “a cultural diplomacy” is involved in translation, and only a native Japanese can translate the essence. Published in Yomiurishimbun newspaper in the 1930s, “On the translation of Japanese” (nihon no honyaku nitsuite) mentioned several ‘bad’ translation of Haiku done by foreign translators, and provided readers with ‘good’ examples. For sure, what constitutes good and bad is subjective in this case, but bringing in historical context, we can see Miyamori’s linguistic nationalism aligned closely with Japanese imperial expansion, as Samuel rightly observed. In this light, literary works and essays are not internally sufficient but must be analyzed together with its historical and cultural context.

The conference is overall a very inspiring one, and I hope an equally active, exciting exchange of intellectual thoughts next time.

[The End]

[Photo taken on 2nd April 2017; Photo credit goes to Norman]

[1] Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935) was a Portuguese writer and poet. His work The Book of Disquiet, published in 1982 after his death, has invited various interpretations about the way it is organized. Fernando once said the book was a “factless autobiography” (“autobiografia sem factos”).

[2] Werner Herzog, “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth”. Trans. Moira Weigel, Boston University. (Web) (https://www.bu.edu/arion/on-the-absolute-the-sublime-and-ecstatic-truth/)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Œdipus (1972). Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

[5] Ibid., pp. 5.

[6] Jacques Derrida. “Plato’s Pharmacy” & “The Double Session” in Dissemination. Trans Barbara Johnson, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981

[7] Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology (1967). Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

[8] William Desmond is an Irish philosopher who has written a lot of critiques on philosophers such as Plato, Hegel and Derrida.

The Moon or the Mirror of the Moon? –Reflections on History, Story and Narrative (Part 1)

This year’s Asia Conference on Arts and Humanities (ACAH 2017) at Kobe is particularly enchanting, with most of scholarly presentations focusing on the historical, fictional and narrative discourse, the theory of which I have been struggling with in my thesis, before demonstrating the inextricable connection between literature and history. The lecture given by Brian Victoria, for instance, was an attempt to evaluate the research methodology of historical scholars, using D. T. Suzuki (1870 -1966), both a Japanese Zen master and a Buddhist scholar, as an example. Through close analyses of few Suzuki’s essays, Brian argued how nation’s ideologies, chiefly imperialism and totalitarianism, had formulated and reformulated his religious thoughts. He ended his speech by suggesting to all researchers “five golden rules”, one of which is, Brian advised, that prejudices might result because of self-interest. Here he did pinpoint a universal phenomenon, for a researcher only concentrates on whatever interests him, keeps on digging evidence to substantiate his argument favorable to him, and refutes whatever obstructs the development of his thesis. A historian may endeavor, at best, to seek an objective perspective to interpret a primary text, but the historian’s biography, cultural background and scholastic training did impose subjectivity upon himself. This is perhaps what has been discussed for more than one millennium – epistemology, as well as concerning how men acquire knowledge.

If we agree that knowledge can be developed both through reason (Vernunft) and experience (Erleben), then does each of our distinctive experience form a possibly different knowledge? And if our knowledge is different, will then what we think is true a mere belief? This question has already been discussed in Plato’s Republic, where he supports the unseekability and the intangibility of truth using his famous example of “bed”[1]. Suppose truth cannot be sought, what we think is true would then be “perceived truth” – phenomenon –, and our understanding of history is not as stable as we thought it to be. In this respect, it is essential to deconstruct the past historical narrative, and construct a “new” one based upon our different understanding, or I should better call it ideology. Probably because of such a difference, Fredric Jameson chanted a slogan “always historicize”[2], Myles Chilton described in his presentation, which implies a shift of synchronic approach to diachronic approach. I do not agree, for sure, that how we comprehend history is entirely different from how our antecedent did, yet the way of their narrating – telling the history – may be constrained by the formerly cultural condition. Had Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) not fled to Turkey during the Nazi time, and had he not been annoyed with the limited research source he had at hand, he would not have been able to complete his book of mimesis. Viewed in this light, whatever has been written may be a conditioned truth, or “a stylized past” shaped by the writer’s background and cultural environment. Myles continued to cite Marshall Brown’s saying elsewhere that “history is not a mode of being, but a mode of experiencing being”, the double progressive words “experiencing” and “being” of which give me a sense of the forever changing and changeable.

Suppose the telling of history changes with times, then the changing times alter the form and style of story/fiction too. It is interesting to hear that one student tried to argue Chinese ghost story as a sort of “para-history” by comparing them to Gothics – a mode of unofficial history[3], although I would have been more convinced if she could have explained how the Chinese tradition changed as Confucius “did not discuss anomalies, strengths, disorders, or the supernatural”[4], as well as how “fictions of the grotesque” (志怪小說) developed and how they were connected with the “unofficial [Chinese] history”. Regardless, if any fiction does serve a mimetic function of the perceived truth in the eyes of a writer, then ‘historical fiction’ certainly falls under such a category, too. Before her close reading of Enchi Fumiko (1905-1986)’s fictions, one presenter quoted Diana Wallace’s discourse on “historical moment” usually found in a “fictional setting”[5], and Paul Ricoeur’s “historical intentionality”, the term of which is used to reestablish the link between narrative and historical understanding[6]. If the incorporation of fictive elements into historical discourse is a way to help us to understand history, then fiction should likewise be treated as a supplementary tool for the construction, as not only does its content, but also its form reflect to a certain extent the historical events, as John Bowen said in his survey on Victorian literature[7].

[To be continued]

[Photo taken on 31st Mar 2017; credit goes to IAFOR]

[1] Plato “Theory of Art”, in Republic, trans. Desonde Lee. London: Penguin Classic, pp. 335-353.

[2] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982, ix.

[3] David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Volume 1: The Gothic Tradition. London & New York: Longman, 1996.

[4] See Analects 7.21 (怪力亂神 guai-li-luan-shen)

[5] Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 187, p. 190.

[6] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

[7] John Bowen, “Comic and Satirical” in The Cambridge history of Victorian literature, ed. Kate Flint, Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2012, pp.265-287.

Translation of Love

By Ma

Have you ever thought of confessing your feeling to your crush in a more poetic way? If you have heard of the following two Japanese phrases, you can express your affection in the most romantic way ever.

(1)   月が綺麗ですね


tsuki ga kirei desu ne (By Natsume Sōseki)

Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), one the most celebrated Meiji Japanese novelists and literary scholars, once aspired to be an English teacher and had studied English at London for a year. The phrase was indeed translated by him from an English sentence ‘I love you’. A story behind this translation began with an English course, where he asked one of his students to translate an English text into Japanese. His students literally translated the first sentence into ‘愛してる’(ai shi te ru), a seeming equivalent of the original. Sōseki, however, argued that Japanese people would not express their affection so blatantly, thus justifying his choice ‘月が綺麗ですね’(tsuki ga kirei desu ne), a back translation of which means that the moonlight is beautiful. Although the story cannot be verified, we can still catch a glimpse of the cultural difference between Japan and the Continent at that period.

(2)   死んでもいいわ


shi n de mo i i wa (By Futabatei Shimei)

When Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) was working on a Japanese version of a Russian novel called Ася (English: Unrequited Love; Japanese:片恋), he translated the same English phrase ‘I love you’ into  ‘死んでもいいわ’ (shi n de mo i i wa). Upon translating the Japanese phrase literally back into English, it denotes ‘I can die for you’. However, while checking the original Russian novel, we will discover that what Futabatei was trying to translate was the word ‘Ваша’, which means ‘yours’ in English. Thus, it can be deferred that Futabatei adopted a relatively freer style in his translation.

Through the above two little anecdotes, we can learn some old Japanese euphemisms for expressing one’s love more subtly and romantically.

Reference: http://dic.nicovideo.jp/t/a/月が綺麗ですね