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Snow Country 雪国

snow countrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (川端康成) is considered a classic of Japanese literature. I became interested in reading it after reading Donald Keene’s memoir which mentioned Kawabata’s suicide and Nobel Prize.

I was a bit surprised Snow Country wasn’t required reading in BYU’s Japanese program I went through. However, given that the book deals with Onsen Geisha and the consuming of adult beverages and BYU censors what their students read, it isn’t too surprising that we were left reading Christian Japanese authors like Shusaku Endo instead.

As I started reading this book I read about 10 pages in English and then the same 10 pages in Japanese. This proved very interesting. Eventually I read it all in English and only certain passages that seemed strange in English in Japanese as well. Not that the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, did a poor job, but some things just don’t come across as well in English. For instance, in Japanese you can clearly tell who is speaking in the male-female dialogues as females speak differently than males in Japanese (ending sentences with wa, kashira, etc.) In English, Seidensticker doesn’t add “he said” or “she said” at the end of the quotes since that isn’t what it says in Japanese; nor is it necessary in Japanese to figure out who is saying what. However, it can be tricky, or at least unclear, to figure out just who is saying what at times in the English translation.

Also, with respect to the translated version, the writing doesn’t seem very smooth. The Japanese has a better flow. Again, this isn’t really Seidensticker’s fault. I’m not saying I could do a better translation. Rather, some things really need to be read in their original tongue to be fully appreciated.

I don’t imagine the English version of this book is for everyone. In fact, most people who read the English translation will probably say, “He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for that??” But if you enjoy highly symbolic writings, have had experiences with a Japanese girlfriend who left you puzzled, or wish to reflect on experiences you may have had in Japan then Snow Country is certainly worth a quick read (and quick it is at well under 200 pages).

Assuming you are reading the English translation by Edward G. Seidensticker be sure to read the Introduction after you read the book as he packs his Introduction with spoilers for some unknown reason.

3 Responses to “Snow Country 雪国”

  1. 1

    When I was doing ski tours in Tahoe, I used to use the first line of 雪国 when we went through the tunnel on the way to the south shore hotels.  The customers were always very impressed, but I’ve never actually read the book. It was just handy to have several things from Japanese literature memorized to spring on them at the appropriate moment so I could see the surprise on their faces. Things like the beginnings to 方丈記 (An Account of my Hut), 枕草子 (Pillow Book), that sort of thing.

    Maybe now I’ll actually read the book…

  2. 2

    I read your comments on Snow Country just now. I was searching online for a different English translation from Seidensticker’s. Haven’t found any yet. My reasons for agreeing with you come from seeing the film version back in the early 90’s, and then finaly reading the book in 2006. I was often confused about the dialog, but unlike you, I can’t read the original Japanese for clarification. The film is probably my favorite film – and I’m a great lover of films. I have difficulties with that much like the book – the subtitled film is only available on tape, or a DVD copy made from the VHS, terrible picture quality, occasionally washed out and unreadable subtitles, poor sound. Sometimes I wonder if I love it the more because it seems there’s a conspiracy to keep it from me. I have seen a new DVD advertised, but apparently without English subtitles. I know it’s a stretch, but I believe that the film gave me enough understanding of the novel to feel Seidensticker’s translation fails – both to give the mood and flavor of the novel as well as make clear the more basic elements such as the dialog problem. I’ll keep looking for an alternative translation and probably will buy the DVD even without English subtitles. When I wake and remember a dream, and I know it was an amazing and important dream even though I don’t know why – that is how I feel about the film. Best wishes, Robert.

  3. 3

    Thanks for your comments, Robert. Let me know how the quality of the new DVD is. I’d be very interested in it w/o English subtitles if the quality is good. I haven’t seen the movie yet.