Interview to Hirohide Takeyama

Hirohide Takeyama translated If This is a ManThe TruceThe Periodic TableThe Drowned and the Saved and If Not Now, When? into Japanese. He is also planning an anthology of Primo Levi’s short stories “to introduce my fellow Japanese to the pure writer, and not just the witness”. He is the curator of the exhibit, “Primo Levi: Thinking About Auschwitz Down to its Roots” at the Kyoto Museum for World Peace from October 22, 2011 to December 17, 2011. Hirohide Takeyama is Professor of European Letters and Culture at Ritsumei University, Kyoto. In this interview he speaks about the reception and spread of Primo Levi’s works in Japan.

Which works of Primo Levi have been translated into Japanese? 
The first was The Truce. When it won the Campiello prize, the publisher Hayakawa Shobo wanted to have it translated even though Primo Levi was not very well known in Japan at that time. In 1969 The Truce came out in a translation by Kou Waki, but the book was hard for the Japanese to understand and was not a great success.
Then, it was 1978 when I read If This is a Man. It made a big impression on me and I offered to translate it for the publisher Asahi Shimbunsha, which then was the also the publisher of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun, “The Morning Sun”. They accepted the offer and we added the appendix to the scholastic edition -- Ai giovani [To young readers] because I thought this would be useful to Japanese readers. If This is a Man came out in 1980 in my translation. It did not become a best seller but it keeps on selling and is always being reprinted. In Japan it is considered a fundamental work of memoir writing.
Then came The Periodic Table in1992. I had offered to translate it (this time for the publisher Kousakusha) because it tells the story of Primo Levi’s life chronologically and, above all, because it speaks of Auschwitz, which makes it more accessible for Japanese readers. However, it was not very successful and it was not reprinted.
Then, there was If Not Now, When?, which I translated in 1992 for Asahi Shimbunsha again. It is a rather long work and I took a lot of time to translate it. When I met Primo Levi, he was working on it and we talked about it. I remembered that he told me, “In these days they are talking a lot about the crisis of the novel. And I, to get over it, will write a long novel”. He was like that. He had confidence in himself. However, the Japanese translation was only reprinted once.
In 1998 I translated The Truce.The translation that had come out in 1969 was almost unknown and the publishing house Asahi Shimbunsha asked me to write a new translation. I think it had some success, even more than the film by Francesco Rosi, which was not received well by Japanese audiences perhaps because it was a bit hard for them to understand the post-war situation in Europe. The Truce did not become a bestseller either, but it was put into a low-cost book series, which means it is considered a modern classic.
Lastly, there was The Drowned and the Saved. It came out in 2000 in my translation (again published by Asahi Shimbunsha) and was a great success. It was a new reflection on the experience of Auschwitz, a process of deeper investigation. It is being reprinted continually and is considered a fundamental work.
So far, Storie naturali [Natural stories] is the only collection of stories that has been translated (by Eiko Sekiguchi). It was published by Kousakusha in a low cost edition in 2008. It made a great impression because it was considered simple science fiction. However, the stories of Primo Levi are works that deserve more attention. I am planning to translate one of the story collections, perhaps Lilìt or Vizio di forma [Lilith or Structural defect]. Maybe Lilìt would be better. A third of it is dedicated to the experience of the lager, which Japanese readers would be more familiar with. In Japan it would be hard to publish all of his stories in one anthology.

Are the publishers always the same ones?
Four books have come out with the same publishing house, Asahi Shimbunsha. There was an editor there named Mie Kondaibou who liked Primo Levi very much, but she is deceased and relations with them are harder now.

Why would the Japanese reading public be receptive of Primo Levi?
Primo Levi is considered a memoir writer, a kind of witness. In fact, his most successful books are If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved. It is not as if there is no rancor in these books… but there is, more than this, the will to get to know the reality of the lager. This is what interests the Japanese. If you really want to understand what Auschwitz was, you need to have a point of view that is a little distanced. Levi found himself in contact with strange people and he described them very capably, but, above all, he wanted to know more about the real circumstances of the lager. Why did it originate? Who are the Germans? And then, he put religion to one side. He intuited that religion could help the prisoners resist or could give them an explanation of Auschwitz in terms of a divine tribulation. However, he never appealed to religion because he wanted to face reality clearly. This was very powerful and very courageous. Levi arrived at conclusions that were very different from, for example, those of the Austrian Viktor Frankl. This clarity, this distance, is something that we in Japan are able to appreciate very much.

This might also have to do with the history of Japan, its alliance with the Germans? A more distanced look could make it easier to face up to the past?
Certainly. Our position is not neutral because we fought the war on the side of the Germans. This is a very weighty issue. However, more than 70 years have gone by since the war and almost everybody is a pacifist because with the atomic bomb we have paid too high a price and we are still under American control. We Japanese know that war does not pay. We cannot even export arms. It is forbidden by law.

When the books were published, do you remember the reviews?
Yes, I saved them.

What problems were there in approaching Primo Levi?
That is a hard question (laughter). The hardest thing was to understand Judaism. Especially while I was translating The Periodic Table, which begins with “Argon,” I was afraid that, since it was at the beginning of the book, the Japanese would not understand it and would be discouraged about reading on. So, I studied Jewish culture very much.

And are you satisfied with your work?
Yes, I am satisfied. Another problem was that of the many languages that Primo Levi uses, languages that I did not know – Polish, Hungarian, Yiddish, etc. I had studied German and French, but I had to get some help from experts about the other languages.

And how did you express them in your translation? 
Where he used the original language, I left it in. We can write these in Japanese mixing ideograms and a phonetic alphabet. When I translated the conversations, I translated and wrote the conversation in Japanese and I placed the original conversations on the side in small characters.

How did you manage to translate Dante in the chapter of the Pikolo?
That was not an easy chapter. I drew from one of the many Japanese translations of the Commedia. However, this was not easy because the quotations were not correct. They changed some of the words.

Were there passages that were particularly complicated?
Several. This was the reason why I came in order to clarify some of the problem passages with the writer in 1980.

Could you tell us something about your meeting?
I was still young. I was 30. It was 1980. After that, we met two more times.  He was not alone, but with his wife and a friend. I was a bit embarrassed, but they were very nice. I was a kid, but he treated me like a translator with a lot of experience. He also showed me one of his notebooks that used in order to study Japanese on his own. It was a kind of dictionary full of ideograms translated and annotated while he was reading the translation of The Truce. I was really surprised! All the ideograms were correct, several of which were very hard. He had translated them while he was reading, perhaps with someone helping him. He seemed to me that he was a very curious person and that he wanted to make it on his own. We mainly talked about the translation, but I remember a thing that impressed me. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, which did not hide his tattoo. I asked him if it was his custom to show it, and he told me that he did not want to cancel anything, to hide anything. He made a big impression on me.

Do you teach courses on Primo Levi at the university?
I teach courses on European Culture in which I compare different points of views on Auschwitz. In these courses I have the students read If This is a Manand The Drowned and the Saved.

Which Italian authors are the most well known in Japan?
Right now there is not a lot being translated. Almost everything by Calvino is available, and the same goes for Cesare Pavese. Moravia was once very much in fashion. Now, less is being translated. Very few books are being sold. Young people do not read. There is the economic crisis and, above all, we hear about the crisis in academic books. However, it is hard to publish a literary work, even harder for a translation, because translations cost more because of the cost of their copyrights. The crisis is very serious, like nothing I have ever seen before. For the most part, Japanese publishing houses are small, with less than 10 people. Therefore if a crisis comes, it is very hard for them to recuperate. Before, it was much easier to publish. Now… in our university, for example, there is system of subsidies for publication, in which the university gives a certain sum of money to a publishing house. I have never happened to use this sum, but three years ago my publisher asked me to. It was not like this before. Perhaps the Italian writer who has had most success is Moravia, with his books that talk about sex and transgression and are a bit scandalous.  And the fact that the Vatican once forbid them is an element that makes them more interesting…. And then there is Elio Vittorini, but mainly there is Italo Calvino. T Zero andT he Baron in the Trees are books that are still being reprinted today. Among the more recent contemporaries? There are Baricco, Tabucchi, and Umberto Eco, but they were not so successful. Aside from The Name of the Rose, which is very much appreciated as a mystery, Eco is not famous in Japan. 

Are there any aspects of Primo Levi’s works that are particularly hard for Japanese readers to get into?
There is a dark side that comes out mainly in the stories, like “Angelic Butterfly” [The Sixth Day (London: Abacus, 1997), pp. 18-26], where the element of horror mixes with a reflection on Auschwitz. This is a side that is still unknown to readers. This is the reason why I would like to translate another story collection.

But does an ordinary Japanese person know who Primo Levi is?
No. He is part of the patrimony of intellectuals, above all. For this reason, I have tried to make him better known through an exhibit, which aims to be a journey through the images of Primo Levi and the words of those who knew him -- Bianca Guidetti Serra, Ernesto Ferrero, Alberto Cavaglion, and Giovanni Tesio. We exhibit a great many documents and also some personal items. These include the original manuscript of the poem, La bambina di Pompei/ “The Girl-Child of Pompei”, which also refers to Hiroshima. There is a copy of D'Azeglio sotto spirito [D’Azeglio in spirits], the secondary school newspaper Levi wrote for, in which there is a signed caricature of Cesare Pavese! And then, there is Levi’s notebook with the ideograms, these also copies. There are also many photos that have not appeared in Japan before. I would like the exhibit to help people get to know the man, and not just the witness.

[Interview conducted in Turin October 17, 2011. Transcribed and edited by the International Primo Levi Studies Center]

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