Larry Kenny -- Project portfolio

Enka: The Japanese Spirit in Translation

My work in enka translation was made possible by a research grant for the winter of 2011. My initial plans for the winter were overly ambitious: I wanted to produce an entire album of Japanese enka music, translated to English, arranged and performed in full, along with an analysis of the roles each of the songs played in the road-to-recovery narrative of post-World War II Japan. I discovered that producing an album is much more involved and taxing than I predicted, and ultimately I finished only two songs – but the experience renewed my passion for music, helped my Japanese studies immensely, and gave me a new perspective on the art of translation.

The musical genre which is called enka today emerged in Japan in the 50's, though music called “enka” has existed for considerably longer. It is a genre of sentimental ballads, with a lone singer accompanied by a small Western-style orchestra, colored with guitars, saxophones, and / or traditional Japanese instruments. Since the birth of enka some themes have been ubiquitous – crying alone over lost loves, yearning for the beauty and simplicity of the past or the countryside, and persevering despite hardship and suffering. During my work, I feared I had failed to realize the place each specific song had had in the postwar narrative. I have come to realize the impossibility of considering any one song in a vacuum – rather, the fact that any song was popular at a given time revealed what sentiments were resonating with its listeners at the time, and it is the genre as a whole, not any particular song, that played a part in nation's recovery. The evolution of enka can be seen, to some extent, as parallel to the evolution of Japan. It began with a struggle to identify what being Japanese meant, a longing for better times and an echo of the pain that hung heavy on many Japanese hearts. In recent years, it has reflected Japan's internal conflict of reconciling old and new, Eastern and Western, traditional and modern, past and future. I had tasked myself with translating the very Japanese spirit.

While my imagined audience while working on the music was native English-speaking students of Japanese interested in translation, many of the hundreds of people who have listened to the completed songs are (according to YouTube statistics) Japanese, and their positive response has been heartwarming. As much as I worried that I was failing to truly understand the cultural essence of enka, it seems I have struck a positive chord with at least some of the people who personally relate to enka in the ways I had only read about. The positive response has motivated me to continue attemping the challenge of musical translation. This connection with listeners and other lovers of music has been the greatest personal reward of this project.

I came to this project primarily from the perspective of an aspiring translator, and the process has been very educational in that regard. I have learned that absolutely anything can be translated – but 'translatability' is largely a matter of how many words it will take to get the meaning across. Part of the flavor of any given language is the selection of concepts it happens to represent with a single word where many other languages take several. Two such words I encountered in my songs were 雪解け yukidoke and 寝化粧 negeshō. Each is perfectly translatable: the former means “the melting of the snow in springtime”, the latter, “taking off makeup before going to bed”. Conveying an idea in several words, however, has a different feel from using the one word which is wedded to that concept – and when working in the context of a song or poem where every word counts, a six-to-one word correspondence is not viable. The necessary alternative is to tap into the complete ideas being communicated. The word negeshō is used to evoke the sense of negeshō – it is the act which discards the face presented to the public and reveals the private self, but only at the end of the day, when what is done is done. In a lyrical context, it is this sense that is crucial to translate. When every consonant counts, actually including the word “makeup” should certainly be done if at all possible, but not if doing so would sacrifice the very reason the original lyrics spoke of negeshō.

As paradoxical as it may sound, I also learned that, in a complementary sense, nothing can be translated, at least not “perfectly”. The key words in enka lyrics are key words of Japanese culture. One such word is 甘える amaeru, a word so loaded with cultural meaning that scholarly papers and an entire book have been written analyzing its significance to the Japanese. Roughly, it means to behave in a selfish or childish way toward a person upon whom one depends, knowing that person will forgive, in a manner that reaffirms the dependence relationship – with the person who does amaeru admitting their dependence and the recipient acknowledging their willingness to support their dependant. This is a reasonable translation, perhaps, and a more detailed translation with examples could be still better, but no amount of translation will ever substitute for hearing the word spoken and used in a Japanese context. In an amaeru context, the person performing the amaeru, the recipient, their relationship, and the emotions involved all have descriptions naturally stated in Japanese, and the translational inaccuracies multiply at every step outward. For another example, there is the word 酒 sake. It means “alcohol” – it refers to any alcoholic drink. It can also refer specifically to the rice wine usually given the name sake in English – but the usual Japanese word to refer specifically to this drink is not sake but 日本酒 nihonshu, a word whose characters mean “Japanese alcohol”. It may seem satisfactory to translate sake as “alcohol”, but this fails to capture the connotations properly – “alcohol” seems too non-colloquial, too chemical. “Alcoholic drink” is more accurate yet even more unfitting – one would not likely invite friends “out for alcoholic drinks”. Indeed, the word “drink” is probably closest in connotations, but this loses a great deal of accuracy, for sake contains alcohol whereas a drink may not. Fortunately, when “drink” is supposed to mean sake, this is often clear – just as clear as if the word “drink” really did mean sake.

The “impossibility” of translation does not end at differences of specificity and colloquialness, however; even a straightforward word like 道 michi “road” presents problems. Michi and “road”, in most contexts, have essentially identical meanings. But for a Japanese person, that meaning is constructed by Japanese roads. Their roads are lined with sakura trees, buzzing with cicadas in the summer, too narrow for this American to imagine driving comfortably. The word michi will call to mind, at some perhaps subconscious level, other (predominantly Japanese) people who have said michi, and all the (predominantly Japanese) poems and songs they have ever heard about michi. They will not likely picture Route 66, their michi may not be paved with yellow bricks, and they will almost surely not imagine Ray Charles telling Jack to hit the michi and not come back. These loci of associations cannot be translated short of merging one mind with another. But this problem arises even within one language – you and I probably have a fairly similar idea of “apple”, but what of “thunder”? If I speak of thunder in a poem, will you know that I speak admiringly of Nature's awesome power and beautiful sounds, or will you understand me to be speaking of an object of fear? Translation, I have found, is not succeed-or-fail, but always sits in a fuzzy region on a continuum of communication. To somebody who speaks Japanese and English, the word 悪夢 akumu “nightmare” is, in my mind, a better translation of the word 'nightmare' than is the phrase “bad dream” – regardless that the characters 悪 and 夢 mean “bad” and “dream”.

While I came to the project as a translator, I left as a musician. I tried to apply my sense of translation to the music as well as the words – finding the meanings and ideas of the Japanese music and expressing them in my music. And while I am very secure in my fluency in English, I found I'm a long way off from being fluent in music. In the process of putting the songs together, I played several instruments with various recording techniques and started over from scratch several times. Unlike translating the lyrics, where I had a decent idea of my goal, in the music I was very unsure as to what I exactly I was trying to convey. From a purely musical perspective, enka music is not very “Japanese” – the harmonies, melodies and rhythms are generally very familiar to Western ears. Compared to “authentic” traditional Japanese music, enka music was already translated. While I made several attempts at finding a “cultural equivalent” of the stye of the music, none seemed truly successful. Again, what I realized was that the music wasn't enka because of how it was written – rather, that style of music happened to be the vehicle in which the performers and listeners of enka had found to express their sorrows and triumphs. To leave the music the same in my versions would have been anachronistic, simply because that music lived when it was written. (There is still enka today being written in the same style, but it sounds like enka. My music, being in English, would not be enka – it is a translation.) As such, I trusted my still-young musical gut and tried to create an effective, appropriate musical stage from which my vocalists could project their emotions. While there are many things I would do differently, it seems that in the end that experiment worked out decently well.

While I would like to take another try at enka translation some day in the future, I am ready to step away for a while from the world of lonely tears falling into cups of sake. I have come away with a deep appreciation of the relations between music, language, and culture that I hope to continue exploring through musical composition, literary translation and linguistic research. I am grateful to the people who make the Paul K. Richter and Evalyn E. Cook Richter Memorial Fund grant possible, for allowing me to carry out this work in the presence of brilliant Japanese literary and musical scholars, purchase music software and muster reasonable compensation for my vocalists. I will carry this experience with me to every new musical and literary world I explore.

The songs from this project can be found here.