On Translating Cloudburst
As a technical translator, I’ve spent long hours in the guts of Japanese machines, and traced the intricacies of printed circuits with chips laid out as neatly and colorfully as sushi on a board. I’ve defined in clear English the subtle mechanics of gearboxes and drive trains, and scribbled at length about computer network systems for factory automation.
Fiction, though, is what I want to translate.
Some might liken this to a grease-covered mechanic barging into the queen’s parlor to bang on the piano, while others might point out that technical writing teaches discipline and precision. In any case, I decided to have a go at the literary side, which, as it happens, is where my heart has always been.
But the field of literary translation is as unapproachable as Kafka’s Castle, and it was only after a protracted wait in the village that I finally discovered the Shizuoka International Translation Competition—unique in that it gives participants an opportunity to do a literary translation that is evaluated by an illustrious judging committee chaired by Donald Keene, himself; a frequent visitor to the Castle.
I saw in the competition a chance to play piano; if not in the queen’s parlor, then at least in the shadow of the Castle. And when my rendition received an award, the sky seemed friendlier, somehow—and wider.
This competition is a beacon of hope to aspiring literary translators around the world. And I, for one, am truly grateful to the good people in Shizuoka who put it together.
– Gary Alderson
Fujisawa Shuhei (1927-1997) worked in Tokyo as a newspaper editor before turning to fiction writing. After winning major literary awards, Fujisawa emerged as one of Japan’s most revered and best-selling authors of samurai and historical novels. His stories of the joys and sorrows of everyday life in Japan’s feudal period evoke a vanished world. In 2004, “Twilight Samurai” (Tasogare Seibei), the first of a trilogy of movies based on Fujisawa’s short novels, was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and won many prizes worldwide. Although about 25 million copies of Fujisawa’s books have been sold in Japan, none had ever been translated into English until recently released The Bamboo Sword (trans. by Gavin Frew and published by Kodansha, 2005). “Cloudburst” is printed here with kind permission of the Shizuoka International Translation Competition.
A burglar was lurking in the night shadows beneath the eaves of a small shrine to Hachiman, God of War. The burglar’s name was Kakichi.
In the daytime, Kakichi worked as a knife sharpener. He made his Edo rounds carrying a box of grindstones and files — the tools of his trade — and he sharpened kitchen knives, sickles, and scissors. Occasionally he was asked to set the teeth of a saw, and he carried the files for that purpose. And when a promising house caught his eye in the course of his rounds, he’d pay that house another visit in the dead of night.
Despite this modus operandi, Kakichi didn’t view knife sharpening simply as a cover for scouting houses to burgle. He was in fact quite dedicated to his knife sharpening work, and considered it his real trade.
From time to time, though, his darker impulses would get the better of him, and he’d commit a burglary. On those occasions, his transformation into a hardened burglar was a thorough one. Should an alarm be raised, he was fully prepared to stab someone if his escape depended on it. But he’d been at it for a number of years now, and no alarm had ever sounded.
A heavy rain was falling, and Kakichi gazed out at the faintly luminescent carpet of spray that was boiling off the ground. He was waiting for the downpour to let up.
Across the street loomed a black wall, and beyond the wall was the Otsuya shop and residence that Kakichi intended to break in to. Otsuya was a wholesaler dealing in used merchandise procured from the Kyoto region, and business was good.
Whenever someone requested his knife sharpening services, Kakichi usually performed the work at the back entrance, and he would often sit there working for up to half a day. During those hours, he might be offered water to drink, or he might even receive permission to use the toilet, and these brief views of the interior were generally enough for him to judge whether or not the house could be robbed.
If a place looked promising, he’d prolong his work in the hope of being invited into the kitchen for a simple meal, thereby giving him a good idea of the layout both outside and inside.
There were even times during a kitchen meal when he’d exchange light banter with the maids. Kakichi was thirty-two, and of medium build and height. He possessed a very ordinary face — neither plain nor handsome — a face that wouldn’t normally draw a second glance. But in the course of kitchen banter, there had been maids who suddenly became more animated in their speech upon hearing that Kakichi was single.
The quality of a servant’s training was another factor in determining whether a house could be robbed successfully. These were the finer points that an observant burglar learns to discern over the years.
The Otsuya establishment had engaged Kakichi’s services twice in the past, and today had been his third visit there. Leaving through the wall’s back gate, he’d tampered with the lock, and the latch could not have dropped properly into place when the gate was closed for the evening. A well-managed household would have summoned a carpenter at once to repair the lock, but Kakichi was betting that the Otsuya household made do with a makeshift fix for the night. If he was wrong and the lock had been fixed, he’d simply go over the wall.
These thoughts put a gleam in Kakichi’s eye. All he had to do now was wait for the rain to let up. The shower had swept in abruptly, and shouldn’t last long. The night sky was already looking lighter. There were no eyes to look suspiciously at Kakichi standing there under the eaves. When he’d first fled here from the sudden downpour, he’d seen four or five others scurrying down the street for shelter, but not a soul had passed since.
Only time was passing while the rain beat down on the deserted street.
Suddenly, he heard footsteps and voices, and then, without warning, two figures came dashing into the tiny grounds of the shrine for shelter beneath these same eaves. Kakichi quickly moved around the corner to conceal himself.
“Ohh, I’m already late…what am I going to do?”
It was the voice of a young woman.
A young man’s voice replied, “Don’t worry. Mother can’t complain if you tell her you were forced to take shelter from the rain.”
The young man spoke in the indulgent manner of one accustomed to dealing with women customers — a man who sells trinkets or apparel, perhaps.
“It’s your fault,” pouted the girl, “We just happened to meet along the way, and I intended to go directly back after having tea with you, but you had to go and take me to that place again.”
“I didn’t hear you complaining,” the young man gently teased with a low laugh.
“Well, you seduced me, and girls are weak. I couldn’t bear to part with you.”
An odd hush fell, and the sound of rain again filled the night, suggesting an embrace just around the corner. From what he’d heard, Kakichi gathered that the girl was a servant in the household and shop of this young master’s parents, and that the two of them had happened into each other today while out and about.
Kakichi clucked his tongue in silent impatience. “Stupid kids,” he thought to himself, “Be gone!”
Even as he cursed them under his breath, the girl spoke in a dreamy voice.
“What’s going to become of us, I wonder?”
“Don’t worry—didn’t I tell you to leave it to me?”
“Will you really make me your wife?”
“That would make me so happy.”
They fell silent — probably embracing or kissing again. Kakichi was growing more and more impatient, and the rain was starting to slacken.
“You know,” said the girl in honeyed tones, “This is just a ‘what if’ question, but…”
“What’ll we do if there’s a baby?”
“A baby?” He sounded startled, then he quickly laughed.
“Don’t scare me like that.”
“I’m not trying to scare you.”
Her voice had suddenly hardened. She was obviously a strong-willed girl.
“I’m just saying that it’s a possibility.”
The young man said nothing.
“It’s been two months now since my last…”
“You’re just pulling my leg!” He laughed again, but it had a hollow ring. “Are you saying this just to test my feelings for you?”
“Of course not,” the girl said emphatically, “I might really be pregnant.”
“What’ll we do?” she pressed.
“I don’t know.” He sounded confused, and the earlier indulgent tone had left his voice.
“Anyway,” he went on, “We don’t know for sure, yet….we’ll have to wait and see.”
“And if it turns out I’m pregnant, what then?”
He was silent again.
“Will you handle things with your parents?”
“Yeah,” he grunted, his voice cold, “What else could I do?”
He didn’t answer.
“If you don’t,” the girl said, “I’ll have to speak to your mother myself.”
“Alright, alright,” he said quickly, “But let’s talk about it later. Look how wet you are…run on ahead by yourself now. I’ll go later.”
“Can we meet like this again?”
The wooden clopping of geta sounded on the flagstones and then out on the street, and shortly after, the young man muttered to himself, “You can’t be serious…Father would disown you if he knew.”
Then, adopting the affected tones of one reciting lines: “Young master Iseya Tokuzaburo, it’s a monumental fool you are. ‘Tis a fine mess you’ve made for yourself.”
A man with a taste for the theater, no doubt.
Silence returned, and after waiting a bit, Kakichi ventured a peek around the corner. The young man had left; shoved off for home, it seemed, trailing after the girl in the rain that was still coming down.
Relieved, Kakichi turned his attention back to the rain. It was falling lightly, now, and seemed about to stop, just as he’d expected. The frothy spray that had splashed so vigorously off the ground had died away a while ago, and though the rain still fell with an audible hiss, it was growing fainter by the minute.
“When it stops, I’ll go,” he thought to himself. He’d already picked his point of entry into the house. He’d chosen the rear door by the kitchen. Once inside, he’d pass through the kitchen to the hallway. The maids’ room was just off the hallway, and he’d have to be careful there. There were three maids, but only two were live-ins.
He wasn’t particularly concerned about the one named Okiyo — the one who became revoltingly familiar when she learned he was single — always sidling up to him bearing tea or rice crackers. She was a big, bulky woman, and not likely to be easily aroused from her slumber. It was other one, a widow, that concerned him. The widow was a thin woman in her fifties, and could easily be a light sleeper. He mustn’t make a sound.
After passing the maids’ room, he’d proceed down the hall to the parlor that was next to the bedroom where the master of the house slumbered with his wife. From Okiyo, Kakichi had learned that all the day’s receipts from the shop were kept overnight in a strongbox in the vacant parlor.
On the pretext of using the toilet, he’d previously ventured as far as the parlor and had seen the master talking with a clerk in there, the two of them sitting just in front of a strongbox. In the background, beneath the household Buddhist altar, he’d seen a chest with an open door, and, given that the chest was empty, he was certain that the strongbox had been taken out from there.
Otsuya was not one of those shops that transport each day’s receipts to the secure warehouse. He had verified this while sharpening their kitchen knives.
Kakichi’s thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt by two shadows that appeared in front of the shrine’s small gateway. This time, both were men, and they were speaking in low voices.
Still standing beneath the eaves, Kakichi slipped around the corner again to hide himself. Though he strained to hear what they were saying, their murmuring voices were too low. They murmured on and on like they’d never stop.
Kakichi was growing impatient. What could those idiots be gabbing about out there? He was silently cursing their idiocy when one of them finally said in a normal voice, “We’re getting wet out here…let’s go over there under the roof.”
The roof the man was referring to was the one Kakichi was standing under. “Not again,” he moaned to himself, though something about the man’s voice had caused him to prick up his ears. It wasn’t that he recognized the voice; rather, it was the sinister tone of the voice that made Kakichi wonder what kind of person this was.
“No, I’m going,” replied the other man. His voice, too, conveyed a murderous darkness—not a voice that could emanate from a decent man. “We’re finished talking, Mino.”
“No, we’re not,” said the first man with a low laugh. It was the short, curt laugh of the unamused. “What’s mine is mine. That’s the way I work. You may be my sworn brother, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stand by and let you rob me. We’re going to settle this now.”
“Why can’t you understand anything? We didn’t make anything on this job. No one’s getting a cut.”
“That’s not what Take said.”
“I don’t give a damn what Take said. All I know is that I didn’t make anything on this one, and that means there’s no cut for you. Got it? Now that’s the end of it.”
“If you don’t come clean with me, I’ll take it up with the boss.”
“That’s right. When Tagaya went crying to the boss about being cheated, the boss declared in no uncertain terms that there was no cheating in his gambling house, but I wonder what he’d say if I told him about this.”
“Cut it out,” snapped the sworn brother, “What a fool you are. What good would that do you?”
“Well,” replied the one called Mino, “If I find out how much Tagaya was cheated out of that night, I’ll know about how much my cut is supposed to be.”
“Stop it, Mino.” The sworn brother’s voice had dropped to a deadly growl. “We’d both go down if you did that. I don’t care about myself, but it wouldn’t be fair to Sukezo.”
“Alright then, hand over my cut and I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“Are you blackmailing me?”
“Am I?” replied Mino with a scornful laugh. “I know what you’ve been up to, big brother. You took my cut and used it on that Okimi woman over at the Yagurashita place.”
The sworn brother said nothing.
“I’m an inquisitive fellow,” Mino went on, “And I did a little checking around before coming to you.”
“Did you now,” said the sworn brother, “Well, I’m impressed.” His voice was suddenly more congenial. “And did you do this investigating all by yourself?”
“Of course. And if you refuse to give me my cut, I just might tell the boss about the scam and the woman. I’m not as big a fool as you…Hey! What’re you doing!”
A man’s shadow suddenly sprang toward the street, only to be overtaken and grabbed from behind by a second shadow, and Kakichi saw the glint of a dagger. There was a cry, and both the shadowy forms fell as one onto the street. A furious struggle ensued with the two men locked together, rolling over and over with low growls like wild beasts tearing at their prey.
A light drizzle fell on this spectacle, and though the men were probably covered with mud, they fought on, oblivious to it. It appeared to be an all out fight to the finish.
One of the men finally wound up sitting astride the other, and, raising the dagger high above his head, he plunged it down into the man pinned beneath him. After that, there was stillness. The man on the bottom had uttered no cry when stabbed — perhaps the man with the dagger had used his free hand to cover the man’s mouth.
The victor finally stood, and Kakichi heard him panting as he peered down at his fallen companion. The man then turned abruptly and vanished into the night, leaving the dark form of the fallen man lying there in the street.
Kakichi had coolly watched the two beasts brawling from his hiding place, but after the victor left, he ventured out as far as the Torii gateway for a look. “Dead as a nail,” he mused to himself.
Kakichi was fed up. He hadn’t a drop of sympathy for the murdered man. He felt only anger at this interruption of his work. He couldn’t break into the Otsuya house with a dead man lying out here in the street. Although it was unlikely that anyone else would venture by at this hour, he couldn’t take that risk. If someone came across the body while he was inside, all hell would break loose, even at this late hour. And a constable would eventually appear on the scene. How could a burglar go calmly about his work under such conditions?
Kakichi decided to hide the body in the small stand of trees just behind the shrine. He’d just have to drag it back there.
It was a pain in the ass. Cursing under his breath, Kakichi began walking out toward the corpse, but then he stopped in his tracks. The corpse had moaned.
“Damn you!” Kakichi muttered to himself, “You’re still alive.”
Standing behind the Torii gateway, Kakichi watched the fallen man sluggishly trying to lift himself. After several attempts to stand, and falling each time, the man finally managed to struggle to his feet and stagger off down the street. It seemed he would fall at any moment, but he slowly lurched farther and farther away.
That’s it…hang in there.” Kakichi silently urged him on from behind.
He didn’t give a damn about the man’s health. If he was going to die, it was better if he did it a little farther away, that’s all. On burglary nights, Kakichi was as cold and heartless as a stone.
The wounded man continued weaving down the street until his form was swallowed by the darkness. The nuisance was out of the way. Breathing a sigh of relief, Kakichi returned to stand beneath the eaves of the shrine. The drizzle had nearly stopped, and he peered out into the night again, checking the surroundings. All he could hear was the sound of water dripping from the cedar that stood in front of the shrine.
It must have been around eleven; the hour when the virtuous sleep and burglars prowl. He took a deep breath and was about to commence, when he saw a flicker of light down the street to his left.
“At this hour? Who the devil is it now?”
He hurriedly slipped back around the corner of the shrine and watched the light approach with an aggravating slowness. It’s progress was so slow, that he nearly stamped his foot in impatience. The appearance of yet another nuisance put a furious glower on his face.
By the time the lantern finally drew near, it was all Kakichi could do to keep from yelling, “Get the hell out of here!”. And then, as if the lantern bearer had heard Kakichi’s unvoiced yell, the lantern stopped directly in front of the shrine. To make matters worse, a woman’s voice said, “Let’s rest here for awhile, Ochie.” The voice was remarkably feeble. A second voice, like that of a child actor in a play, said, “Does it still hurt, Mommy?”
Peering around the corner, Kakichi saw a woman in her mid-twenties leading a little girl of six or seven toward the shrine. The sight nearly brought tears of exasperation to his eyes. Although the woman was a beauty, her hair was badly mussed, and, even in the dim light from the lantern, he could see that her face was pale. Both were in shabby clothes.
“She must be sick,” Kakichi thought, retracting his neck.
The mother had fallen ill, and they were probably on their way to the doctor for medicine. The child had no doubt come along to assist her.
“Well, if she’s sick, it can’t be helped,” thought Kakichi. You can’t tell a sick person to hit the road just because their presence is inconvenient. He’d just have to wait until they left.
“Would you like me to rub your back?” asked the little girl. They must be sitting down.
“We shouldn’t have gone to Daddy’s place,” said the child knowingly, “It made him mad, and that woman didn’t even let us inside.”
“I didn’t want to go,” said the mother vacantly, as if thinking of something else, “But I can’t pay our rent, and the landlord has asked us to leave. If I weren’t sick, I’d manage somehow, but I’ve been sick for so long now… There wasn’t any other way — I had to go ask him for some money.”
“Why does Daddy live there instead of with us?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice was listless. “I guess he prefers that woman to me…lost his head over a younger woman even though he has a daughter.”
“Will he ever come back?”
“No, dear, probably not.”
What a bastard he must be, thought Kakichi, anger stirring in his breast. Just from what he’d heard, he had a pretty good idea of the situation. The man had abandoned his sickly wife and daughter and was living it up with a young tart he’d picked up some place. This abandoned woman and her child were being evicted because they couldn’t pay the rent. She’d swallowed her pride and gone for help from her husband, and had been turned away at the door.
Summing it up thus in his head, he thought, “What a fool he is to throw it all away like that.”
Kakichi was so angry that he nearly growled aloud.
“Oharu,” he murmured to himself. That had been his wife’s name. In those days, Kakichi had been a hardworking blacksmith. Oharu was pregnant, and they were anticipating the baby’s arrival. Though they certainly didn’t live in luxury, they didn’t do without, either, because the boss trusted Kakichi and had seen to it that he was well paid. Kakichi had been a journeyman of considerable skill, and it was understood that the boss would eventually set him up in his own shop.
During those promising days when Oharu’s belly was swelling, they discussed possible locations for his new shop, and how maybe he should begin with two apprentices… Those were happy times. But then, like a sudden gust of wind out of nowhere, misfortune had swept into Kakichi’s house. Death came and carried off both Oharu and the baby she carried. At first they’d thought it was just a slight cold, but the pregnant Oharu grew weaker and weaker, and then abruptly succumbed to a high fever.
Kakichi had never been much of a drinker, but he began drinking heavily after the death of Oharu, and be began missing work because of it. Moreover, he refused to heed the boss’s counsel, resulting in strained relations that ultimately ended with Kakichi giving up his position in the blacksmith shop. After that, he worked sporadically on a daily-hire basis, and when there was no work, he lay around the house. He was unable to apply himself to any work he did. He retained the will to earn enough money to eat, but there were times when he wondered why he even bothered.
Around that time, Kakichi happened by a newly opened shop adorned with the red and white bunting of celebration. It was a gala atmosphere, with people busily coming and going, and, from inside the crowded shop, he heard laughter. It was this laughter from the shop that made him suddenly angry — the sound of a crowd suddenly laughing, and then laughing again. “What’s so damned funny?” he seethed. He knew it wasn’t reasonable, but he was nonetheless unable to suppress the dark rage that welled up inside him. It could only be explained as a rage directed at everything that was happy in the world.
The happiness that Kakichi had clutched in his own hands until so recently still flickered faintly in his head like an interrupted dream. The memory of that happiness was all that sustained him.
The laughter cruelly shattered his ghostly memories and seemed to sweep his lost happiness into the distant past, once again driving home the fact that he had nothing left. “This is what real happiness is,” the laughter of the crowd seemed to say. To Kakichi’s ears, the ringing laughter in that shop sounded like a taunt — the happy laughing at the unhappy.
It didn’t occur to him that there are both happy and unhappy people in the world. Nor did it occur to him that those who are happy now may not always be happy, and that those who are now unhappy may find happiness again. The laughter had triggered only an intense hatred for the happy ones — a hatred that saturated his heart.
That night, when the world was sleeping, he’d scurried like a nocturnal animal to that house of midday mirth, and he’d slipped inside and stolen their money.
“Nor did it occur to him that those who are happy now may not always be happy, and that those who are now unhappy may find happiness again.”
“You must be hungry, Ochie…I’m sorry.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“It’s OK, Ochie; if you’re hungry, you can say so. It makes me sad if you’re too brave.”
“Then I am hungry.”
“Of course you are…it’s already this late. When we get home, I’ll borrow a little rice from Osue-san, and I’ll boil some for you…don’t worry.”
Kakichi’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. It felt as though he were listening to his dead Oharu talking with their child. Once again, he thought, “What a fool he is to throw it all away.” A nice wife and child like this, and them being evicted at that — it was unforgivable.
“We’d better go now.”
“Are you OK?” asked the child, “Can you walk?”
“I’m OK, but we really did walk a long ways, didn’t we, Ochie? Take Mommy’s hand again like you did before.”
Hearing them stand to leave, Kakichi crept over and peered around the corner. The two of them were inching along at the speed of a crawling insect. The mother looked to be on her last legs.
“I wonder if she’ll be alright,” he thought, and no sooner had this crossed his mind than the mother’s legs buckled, and she dropped to her knees on the ground just as they reached the street. He heard the child cry out in alarm. “This won’t do,” muttered Kakichi, and he rushed out to the street with a loud greeting.
His sudden appearance caused the mother to clutch her daughter to her as she watched him approach. Even with her eyes wide in terror, she was indeed pretty.
“You’ve nothing to fear from me,” he said quickly, “I was taking shelter from the rain over there, and when you came, I just stayed out of sight. Sorry I frightened you.”
He helped the woman up, and, seeing the child’s eyes round with fear, he patted her head.
“My name’s Kakichi,” he said to the woman, “I’m a knife sharpener over in Motomachi. I’m just an ordinary working man — you’ve nothing to fear from me.”
The woman said nothing.
“Where are you two headed?”
“You don’t say!” he said cheerfully, “We’re practically neighbors.”
“I’ll take you there. You wouldn’t get there till dawn at the rate you’re going, and with this child along.”
“Please don’t bother,” said the woman.
Seeing that she was still somewhat wary of him, he quickly removed the black scarf he was wearing for camouflage.
“No need to be reserved,” he said, “I don’t mind at all.”
“I’m not being reserved. We’ll be going shortly, so please go on ahead.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, but he remained there and watched until the two of them set off again. They began to walk away from him, but the woman again dropped weakly to her knees. The child tugged at her mother’s hand, turning to look back at Kakichi.
Kakichi walked over to where the woman was trying to catch her breath, and he crouched in front of her, offering her his back. She hesitated briefly, and then, at the end of her strength, she leaned against him.
Crossing the Third Bridge with the woman on his back, Kakichi said, “I couldn’t help but hear you talking with your daughter back there… You know, I’m just a simple knife sharpener, but if you like, I could help you some.”
The woman had been riding tensely on his back, but when he said this, her body suddenly went slack and heavy as if all the strain had gone out of her. Though she said nothing, her sudden heaviness was answer enough. Satisfied, he gently boosted her up higher onto his back.
Walking along in the ghostly light from the lantern with the woman on his back and the girl’s hand in his free one, Kakichi had the feeling that the three of them had walked together down a night road like this before. It was hard for him to believe that only minutes earlier he’d been about to steal into the Otsuya place.
The cloudburst had ended, and stars were beginning to glitter in the night sky.