Myojin Voices, Vol. 3: Changing unexpected to inevitable
26 November 2013
It’s November now, and getting really getting cold. When I turn on the television I can hear the announcer’s voice: “Today is the coldest day so far across the country with low midwinter temperatures and snow in northern Japan.” Yes, before you know it, the seasons turn; autumn is over and now it’s winter. Time passes so quickly.
It’s been six months since I got became involved in the group For・By・With Minamata. My link to this place Minamata, which I had had no connection to or relationship with, began when by one of its members, Professor Ikeda Richiko, who was also my teacher when I was at university, said she wanted me to make a homepage for them. This was in May 2013.
“Yes, I’ll do it!” I answered, motivated mainly by curiosity, but when I actually tried to get started, I realized I didn’t know anything about it. First of all, from the start I’d had neither sufficient prior knowledge about Minamata and Minamata disease, nor did I understand the concept of For・By・With Minamata nor share their concerns.
I started by bombarding Ikeda-san with questions: “What does the group actually do?” “Why do you need a homepage?” “What was the reason for starting this group?” “How many people are involved?” In time, little by little, I pieced together a mental picture of the group and felt I had a basic understanding (or so I thought). At the same time, with the help of a collection of photographs and manuscripts, I somehow managed to launch the homepage before the start of summer. “Phew!” I sighed in relief.
Then, a while later, it was 7 August. It was dusk, midsummer, and as I was standing on the train on my way home from work, just hanging from a strap with a blank look on my face, I got a call from Ikeda-san. She wanted me to make some booklets to distribute at the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the ‘Minamata Convention on Mercury’, which was going to be held around the beginning of October. “There isn’t much time, but this is really urgent!” From the desperate tone of her voice, I felt both Ikeda-san’s expectation and a strange sense of mission awaken in me. “Yes, I’ll do it!!” I answered in a quiet voice, thinking of the other passengers around me. The next day, I started on the project immediately.
To make a booklet, you need the help from people like proofreaders and designers. But this time especially, because I had to make an English-language publication, too, I needed some people to translate the Japanese articles into English. Although I had proofreaders and designers I could contact, I didn’t know any translators so first I asked a student at my alma mater, International Christian University (Mitaka-shi, Tokyo). He introduced me to four people who could do the translation. I contacted the four people right away, but as soon as I asked them, they all asked, “By the way, what does the group do?” and “Why are you making the booklet?” I was confused. This time I was being asked the same questions I’d put to Ikeda-san. To the extent of my own understanding I tried to explain, but I realized in that moment that I had moved from someone on the “outside” to someone on the “inside.”
From the very start, the toughest part of the project was the translation. The four staff translators – and me, as well, for that matter – had no preliminary knowledge of the Minamata area, or the history of Minamata disease. The translators had a lot of questions:
“What is a “seijiteki kaiketsu” (political solution)?
“How should I translate chihatsusei (late onset) Minamata disease?”
“Is a ‘kanja’ a ‘patient’ or a ‘victim’?”
“What is ‘Salonpas’ and what does ‘–nakanna’ mean?”
For people who had just met “Minamata,” it was very difficult to understand the multiple contexts involved within the span of a week: the history inscribed in special wording; word choice that called for sensitive awareness and interpretation; and local way of speaking. As the editor, that’s probably why I was called an oni (demon) in Minamata.
[Staff working on the translation together, checking dictionaries and other materials]
Translation is not a simple, mechanical operation. It is understanding historical, social, and cultural “contexts,” and “passing on” this understanding to someone else. Without any explicit instructions about what to do, the translators, whenever they found a moment, went back and forth to the library or gathered information from the Internet to learn as much as they could in the short time available. When they had questions, they asked Ikeda san or her partner, Niwano san, who would check each time. In the course of this project, one of the translators suddenly said this: “While immersed in books about Minamata borrowed from the library, the process suddenly stalled. Instead of the translation, I was more interested in knowing the truth.”
Hearing these words – something no one had anticipated at the outset – I realized that the site of “handing down a story” was not only found at a study group or a lecture, but also here, amid these circumstances. For the translators, this opportunity had started “by chance” (“I have to do this!”), but the desire to complete the project had turned into an inevitable drive to learn all about it (“I want to know!”). At that time, what crossed my mind – something completely removed from the context of environmental pollution problems – was something Katsumi Hirakawa, the author of Koakinaino susume [A guide to small business], had said in an interview in Spectator magazine:
One is born in a particular place by chance; it carries no responsibility. This is a departure point: seeing responsibility as a commitment rather than something to be compensated. But the idea of ‘taking responsibility for something that you originally di not have to take responsible for’ is an opportunity to change random chance to inevitability. In other words, to take responsibility for the way you live and expect absolutely nothing in return. This the only way to make the life you are living real. (Spectator, Vol. 27 “Special Issue on Small Business,” p. 69)
By approaching this translation activity as mere “work,” it might have been possible to submit a work requiring minimal effort. But these translators committed themselves further, and got involved in what was “not originally their responsibility.” Here is what some of what the translators had to say during a round table discussion that took place post-publication:
I think that when people hear the words ‘Minamata disease’, a lot of them think of it as something that happened in the past. But Minamata disease is an ongoing problem, and there are countless people still suffering. This is something I’d like to pass on to everyone who reads this booklet.
Up to now, I had seen Minamata disease as something that was over and done with, but when I read the text of Owaranai tatakai・Unfinished business, I recognized for the first time that the problem of Minamata disease are not over, but continues today – and I felt its urgency.
And so on and so on. To be honest I really don’t understand what inspired them all. But it probably means that one by one, the translators stumbled over “Minamata,” and in the midst of the thoughts and words that poured forth, came empathy, too, and a realization of “something.” This project was not a sterile working space, but became a meeting place where each person involved left “something” of him/herself. That is the most important impression I am left with.
Then it was October. At the beginning of autumn, just as it was getting a little colder, we managed to publish both the Japanese and English versions of Owaranai tatakai・Unfinished Business. The contents of the press conference held in Minamata before the conference, were picked up in a number of newspapers, including the Kumamoto Nichinichi shinbun, Nishinihon shinbun, Asahi shinbun, Mainichi shinbun, and Yumiuri shinbun (of course, the translators were mentioned, too). If there is still someone who has yet to get their hands on this booklet, I hope they will get a chance to read it.