Hans Christian Andersen Remade in Japan: Mori Ogai's Translation of Improvisatoren

15 years ago I contributed a short article "De første H. C. Andersen-oversættelser i Japan" to Anderseniana.1 My present paper is in fact a continuation of a part of the article, laying special emphasis on Mori Ogai's translation of Improvisatoren. I should acknowledge at the same time that the original version of this paper was presented at the European Association for Japanese Studies Conference in Berlin 1991; this is a revised version of it.

Mori Ogai (1862-1922) has been and still is considered to be one of the best translators of Western literature in modern Japan. No doubt of that. Over and above this, he was the first man to translate not only many of the Western authors, poets, and playwrights of his time, major or minor, but also some of the Western classics, including Shakespeare and Goethe.2

Of his many translations, the translation of Hans Christian Andersen's novel Improvisatoren (1835), Sokkyo Shijin, is the most celebrated. Its fame and popularity has been so enormous that it is considered to be one of the classics of modern Japanese literature.

Allured by Ogai's superb translation into an elegant and flowing literary language, many readers in Japan have expressed their admiration, saying that Ogai's translation, Sokkyo Shijin, is "better" than Andersen's original, Improvisatoren.3

I, however, wonder how that can be possible when we know that, according to Paul de Man:

the translator, per definition, fails. The translator can never do what the original text did. Any translation is always second in relation to the original and the translator as such is lost from the very beginning. He is per definition the one history will not really retain as an equal, unless he also happens to be a poet.4

Let us say that Ogai was a poet and that due to his poetical talent he managed to make his translation just as good as the original, but de Man said that a translation can never be "better" than the original. How can Japanese readers believe that Ogai's translation is better than the original?

Furthermore de Man points out that "translation is a prosaization of the original, always, to a considerable extent. The translation is a making prosaic of what appeared to be poetic in the original."5

de Man's theory, however, does not fit the case of Ogai's translation of the romantic novel, Improvisatoren, simply because the quality of Ogai's highly poetic style cannot be denied.

The praise of Sokkyo Shijin in Japan is understandable, but Ogai's translation is, in my view, neither better nor worse than the original; it is just different. In the following we will see in what way it differs from the original.

As a matter of fact, my investigation has shown that the readers of Sokkyo Shijin (including the researchers) who have asserted that Ogai's translation is better than the original, have by "the original" either meant the German translation by Heinrich Denhardt (Leipzig 1876), used by Ogai - a German non-poet's prosaization of the original - or the Japanese rendering by Ohata Suekichi, directly translated from the Danish - a Japanese non-poet's prosaization of the original.6

As mentioned above, Ogai used Denhardt's German version of Improvisatoren as his text, but Walter Benjamin, according to de Man, asserts that: "you cannot translate the translation; once you have a translation you cannot translate it any more. You can translate only an original."7

If that is true, what then should Ogai's Sokkyo Shijin be called? Was it really an act of translation? Let us try to probe a little more deeply into the structure of Sokkyo Shijin in order to find a convincing answer.

Keywords will be "autobiography", "gabun (elegant phrasing)-style", "first person novel", "Bildungsroman", and "vainglory".

The Original Novel

Andersen's novel Improvisatoren is the romantic story of an Italian orphan called Antonio who gains fame as an improvisatore in Rome, falls in love with a renowned opera singer, Annunziata, loses her as the result of a misunderstanding which causes an accidental duel with his best friend, Bernardo, and takes flight alone. In Naples, Antonio meets a passionate lady, Santa, and a blind girl, Lara. After almost drowning in Grotta Azzurra, he returns to Rome where, this time, he loses the young Flaminia, who is soon to go into a nunnery. To recover from this thwarted love affair, he visits Venice and discovers that his love for Annunziata had been reciprocated all the time but now it is too late; she is dying. In Venice Antonio comes across Lara, too; she now calls herself Maria after having regained her sight and become rich. Antonio is told by Maria that it was his song that gave her her sight back, and so he comes to believe in the power of poetry. At the same time he learns, for the first time in his life, to recite not only for his own sake but also for the sake of other people. Thus, he has at last overcome his vanity, narcissism and self-centeredness.

Improvisatoren is, as the author characterizes it, a tale and at times a fairy-tale, "eventyr" in Danish. It is a novel of dreamy realism which combines the fairy-tale world with the novelistic world in a mythical way. The leitmotiv of the novel is typically guided by surprising coincidences and unnatural happenings.

Upon finishing the dream-like fairy-tale, in which Andersen has metamorphosed himself into the romantic hero Antonio, Antonio now becomes an author and returns from the fictive world to write down the fairy-tale called Improvisatoren. This is the main structure of the novel.

The general background of Improvisatoren was taken from Andersen's own experiences during his travels through Italy in 1833-34, and the novel was written as an autobiography in disguise of and by an artist who wished to make a career for himself and who dreamed of true love.

Improvisatoren is a first person novel, narrated by the I, Antonio, but it is more than that. Antonio is always followed by his shadow - Andersen, the author himself. He even appears in the novel as a travelling artist at Capri exactly on the same day - March 6th, 1834 - as when Andersen himself was on the spot. Improvisatoren is a novel where realistic descriptions and dream-like accounts are fused into one; at the same time it is a colourful travelogue where facts from real life and fictitious details are weaved together.

Although the novel was a great success, both in Denmark and elsewhere in Andersen's lifetime, and was translated rapidly into one European language after another, it is little read today in Europe, even in Denmark, very likely due to its unconvincing and at times implausible plot and stereotyped characters moving along in often theatrical settings. However, a half century after publication, it was still a success novel and Ogai had the opportunity of enjoying the German translation by Denhardt.

Autobiography and First Person Novel

Andersen's Improvisatoren is a semi-autobiography. However, that does not mean that Andersen's autobiography is recounted in an Italian setting; the Italian landscape is thought of as a place where Andersen interprets his own experiences as an artist. It is for that purpose the romantic figure Antonio is created. Improvisatoren may be called a masked autobiography, in which Andersen's own career as a poet/artist is told in the form of his memoirs. In other words, Improvisatoren is a "roman à clef". Therefore, without having keys in your hand, you cannot fully appreciate the novel.

As Ogai did not have the possibility of getting the keys - background information of persons described in the novel, the only way left for him was to read and translate it as a memoir-like first person novel. Thus, cut off from Andersen's autobiographical background, Ogai was able to introduce this poetic work to his countrymen as an ordinary first person novel.8

First Person Narrator and GABUN-Style

In a first person novel the narrator is identical with the protagonist and his past is told by himself here and now, at the time of narration, retrospectively, but the first person narrative in Ogai's translation of Improvisatoren is somewhat strange. One of the factors of this strangeness comes from the so-called gabun-style, in which Ogai by using elegant and poetical phrases aimed for "a harmonization of Japanese and Chinese, and a blending of elegant and common expression".9 Yukio Mishima characterized Ogai's gabun-style as "an elegantly clean, intellectual and poetical style which contemporary Japanese can't write any longer".10

First person narration is a device used to scrutinize and describe the I's inner world and his conflict with the outer world - "the other". It is quite natural that the "I" and "the other" are treated as opposing elements, each of which is individualized and differentiated so as to be able to speak of his own personal matters in his own words. In their speech we can hear the reflection of their personality, but Ogai's gabun-style levels out all these distinctive features of speech. Differences in personal expressions are eliminated, without regard to their background, sex and age, as well as idiosyncracies, if any. Besides, almost all direct speeches are changed into indirect speeches. The vivid speech act in the original novel is thus reduced to the function merely for indicating the content of the message, deprived of any distinguishing characteristics. Choosing the gabun-style, Ogai has made every speech act colourless and even transparent; all persons in Sokkyo Shijin are in this way forced to speak uniformly in the words of the narrator. In other words, Sokkyo Shijin consists of the narrator's (the translator's) monologue retelling the history of Improvisatoren. The only voice readers of Sokkyo Shijin hear is the narrator's. Even the voice of Antonio as a child is altered to the narrator's impersonal adult voice.

As a natural result of this, the peculiarity of the narrator's voice in the novel gives the reader the impression that the "I" is the "third person". You may, for instance, try to replace the word "ware" ("I") in Sokkyo Shijin with Antonio, then you will find out that Sokkyo Shijin is an unusual first person novel which can be a third person novel. This flexibility in shifting from the first person to the third person and vice versa without causing any essential obstacles to the understanding of the text - one of the remarkable characteristics of the Japanese language - is fully utilized in gabun-style.

Reconstructing Andersen's Improvisatoren into Sokkyo Shijin - to a translated novel which is neither a semi-autobiography nor a genuine first person novel - the narrator becomes an omnipresent and leading figure in Ogai's translation. Behind the impersonal narrator, heavily dressed in gorgeous phrasings of brocade, we can catch a glimpse of Ogai who aimed at "a harmonization of Japanese and Chinese and a blending of elegant and common expression". By choosing the gabun-style, Ogai departed from the original and was given the release to fly around in his own space of language, freely but painstakingly. Ogai interpreted and at times adapted the original work freely, but it was nevertheless a painstaking process because, while translating, he was creating a kind of artificial language, the quasi-classic Japanese.

It is true that the lyrical mood of the novel, the protagonist's search for ideal love and the exotic scenery of Italy has caught the heart of young Japanese for many decades, thanks to Ogai's masterly retold Sokkyo Shijin in his rhythmical and poetical language. I can, however, no longer agree with Professor Richard Bowring who asserts in his book from 1979 that: "Even today there are some Japanese who make a point of visiting many of the places mentioned in the story as a sentimental pilgrimage."11 Such a time is gone forever. The young Japanese today cannot read Sokkyo Shijin without the help of detailed annotations to Ogai's quasi-classic Japanese, even if they want to.

The Romantic "Bildungsroman"

In Improvisatoren "travelling" is the symbol of life and is identical with the process of Antonio's search for identity after having lost his mother as a child and later on the beautiful singer Annunziata. This is a typical pattern in a "Bildungsroman" but in the descriptions in Improvisatoren, the success story of an artist, there are still some remainders of the romantic tradition.

In Goethe's Wilhelm Meister - the model for later examples of the "Bildungsroman" - for instance, "destiny" appears as the result of the protagonist's self-recognition and his effort to reach a goal. Although he is an idealist, he lives seriously and gains various experiences in this world. In contrast to this, "destiny" in Improvisatoren is something bestowed upon one suddenly by heaven; the situation given in this way is not to be comprehended but to be re-discovered in mythical circumstances; re-discovery of things predicted earlier or things already seen in dreams. The only thing Antonio has to do is to find them and recognize them in this world. Thus he finds the blind girl Lara in the figure of Maria in this world. Antonio, the indweller of his own unconscious world, discovers the roots of his identity in his dreams. It is the reminiscences of these dreams which are structured and forged to become the novel called Improvisatoren.

In this sense Improvisatoren is not like an analytical realistic work; it's closer to a romantic work which seeks synthesis just like a fairy-tale or a myth. The impurity and the boldness which combine elements of a "Bildungsroman" (a forerunner of realism) with the elements of romanticism - that is the very core of the novelty of Improvisatoren.

As to all these transitional qualities from romanticism to realism, in his translation Ogai has systematically erased "miracle" elements from the novel - those irrational miracles which have brought happiness to Antonio again and again in his life. It seems to me that Ogai, a romantist in nature but in fact a realistic scientist, would not accept the mythical dimension of the novel - its irrationality.

Furthermore, Ogai removes the narrator Antonio from his position, whenever he, after having recounted his own miraculous experiences, begins to comment on them from the viewpoint of the narrator. In such cases Ogai tries to keep the illusion of the fantastic events going, by removing the self-satisfied narrator from the surface of the novel; and then, the masked narrator Ogai retells Antonio's autobiographical story in his own elegant gabun-style. Andersen's romantic "Bildungsroman" Improvisatoren is manipulated in this way and tranformed into a lyrical but tragic love story told rhythmically by Ogai; in so doing, Ogai has made the novel into a work of his own, called Sokkyo Shijin.

The Manipulated "Vainglory"

One of the main themes of the "Bildungsroman" Improvisatoren is, as mentioned before, the process of Antonio's overcoming his "vainglory". By conquering his own vanity, Antonio has transformed himself from an onlooker to an actor in life. "Vainglory" is a very important keyword in the understanding of the novel, but in his translation Ogai did not use "kyoeishin", the Japanese rendering of "Eitelkeit" or "Forfængelighed" in Danish. Furthermore he often skips over the passages concerning Antonio's vanity. Why this negligence? The explanation seems to be rather simple. The word "vainglory" usually appears in Antonio's retrospective self-examinations which the masked narrator Ogai is not always willing to retell, but this does not mean that Ogai is ignorant of Antonio's vanity. He simply does not mention it directly. Instead he uses words such as "kyoji" or "manshin" to describe "vainglory", but they lack the sense of narcissism, bad conscience, and loneliness. In short, "vainglory" in Improvisatoren is manipulated in Sokkyo Shijin. Did Ogai have some reasons for doing this? Was it the result of his own "vainglory" of playing the role of the masked narrator of the novel? Indeed, his viewpoint did not allow him to give a full account of Antonio's inner world expressed in Antonio's own words. Although Ogai, to a certain degree, revealed himself in the figure of Antonio throughout the novel, it seems to me that Ogai, the masked narrator, was reluctant to confess too much about his true nature.

Omissions and Eliminations

Translation is not only an act of decoding or selection, but also interpretation, namely to determine and direct how the original work should be read. For this purpose Ogai adopted measures, some of which we have already seen. One more important method used in Sokkyo Shijin is conscious omission and elimination of certain characteristic elements in the novel. It has nothing to do with simple negligence; it is an act of creative interpretation, an act significant of the translator's intentions.

Omissions and eliminations are especially conspicuous in the last chapters of the novel, where Antonio loquaciously talks of his love of Lara (Maria) - of such a love which belongs to "the realm of soul".

Instead of introducing the Christian love and heavenliness to the blissful couple, Ogai gave them mundane and secular happiness - happiness which is understandable to the Japanese. It was not a plain modification or an uncomplicated recasting; it was an act of depriving the original novel of the "soul". It was no longer a harmless adaptation concerning the form of the novel, but a very bold re-creation of its essential structure, its content.

How can the content of the Western novel be transferred without mentioning Christianity - the very core of Western culture? Conversely, for the very reason that Ogai in fact dared to do so, Sokkyo Shijin succeded in being "Japanized" and thus "acculturated" in the Japanese tradition and has been read and admired by the Japanese for many decades. Needless to say that Sokkyo Shijin, without the "soul" of the original, has become something else than the original.

Instead of a Conclusion

As the conclusion is always an anticlimax, I shall just try to repeat the most important points in my paper, giving some perspectives for further discussions.

Rudolf Pannwitz once wrote that: "The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the states in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue."12 In this respect Ogai made a great mistake, but he was confident that his translation Sokkyo Shijin could avoid becoming a prosaic work, due to his highly poetical language and his successful but treacherous re-creation of the original novel. "Traductore traditore", said the ancients. Ogai seems to be one of the worst traitors of the kind in modern Japanese literature.

Strictly speaking, there is not so much equivalence between the original Improvisatoren and the translated Sokkyo Shijin. The latter can hardly be considered a translation of literature. This can easily be testified by the fact that no one can talk about the literary world of Hans Christian Andersen on the basis of Ogai's translation. Sokkyo Shijin on the other hand is a genuine literary translation which aims at producing literary effect(s) itself.

It is obvious that the choice between the various translation possibilities remains subjective and that the solution of such translation problems, due to structual or conceptual imcompatibility between two languages, still calls for creativity on the part of the translator. Indeed, Ogai was very creative when translating Improvisatoren. Although it is normally very difficult to draw the line between distortion and legitimate adaptation, in case of Sokkyo Shijin we can say that Ogai transgressed the bounds of translation. Sokkyo Shijin was not an unconscious adaptation of the original novel Improvisatoren due to Ogai's awareness of cultural distance. It was something else, but in any case, it was a feat which is hard for anyone to imitate; only a genius like Ogai was able to forge a new form for himself and to force his readers to accept it. In fact the test of a literary translation is its power of communication and persuasion. Ogai won both of them with his Sokkyo Shijin without regard to Andersen, the author.

Was it fortunate or unfortunate for Andersen that he was treated by Ogai in the way that he was? Please judge for yourself. Anyway, his Improvisatoren was remade in Japan by Ogai into Sokkyo Shijin, one of the masterpieces of modern Japanese literature.



1. Anderseniana, 3rd Series, Vol. 3:4, 1981, pp. 255-74. back

2. A list of works translated by Mori Ogai into Japanese is to be found in Richard Bowring, Mori Ogai and the Modernization of Japanese Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 259-69. A minor revision of the list is required. back

3. Ogai's Sokkyo Shijin is classified and marked as an original Japanese work in the Iwanami-bunko series. See also Yoichi Nagashima, Mori Ogai no hon'yaku bungaku - Sokkyo Shijin kara Pelican made, Tokyo: Shibundo, 1993, pp. 203-72. back

4. Paul de Man, "Walter Benjamin's The Task of the Translator", in The Resistance to Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 80. back

5. de Man, p. 97. back

6. The German version used by Ogai was: Der Improvisator. Roman von H. C. Andersen. Frei aus dem dänischen Original von H. Denhardt. Leipzig 1876. His "free" translation should, according D. S. Carne-Rosse, rather be called a transposition, which "occurs when the language of the matter to be translated stands close enough to the language of the translator - in age, idiom, cultural habits, etc. for him to be able to follow the letter with a fair hope of keeping faith with the spirit." ("Translation and Transposition", in W. Arrowsmith & R. Shattuck (eds.), The Craft and Context of Translation, Austin, Texas 1961, p. 3). Sokkyo Shijin, translated by Ohata Suekichi, Tokyo: Iwanami-bunko, 1960. back

7. de Man, p. 82. Cf. Walter Benjamin: "Thus translation, ironically, transplants the original into a more definitive linguistic realm since it can no longer be displaced by a secondary rendering." ("The Task of the Translator", translated by Harry Zohn, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, New York 1969, p. 75.) back

8. Earlier than Sokkyo Shijin, Ogai published his short stories Maihime (1890) and Fumizukai (1891). back

9. See "Foreword to the 13th edition of Sokkyo Shijin" (1914), in Ogai Zenshu (Complete Works), vol. 2, p. 213. back

10. Yukio Mishima, Zenshu, vol. 32, 1975, p. 170. back

11. Bowring, p. 82. back

12. Cited in Walter Benjamin, op.cit., p. 81. back

Bibliographic information about the text:

Nagashima, Yoichi: "Hans Christian Andersen Remade in Japan: Mori Ogai's Translation of Improvisatoren" , In: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (ed.): Hans Christian Andersen. A Poet in Time. Papers from the Second International Hans Christian Andersen Conference 29 July to 2 August 1996. The Hans Christian Andersen Center, Odense University, Odense University Press. 576 pages, Odense, Denmark 1999.