Snow Country - The bottom of the night become white

1968 Nobe Prize for Literature winner Kawabata Yasunari’s1 Snow Country2 begins with one of the most well-known lines in Japanese literature, as important to Japanese literature as Dickens’ opener3 to A Tale of Two Cities is to English literature.

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.

The line and the book is beautifully translated by the master Edward G. Seidensticker4. A more literal, and far less elegant, translation might go:

The train passed through the long border tunnel and entered the snow country.

The Japanese goes:

Kokkyo no nagai tonneru wo nukeru to yukiguni de atta.

Word by word, the sentence roughly goes:

Border’s/long/tunnel/passed/through/the/snow/country/it/was

Yoda, anyone? Japanese grammar structure is subject (often dropped or implied, as train is in this case) followed by object and then verb, making the syntax strange in English. Of course this is to be expected of any two languages, especially those that are distant to each other.

The reason I point this out is to introduce the line that follows, one of my favorite sentences in literature. In English (once again courtesy of Mr. Seidensticker) the line goes:

The earth lay white under the night sky.

It is lyrical and appropriate to the English language. Seidensticker tunes the sentence for the English, while keeping the spirit of the Japanese. Even so, I can’t help but feel it is more than adequate but less than special. The Japanese sentence, along with the other sentences, combine to create a beautiful staccato rhythm that is one of the reasons the book was lauded as part of the “new impressions” or shinkankakuha5 literary movement. That’s why the original Japanese sentence is one of my favorites in literature.

Yoru no soko ga shiroku natta.

Word by word:

Night’s bottom, white it had become.

Done this way, elegant it is not. A still literal but more literary translation might be:

The bottom of the night had became white.

Doesn’t really work in English, does it. How about:

The bottom edge of the night merged into the white of the snow.

Perhaps with more liberties taken:

The darkness of the night melted into whiteness of the snow.

Or something and so on. All of the above are terrible. And I am definitely not daring to best Seidensticker’s translation. It is the right translation. I just can’t help but feel the sentence, and the book as a whole, loses something in translation. It is the Japanese language’s ability, in this case, to make me feel deep in the pit of my stomach that the very bottom of the night itself, the part that touches the earth, has actually been swallowed by the snow and turned white.

Snow Country is one of my favorite books, of English or Japanese. It is a languid piece of literature, not exciting. Nor is it an easy read. Japanese can be a vague language and Snow Country can be infuriating in its fuzzy handling of time, space, and character perspective. But it is achingly beautiful and whenever I read it, I know I’m in the warm yet simultaneously unforgiving hands of a master writer. I can count on one hand how many books I’ve reread even just once. Snow Country I’ve read four times and will read many times more.

  1. Japanese names are in Japanese order, surname first. ↩︎
  2. Wikipedia is our friend:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_Country ↩︎
  3. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

    Amazing but long. ↩︎
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Seidensticker ↩︎
  5. Still a friend:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkankakuha ↩︎