I would like to try an explain why Banana Yoshimoto’s novel “Kitchen” is my favourite novel, because I think reading it might make you happy¹. You may think, well, that’s easy, it’s about cooking and food and Japan. But that is true for many Japanese novels; also, when I first read it, I was not as much into Japan or into food as I am today.

I read this novel first in 1997 or so, in any case a few years after the English translation came out in 1993. I borrowed it from the library in Gent, where I was living at the time. When I moved to Scotland, I bought the paperback and that is when it became my favourite. My edition, the UK edition from faber and faber, 2001, has a very simple cover: just a uniform deep pink with the large Japanese characters 台所, and in a thin, wide-kerning sans-serif font “kitchen”. The word 台所 (daidokoro) means kitchen in Japanese².

It’s a small and thin book containing the short novel Kitchen and the novella Moonlight Shadow, 150 pages in total. So what makes Kitchen so special for me? I could of course point to the sales figures (in Japan, it was reprinted sixty times and sold millions of copies; it was translated into more than twenty-five languages) and accolades (several literary prizes), or the many scholarly articles and dissertations that have been written about it (some of which I have read with interest) but I didn’t know about all that until later. The reason it was translated at all was of course because it was such a best seller in Japan.

It is a book that has always comforted me. The main topics are about dealing with loss and grieving and being alone in the world. Nevertheless, the story is never depressing (it’s also about love). It’s a slice-of-life novel so the plot is not important, and when summarised does amount to very little.

But what really makes it my favourite is the writing and in particular the imagery used. The English translation made a deep impression on me. I think that what I like is how the protagonist observes the world, nature and people, and puts it into words. There is a lot of images of light and darkness, which I like in particular. It is very poetic, but at the same time casual as well. Banana Yoshimoto’s writing manages to make the most banal and everyday scenes beautiful.

The translation by Megan Backus has been variously criticised (for not being true to the original; for being too literal; for being sentimental,… ) and praised (for being true to the original, for being poetic and beautiful). I have now finally read the novel in Japanese, and it was a wonderful experience. Unsurprisingly, I think the Japanese version is better than the translation. Banana Yoshimoto’s writing is very special, and very difficult to translate (even more so than for example Yoko Ogawa, who also writes very beautiful Japanese).

The language in Kitchen is strongly influenced by shoujo manga (Japanese comics for adolescent girls and young adult women), and therefore a combination of very casual language and literary and poetic language; also, Banana Yoshimoto uses many grammatical constructions that don’t translate easily into English. Japanese typically has a topic/comment structure rather than subject-verb-object, but in many cases sentences can be rearranged to match the English structure more closely; Banana Yoshimoto’s writing style makes that harder.

Nevertheless, even though it is not flawless (because of course I now notice the flaws), I still love the translated version. I have read other works by Banana Yoshimoto in translation (Lizard, N.P., Goodbye Tsugumi, all translated by Ann Sherif; Asleep, translated by Michael Emmerich); of those, I have read Lizard in Japanese as well. And I would say that in the end it does not really matter: all translations will be different, but in the hands of a competent translator, the voice the original author will be mostly preserved.

As an experiment, I tried to translate a short passage from Kitchen myself. The context: Mikage, the young woman who is the narrator of the story, is on a work trip and has gone out late to find something to eat because she’s starving. While waiting for her food, she phones her friend Yuichi, who is also on a trip and, it turns out, is also very hungry. When she tastes the delicious food (katsudon), she decides to order a takeaway meal and take it to him, by taxi — a ride of many hours. When she gets there, in the middle of the night, the ryokan where Yuichi is staying is closed, so she scales the wall of the building to his room is, a dangerous climb which she only manages with great difficulty.

My translation:

I dropped my backpack at my side and, lying face-up looking up towards the roof of the ryokan, I gazed at the bright moon and clouds and got thinking. (I thought, really, how could I be thinking of this kind of things in such a situation? It was rather a desperate one after all. But I’d like to be called a philosopher in action.) People all think that there are many roads and that we can choose them for ourselves. It’s probably closer to say that we dream of the moment of choice. It was like that for me. But there and then, I knew. I knew so that I could put it clearly into words: although by no means in a fatalistic sense, the road has always been decided. Every day’s breath, every look, repeated day after day, is spontaneously decided. And so in my case, before I realised, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, my katsudon and I had to be lying flat in a puddle on a roof in a strange place in the middle of winter, looking up at the night sky.
—Ah, the moon was so beautiful!
I got up and knocked on the window of Yuichi’s room.

From the official translation by Megan Backus:

I shrugged off my pack. Lying there on my back, I looked up at the roof of the inn and, staring at the glowing moon and clouds, I thought, really, we’re all in the same position. (It occurred to me that I had often thought that in similar situations, in moments of utter desperation. I would like to be known as an action philosopher.) We all believe we can choose our own path from among the many alternatives. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we make the choice unconsciously. I think I did – but now I knew it, because now I was able to put it into words. But I don’t mean this in the fatalistic sense; we’re constantly making choices. With the breaths we take every day, with the expression in our eyes, with the daily actions we do over and over, we decide as though by instinct. And so some of us will inevitably find ourselves rolling around in a puddle on some roof in a strange place with a takeout katsudon in the middle of winter, looking up at the night sky, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Ah, but the moon was lovely.
I stood up and knocked on Yuichi’s window.

The Japanese text:



RYUKKU wo yoko ni houridashite aomuke ni nete mama de ryokan no yane wo miagete, sono mukou ni mieru hikaru tsuki ya kumo wo mitsumete watashi ha omotta. (Yokumo maa sono joutai de sonna koto wo kangaeta mono da to omou. Yakekuso datta no darou. Koudou suru tetsugakusha to yonde moraitai) hito ha minna, michi ha takusan atte, jibun de erabu koto ga dekiru to omotte iru. Erabu shunkan wo yumemite iru, to itta hou ga chikai no kamoshirenai. Watashi mo, sou datta. Shikashi ima, shitta. Hakkiri to kotoba ni shite shitta no da. Kesshite unmeironteki na imi deha nakute, michi ha itsumo kimatte iru. Mainichi no kokyuu ga, manazashi ga, kurikaesu hibi ga shizen to kimete shimau no da. Soshite hito ni yotte ha kou yatte, kidzuku to maru de touzen no koto no you ni mishiranu dochi no yane no mizutamari no naka de mafuyu ni, katsudon to tomo ni yozora wo miagete nekorogarazaru wo enaku naru.
—Aa, tsuki ga totemo kirei.
Watashi ha tachiagari, Yuuichi no heya no mado wo NOKKU shita.

[¹] unless you are anti-trans, anti-gay or anti-pineapple. Or anti-Japan of course.
[²] The Japanese title is however キッチン KITCHIN, the English loanword.

The banner picture shows the kind of large pink telephone Mikage used to phone Yuichi.

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