Novelist Hideo Levy Speaks About “Living In The Japanese Language”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As he stood before a crowd of students, faculty, and staff in McCabe Library last Friday, Hideo Levy spoke emphatically and emotionally, clearly caught up in the excitement of his ideas and theories. Known as the first American novelist to write in Japanese, Levy recently had his book A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot be Heard translated into English. The book, which is about a 17-year-old boy struggling with a fractured identity, gives a snapshot of late 1960’s Japan during the Vietnam War. Levy, who was born in California and speaks English as his first language, said that translating his book into English himself “would be something like a doctor operating on himself, with the same messy results.”

Levy has had a lengthy career in translating, and describes translating as an art unto itself. “There is an impulse to create another work based on the first, through translation,” he said as he discussed the artistic input that must be a part of any good translation. He stated that the stylistic and artistic choices that were a part of his translation process carried over to his personal writings. In creating his own novel, he says he drew from what he has translated and read. In his own words, “I have not mastered Japanese, Japanese has mastered me.”

Levy spent a significant portion of his lecture discussing the implications of being a “Gaijin” while living in Japan, what it’s like being a native English speaker who writes in Japanese, and how his understanding of Japanese is shaped by “living in the Japanese language.” He presented the idea that languages are their own cultures and places, and that who we are is really a matter of what language we live in. When describing the nuances in Japanese that arose during his time as a translator, he said that “the Japanese language was shaping my personality, the way I thought about the world.” In this sense, Levy says, he became a part of the Japanese culture while he was living in the Japanese language, not while he was living in Japan: during the translation process, he was speaking in the Japanese Culture. During the lecture, he would arbitrarily switch to Japanese, and he appeared to be more comfortable than when he spoke English (his native language).

Levy has made a career translating great works of Japanese literature, including Japan’s oldest imperial collection, and he has had a number of books published, including Seijōki no Kikoenai Heya, winnder of the Noma Literary Award for New Writers. He is the 2007 recipient of the Japan Foundation Special Prize, and the recipient of the National Book Award for his translation of the poetry anthologyCollection of Ten Thousand Leaves. The English translation of his A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot be Heard, translated by Christopher Scott, was published earlier this year.


  1. 0
    GregorSamsa says:

    I just read Levy’s book. The last line in the English translation does not exist at all in the Japanese original. It kind of changes everything.

  2. 0
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  3. 0
    Claire says:

    I find what Levy has to say about the influence of Japanese over him interesting. I’ve been learning German for a little more than two years now, and I can feel the language wielding a similar power over me. Two years ago, I thought German would be something nice to learn because German history is so fascinating, and now, I listen to music and watch films almost exclusively in German.

    I read part of a book on linguistics that asserted that bilinguals may very likely have different personalities based on which language they are speaking or thinking in at the moment, and Levy’s language-culture ideas seem to support that theory.

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