Carrie Preston is the Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Professor and Director of Kilachand Honors College at Boston University. She is the author of Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, & Solo Performance (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, & Journeys in Teaching (Columbia University Press, 2016). She is currently working on a new book entitled Participate! Race and Gender in the Audience for Interactive Theater, a critical examination of the political and pedagogical work of audience participation.
Translation takes time; it also gives time, a new and complex temporality, to a source text that exists in a relation of misunderstanding and inspiration to the translation. Early twentieth-century Japanese-English translation practices and theories offer a case study for a version of global modernism informed by ancient aesthetics and subjectivities—but not the typical version in which the ancient is non-western and modernity is firmly Euro-American. Two competing committees translated James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) into Japanese before it was legal to sell in any English-speaking country. Ezra Pound, that great promoter of Joyce as well as translation “by a committee,” did not encourage the Japanese interest in translating Anglophone modernist texts. He worried that Japanese artists would be swept up in “the apeing of Europe,” as he put it in The Classical Noh Theatre of Japan (1916), a controversial translation of ancient noh plays he published in spite of his minimal knowledge of Japanese. Noh plays and other classical texts, like Lady Murasaki’s famous The Tale of Genji (c. 1000, translated by Arthur Waley from 1926–33) were present in Anglophone modernism before many of its great works were produced, translated, and at risk of being “aped.” While western modernists celebrated a version of Japaneseness based on translations of classical texts, translators in Japan were eagerly tackling contemporary works like Ulysses. This discrepancy in translation practices troubles the common presumption that Japanese modernism lagged behind Euro-American modernisms. Some theories of global modernism suggest that we need to expand the modernist period to accommodate the time of translation and open its geographical boundaries to include non-Western countries. While these approaches work to be inclusive, they can imply that nonwestern modernisms were derivative; they also maintain a version of temporality that does not accommodate the messy, fertile, and multi-directional creativity of cross-cultural translation and exchange—much less the temporalities featured in noh plays.