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Durham translator on Japanese writer's North East link

The work of one of Japan's great writers has been translated to English. David Whetstone talks to translator Angus Turvill

Angus Turvill with the book of Japanese short stories
Angus Turvill with the book of Japanese short stories

There was a do last week at the London office of the Japan Foundation, the Japanese government’s cultural organisation, and a North East academic was at the heart of it.

Angus Turvill, who teaches at Durham University, has translated the short stories of a popular Japanese writer called Hisashi Inoue and this was the launch of the resulting book, Tales From a Mountain Cave.

Japanese readers know Inoue as the author of Shinshaku Tono Monogatari, a collection of stories set in the Kamaishi area of Japan which was devastated by the tsunami of March 2011. Out of a population of some 40,000, 1,250 people died.

Angus plans to donate royalties from sales of the book to projects designed to get the area back on its feet again.

“These stories are from the North East of Japan and I translated them when I was living in Jesmond,” he says.

“I’d never been to that part of Japan but I did have a clear image of it. I took inspiration from Jesmond Dene and a few other places in the North East and, when I did go there, I found some similarities.

Kamaishi, he says, is an area of natural beauty with an industrial heritage. “It has got enormous mines nearby and was the birthplace of Japan’s iron and steel industry.

“Japan’s first Western-style blast furnace was built there in 1858 by a man called Takato Oshina. He was one of the men who came to Britain in 1872 as part of a very important mission called the Iwakura Mission.”

The Japanese, keen to learn and develop, visited the Elswick engine works, examined the construction of guns, visited a colliery and had a river trip up the Tyne. They stayed in the Royal Station Hotel.

They then returned to Japan and started to build the foundations of an industry that would sustain it for years to come.

“The steel industry dominated Kamaishi until about 1988 when it closed down, a parallel with the North East of England where a similar thing happened,” says Angus.

He began studying Japanese as a student in Edinburgh and has spent more than four years in the country since then. Before Durham he taught at Newcastle University and in 2005 he won a prestigious international translation prize.

“I’ve translated various things, including poetry and short stories, but this is my first complete book as a translator,” says Angus.

He decided to translate Hisashe Inoue’s stories because he enjoyed reading them so much.

“He is very well known in Japan, a major novelist and playwright but also probably Japan’s best humorist.”

The book is a real page-turner and the stories in it are both surprising and funny. They were partly inspired by Inoue’s own life, says Angus. The writer, who died in 2010, went to university in Tokyo but felt uncomfortable and instead went to live with his mother in Kamaishi and got a humble job in a sanatorium.

The protagonist in his stories does likewise and meets an old man with a trumpet who lives in a cave and tells him mysterious stories, teasing him with twists, turns and endings which don’t quite end.

Angus says Inoue was inspired by the earlier writings of Kunio Yanagita, a scholar and collector of tales who is remembered as the father of Japanese folklore. “I think Hisashi Inoue’s stories are wonderful,” says Angus. “The book relates very strongly to a classic folklore collection of 1912 (Yanagita’s The Legends of Tono) but that was quite a frightening book, very bare and rather cruel. This is much more alive and humorous and even a bit rude in places.”

Tales From a Mountaimn Cave is published by Thames River Press (www.thamesriverpress.com)

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