Comedy Can Be Deadly -or- The Story of How Mark Twain Killed Hara Hoitsuan
Indra Levy - Assistant Professor in Department of Asian Languages at Stanford University
In the April 6, 1903 edition of the Tokyo Asahi shinbun, bestselling translator Hara H*itsuan published “Shiiza sansatsu jiken,” his rendition of a sketch by Mark Twain titled “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized’.” This minor translation of a minor text by a world-famous American author quickly sparked a knock-down, drag-out fight between Hara and another translator, Yamagata Iso’o. Increasingly incensed by Hara’s failure to grasp Twain’s subtle sense of humor, Yamagata delivered the final, devastating blow in the fight: an annotated retranslation of the same text, published in book form along with the original text itself and a blow-by-blow account of his altercation with Hara, replete with verbatim citations from both sides. By the end of the year, Hara had been committed to the Sugamo Tenky*in psychiatric hospital, with rumors circulating about an attempted suicide. Hara met his final demise in that same hospital on August 23, 1904.
This sensational tale of one translator’s demise has become the stuff of legend in the annals of Meiji literary history. While it is common knowledge that comedy is among the first things to get lost in translation, how is it that the (mis)translation of a piece of comic literature could meet with such dire consequences? This presentation will attempt to shed light on this question by considering the Hara-Twain episode as emblematic of the often tortured relationship between literary translation and the concept of literary humor - more broadly, between the rush to attain new knowledge and the propensity for literary laughter – in the Meiji era.