A tribute to the great New Zealand literary translator Geraldine Harcourt, who created an “unfathomable kind of magic”

Japanese author Tsushima Yūko’s novel Territory of Light, published in English in 2019, was a lucid depiction of a recently separated woman living with her young daughter, each chapter evoking a troubled everyday with all its beauty and devastation. I welcomed the book as a reprieve during an enduring period of grief: my Japanese mother who had recently died. I felt certain that my mother, as an avid reader and single woman raising a child (though in Aotearoa), would have read the work of Tsushima Yūko (1947-2016), a prolific and significant contemporary Japanese writer. I then discovered that the translator of this astonishing book, Geraldine Harcourt (1952-2019), was from Aotearoa – and an astonishing woman in her own right.

Harcourt seems to have lived outside of a heteronormative patriarchal world. She co-authored the poem Themis in the first issue of Spiral (1976), the feminist lesbian women’s collective who went on to publish Keri Hulme’s the bone people. Harcourt alludes to her involvement in the women’s movement in Japan, which encouraged her to stay: “I wouldn’t have lived in Japan for so long if it wasn’t for the women’s movement there. Meeting up with these women has really made me feel at home.”

Much of what I have gleaned about Harcourt has been voiced through her translations. All of the Japanese fiction she translated centred the lives and experiences of women, and her published non-fiction translations also give a sense of her values. They include scholarly texts such as The Power of the Weave: the hidden meanings of cloth (2013), The Japanese house: In space, memory and language (2005), The Japanese family system in transition: A sociological analysis of family change in postwar Japan (1997), and a bestselling autobiography by sportswriter Hirotada Ototake, who was born without arms nor legs, No One’s Perfect (2000).

She moved to Japan from Tāmaki Makaurau in 1973 to complete her Master of Fisheries at Tōkai University. Eleven years later she was featured in the Auckland Star after completing three translations of literature by Japanese women authors: Betty-san by Yamamoto Michiko, Requiem by Gō Shizuko and Child of Fortune by Tsushima Yūko. In 2012, she gained a Degree in Italian Language and Culture with Honours from the University of Pisa. She was awarded the 2018-2019 Lindsley and Masao Miyoshi Prize for her translation of Territory of Light. She died in 2019 after recently moving back to Aotearoa, to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, where her brother’s family resides.

Harcourt remains greatly respected within the worldwide literary translation community. Her brother, Ian Harcourt, described her as an outstanding artist, full of “driven modesty”. She was passionate about sharing what she found to be important and beautiful. As she told one interviewer, “I choose books that I really enjoy and want to recommend to people by translating them. From the time that I began translating contemporary fiction, I felt that the image of Japan that was available in translated literature didn’t come close to the Japan that I knew, or give a sense of the lives of the Japanese people that I knew. In the last few years, in particular, I’ve felt it’s very important that English readers have access to different points of view, and to different voices from Japan, because so much of the Japan-bashing going on presents the image of a nation with no dissenting voices. I think it’s important to get more of the diversity of Japanese writing into English. Just being a part of that process is rewarding.”

During what was to be her last public engagement in April 2019 at a gathering of the New Zealand Centre of Literary Translation, Harcourt was asked how long she usually spent on translating literary work. Her reply was that she had stopped counting as the work was truly a labour of love, not to be measured by hourly rates.

Although Harcourt’s output as a translator was wide-ranging, her work is most closely associated with Tsushima Yūko. Her translations of Territory of Light and Child of Fortune were published as Penguin Classics. This propelled Tsushima’s work into the world of many English-language readers, including me.

Tsushima’s writing career began in the 1970s. Coinciding with the rise of second wave feminism, her work focused on the lives of contemporary Japanese women. Tsushima’s work won many literary awards including the Yomiuri and Tanizaki prizes, and was translated into English by Harcourt in 1983, then into French and various other languages.

The significance and reciprocity of Harcourt and Tsushima’s close, long-standing working relationship is shown time and again by the way in which they refer to each other in numerous interviews and essays. In a 2014 interview, Tsushima speaks of her friend from New Zealand [Harcourt] who translated a speech she had written for an international conference of writers and environmentalists. The speech addressed her interest in the oral storytelling tradition of the indigenous Ainu of Japan, kamuy yukar, and their influence on her work. Harcourt had brought to her attention the problematic uses of words such as ‘native’, ‘chief’, or ‘tribe’ to describe indigenous communities and peoples. Tsushima comments that as a Japanese person, she had initially been oblivious to social changes taking place in the early 1990s, leading to the formation of policy such as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Tsushima visited Aotearoa in 1998, to take part in the Wellington Readers and Writers Festival. She asked Harcourt for a book that might help her relate to this new and foreign place. Harcourt gave her Potiki by Patricia Grace, who Tsushima ended up interviewing during her visit. In the interview, published in Japanese in the literary journal Gūnzo, Tsushima expressed her interest at the way Grace conveyed contemporary Māori life. In answer to her many questions about te ao and te reo Māori, Grace spoke of the generations of oppression and struggles which are continually fought, in order to achieve the gains of Māori revitalisation and visibility. For example, Tsushima noted Air New Zealand’s use of the koru as their logo; and Rongomaraeroa, the modern Te Papa marae where the Readers and Writers festival guests were welcomed. Grace explained that these examples of visibility have not been without struggle nor controversy.

Tsushima was also interested in how, similarly to the Ainu, a Māori worldview sees the divine world as a constant presence, rather than centring humans and their lifespans. Having lost her own son when he was still a young child, Tsushima revealed her personal struggle with the way that death, in the Western and contemporary Japanese worlds, is often regarded with a cold finality. That the character Pōtiki continues to narrate after his death was a revelation to Tsushima. Grace went on to explain that in te ao Māori, ancestors (those who have ‘died’) play just as important a role in daily life as those currently living. The exact nature of Tsushima’s relationship with the Ainu community is something I do not yet know much about. Aside from what I have slowly and painstakingly read and translated, my lack of proficiency limits my ability to research in Japanese. All I have learnt about Tsushima has been found through Harcourt and what little there is written about her in English.

Ahead of the Readers and Writers festival, in a beautifully written primer for New Zealand Books, Harcourt wrote that Tsushima “wants to speak, without romanticising, for those in society who find it difficult to make their own words heard”. This could also apply to Harcourt’s own distinguished career as a literary translator.

Harcourt’s translations seem to hold and carry the voices of the original, which strikes me as an unfathomable kind of magic. Literary theorist Gayatri Spivak defines translation as “the most intimate act of reading” requiring a rare kind of person willing to “surrender to the text”; somebody who is compelled to let themselves be led through a place “unrelated to the passage of time”. Harcourt’s skill and appreciation for both languages made her an exceptional writer and translator, someone who truly lived between worlds, and felt the necessity of one sense for the appreciation of another. Through her translation of Territory of Light, Harcourt led me back to my need for the Japanese language; my mother’s mother tongue.

Of Dogs and Walls, Woman Running in the Mountains, Child of Fortuneand Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima are all available in New Zealand as Penguin Classics.

Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: Paddy Richardson reviews Emma Neale’s short story collection, longlisted for the fiction prize at the Ockham book awards.

Melanie Kung is an artist and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau. She works as a librarian and is interested in patterns, language and chance.

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