WHY CANADIAN PLAYWRIGHTS ARE BIG IN JAPAN (2017)
What do Canadian playwrights Nicolas Billon, Morris Panych, Hannah Moscovitch and George F. Walker have in common?
They’re big in Japan, thanks largely to one individual: Toyoshi Yoshihara. In a career spanning nearly half a century, Yoshi has translated more than 50 Canadian plays and received such accolades as the 2003 Order of Canada.
But while the artists whose work he translates are in the spotlight, Yoshi stays behind the scenes. In fact, he scarcely has any contact with the playwrights themselves.
Translating a play without building a relationship with its creator might make Yoshi’s work seem more technical than artistic. But according to Billon, who’s had three plays translated by Yoshi – The Elephant Song, Iceland and Butcher – it’s both.
“I think there’s a real balance between art and science for translation,” says Billon. “It can’t be only one or the other.”
Whatever its nature, Yoshi’s work is a labour of love. He selects, translates and helps secure local producers for the plays he works on, often before requesting any permission from the playwright. When he does finally approach them, cooly explaining why their play should be seen by Japanese audiences, they never say no.
So how did a Japanese businessman fall head over heels for Canadian theatre?
It all has to do with language.
“When I immigrated to Canada in 1970, I did not speak English that well,” says Yoshi from his home in Tokyo. “That was exactly why I started going to theatre.”
Decades before Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, Canadian plays proved an ideal teacher.
“Theatre was the only place where I could listen to the same conversations repeatedly to hone my English. I saw the same show night after night until I completely understood what was said.”
Playwright Morris Panych remembers seeing him at Vancouver’s Arts Club during this period, where Yoshi saw the iconic playwright/performer in his very first play, Last Call – A Post-nuclear Cabaret.
“He got to know us very well as an audience member,” recalls Panych. “His first interest was learning the language, but then he fell in love with the theatre. Yoshi had already begun translating my work when he asked me if I minded, and I was flattered – so he didn’t have to persuade me.”
This accidental infatuation had to take a back seat to his day job. Yoshi had moved from Japan to Vancouver in order to establish a sales network for a Japanese trading company. He taught himself to translate plays in his spare time.
His process is solitary and straightforward: he needs only a script to begin and his translations take between one and two months. The hardest part isn’t the work itself, he claims, but finding a play worthy of translation. “To find one, I have to read as many as 20.”
But he finds them, and in the process continues to establish his own image of Canada. It’s one reason why he was so eager to export these stories back to Japan – to dispel the myth that Canada was merely “a rich and peaceful country with abundant natural beauty.”
Visions of pine boughs and syrup trees were countered with Japanese translations of hot-blooded Canadian theatre like George Ryga’s The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe, Lee MacDougall’s High Life and George F. Walker’s Problem Child – to name just a few.
Nearly four decades later, Yoshi has translated a total of 73 plays, 53 of them Canadian. His dual knowledge of both Canadian theatre and Japanese audiences has allowed him to stay active despite having returned to Japan in 2011.
His experience has given him a keen recognition of what might not play well overseas. Like, for example, David French’s Salt-Water Moon.
“[French’s] plays are great but can’t be fully appreciated unless you know the peculiarity of Newfoundland culture,” says Yoshi, “of which Japanese audiences are completely ignorant.”
On the other hand, some work can overcome cultural differences.
Hannah Moscovitch was initially nervous as to how East Of Berlin, in which the children of Nazis explore the aftermath of the Holocaust, would be received in a formerly Axis-aligned country like Japan.
But that’s precisely why Yoshi knew it would resonate. He timed his translation to coincide with a national conversation about war crimes – specifically, the Japanese military’s involvement in the Nanking Massacre.
East Of Berlin was so successful in Japan that Moscovitch has been commissioned to write a piece reflecting on the devastation brought upon Hiroshima by the first atomic bomb.
Yoshi’s not much of a film fan – he considers the medium “too explanatory to leave anything to viewers’ imaginations” – but fortunately, he hasn’t sworn it off completely. A 2015 film adaptation of Billon’s The Elephant Song was how he discovered both the play and the playwright. More translations of Billon’s oeuvre soon followed.
Yoshi’s work is driven by passion, but for the playwrights whose material he translates it’s all about trust. He won Billon’s easily.
“When you’re being translated into a language you don’t speak, there’s really no way to know how good a job the person has done,” says Billon. “[But because he] had such a track record, particularly with Canadian plays, it didn’t make any sense not to go with Yoshi.”
George F. Walker believes “that trust is often rewarded. And when it isn’t, well, that’s the life of a playwright.”
It’s not unique to translations, either. Trusting interpretation have always been an integral part of theatre – be it direction, design or the performances of the actors who speak the lines themselves.
“The giving away of plays is a great trust exercise,” says Panych, “but that’s the nature of playwriting. The text is never the end of it.”
Yoshi rewards this trust by being not only an interpreter but also an ally.
“I think it really makes a difference for a Tokyo theatre to get recommendations from someone they trust,” says Billon. But perhaps more importantly, “he was very much a champion of the play, and that’s kind of what you want in a translator.”
When Billon had the opportunity to travel to Japan to watch Yoshi’s translation of Butcher, he felt satisfied the work was successful, despite not understanding any Japanese.
“I think [the production] really captured the essence of the characters. You don’t need a translation for that.”
Thousands of kilometres from their point of origin, Canadian plays still hit home. Perhaps it’s no surprise considering the ways we swap culture within our own borders.
Moscovitch says no matter where she goes, audiences are interested in comparing experiences of citizenship. And for Panych, shared humanity may be what makes these stories universal.
“People everywhere have hearts and minds. Tapping into them is, and always has been, a deeply personal pursuit.”
Yoshi agrees. And though he just turned 80,there's plenty more he wants to get onstage.
re “Jordan Tannahill’s Concord Floral and Late Company are the next Canadian plays I would like to translate.”
It looks like retirement might have to wait a few more years.