This is a report on a research project in progress, one that aims to bridge the gap between the theoretical concerns that have energized comparative ecocritical scholarship in recent years and a practice that ecocritics have been increasingly adopting without as yet sufficient critical reflection. The theoretical concerns pertain to a growing engagement with the insights of theories of transnationalism and cosmopolitanism, so as to broaden and complement ecocriticism’s initial emphasis on place-attachment at a local or bioregional level, usually contained within well-defined national borders (Buell, Heise, Thornber 420-22; Heise Sense of Place and Sense of Planet 3-13; Murphy 63-78). The practice is that of translation, and its recent growth stems in part from many critics’ efforts to widen the scope of ecocritical research beyond its hitherto disproportionate focus on Anglophone literatures (Heise “Ecocriticism and the Transnational Turn” 387). It also is related to an increased commitment to an environmental world literature canon comprising works “currently being translated and circulated through a variety of languages and cultures as texts whose principal – if not always exclusive – focus is on the ecological crises of the last half-century” (Heise “World Literature and the Environment” 404-05). The lack of critical attention paid to translation in ecocriticism comes somewhat as a surprise at this juncture, given that translation is the transnational practice par excellence, embodying intercultural exchange that is vital to the interpenetration of the local and the global (Nelson, Maher 5).1

The idea for this project began to germinate when, in the wake of the triple disaster that hit Japan in March 2011 and swept away entire communities while also triggering a nuclear disaster of unforeseen local and global environmental consequences, we felt compelled to re-read Hôjôki (Notes from A Ten Foot Square Hut, 1212), a medieval Japanese masterpiece of literary witness by the recluse poet-priest Kamo-no-Chômei (1155-1216). Under such trying circumstances, as readers we found solace and hope in Chômei’s poignant first-hand account of the series of calamities that overtook Kyoto at the end of the twelfth century – a huge fire, a severe famine, an outbreak of plague, a massive earthquake – and of his subsequent retirement from the metropolis to a remote hut in the mountains, where he sought meaning and serenity in a non-materialistic life amidst nature, even if at the end he questioned the integrity of his retreat.

Yet, as environmentally oriented critics, we also felt compelled to consider this memorable work in the light of the current discussions aimed at integrating ecocritical discourses about the local, the global and the planetary. At first sight Hôjôki would seem the kind of work that has for a long time attracted ecocritics like us and informed our approaches: the product of a locally-inflected environmentalism focused on an ideal(ized) habitation “envisioned in terms of the experience of single, mostly male individuals encountering wild landscapes or homesteading agricultural ones” (Heise “Ecocriticism and the Transnational Turn” 385). It also occurred to us that Chômei’s life trajectory as described in his account and the aesthetic he developed from it could be read as a metaphor for the two poles between which, according to Scott Slovic, ecocritical responsibility oscillates: a commitment to social engagement, “to set the world straight,” and a desire to enjoy the world – a reflective retreat centered on participation in the life of all living things and on human joy (4-5). There was, however, an angle of analysis from which Hôjôki struck us as even worthier of consideration, because hitherto so blatantly overlooked by critics. The sheer number of translations of the work that have appeared since the end of the nineteenth century to the present day suggested to us a diversity of nuances and scope which carry seemingly far-reaching implications within a comparative ecocritical framework. The available translations are manifold: from Natsume Soseki’s first attempt at a complete English translation in 1891, while still an undergraduate student at the University of Tokyo, to the 1905 joint translation by Minakata Kumagusu, a maverick biologist and the pioneer of ecological thinking in Japan, and British Japanologist F.V. Dickins – the translation is suggestively titled “A Japanese Thoreau of the Twelfth Century”; from Basil Bunting’s modernist poetic condensation, Chomei at Toyama (1932), based on an Italian prose translation by M. Muccioli, to an abridged Chinese version produced in semicolonial China to instill the Japanese “spirit” during the war years; from the successive renditions by Japanologists like Donald Keene and A. L. Sadler in the second half of the twentieth century to numerous contemporary versions, not to mention translations into several other Far Eastern and European languages – Korean, Chinese, Czech, Russian, Italian, French, German, and even Latin – and, of course, renditions in modern Japanese, including an incomplete version by the Japanese feminist novelist and poet Hayashi Fumiko, which she titled Shin Hôjôki (The New Hôjôki, 1952).

New translations continue to appear on a fairly regular basis in anthologies and single volumes. Hôjôki can now be considered part of what has been defined as “world literature” – a work that has become “actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture” (Damrosch 4) – even if it ultimately defies Damrosch’s very notion that the work “only ‘began’” in a single “original” culture and its language (22). In effect, the very title Hôjôki hints at the work’s composite, intercultural origins, since the expression hôjô at once signifies a unit of measure harking back to an Indian tale and later transmitted via Buddhism to designate the abode of a head Zen priest, and also one of the islands inhabited by the immortals, beyond the Eastern Seas, in a Chinese myth. According to Augustin Berque, Japanese eremitism conjoined both sources to convey the idea of a distancing from the profane world (178). It is interesting to observe how the various translators of Hôjôki have adapted the title and its suggestive nuances to their own cultures and times and/or distilled from it meanings of more global, planetary reach stressing commonalities of human experience in its relation to nature. Examples include the 1996 poetic version by Moriguchi and Jenkins, titled Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, which is discreetly dedicated to “the people of South Hyogo” who suffered the devastating Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, and the modernist version by Bunting, titled Chomei at Toyama, which more intently highlights the effects of interculturation that shaped the creation of Chômei’s text and thus also potentiates its cross-cultural generation of meaning (Ramazani 336, 339) in terms of nature representation.

Through translation Hôjôki has been variously transculturated, transspatialised and thus transformed, having in the process become part of additional cultures (Thornber Empire of Texts in Motion 23-24, 400), by allowing such cultures to re-focus the images of the work in their own times and locations, in complex ways that mediate their distinct values, beliefs, representations, and agendas – including those pertaining to the ways in which they cast their relationships to nature. The analysis of this motion and its ecocritical implications through a number of selected translations of Hôjôki is the main purpose of the collaborative project we are currently developing. We hope that this analysis will shed light on the potential insights of translation study for comparative ecocritical scholarship. Hence Hôjôki will be deployed less as a limited case study than as a theoretical and practical resource.

Indeed, due to the scarcity of approaches engaging literary translation and environmentally oriented comparative practice in a productive dialogue, we realize that our task also entails establishing some exploratory conceptual tools to help us and future researchers navigate these uncharted waters. In a spirit of interdisciplinarity, this entails perforce a greater attention to the insights coming from the burgeoning field of translation studies. In tandem with the transnational, planetary turn in literary studies over the past decade (Dimock; Dimock, Buell), this field too has expanded considerably in scope and cultural grounding. There is a growing awareness that translation as a complex cultural activity “is articulated in relation to the practice of literature, of languages, of the several intercultural and interlinguistic changes” (Berman 16), and is also pivotal to the negotiation of larger issues of cultural identity in a world under the pressure of what are often perceived as the conflicting impulses of localism and cosmopolitanism.

But what about the negotiation of the no less vital and complex relationships between humans and the more-than-human world as seen in the motion of texts through translation? Michael Cronin has been one of the lone voices operating from within a translation studies perspective who has suggested a potentially productive conceptual grounding for engaging with ecological issues while integrating the local and the global. Through his concept of “micro-cosmopolitanism” Cronin has argued for an enabling “cosmopolitanism of the land” (18) as simultaneously opposed to reductive nationalisms, disincarnated, condescending macro-cosmopolitanisms and neo-imperialistic transnationalisms. Micro-cosmopolitanism is a purportedly “non-essentialist” (20) approach to translation theory and practice that situates cultural and linguistic foreignness, difference and exchange, within the local, henceforth perceived in all its dynamic complexity – a complexity that brings about a potential for interconnectedness and solidarity on both the local and global dimensions. Most importantly for our purposes, since Cronin’s micro-cosmopolitan approach is predicated on the assumption that cosmopolitanism as a phenomenon is “not the unique preserve of the urban,” its underlying concerns are ecological in a broad geo-linguistic context. One of the goals of his project is hence “to track the instances of translation which can highlight the micro-cosmopolitanism of places and cultures outside the critical purview of the metropolis” (18). This is a move that has the potential of revitalizing enquiry “into a substantial body of the world’s literature, both written and oral, which has the rural as its focus.” Such investigation of the links between place, culture and language from the perspective of a micro-cosmopolitan oriented approach to translation will make it possible to develop a reading of non-metropolitan experience “which is not condemned to a wistful passéisme but is forward-looking in its restoration of political complexity in all areas of territory and memory” (18).

Cronin’s micro-cosmopolitan approach may be productively supplemented by Lawrence Buell’s concept of “ecoglobalist affect” to yield more fruitful ramifications in terms of understanding translation practices within an ecocritical framework. Buell’s proposed term highlights the affective dimension of a literary environmentality that is border-crossing in nature and planetary in ultimate scope (“Ecoglobalist Affects” 228) but at the same time characterised by “an emotion-laden concern with a finite, near at hand physical environment defined, at least partly, by an imagined inextricable linkage of some sort between that specific site and a context of planetary reach” (232). A kind of local cosmopolitanism that is nevertheless aware that such “a widening of the customary aperture of vision” can be both unsettling and epiphanic, inasmuch as it raises the stakes as to the significance of this overflowing of the borders of the nation by the local: “bringing with it either a fatalistic sense of the inexorable or a daunting sense of responsibility as the price of prophetic vision (232).2

Both Cronin’s and Buell’s formulations propose a cosmopolitanism which acknowledges that environmentality is always interlocked with specificities of space and time, and are hence particularly adept at approaching the translation of a work like Hôjôki and its manifold ecocritical implications. As Venutti reminds us, the fundamental nature of translation as a localizing practice can never be eroded, even as we conceptualize it within a world literature perspective:

Every step in the translation process, starting with the selection of a source text, including the development of a discursive strategy to translate it, and continuing with its circulation in a different language and culture, is mediated by values, beliefs, and representations in the receiving situation. Far from reproducing the source text, a translation rather transforms it by inscribing an interpretation that reflects what is intelligible and interesting to receptors. (193)

Some of the contexts in which Hôjôki has been translated and circulated – namely in imperial Britain and semicolonial China in the first half of the 20th century, as well as in postimperial Japan – further remind us that translation is enmeshed in intercultural relations that are often highly asymmetrical and hierarchical. In imperial and postimperial spaces the ideologically charged dimension of translation comes to the fore, because through it “cultural legitimacy and authority are at once affirmed, challenged and denied, as individual texts and entire literary landscapes are altered and sometimes significantly violated” (Thornber Empire of Texts in Motion 83). In such contexts, an approach to translation from an ecocritical perspective may find a powerful tool of analysis in the concept of “environmental imaginary.” The term was coined by historian Diana K. Davis to describe “the constellation of ideas that groups of humans develop about a given landscape,” and which are commonly mediated through stories or narratives “about that environment as well as how it came to be in its current state.” In imperial and colonial settings, those who control such environmental representations and their meanings “can determine who wins and who loses when that imaginary is operationalized in the form of concrete [environmental] policies and practices” (3). The concept of environmental imaginary ties up, of course, with that of environmental orientalism (4). It has now long been acknowledged that translation can powerfully contribute to the construction of edifices of domination (Thornber Empire of Texts in Motion 85). It is therefore worth exploring the extent to which literary translation may contribute to the formation of environmental imaginaries and orientalisms through the representation of foreign environments as “alien, exotic, fantastic, or ‘abnormal,’ and frequently degraded in some way” (Davis 4) – and thus in need of improvement, repair, restoration or normalization by imperial powers. The analysis of a number of translations of Hôjôki within imperial and postimperial contexts is bound to yield valuable insights in this regard.

In order to organize and more productively integrate the concepts described above into translation analysis, we find it very useful to adapt Venutti’s hermeneutic model centered on the concept of “interpretant” (178-84). Interpretants configure a category through which a translator inscribes culturally specific meanings – an interpretation – and thereby recontextualizes and transforms the source text into the translation. Venutti divides the category into formal and thematic interpretants. Formal interpretants may include, for example, a concept of semantic correspondence based on philological or dictionary research, or a certain concept of style, a distinctive lexicon and syntax related to a genre or discourse or poetics (pastoral, elegy, e.g.). Thematic interpretants are values, beliefs, and representations – codes – that may be associated with specific social groups, institutions (181) or, we should add, nations. They may also consist of a particular interpretation of the source text that has been formulated independently in the form of commentary. And, most importantly for our purposes, thematic interpretants may comprise as well representations of nature prevalent in a certain culture at a certain historical moment. As Venutti notes, interpretants are chiefly intertextual and interdiscursive, and slanted towards the receiving culture, even if they often integrate materials specific to the source culture (181). With this concept in mind, we shall then look at a number of translations of Hôjôki to try to infer the different interpretations inscribed by the translators, and the extent to which they potentiate (or hinder) micro-cosmopolitan configurations and ecoglobalist affects, or convey certain environmental imaginaries.

One of the chief goals of this project is to contribute to future delineations of an ecocritical approach to translation linking place, nature, culture, and language beyond the hitherto strict dichotomies of local versus global, or particular versus cosmopolitan, or rooted versus rootless. Ultimately, however, and in line with Venutti’s proposed ethics of translation (184-85), this research also aims to establish criteria for assessing translations from an ecocritical perspective, by examining their cultural, social and historical conditions, and considering whether their interpretants foster ecological knowledges and values that stimulate not only innovative thinking and writing but also active involvement in the vital environmental issues of our time.



1 A notable exception in this regard has been the work of Karen Thornber, namely her magisterial study Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures (2012). However, unlike in her previous book Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature (2009) – a work which is not ecocritical in focus – Ecoambiguity seldom reflects at any length on issues of translation, despite the fact that the author resorts throughout to her own translations of an impressive corpus drawn from a variety of East Asian literatures.

2 Much in the same vein, Karen Thornber has more recently argued that:

One of the most effective means of increasing the planetary consciousness of literary studies is reading as world literature even those texts that might not be works of world literature in the conventional sense but that engage with important issues extending beyond single cultures. The worlds these texts discuss often are physically beyond our place and time, but the concerns they address strike close to home. (Ecoambiguity 23)

This amounts to an “environmental cosmopolitanism” whose assessment requires us to examine “how individual literary works, even those that seem focused exclusively on very local environmental concerns, might increase consciousness of transnational and transcultural phenomena” (26).


Works Cited

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---. Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.

Venuti, Lawrence. Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Routledge, 2013.