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Translating Scientific Discourse in Ariyoshi Sawako’s Fukugô osen

Posted By admin On May 21, 2013 @ 1:20 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Literature and the Arts | Comments Disabled

Barbara Hartley, senior lecturer

Asian Languages and Studies

University of Tasmania, Australia

In 1974 and 1975 Asahi Shinbun serialised the novel, Fukugô osen (Compound Pollution), written by one of post-war Japan’s most prolific and widely-read novelists, Ariyoshi Sawako (1931-1984). While other writers had addressed environmental issues – the previous year, Ishimure Michiko (b. 1927) received literary awards for her Minamata disease writing – Ariyoshi’s work was arguably the first that fully captured the imagination of a mainstream readership. In mounting an argument against the use of agricultural pesticides and other agricultural chemicals – the compound pollution of the title – Ariyoshi sets herself the daunting task of translating scientific discourse into a language that was accessible to the general reader.

Fukugô osen begins with an account of Ariyoshi’s role as mediator for the prominent pre-war women’s suffrage activist and later upper house Diet representative, Ichikawa Fusae (1893-1981). The author then proceeds by inserting specialist scientific and mathematical devices, such as tables and formula, into more familiar narrative strategies designed to appeal to a general readership.  These narrative strategies include an intermittent dialogue between the forties-something first-person post-war author/narrator unfamiliar with the “natural” food and cultivation practices of former eras and a retired cultural specialist who “educates” this narrator in matters that range from the superior taste of fruit and vegetables unsullied by contemporary ‘quick volume’ agricultural methods to the irregular shape of the free-range egg.

While the focus of Ariyoshi’s discussion is the use of agricultural pesticides, the text, nevertheless, also critiqued the use of food additives and synthetic fertiliser, in addition to arguing other related environmental matters such the superiority of soap over detergent. When published in two sections in April and then July 1975, the book version became an instant best-seller. The impact of the work was such that Ariyoshi is still today invoked as the Rachel Carson of Japan, after the author of the 1962 environmental classic, Silent Spring.

As with Carson, criticism of Ariyoshi for producing this work was swift. Although the book never proposed the complete rejection of chemical pesticides, critics argued that her claims in this respect were ‘unrealistic.’ This refutation of Ariyoshi, it might be noted, was very similar to arguments directed against Carson for her alleged support for the complete discontinuation of DDT. Other experts claimed that Ariyoshi’s warnings against the dangers of the use items such as detergents and food additives were exaggerated. A number of scientific specialists from whom Ariyoshi had sought advice when researching the work furthermore protested that she had either distorted or misused out of context data that they provided for her or analysis that they conducted on her behalf.

This presentation will focus on the herculean task that Ariyoshi set herself of ‘translating’ highly specialist scientific discourse for a general readership. There is an uncompromising quality to Ariyoshi’s text that undoubtedly incurred the wrath of the industries she set in her sights. She confronted an establishment that was clearly used to having its own way, an establishment that often comprised a tight network between government and (semi-) private concerns and which did not necessarily consider any negative impact of their practices or policies. This possibility is easier to understand in a post-11 March 2011 era when the practices of the Tokyo Electric Company have become visible for all to view and judge. We might also remember the now clear evidence that the tobacco industry worked to elide information that was unfavourable to its product from the public view.

The more trenchant criticism directed again Ariyoshi recalls the pillorying received by Rachel Carson. This is in spite of the fact that, as Tom Quiggin and Tim Lamber note in a stirring defence of Carson, the most striking feature of this type of critique is the “ease with which it can be refuted.” We might here observe one important difference between Ariyoshi and Carson, namely that Carson was a trained scientist, a marine biologist employed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, while Ariyoshi was not.

And herein, I would argue, lies the crux of the Fukugô osen controversy. In the author of this text we have a non-specialist who attempts to translate highly specialist scientific discourse into the language, genre and format of post-war Japanese literary narrative. Ariyoshi had a reputation as a prodigious researcher who would work untiringly to gather the information necessary to ensure the authenticity of her work. Her preparation for Fukugô osen was similarly meticulous. Nevertheless, given the enormous gap – the veritable chasm, in fact – between the language of science and the language of the serialised newspaper novel, it was inevitable that Blum-Shulka’s “shifts in cohesion” and “shifts in levels of explicitness” would occur. To demonstrate this inevitability, I will consider selected excerpts from Ariyoshi’s text and the nature of the response to these.


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