The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Harue Yamagata
Harue Yamagata
Born in 1959, Harue Yamagata is a scholar of Greek tragedy, translator and professor of Nihon Univ. (Research Center). After completing undergraduate studies at Tsudajuku Univ. (English literature major), Yamagata completed the diploma course in the Drama Dept. of Canterbury University (UK). Received a doctor’s degree in drama at Waseda Univ. From 1987 to 90 she studied in Greece on a government scholarship at the University of Athens. Her books include Greek Tragedy: Between the Ancient and the Present and Guidebook to Greek Tragedy and Comedy among others. She is recipient of the 11th Yuasa Yoshiko Award (Translation, Adaptation Div.) for her translation of Electra.
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Artist Interviewアーティストインタビュー
Greek tragedy that rings true with young Japanese audiences An interview with translator Harue Yamagata 
The Greek tragedies that were first performed some 2,500 years ago in Athens and came to be known as the world’s oldest theatre form, are now being performed almost every year in Japan in productions directed by the renowned Yukio Ninagawa. Here, the translator Harue Yamagata talks about the Greek tragedies and her translations from modern Greek of all Ninagawa has brought to the stage thus far, including Oedipus Rex, Electra, Medea and Orestes, which have captured the imaginations of young audiences in Japan.
(Interviewer: Hideko Nagamine)

You are one of only a very few active scholars of contemporary performance of Greek tragedy in Japan today, but I heard that you actually started out studying Shakespeare.
That’s correct. In college I majored in English literature and was a member of the Shakespeare study group. After I graduated from college in 1982 I went to Britain to study and entered the diploma course of Canterbury University. Shakespeare was the only thing I had any proficiency in and so I felt lucky when I got the Rotary scholarship to study in Britain. But, somewhere along the way I began to think that English and Shakespeare didn’t really suit me. I liked Macbeth and Titus Andronicus but I had a hard time grasping the colonialist way of thinking and the racist language used in the works like Tempest and The Merchant of Venice and I could never sit through a whole performance of them. So, when I returned to Japan I quit studying Shakespeare and began to look for something different for my career.

How did you get from there to your encounter with Greek tragedy?
Before I returned to Japan from the U.K. I spent about two weeks traveling in Greece, and that was the spark. During that trip I saw several plays. That experience got me enthralled with the chorus in Greek theatre. When I had read the Greek plays many years earlier, they were so difficult and I had not found any interest in them at all. But, seeing them performed in Greece with a chorus of 12 to 15 chanting and dancing on a circular stage of 20 meters diameter, I found an odd, new interest in it. That was what first prompted me to take up the study of Greek tragedy. And by chance, that trip to Greece happened to be at the same time as the first performance of Yukio Ninagawa’s production of Medea in Athens (1983) and I was able to see that performance. I somewhat remember wondering that a Japanese director would come all the way to Greece to perform Greek tragedy.

Does that mean that you didn’t begin your study of Greek until after you came back from Britain? I would imagine that a very difficult new study to take on at that point.
I knew that I wanted to study Greek tragedy no matter what, so I began looking for a graduate school that taught it. At that time in Japan there wasn’t such a course to be found, so I decided to enter the drama course of graduate school of Waseda University. Since I didn’t know Greek, I had to take the entrance exam in English. I began studying in the course of ancient Greek language, but no matter how long I studied, I wasn’t even able to make the simplest of greetings. I became frustrated and finally realized that it was Modern Greek that I wanted to study. I thought I would go to study at the only one private institute in Tokyo teaching Modern Greek, Athenee Francais. It turned out, however, that their lessons were conducted in French! (laughs) So, I ended up going through the graduate school without really learning anything significant about Greek or Greek tragedy, but I was fortunate when I went on for my doctor’s degree I passed an exam for a Greek government scholarship to study in Greece.

It seems as if it was your fate to study Greek tragedy (laughs).
Perhaps that was so (laughs). Anyway, I didn’t really begin to study Greek until I went to Greece, and there I began studying both the written “purified” Greek based on ancient Greek (Katharevousa) and the proper spoken modern Greek that was finalized in 1976 (Dhimotiki). That is because, up until the year I started studying, the Greek university entrance exam had to be taken in both these written and spoken Greek. The ancient Greek used at the time of the three great playwrights of ancient Greek tragedy and modern Greek have the same basic grammatical structure but the pronunciation and many of the rules are different. Also, all the Greek tragedies are performed today in the modern spoken language but all the critique written about the plays up until about the Second World War is published in the written Greek, so you have to learn both in order to really study the plays in performance.

Before director Ninagawa began performing Greek tragedies using your translations, what was the situation in Japan regarding Greek play translations and performances?
There were generally two patterns. The first was based on research studies published by researchers primarily at Tokyo University and Kyoto University in which the plays were translated into Japanese from the ancient Greek based primarily on interpretations written in German.
The other was to use the series of translation by the famous Shakespeare scholar and translator Tsuneari Fukuda that were translated into Japanese from English translations of ancient Greek. As for the English translations, I read and compared five different English translations of Oedipus Rex when I was translating it into Japanese and I found that all of them were translated quite variously. I believe that this is because the different translators were basing their translations of their own interpretations of the original texts, and so I wonder how faithful the English translation that Fukuda used was to the original ancient Greek.
Now Ninagawa seems to be mounting productions of the Greek tragedies rather regularly, but before this there were very few performances of Greek tragedy in Japan. The oldest recorded performance of Greek tragedy in Japan was an adaptation performed by the Kawakami Otojiro theatre company in 1894, but the first real performances didn’t begin until 1958, with the productions resulting from the activities of the Greek Tragedy Study Group started by students of the department of aesthetics of Tokyo University. Their productions were based on a policy of first of all translating by themselves and then trying to duplicate the original stage art and costumes as faithfully as possible, and their performances were given once a year at the outdoor music stage in Hibiya Park in Tokyo. Then in the 1970s, under the influence of French theatre such as Jean Baptiste Racine, Jean Anouilh and Jean-Paul Sartre, those who were in the theatre movement in Japan, like Keita Asari around the time he started the Gekidan Shiki theatre company, began performing re-workings of the Greek tragedies. Also, I believe the only significant productions of Greek tragedies were the experimental productions by the “Mei no Kai” mainly formed by a number of Noh and Kyogen actors. And there were also the performances of Greek tragedies that Tadashi Suzuki became famous for with his Waseda Shogekijo theatre company (present SCOT).
In all of these cases they used one of the two types of translations I mentioned earlier and then the individual directors staged of them freely based on their own references. The parts that weren’t clear to them were simply skipped over and the parts that they did want to dramatize were picked out and strung together. That style definitely made the plays easier to understand and more modern in appearance, but I don’t think they succeeded in communicating the enigmatic appeal of the original Greek plays.
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