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Tyran Grillo [Archive]

Legend of the Galactic Heroes translator Tyran Grillo speaks!

Please enjoy this special blog post from Legend of the Galactic Heroes v 4: Stratagem translator Tyran Grillo, and don’t forget to pre-order LOGH v5: Mobilization, coming soon!

 

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On September 9, I had the fortune of giving a book talk and reading at Kinokuniya’s Manhattan store on my translation of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 4: Stratagem. Being a relative newcomer to LOGH, I felt gratified to be in a room of ardent fans, and to see their heads nodding in agreement as I gave my thoughts on Yoshiki Tanaka’s masterwork. During the conversations that followed, I saw just how genuinely engaged such fans could be. One revealed to me her love of Tanaka’s side stories, especially the diary of Yang Wen-li’s ward Julian from his time on Iserlohn Fortress. Another grew up with the series in Japan, and was so inspired by its political insight that he went on to pursue a career in international diplomacy. Such anecdotes confirmed what I’d already sensed throughout the translation process: that Tanaka’s tale of universal conquest was indeed striking a universal chord in its readers. Above all, speaking with those who understand LOGH in distinctly personal ways further validated its relevance to today’s tense political climate. Despite being cast centuries into the future, Tanaka’s fictional world feels almost too close for comfort, and therefore begs to be internalized, mentally savored, and shared in turn.

 

I append a slightly edited version of my talk below for those interested.

 

Tyran Grillo

Autumn 2017

 

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Author Yoshiki Tanaka, born in 1952, characterizes himself as a quiet child who read voraciously, surrounded by the iconic landscapes of his hometown of Kumamoto, Japan. Only now, he erects psychological landscapes of comparable intricacy using literary building blocks. Although one can’t claim to understand fictionists from their writing, at the very least Tanaka betrays a consuming passion for history that backgrounds every word he inks to page (literally, as Tanaka still writes his novels in longhand). He has realized his approach in three distinct streams. First, in a smattering of standalone novels, he examines actual events, personages, and mythologies of premodern China. Second, in his ongoing fantasy series The Heroic Legend of Arslan, he transplants ancient Persian history into a kingdom of his own design.

 

Yet his masterpiece is the Ginga eiyū densetsu, or Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Originally published between 1982 and 1987, this series of ten novels was adapted into both a manga and an anime of the same name, and an animated reboot is currently being produced in Japan—even as plans for US distribution of the original series are underway in response to a growing English-speaking fan base.

 

Legend of the Galactic Heroes meshes Tanaka’s love of the past with a hypothetical future in which two warring interstellar factions—the dictatorial Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance—alternately toe the line between peaceful coexistence and gruesome entanglement. As of Volume 4, the Galactic Empire is under the leadership of prime minister Reinhard von Lohengramm, who has grown from humble beginnings to become a power-seeker of the highest order. On the Free Planets Alliance side stands Yang Wen-li, a young military commander who never deigned himself as such.

 

Together, Reinhard and Yang constitute the binary star of these novels. As poster children of their respective politics, they are equally committed to seeing their inner ideals manifested in outer space. Reinhard is a tyrant to his core, reigning over not only countless soldiers and subjects but also a storm of conflicting emotions. He vows to bring peace to humankind, and will do anything, no matter how underhanded, to bring that lofty goal to fruition. Yang, for his part, lives his life on the defensive, thwarting Reinhard at every turn with affable intelligence and an uncanny nonchalance in the heat of battle.

 

Where Reinhard’s Galactic Empire takes apparent inspiration from Germany’s rise to fatal power in the 20th century, Yang’s Free Planets Alliance is a hodgepodge democracy. These modes of political subsistence are at constant odds throughout the story, and it’s all the civilians vacillating between them can do to commit to either. As our omniscient narrator puts it: “Choosing between a corrupt democracy or a virtuous dictatorship was one of the most difficult dilemmas faced by human society.” If Yang’s democracy is corrupt, it is not by fault of his own, but of the egomaniacal politicians fraternizing in his shadow. And if Reinhard’s impending monarchy is virtuous, it is only through his faith in justice, and not in how he ensures its survival.

 

Some fans have been wont to point out fascist tendencies in the series, not least of all given overemphasis of Reinhard’s Aryan features and Yang’s apparently East Asian extraction, but our narrator sides with democracy, if complicatedly. To that end, Tanaka prefaces Volume 4 with quotes from two fictional historians. The first reads:

 

“Mutations of history and consequences of victory are determined in an instant. Most of us live idly on as echoes of such instants, as they retreat into the past. Those cognizant of them are few, and those who willfully set them in motion fewer still. Unfortunately, the latter always win the day, bolstered by armies of malice.”

 

The sidelong glance with which rabble-rousers are viewed here indicates a simultaneous fascination with, and critique of, the will to power that drives this novel’s militarism. As commanders of vast armies, Reinhard and Yang both have more blood on their hands than they could ever wash off in a lifetime, and their mutually beneficial need for action over pacifism is addressed in the novel’s second epigraph:

 

“Knowing the future, directly experiencing the present, and indirectly experience the past: each offers its respective thrill of happiness, fear, and anger. Those who live in the past are destined to be slaves of regret.”

 

Here, allegiance to the past is condemned as a nostalgic idealism destined to be replaced by our heroes. The relationship between these two nominal extremes is therefore one of dependency over polarization. We understand that Yang Wen-li, as a flag-bearer of emancipation, is fraught with conflict at having to expend so many human lives to achieve it. This aligns him with Reinhard von Lohengramm more than he might care to admit. Reinhard, for his part, is certain that his visions are in the best interests of humanity, that the corpses littering his path to conquest and absolute sovereignty are unavoidable collateral, and that any hiccups along the way only serve to valorize his interventions.

 

As one diplomat in the novel puts it: “Dictatorship can be a good thing. Dictators are unwavering in their beliefs and sense of duty, express their own sense of righteousness to maximal effect, and possess the strength to regard their adversaries not solely as their own foes, but as enemies of justice.” At the end of the day, Reinhard respects Yang’s intelligence, tactical acumen, and unwavering commitment to a cause that, despite going against Reinhard’s own, fuels a worthy adversary.

 

If history is Tanaka’s genesis, it is also the blood flowing through his characters’ emotional organs. Reinhard wants nothing less than to be a tool of history, nothing more than to be a crafter of it, and Yang the reverse. But the intergalactic deck has dealt them fateful hands, and each is left holding his cards, looking for a tell that might lend ultimate advantage over the other.

 

As the curtain opens onto Volume 4, a child emperor sits on the Galactic Imperial throne to carry the torch of a centuries-long dynasty begun by Rudolf von Goldenbaum, a.k.a. Rudolf the Great. The Goldenbaum succession is a scourge in the worldview of Reinhard, who is now struggling to figure out how he might circumvent this promise of continued Dynastic rule. When Reinhard learns of a plot to abduct the child emperor being hatched from within the independent dominion known as Phezzan, in classic “Problem-Reaction-Solution” fashion he turns a blind eye to its completion, thus affording him a pretext for all-out war and, he hopes, self-nomination as emperor.

 

Tanaka gives readers a deep understanding of Reinhard’s hatred for the Goldenbaum Dynasty by including choice examples of its tyranny throughout the series. Yet what Reinhard may lack in the senseless violence of his predecessors, he makes up for in the network of men perpetrating violence on his behalf.

 

On that note, it’s worth addressing a criticism often lobbed at Legend of the Galactic Heroes—namely, its relative lack of female characters. As a quick perusal of the dramatis personae list included at the front of every volume will attest, men far outnumber women in the series. That said, a closer reading proves the latter to be the glue of the former’s collusion. There is Yang’s trusted aide, Frederica Greenhill, whose presence and insight draw a baseline of sanity under the Free Planets Alliance commander’s militaristic dealings. There is Reinhard’s sister, Annerose, sold by their father as a sexual slave to Emperor Friedrich IV—yet another contributing factor to Reinhard’s contempt for, and desire to overthrow, the dynasty set in motion by Rudolf the Great. Even more noteworthy is Reinhard’s chief secretary, Hildegard von Mariendorf, known affectionately as Hilda. Hilda’s initiative and good counsel do, in fact, set Volume 4 into motion and, as will be made explicitly clear in Volume 5, she is much more than a sounding board for Reinhard’s intended action. She is the indispensable fuel bringing his grander flame to light. And while gender differences seem to have changed little in the many centuries leading up to the events taking place herein, one can hardly expect them to have done so when history is still being written, performed, and edited by descendants of the same men leaving their own trail of droppings in the forest of our present century. And why, these books implicitly ask, would any woman desire to accede to such levels of power, if only to repeat the mistakes of the men whose tainted authority they would be usurping? The master’s tools, as the late Audre Lorde would’ve reminded us, will never dismantle the master’s house.

 

One must also consider that, until this point in the series, Earth has been something of a non-variable, meaning that societies are bound to replicate the mistakes that led to Earth’s downfall in the first place. Despite being the birthplace of civilization, the only ones eking out a meager existence below Earth’s barren surface—ever since a global thermonuclear war and interplanetary exodus left it for dead—are followers of a cult known as the Church of Terra, who’ve anointed our abandoned world as the seat of universal theocracy.

 

In addition, Tanaka goes to great lengths to show us that his male protagonists’ egos are full of holes. To that end, this volume hangs a gallery’s worth of psychoanalytical portraits. Reinhard struggles to bring peace to the known universe, as also to his grief, which clings to the death of his dear friend Siegfried Kircheis, with whom he will never share spoils of conquest. Meanwhile, Yang dreams of being an armchair scholar, despite knowing he is destined to slaughter his way into the future. Furthermore, there is his young ward Julian Mintz, who came to be in Yang’s service under a military law that placed war orphans in the care of other veterans. Julian’s own grappling with identity and masculinity leads to some of the book’s most heartrending sequences.

 

Rendering even one dialogue of Legend of the Galactic Heroes into fluent English is therefore not always an easy task. But while it was intimidating for me to jump into a series so late in the game, the first three volumes having been lovingly translated by Daniel Huddleston, and not least of all for juggling an extensive lexicon of military terms, character names, and backstories, once I sat with these characters and let them speak to me, I began to hear their voices as individuals. The result is by no means perfect, but is something I’m proud to have been a part of nevertheless.

 

What I have made a matter of difference in my renditions, however, is bringing across the author’s realism. Tanaka treats these events as a matter of record. Consequently, in my translation style I tried to strike the unembellished tone of a history textbook, all while maintaining, I hope, Tanaka’s flashes of poetry and philosophical virtuosity. Maintaining this integrity believably was my biggest challenge, and it is my sincere hope that aficionados of the series will appreciate this pared-down, yet dynamic, approach.

 

More than anything, I want readers to feel Tanaka’s way of reimagining the past by substituting it with a speculative future of his own as not simply a means to his narrative ends, but as a way of commenting on the present sandwiched between those two chronological extremes. It is, in other words, impossible to read Tanaka without seeing how far humanity has reached—and fallen vying—for power. Toward those who naïvely salivate over the crunch of forbidden fruit between their teeth, Tanaka shows empathy without mercy, and in this volume, perhaps more than in any preceding it, provides a poignant reminder that sometimes fiction, by whatever relevance we are willing and able to read into it, hits closest to a reality from which we might otherwise wish to escape.


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