Irrepressible Irishman promotes Japanese culture


Humor is perhaps the most difficult genre to translate, but laughter speaks any language. Poet and literary translator Peter MacMillan’s recent foray into the visual arts, “Thirty-six New Views of Mount Fuji,” delights with its ironic whimsy, employing mixed media printmaking to reveal a multicultural comedy.

This is exactly the witty disparity you would expect from a philosopher with a mischievous sense of the game, a dedicated Irish scholar who made Japan his home.

MacMillan approaches his many artistic projects with irrepressible energy. It started the year with an exhibition inside and outside the iconic Sony Building in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district. Outside, on the Sony Wall, its entire facade measuring 37.6 meters by 6 meters, he created a festive visual wonder, “The Sun, the Moon and Fuji,” as part of Sony’s annual charity event. Corp. Inside, he exhibited the “Thirty-six New Views”, created under the artist name Seisai (meaning, Western artist or an artist with a studio in the West) a set of words in homage to Katsushika Hokusai, the Edo period ukiyo-e master whose original series “Fugaku Sanjuroku-kei” (“Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”) inspired MacMillan’s creations.

Over the past year, he has completed two literary translations, founded an institute to promote Japanese culture abroad, and published his first volume of poetry in Italy, while continuing as a visiting professor at universities in Tokyo. , notably Kyorin University and the University of Tokyo.

How is it? MacMillan quickly becomes thoughtful. “One of the things that attracts me the most about Japanese culture is the way the visual and the poetic overlap. In classical Japanese poetry, I found that often poets wrote poems based on famous landscape paintings rather than on scenes themselves. In the poet’s mind, painting and poem were intimately linked. For me it is the same; I don’t see the poem or the image as separate, but as one inspiring the other.

There is a literary term for such art, and word creator MacMillan provides it: ekphrasis. “Japanese culture is particularly ekphrastic, with a deeply linked image and poem. “

As a literary scholar, teacher and translator, MacMillan is obviously devoted to words. Born in the Irish countryside, MacMillan explains: “When I was young, I was influenced by my mother (who was a writer of children’s books) because she was a great reader of literature – she still is – and she gave me books. to read all the time and then we would discuss it together.

After earning degrees in English Literature and Philosophy from University College Dublin, MacMillan accepted a place in the United States at the University of South Carolina to earn his doctorate.

Although he chose a career path focused on the verbal, his love of the visual arts also blossomed in his education. Her father was an art dealer and worked from home, “so in our house there were always different paintings on the walls. I saw many, many paintings growing up as a child, and so I developed a deep interest in art.

In 1987, while MacMillan was completing his thesis at the University of South Carolina, he learned of a teaching position on the Japanese campus of the University of Maryland. Although he doesn’t know anything about Japan, “it seemed very exotic and distant, and I thought I could have a wonderful adventure.” MacMillan quickly fell in love with the art and literature of Japan and found a permanent position at Kyorin University.

The translation came later. MacMillan says, “I never really saw myself as a translator. But in my early forties, in order to capture a better picture of Japanese culture and help me decide whether or not to stay in Japan, I started translating “Hyakunin Isshu” – one of four. pillars of classical literature in Japan. I never imagined it would be published.

In 1996, MacMillan was awarded a two-year Visiting Fellowship to Columbia and Princeton as well as the University of Oxford. At Columbia, he worked with eminent Japanese scholar Donald Keene. When he later showed his manuscript to Keene, “he told me it was the best translation of the work he had ever seen.”

With such encouragement, MacMillan continued the publication. Keene later wrote the foreword to his translation, and “One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each” was published in 2008, winning awards in the United States and Japan.

MacMillan believes that success “has really changed my life. It gave me a whole new direction and through it I discovered an engagement with Japanese culture which was truly rewarding for me. As a foreigner living in Japan, it gave me a unique role.

Last December, MacMillan launched the Japan Institute to continue this role: “It’s still in its infancy and we don’t even have a website yet, but I realized there is a limit to what an individual can do. I want to promote an understanding of Japanese culture abroad. After the great earthquake in eastern Japan (March 2011), I decided to do something worth staying. So I decided to make the translation of Japanese poetry a part of my life’s work.

He also regularly donates part of the profits from his prints to Tohoku and UNESCO Japan.

While MacMillan finds a lot to enjoy in his adopted country, he finds a lot to question – including sustainability – and he’s grateful that his visual art gives him a platform to ask these questions.

MacMillan first studied printmaking at Musashino University near his home, wondering if he should eventually take over his father’s business as an art dealer. “I realized that I wasn’t really suited to be an art dealer, but when I took printmaking classes I found that I could create my own work. “

Visual art gave him another way to communicate in Japan. “I have a pretty strong satirical streak,” admits MacMillan, a nod to fellow Irishman Jonathan Swift. “But these days I think satire is a very compromised art. We live in a time when we realize that we all leave a carbon footprint. None of us are perfect. We might like to attack the various industries that harm the environment, but we all contribute, in a way, just by living, to the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources. The satire needs to be done more subtly. One way to do this is to use visual images that ask tough questions in a more indirect and playful way. “

With his translation of “Tales of Ise” due later this year and a literary anthology on Mount Fuji complemented by a three-month exhibition at Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki from June, MacMillan’s energy shows no sign. flexion: “I’m not a radical politician who can go out on the streets.” I have to do it in my own style, gently and playfully, honoring the wonders of Japanese culture, art and literature.

For more information on MacMillan’s work, see

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