“Zarathustra on Mars: A Story for All and None” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui
English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)
Original: Japanese (火星のツァラトゥストラ), 1973
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017
Synopsis: On Mars, a professor discovers a fragment of a text in 21st century Earthspeak. It’s informal style seems watered down from Nietzche’s original novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the professor didn’t know that, didn’t much care, and also thought that if he translated it to Marsspeak, it would sell superbly well. The result is a colloquial dialogue reminiscent of 20th century surfer lexicon with sixth-grade-level vocabulary and sentence structure. Immediately, the translation becomes an instant hit with the professor maintaining that Zarathustra actually exists back on Earth, so far as to concoct stories about him and his appearance. When one passenger with similar name arrives on Mars, everyone, including the professor, treat him as the real thing. Soon, he’s on all the talk-shows, movies, series, music, etc. His popularity could know no end. Ever the philosopher, the so-called Zarathustra tells his modern-day flock, “If some guy smacks you, you gotta smack the guy back. That’s the only way, I’m tellin’ ya. ‘Cos, y’see, it’s more humaner to get your own back than not do nothin’ at all” (57).
Analysis: According to Wikipedia, Nietzche’s novel Thus Spake Zarathustra has been translated into English about eight times. With each new translation, the translator offers their opinion about Nietzche’s intentions and style along with the faults of previous translations. Certainly, nuance is something that will be lost from one language to another, so an artistic license must be brandished to bridge the gap. The common idiomatic phrase “lost in translation” can easily be wielded here; not every single idea, nuance, or conception is make it from one language to another, be it from German to English or, as in “Zarathustra on Mars”, from German to a possible second language to 21st century Earthspeak to, in the end, 22nd century Marsspeak.
Some things that are lost in translation are unintentional, or intentional to the point that it’s impossible to convey whatever it may be with the language at hand. Anyway, other things that are lost in translation can be intentional, like a sort of dumbing down. Here, “lost in translation” doesn’t have to mean from one language to another, but it can also imply a means conveyance from the original, such as a summary, CliffNotes, or a populist portrayal.
The translation that the professor on Mars had done went through a number linguistic meat grinders: through at least three languages, each of which also seemed to have dumbed down the content, resulting in a translated edition that borders on sacrilege:
Name’s Zarathustra, that’s Zara-too-stra, but you can call be Zaz.
I’m gonna tell you a cool story now.
When I was thirty, I felt the place where I was living. I worked for a soft drink outfit, but they gave me the book. So I went into the mountains and started living there. I did as i pleased and wandered about for a bit. Ten years, actually.
What’s that? I must’ve got bored? No way. But after ten years, I did have a bit of change of heart. One morning, I woke up early, which was unusual for me, and went outside. Just then, the sun was coming up over the horizon, and I was like, Wow! You know? See, on Planet Earth the sun rises in the east and looks all red. Not like it does on Mars, or somewhere. (49-50)
Obviously, the future Yasutaka envisions–both on Mars and Earth–isn’t a very intellectual one. From 18th century philosophical German to 22nd century regressed Marsspeak, it sounds like much of civilization has declined; though ships still travel between planets, the level of intelligence seems to have regressed to the point of idiocy. This decline may be a facet of Yasutaka’s opinion about the modern world (“modern” in 1973 but what must also be true for 2017).
Are history’s poignant creations of music, art, and literature falling on the deaf, blind, and dumb of the modern era? At what point can something important from the past be made relevant and understood by the present? Does it actually require dumbing down in order to capture the essence of the message, but is the “essence” the same as the “wholeness”? No, because as stated before, nuances are lost… Michelangelo’s statue David is just a rock with the nuances of contour (ok, it’s not exactly “nuances”, but you get the drift).
Back to Mars, when this watered down version of philosophy is made public, it becomes hugely popular without anyone really knowing where it came from or what it’s about. Regardless, like sheep to the shepherd or cattle to the stockyard, the regressed minds of Mars plunge heedlessly head-first into the popularity of Zarathustra, a book without a message for minds without thought.
Review: I’ve never read Nietzche’s novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, so many of the parallelisms from that book are lost on me if not expressed in the Wikipedia entry. For what it is, the story is as zany as the rest of the collection. It takes on a bizarre tact with stylish whims, resulting in a fun read but also one what reflects on society (especially here in Thailand with its obsessive and regressive idolatry of superstars and pretty faces). Have you seen the movie Idiocracy (2006)? Yea, it’s like that a bit but on Mars. So, here with “Zarathustra”, we find Yasutaka in his most light-hearted state with the delivery but the content of which steeped with his own intellectualism – fun yet smart.