The Embers of Hiroshima: From Author to Subject in a Transnational Oral History Collaboration
Palevsky, Mary, The Oral History Review
Abstract This paper examines an international oral history collaboration involving the "translation" of the American book, Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Questions, by Mary Palevsky, into the Japanese documentary film, Memories of the Trinity Bomb, directed by Yoshihiko Muraki. The author utilized oral history and personal narrative to chronicle her inquiry into the legacy of the atomic bomb in the lives of its creators. Japanese scholar, Kayoko Yoshida, translated Palevsky's summary of Atomic Fragments into Japanese for Muraki, working with the filmmaker throughout the process. For the film, the author conducted interviews with Manhattan Project scientists and was interviewed in sites of personal and historical significance. This paper explores the methodological challenges underlying three essential features of this transnational project: the transformation of audience, from American to Japanese; the transformation of medium, from book to film; the transformation of identity, from researcher and author of a book to subject of a film.
When I asked Kayoko Yoshida to read, Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Questions, I was seeking her opinion about translating it into Japanese. (1) My question seemed straightforward:
Did she, a Japanese oral historian, think readers in her country would be interested in a book by the daughter of Manhattan Project scientists about her conversations with the aging scientists who created the atomic bomb? But in fact, translation is never a straightforward act. Our collaboration took my work beyond the boundaries I had anticipated, in ways I could not have envisioned.
Translating the story of Atomic Fragments into the documentary film, Memories of the Trinity Bomb (2) involved three essential changes:
* the transformation of audience--from American to Japanese.
* the transformation of medium--from book to film.
* the transformation of identity--my personal transformation from the author of a book about the memory of the bomb in the lives of its creators, to the subject of a film about this memory.
To explore these developments in more depth, I will open this essay with an overview of Atomic Fragments, and my approach as an oral historian and author, using the medium of writing, to speak to American readers. I will examine my decision to use first person voice in my writing in order to accomplish my goals. Then, I will discuss how this approach formed the basis for transition to a film for which I was the primary narrator, and how I negotiated the challenges of becoming the subject of another creator's oral historical work.
Overview of Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Questions
My late parents were young scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret crash program to create the first atomic bomb during World War II. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought the war to a close, my father, Harry Palevsky, vowed to never work on weapons again, and went on to a long career as an experimental nuclear physicist. Like many atomic scientists, he was committed both to his postwar career as a physicist and to the issues surrounding the proper role of the scientist in society--particularly regarding the development and control of nuclear weapons. In 1990, during the final months of my widowed father's life, we recorded his memoirs on audio-tape. Four years later, as a doctoral student in human development, the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the A-bomb in 1995 provided the stimulus for me to broaden my understanding of the moral legacy of the atomic bomb in the lives of its creators.
An in-depth discussion of my research design and methods is beyond the scope of this paper. However, I will review some relevant features of my work. (3) My approach was interdisciplinary, informed by theory and methods in ethnography, oral history, biography, and autobiography. I have conducted interviews with thirty individuals, nineteen of whom worked on the Manhattan Project. …