English as a Common Tongue

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The rainy season is here with a vengance... as I look out the window typing this, I can barely see the condos lurking out there, hidden behind sheets of rain. It's really time to take the dogs out for a walk, but in all that rain I don't think any of us would enjoy it very much. And while the dogs may be unhappy about missing their lunch walk, it does give me a chance to do my homework. It's a bit difficult to type with a cavalier spaniel on my lap (she's scared of thunder), though...

The recent sale of Ian Hughes' English translation of The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows for publishing in Spanish is a big step for Kurodahan Press. There is an awful lot of good Japanese literature, but there are not so many good translators who can put the Japanese into another language and preserve the flavor.

Back in the 'good old days' the international language was French, with diplomacy often handled via French as a common tongue. Today it's English, and books translated into English stand the best chance of then being translated into a third language. Tomorrow, who knows? Might be Chinese...

Edogawa Rampo is famous worldwide, both for the collection of short stories he did together with James Harris and for his considerable contribution to crime and mystery literature in Japan. (Our upcoming Rampo Reader will include translations of most of his key essays, together with a selection of his short fiction.) When we sent out ARCs (advance review copies) of the first Rampo book, quite a few excited reviewers thanked us for "finally making Rampo available in English!"

Early this year we received an inquiry from a Spanish publisher about translating it into Spanish, and that was followed by another inquiry from a publisher in Eastern Europe for the same book. Now we've got a number of inquiries in progress, for multiple books! Delightful!This is all possible because we're translating into English, however. And as I said above, English is pretty much the language of international exchange these days. In fact, as Intercom I was recently asked to translate a Japanese thriller into English because a French movie production company wanted to make a screenplay based on the book. It would be faster and cheaper to translate the work from Japanese to English, and let the screenwriter read that, than it would be to translate directly into French.

This is all very well and good, but a translation is always a different work than the original. There are always linguistic, cultural and other aspects of the source that are excised, mutated or replaced in a translation, and often new material is added. The objective, of course, is to ensure that the translated version provides the reader with an experience as close to that of the original as possible, but there's no denying that the translator adds a bit of himself. A poor translator may add too much and stray into territory that rightfully belongs to the author, but even a good translator has to make major decisions about how much can be changed.

The Kafka article I mentioned the other day is a good example... all the translations are accurate, but the reader can get quite different perceptions from them. On a note closer to home, take Genji Monogatari, for example. I grew up with a copy of Arthur Waley's translation in the living room (a big, chunky hardcover), and dipped into it every so often, usually finding it quite dark in tone. When I finally got around to studying Japanese literature seriously, at the University of Maryland, I was introduced to Edward Siedensticker's translation, and found it bright, airy, almost luminous in comparison. Going back to the Waley work, I realized that my initial impressions (I blame it all on callow youth) were wrong, but that two different translators had come up with two very different interpretations of the same work.

More recently, Royall Tyler has also released a translation of the same work, with yet another interpretation.

Which is right?

They're all right. That's the point.You have to accept the fact that any work, in translation, will be different than the original. It's like the blind men and the elephant: each translator sees, interprets and expresses differently. I can read all three Genji translations, recognize them as being the same work, but enjoy them for their differences as much as for the identical underlying core of the Japanese.

When one of those English works is then translated into a third language, like Spanish, the translator makes more changes, of course, but this time he is basing his assumptions on the English, not on the source Japanese. There is a much greater chance that the original intent of the author will be corrupted.

Of course, this has its good points, too... a mediocre book in one language can be translated into a masterpiece in another by a translator who can really utilize the language. Is it still the same work? Hard to say... I certainly don't see any reason why a translator should be forced to write mediocre sentences just because an author does.

The only way to tell would be to have someone who is a native speaker in both Spanish and Japanese read and compare... but the only person who can judge properly is the author, because only the author knows what he or she really wanted to say.

I plan to pick up a copy of the Spanish translation when it's done and try reading it... my Spanish is from high school and there's no way I'm going to catch any mistakes, but it should be fun!

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Kurodahan Press

Kurodahan Press
c/o Intercom, Ltd.
3-9-10-403 Tenjin
Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
810-0001 JAPAN

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