Some Thoughts about Literary Translation (Part 1)


I've had a few people ask me about what Kurodahan Press is trying to do. Some of them come from technical translation, and seem to have problems understanding that a dictionary and familiarity with field-specific jargon aren't sufficient. Some are monolingual English speakers, and wonder why the author said this instead of the more obvious that. And some just want to read a good story and wonder why I don't translate using Babelfish or whatever. I thought it might be a good time to explain what I think literary translation is.

In case the "Part 1" in the title scares you, there are only two parts, and they divide quite neatly by content. This part is about understanding the source.

The problem is not for an English-speaking translator to understand source material written in a different language, although that's certainly necessary. The reader (whether translator or merely another Japanese who picks the book up to read in Japanese) has to understand what it says, and this is not as easy as it sounds. There are a number of issues that get in the way, most of which apply to every language, not just Japanese.

First of all, language changes. Consider this passage from Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale:

Now, dame, quod he, by God and by seint john!
Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.
I was aboute to wedde a wyf; allas!
What sholde I bye it on my flessh so deere?
Yet hadde I levere wedde no wyf to-yeere!

Granted, this is English from the late 1300s we're talking about here, and any language will change quite a bit in a few centuries. Here's a modernized version from the same site:

"Now dame," said he, "by God and by Saint John,
You are a noble preacher in this case!
I was about to wed a wife, alas!
Why should I buy this on my flesh so dear?
No, I would rather wed no wife this year."

To a lesser extent, this occurs even in terms of generations, or decades. Words drop out of style, and even styles of writing drop out of style. The content of works by William Morris is much the same as dozens of modern fantasies in print today, but his style of writing is (by modern standards) pretty slow. In order to understand the book, then, you first have to be able to understand the language the author uses.

This may also include specialized vocabulary. Especially in the mystery genre in English there is a tendency to search for field-specific jargon to demonstrate that the book is authentic. And it is realistic, because specialists working in their field want to use words with specific meanings. In fiction there can be quite a difference, for example, between body, corpse and cadaver (not to mention zombie...), and unless you as reader are familiar with them, you'll be dumped out of the story and back into reality, turning a reading experience into a vocabulary drill.

In translation as well, it is crucial to understand the words used, and how they are used. If there's scene in a poker game and someone says, "Hit me!" is he really asking to be walloped? If Faust's guest says "I'm bad," he means one thing, but if a Harlem boomboxer says it, it means something else entirely.

Another crucial element is all the extra cultural baggage that attaches itself to words and scenes, things we pick up just by living in a culture. It can be something as obvious to an American as having a mom say "Eat your spinach, boy; it'll make yer muscles grow," or as obscure to a non-Disney viewer as a person referring to his old bug as Herbie.

Unless you are familiar with the reference, you are unaware that there is a secondary meaning there at all, and miss that extra dimension entirely.

This gets even more difficult when the reference is to something that happened decades or centuries ago. References to the Battle of the Bulge are still usually valid, but how many readers would catch a reference to Julian and Shapur?

(Even worse, suppose the author who mentions the Battle of the Bulge is actually talking about his waistline? Sure, you get the wordplay, but will it still play in a different language?)

If a character says "I'd gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" an American reader can usually place it and get some extra meaning from the phrase, but suppose he just laughs "Ho Ho Ho!" proudly, and stands with hands on hips? If you weren't watching the tube back then, you probably won't get it.

An episode of CSI:NY I watched recently shows Danny Messer gulping down a giant centipede (still squirming...), commenting "When on the Upper East Side..." to his buddy. The Japanese correctly subtitled it as 郷に従う, but the only way you get the meaning is if you already know what "When in Rome" means.

We pick up a lot of these hidden references when reading, and they add a lot to the story. The more we know about the cultural background, the richer the story becomes, and the more we enjoy the book. This is part of the reason that translated books often fall flat... because they are flat, with a big depth dimension of cultural content missing from the translation, even though every word may have been translated.

Or consider the Japanese 面白い (omoshiroi), which is generally translated as interesting or enjoyable, or a mix of the two. The word originally referred to Japanese ladies who painted their faces (面, omo) white (白い, shiro), and then entertained men, making the enjoyable meaning much more important. Any wordplay on this, such as referring to a hostess at a Ginza club with a pale face, will expect the reader to be aware of this. But that only works with Japanese readers; anyone reading the English translation will need a pretty good understanding of Japanese already, have it explained, or miss it entirely.

Japanese has a host of specialized words that have few equivalents in English, because our culture just doesn't work that way. They have literally dozens of words for "me" and "you," all indicating various differences that would be important to the author; some indicate gender, most indicate relative status in some way. There are a number of words and styles of speech that are only used by women, for example, or only be men, but we don't have any easy way of indicating this difference in English. And Japanese can get by quite nicely without specifying quantity... it can be impossible to tell whether something is singular or plural unless the author bothers to specify. A simple sentence in Japanese like 鉛筆があります might be translated accurately as "I have a pencil" or "I have some pencils." It is impossible to tell from the Japanese.

The point is, unless you have a solid understanding of what the author has written, and, more importantly, what the author means, you can't translate.

More next week


Kurodahan Press

Kurodahan Press
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Chuo-ku, Fukuoka
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