Of Frogs and Men

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How far can a translator go to achieve the ultimate goal of conveying the author's intent in another language? For that matter, how well does the translator (or the reader) understand the author's intent? James Joyce' Ulysses has been translated into a number of languages, but considering the range of opinion about what it means in English, it seems pretty clear that few, if any, of these translations actually have anything to do with what Joyce wanted to say.

I recently read a speech given by Okuizumi Hikaru (奥泉 光) at the University of Indonesia's Faculty of Literature on March 31, 2005. Okuizumi won the 110th Akutagawa Prize in 1994 for The Stones Cry Out (石の来歴, Ishi no Raireki).

He raised the issue of "shared perceptions," a common understanding shared by people of an ethnic group. He was specifically talking about the Japanese language, but his observation applies universally. Basically, the cultural and linguistic milieu of the group provides its members with a lot of indirectly conveyed information. This information really makes translation difficult, because the author didn't stick in lots of explanation, and adding it to the translation would obviously make for a pretty turgid read.

Okuizumi used the famous poem by Matsuo Bashō as his example:

Furuike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto

Translated literally, I'd say it means:

Old pond
Frog jumps
Sound of water

Okuizumi explains: "The Japanese language basically does not distinguish between singular and plural, and in the original verse there is no way of knowing whether there is only one frog or many. However, most Japanese assume that there is one. This is a "shared perception," something we sense even though no one has ever explained it to us. When I was at university an American student studied this haiku with us. He said, "There are 10,000 frogs in this poem." When asked why, he replied, "Because frogs live in large groups." The Japanese word furuike made him think of a big body of water like Lake Ontario and of a prehistoric age like the Jurassic era. He was not mistaken; the code he used to understand this haiku was just different from that used by Japanese readers."

This is a crucial observation: "He was not mistaken; the code he used to understand... was different..." It would have been easy enough to say that the Japanese is subtle and easily misunderstood, but Okuizumi chose instead to say that the interpretation was equally valid but different. Would it also be equally valid as a translation, though?

The bottom line is that nobody knows, because we can't ask the author. He died in 1694. Most Japanese assume that there is one frog, but is that because of a shared perception of some sort? It is because they have all been taught the same way when studying the poem at school? Or is it simply because (as I prefer to think) that the poetry would be ruined by the sound of thousands of frogs smacking into the water at once. A single frog, a single echo, a single ripple... this seems to make for a simpler, and therefore more precise (in my opinion) instant, captured in poetry. Once can also capture a cacophony in poetry of course, but I have difficulty believing Matsuo Bashō would have reduced that to a mere "mizu no oto".

Is the translator justified in reducing it to a single frog, though? Would the translator be justified in quantifying the frog population in any way? If the Japanese doesn't specify the quantity, should the English? In practical terms, I think there is no choice, because the English language really likes to keep track of gender and quantity. There are cases when you can rewrite a sentence to avoid mentioning them, but it is difficult to do elegantly, and impossible to do repeatedly.

So I guess there's really little choice here but to read up on what other people think the poem means, and make your own interpretation. Is it right? I think so. Is it any better than the other guy's translation? No, but at least it's yours.

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