Translation Practice

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September has come... this should be the middle of the typhoon season here, but the unusual weather worldwide seems to have come to Japan as well. It's unseasonally cool right now, and only a few scattered typhoons roaming around down south. The hotter seas down there will no doubt produce a whole series of whoppers for us later in the year. I can hardly wait.

September is also the deadline for submissions to the Kurodahan PressTranslation Prize. We released notices to a lot of places, and I was gratified to see our announcement being copied to a wide range of websites. We've gotten a large number of inquiries, too, but so far nobody has really had any questions about the content of the contest. Which is good, because it implies we actually wrote the instructions well!

Reading a good story in English is always a treat, but perhaps what I look forward to even more than that is reading a lot of different interpretations of a weird story. Each translator will make his or her own decisions about what the author means, how to best express the author's intent and style, and then go right ahead and inject personal touches. The end result will certainly not be one "best" story and a bunch of runners-up.

Instead, it will be a handful of translations which obviously missed the boat, and a larger (I hope) set of translations which are all very good for one reason or another. Some may be perfect translations, some may be perfect English stories, some may best reflect what the author wanted the reader to feel. My suspicion is that no submission will do all of these things at once, and that will make the decision pretty tough.

It will also make reading them a heck of a lot of fun (except for the fact that the jurors have to read them all within a reasonable length of time...).

Different people seem to have different methods of translating. My own approach, after years of making mistakes, is to make a rough draft designed to get the meaning down solid. It is full of notes to myself to verify the meaning of a particular phrase, to check who actually said something in case I misinterpreted, or just reminders that a particular passage should show loneliness, or sadness, or whatever. Sometimes if I'm not happy with my base translation I'll pick a few English words that are close and leave the Japanese there, too. At this stage I don't worry about style, although if the "perfect" word occurs to me of course I use it.

The next stage is getting rid of all those questions. A lot of them I can work out myself by rereading the Japanese, and referencing a stack of books in both languages: English dictionary, Japanese dictionary, kanji dictionary, thesaurus (sometimes in Japanese, too), not to mention whatever specialized references the job at hand might require. I'm translating a story involving go now, and need to know how moves and handicaps are referred to in English. I understand what the Japanese says fine, but I don't play go in English, and therefore don't know what English-speaking players call these things.

If all goes well, I now have a solid base translation. It probably reads terribly, because the goal is accuracy, not readability or style. After that the process is much like any English writing job: refine and polish. Be succinct and select words that impart the proper atmosphere, whatever it may be. Listen to my own words objectively and see where I stumble. Fix it again.

Eventually the story becomes readable. Sometimes you can get trapped in this rewriting process, never finding the "ultimate" translation that is your goal. Chances are, it's already done and you're too close to it to see.

This is why I like to refine once or twice, and then put the story down for at least a week and let it ferment. Then reread it as objectively as possible and see where it sticks. Anything that shatters the "willing suspension of disbelief" has to be rooted out. And of course the English should sing, not merely be good English.

If I keep improving at the rate I have been, I expect to become a good literary translator in another, oh, 75 or 80 years...

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