Tigers and Cheerios

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Translation is all about getting the idea across in another language, but it's not as simple as picking one word from column A and one to match it from column B. Many words are just packed full of cultural goodies that make it difficult to translate them smoothly. And especially if you're trapped in a situation like literature, where you can't get away with footnotes, or (even worse) in movie subtitles where you have only a few lines and five seconds to read them, you have to make some tough choices.

I was recently checking the galleys for our upcoming Hanatsumi Nikki — The Flowers of Italy, and ran across a fascinating note by the translator. She was discussing how she translated the work, and had this to say (edited for brevity):

"...Meiji writers ... often faced the need for a word that did not yet exist, or was not yet in wide usage, in Japanese. Particularly in the case of Christian terminology, Anesaki chooses a Buddhist term that is a close approximation of the Christian meaning when there is not a "proper" (i.e., widely recognized by the readership) term available. For example, when referring to churches he uses the Japanese term tera (寺), which today is usually translated as "temple." The term kaidō (会堂 'church building'), popularly used now, never appears. ...I do not interpret this as an attempt on Anesaki's part to impose Buddhist ideas on Christian objects. Rather, I think he was simply creating the least awkward text possible given the linguistic limitations of the time... Thus, tera is "church," (not "temple"), yakusō is "sacristan" (not "attending monk"), and Seibo is the "Virgin Mary" or "the Holy Virgin" (not "Holy Mother").

The reasoning of the translator is solid, and, in my opinion, she has made the right choice. I am a believer that anything that can be expressed in one language can be expressed in any other language, but I have to recognize that it may be a lot more difficult. If you show a man in a kimono to someone who has never seen one before, the observer may well describe it as a bathrobe, or almost certainly a robe of some kind. Now go one step further... suppose you show a man using chopsticks to an observer who has never seen anyone who didn't eat with his fingers. It suddenly gets a lot harder to describe.

This does present a real problem for the translator, though. Anesaki, writing in the early 1900s, made the decision to use words that his readership could understand immediately, so that he could concentrate on the content rather than the presentation. In Japan at that time, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, Christianity was certainly present, but hardly well-known. By using the Japanese words for temple he made it instantly clear to the reader that this was some sort of organized religious facility, and with that out of the way could move on to more important things.

In Japan, though, the Buddhist temple is concerned with death, and what happens after death. Shinto usually deals with more auspicious occassions, such as birth and marriage. Christian churches, of course, are involved with every aspect of life, and death. As a result, the feelings held by a European toward churches are quite different than the feelings most Japanese have about temples.
And by using the word for temple in his writing, Anesaki unquestionably colored his writing, giving Japanese readers a word that came ready-made with all sorts of native references.

Or look at it from the other side, for a moment. I was reading Tom Clancy's The Teeth of the Tiger last week (sorry; I generally try not to talk about my vices in public...), and ran across a few gems:

  • the Klu Klux Klan
  • Some people at Langley
  • as leaky as RMS Titanic
  • a box of Cheerios
  • security clearance up to TS

The list is endless, of course. I think the translator can safely assume that the reader is going to know what the KKK is, and the Titanic. TS can be handled easily enough because it won't be left in Roman letters anyway. But what about Langley? Sure, the CIA is famous worldwide, but is Langley? Does it demand a footnote? Or maybe change it to something like "Some people at the CIA" and leave out the Langley part, which is not at all important to the passage?

And what about those darn Cheerios... OK, boxes of cereal are getting pretty well known worldwide, even if they're not on the menu. Kids scarf down bowls of cereal in E.T., meaning that most of the world's population has probably seen it already (well, a bit of an exaggeration there, but anyway...). But in addition to being packed full of vitamins and nutrition, Cheerios are also packed full of decades of TV commercials rich in peripiheral information. Sure, we don't actually remember the majority of those ads (thank goodness!), but they're with us, I'm sure. Like Tony the Tiger, just eat a bowl and you're ready to take on the world. And that impression, probably unnoticed by most readers, is an important part of the atmosphere for a book about tough guys taking on baddies.

So how to you say all that in one word when you're talking to a Japanese reader who has never seen a TV commercial for Cheerios, and quite possibly never even had breakfast cereal?
I suspect the answer is, you don't. You mention a bowl of cereal, or even a box of Cheerios, and let it go. It is an accurate translation, sure, but you're just let some some of the air out of the tires.

People reading Tom Clancy aren't reading for the footnotes; they read for the action. So yes, it probably makes sense to just drop it and move on to more important things in the plot sequence. And in this day and age, where katakana accounts for a goodly part of everything in print in Japanese, it makes more sense to leave it as an unexplained Americanism rather than, as Anesaki might have done, to change it to a bowl of rice.

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