Mouse or Hamster?


After literally decades of translating, and thinking (as customers and other obligations permitted) about why this translation was better than that, reading on the subject, and slowly developing my own criteria for what constitutes an acceptable translation and what does not, last week I finally received a copy of Umberto Eco's Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation. It has been on my list of books to read for quite some time, but for reasons not terribly relevant sat moldering in the United States for several years until finally making its way to me.

Having read it, I am simultaneously in ecstasy and despair.

Ecstasy, because Eco has spelled out exactly what I have been trying to codify and explain for so long, and spelled it out in a way that is much clearer than my own attempts. He draws from a number of Western European languages, which I can't do, and presents lucid examples that illuminate his point.

Despair, because Eco has spelled out exactly what I have been trying to codify and explain for so long... While I can only praise what he has written, it is a bit of a shock to realize that he has already done what I had hoped some day to do.

Still, he is discussing translation in general, while I am primarily interested in translation specifically from Japanese into English. If I stick to what I know perhaps I can use his expertise to help me get my own points across more clearly.

Before I can even begin to discuss specific examples, or the nuts and bolts of translation, however, it makes sense to define just what the point of it all is. The excellent Transubstantiation blog offers thoughts on what translation is, presenting the definition originally penned by John Dryden, poet and translator, who divided translation into three categories:

  • metaphrase, where an author/translator translates word for word,
  • paraphrase, where an author/translator translates sense for sense, and
  • imitation, where an author/translator abandons the original text.

Given that Kurodahan Press's goal is to make Japanese and other literature accessible to the English-speaking world, it's pretty clear that the right flavor for us is paraphrase.

Eco says "...the aim of a translation, more than producing any literal 'equivalence', is to create the same effect in the mind of the reader (obviously according to the translator's interpretation) as the original text wanted to create. Instead of speaking of equivalence of meaning, we can speak of functional equivalence: a good translation must generate the same effect aimed at by the original."

He has clarified, in my mind, the goal of literary translation, but a closer look reveals a host of details. And, as Gustave Flaubert once said, that's where God hides. Or, if you're a realist, you could translate it as "the Devil is in the details."

I see three key areas for mischief here, namely (1) "create the same effect in the mind of the reader", (2) "according to the translator's interpretation," and (3) "the same effect aimed at by the original."

The way I see it, the same flaw underlies all three of these points. They certainly hold true in the theoretical and ideal sense, I agree, but in a practical sense they fail because they are based on the assumption that there is a single uniform type of person involved for the author, the translator and the reader. In fact we know that this isn't true... An author can assign a unique meaning to a word, or use it in several different and equally unique ways in a single work, making it effectively impossible to comprehend the intended effect, let alone replicate it. A translator can completely misinterpret what the author wanted to say. And every reader is different, and will color any piece of text with the hues of his own experience and values.

Next time I hope to take a closer look at, specifically, the Japanese words for aunt oba (叔母 or 伯母), and uncle oji (叔父 or 伯父). So why are there two different ways of writing each?

See you next time.


Kurodahan Press

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

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