Chocolate and Whales

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St. Valentine's Day in Japan is as commercialized as it is in the United States, but (as always) just a tad different... In Japan, the custom is for girls to give to the guys!
And just so the girls don't feel left out, the Japanese have instituted something called White Day on March 14, exactly one month later (a cooling-off period, perhaps?), when the guys give to the girls. It all seems to work out, but the immediate impression of Valentine's Day to a Japanese is probably different than what someone raised in the US would have.

I can remember having to give Valentine's Day cards to everyone else in my class at elementary school, regardless of gender, and carefully counting the ones I got back to see who hated me so much they would deliberately "forget" to give me one. In high school and later university, it became much more meaningful, and much less important whether the sign was passed from boy to girl or vice-versa.

At any rate, moving from chocolate and roses to work, what happens when a new book or movie in a series just doesn't match the previous releases? This became an issue in the last few years with the release of the Lord of the Rings movies in Japan.

The books, of course, have been published in multiple editions in Japanese translation for many years, and are more available than ever now. But with the release of the movie an interesting phenomenon has appeared... multiple ways to render names and such in Japanese.

Well, this type of problem is not all that uncommon, but it can really upset fans when it occurs in the middle of a series, for example, or a multi-media event like LOTR. Considering that Tolkien's names are mostly made-up, a certain degree of leeway is to be expected when pronouncing them. Part of a translator's job, however, is to ensure that the pronunciations are as close to what the author intended as possible, which often means asking the author what he or she intended. That takes time and in many cases is simply not possible, but unfortunately in this case most of the names in LOTR have well-established pronunciations.

Toda Natsuko, the most famous subtitler in Japan, handled the LOTR trilogy and, as is perfectly normal in her line of work, had no requirement to read the book. Books are often different from movies, and reading a three-volume novel takes a serious amount of time. She had no requirement, but judging from the resulting furor, she should have made the time, IMHO. As a translator, I feel she certainly should have researched her subject to ensure that it was the highest quality possible, and while her subtitling may have been perfectly accurate as a translation I believe it failed as another part of the extant LOTR material in Japan, and therefore failed the fans.

This can happen with books, too, of course, and especially if the translator of a series is changed in mid-stream. What is the second translator to do when faced with this situation: should he leave the incorrect pronunciations and turn in a lower-quality translation, or make the best possible translation and leave readers wondering why everyone's name was different?

A more fundamental problem that can occur is direct mistranslation... if a throw-away term is mistranslated, for example, saying that a passing car was blue instead of red, it has no effect on the story, but if a house is said to be standing on the shore of a river instead of the shore of an ocean, for example, it could have major repercussions throughout the series of books! Suppose later in the story crashing waves, or tides, or a beached whale is mentioned, for example...

The best solution would be to retranslate the whole series, but that would cost a lot of money that the publisher would probably not be willing to pay (and leave them with a heck of a lot of inventory to dispose of), and might not even recognize the need for. The second-best solution would be to do it right in the new book, and hope readers would figure it out. And the least-attractive solution would be to continue to use the mistranslations, rewriting the source as needed to make it fit.

The fact that the problem occurs at all demonstrates a lack of quality control on the part of the publisher, and given that stance I sort of doubt any publisher would be willing to rectify the issue fully. It is far more likely they would just hem and haw and wait for the problem to go away entirely... after all, nobody else has rights to translate the work into Japanese, so the reading public can't really go anywhere else for their fix, right?

There certainly is no good solution to the problem, but it is educational to consider what happened and why, and hopefully strive to avoid it in the future!


As always, if you are interested in writing a guest article, or becoming part of Kurodahan Press in any capacity, please contact me at any time. The most important resource is, as in almost anything, good people!

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