Confucius, Machiavelli and Miss Potter

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The plum trees have been blooming for a while now, but I just saw the first cherry blossoms of the season. They sure feel a bit early to me, and the news seems to agree: it's been talking about how the cherry are blooming a week or two ahead of schedule.

In Japan at this time of year, along with the daily weather report, they also report on the sakura zensen (桜前線; the cherry blossom front, like a cold front or a high-pressure front). As the weather gets warmer, the TV shows a map of Japan with the sakura zensen drawn in, showing where the cherry are in full bloom, with "blooming soon" regions in the colder areas and "leafy" in the warmer areas. And an awful lot of people in Japan pay attention to these reports, scheduling their cherry blossom viewing parties (花見; hanami, which actually just means "flower viewing") accordingly. Murphy's Law applies in Japan as well, making it possible for all of these people to come to the same park that I go to, at precisely the same time.

Before I start in on my regular rant, I thought it might to nice to praise what struck me as a truly superb translation.
I recently watched the film Miss Potter, with titles by Toda Natsuko. Toda Natsuko is, of course, the film translator I commented on last time, mentioning the storm she whipped up with her translations for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. While I am not always happy about the choices she makes when translating, I must admit that she is a highly skilled and very professional translator, and give praise where due.

What impressed me about Miss Potter? The very last scene, where she is sitting on a hillside with sketchbook, looking out over the incredibly beautiful countryside, and says something like she's finally come home, "right where I belong." Toda-san's translation of this was a simple "心の故郷" (kokoro no furusato). Kokoro is heart or spirit, the wellspring of human pathos, but furusato is a pretty difficult word to pin down. The Japanese can use it to just mean your hometown, but it is often used in the sense of this phrase, a place where your heart sort of feels at home.

This is certainly not a literal translation, but when you stop and think about that "where I belong" actually means, it seems to me that this is right on the money. It is, in my ever-so-humble opinion, a superlative translation because it captures the core of the English source perfectly and expresses it in a different but eminently "Japanese" style. While it may not entirely click for people unfamiliar with Japanese, I suspect that it is instantly digestable and appreciated by Japanese filmgoers.

OK, 'nuff said. Back to work
Suppose the source material is just plain wrong?

For example, I'm sure you've all heard one of those "Confucius say..." thingies. Many of you have no doubt made up your own; I know it was pretty popular when I was in grade school. What's interesting, though, is that as far as I know, none of them was ever said by Confucius. In fact, remember that oh-so-kewl Chinese curse that runs "May you live in interesting times" and seems to pop up so frequently? Some time ago some people involved in translation between English and Chinese were looking into this, and trying to find the original Chinese... after considerable research, including by Chinese in China and Taiwan, the consensus reached was that it never was Chinese to start with.

Another example that popped up last week on the Honyaku list for translators working between Japanese and English concerned a quote attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli, said to have come from his famous The Prince. The quote runs

"Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage."

Unfortunately, a search of the online version of The Prince reveals that no such quote seems to exist...

And one final example, taken from the ongoing translation of a weird tale by Kōda Rohan (幸田露伴), for the first volume of our in-progress Kaiki anthology. The story begins by telling the story of an early ascent of the Matterhorn, based on an older non-fiction book about the climb. Unfortunately, Kōda makes a number of errors such as the number of people climbing, their order during the climb, and the like. Nothing significant to the story, but clearly in disagreement with the source.

In all of these cases, then, the question is whether the translator should correct the error, correct it and provide an explanation of the problem, or ignore it and write what the author wrote.
This is not a trivial problem.

If the author specifically says that a given phrase was written by Confucius, or Machiavelli, or whoever, there is a certain obligation to express that same information in the target language. It is possible that the author is wrong, of course, but it is also possible that the author is playing games and deliberatelyput that in there. A lot of authors insert fictitious people or bibliographic references into their fiction; perhaps "Confucius says..." is just one of these mind-games.

Even if it is just good fun, though, it might not always be that funny in translation. A Chinese reader, for example, might not be very impressed to read a Chinese-language translation of an English book and see that some silly bit of drivel has been attributed to Confucius.

So, is there an answer? I don't think that there can possibly be a single solution... in some cases it is probably best to skip the attribution to Confucius. In some case it might be best to write the translation in such a way as to suggest it is said in jest. And in some cases it might be best to correct the presumed error, especially if it has no effect on the work. Whichever solution you choose, though, you can rest assured that somebody, someday, will call you on it.


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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