Some Thoughts about Literary Translation (Part 2)


Once you've figured out what the author really wanted to say (which can be quite a learning experience all in itself), you have to figure out how to say it in translation. Since you (the reader) are probably an English speaker, most of this column will assume you are translating into English. That's quite convenient, because it's what I translate into, which means I have a better chance of actually knowing what I'm talking about.

First of all, you have to understand that except for a few "translation gods" who are supposed to be able to do it perfectly the first time, like Mozart penning all parts of the symphony simultaneously in the first draft, translation is a continuous process. You read the source, write a translation, read more source, rewrite the translation, let it ferment over night, and rewrite some more. As when writing English it is always a good idea to let it sit a bit and come back to take another look with fresh eyes. The more of an author you do, the better you understand the way he or she writes and uses language, and what undercurrents are at play. As in English, it is not always obvious, and a second or third reading reveals subtleties you may have missed on the first read-through.

The content is the easiest thing to get across. If you're translating a manual on, oh, a printer, for example, the goal is to be as straightforward as possible, writing English that lets the reader find the needed information quickly, absorb it easily, and get the intended meaning without risk of error.

That's also extremely boring.

"A rose is a rose is a rose," they say, but of course it isn't, always. Henri Matisse put it quite well when he wrote "There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted."

A number of authors who did not write in English (or Swedish, for that matter...) have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but only a portion of the prize actually deserves to be awarded to the author. The translator certainly deserves equally as much. Without the author there would have been no book, but without the translator there would have been no prize. The translator must express the intent of the author in words that ring true, that convey the thoughts and feelings of the author accurately, in words that will grab hold of the reader and yank him right into a new clarity of meaning.

Let's take a closer look at some of the points I raised in part 1, starting with specific language, accents, jargon and the like... the style of the author.

Every language obviously has its own accepted "proper usage" and a host of other usages, not to mention various subsets including regional accents and words with special and localized meanings, "street talk," etc, etc. The list of variation is endless, and gets even worse when you throw in, for example, the English spoken by people who grew up in other languages and immigrated. The old Jewish deli guy in New York, the woman running the Chinese laundry in San Francisco, the Soviet spy... they all come with Hollywood-defined accents that are largely fictional, but expected by the average moviegoer. Regardless of whether or not they represent the real world, they provide the viewer (or reader) with an immediate picture of the person speaking, a picture that provides a lot of background information very quickly.

But how many English readers are familiar with the difference between おれが行く (ore ga iku) and あたしが参ります (atashi ga mairimasu)? They both say the exact same thing: "I'll go." Not a terribly complex sentence. The former is probably a man speaking "down" to someone inferior to him in some way (for example, a subordinate, a child, a lower-status member of a gang, his wife), and the latter by a woman who either has lower social status (in the same sort of sense as the man's social status is higher) in some way, or is being very polite regardless of the reality of the situation. To a Japanese reader, either would almost certainly identify the gender and relative status of the speaker, without any additional explanation... but how to handle it in English without looking silly? You can only go so far with vocabulary and manner of speech in English, because the majority is the same regardless of gender or status. Well, an underling will throw in an occasional "sir," perhaps, but that's about it.

Another point that needs careful consideration is style. Japanese half a century ago was often written with few paragraph breaks; one paragraph could easily take up a full page. In modern Japanese literature, however, a number of authors now write only a single sentence – or worse, sentence fragment – per paragraph: the pages look half empty, at least to my prejudiced eye.

Lots of quick short sentences in English can seem disconnected, or indicate a stream-of-thought style, and that might not be at all what the Japanese author intended. If so, the translator owes it to the reader to convey the author's intent accurately, even if it means sticking a few sentences together into a paragraph.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong about paragraph length, of course, but a translator needs to consider whether the same paragraph structure should be maintained in the translation. Because the concept of thematic structure, with the first sentence of a paragraph indicating the content to come, is rarely used in Japanese, longer paragraphs can seem very haphazard in translation... and the author needs to consider reordering a sentence or two to provide the thematic introduction that many English readers expect. A translator certainly can't put one in if it's missing entirely, but a little judicious moving around can go a long way.

OK, next point. Puns and other wordplay.

This is probably the biggest headache for any translator, because in many cases there simply isn't any way to translate it. How many times have you heard a joke and not gotten the punchline until someone explained it to you? Now imagine that the joke is in Japanese... I mentioned roses above, and while searching for that Matisse quote I happened to notice this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: "I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall." The quotation is interesting in English because of the wordplay on "in a bed" and "against a wall." Although the rose is grown in a flower bed or climbs up a wall, she says that she dislikes people saying she is bad in bed, and should be shot (I would dislike people saying that about me, too, but anyway...). This wordplay will not work in another language if the word for "thing you sleep in" is different than the word for "place you plant flowers." In Japanese, they are.
In grade school a popular one-liner was "Does your nose run and your feet smell? You're built upside down!" Over the years I have tried to translate this into Japanese countless times, and never even gotten close. The verbs for "run" and "smell" can't be forced to handle both meanings in Japanese.

So what is a translator to do? There are four possibilities, namely (1) translate and ignore, (2) add explanation, (3) footnote, or (4) replace. The first approach means that I would translate the Japanese just as it's written, in which case the wordplay is lost and you end up with a strange sentence. This is pretty common in movie subtitling, because there just isn't enough time to explain things properly. The second approach, adding an explanation, is a good solution if you can afford to insert it into the text. Sometimes you can get the joke across just by adding an extra word here or there, without interfering with the flow or the author's expression, but if James Bond cracks a joke in a high-tension situation you may not have that leeway – you have to keep the tension high. For scholarly translations, a literal translation plus explanation is the best answer, often implemented in the form of a footnote.

The fourth suggestion is, I believe, the best choice for fiction. One of the stories in Night Voices, Night Journeys mentioned a place-name that originally meant one thing, and decayed over the years into a different word. Neither word was terribly important in English, but they resembled each other in pronunciation... it took some time, but the translator came up with a totally different set of English words, with meanings completely different from the Japanese, but which also resembled each other in pronunciation and had a similar suggestive import to the story. An excellent resolution, and one that the author was quite happy with, too. Had the words merely been translated into English it would have made the entire paragraph about how the name changed over the years meaningless, and that would have degraded the readability of the story.

The only way to handle cultural references without destroying the flow of the story is to work them into the story in bits and pieces, naturally. There are times when you can afford to add a complete sentence or two, if the author is engaging in a bit of explanation, for example, but usually you have to settle for squeezing a word in here or there to give the reader an essential clue. Too much addition and you end up with a textbook; too little and it's merely incomprehensible.

I guess that's about it... I certainly can't claim to be a translation expert, but I am a translator and hopefully the above (mostly English) explanation will help you get a better idea of what literary translation deals with.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to provide readers in a different language with an enjoyable read.


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