Counting and Flutes


Winter has finally come to Fukuoka... I was just thinking to myself that New Year's was pretty nice, cold but nice. The dogs didn't complain about going out for walks, and I didn't mind it except when the wind came sweeping in from the lake. All of a sudden, though, the temperature has plunged to a bit over freezing, and tiny scatters of white stuff are falling.
They aren't sticking, of course, but it's plenty cold. And the darn wind off the lake is still freezing.

As I often do, I find myself thinking about the difficulties in expressing cultural differences in another language. For a group of people who grow up in a given culture, speakers (and authors, of course) can skip a lot of the background explanations. A random American reader doesn't need an explanation of who Jesse James is, or why turkeys are expected on Thanksgiving, or why Samantha twitches her nose.

In any translated work, though, all of these things have to be dealt with. In his excellent Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation, Umberto Eco suggests that "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."

There are quite a few problems here, for example:

  • Did the author choose his words precisely, paying attention to what they mean in his or her native language? (Or, has the author at least made it clear just what meaning they are intended to convey?)
  • Does the translator correctly understand what the author wants to say? (This is itself is quite complex, because the translator has to not only capture the meaning of the written words, but also the meaning of what they convey as a whole... which can require an intimate knowledge of the author's background.)
  • Can the translator express the meaning of the author in a second language in such a way that the reader gains the intended meaning?

There are other problems, of course, like whether or not the translator can really tweak the target language to make it interesting to read, but I think these three points are the essential core.

Considering my basic goal in writing this blog, obviously I'm most interested in the second point, and here again Eco shows keen insight:

"In order to understand a text, or at least in order to decide how it should be translated, translators have to figure out the possible world pictured by that text."

Fred Uleman, a professional Japanese-English translator who is far older (according to him) and wiser (according to me) than I, wrote this very insightful comment on the SWET list:

"Surely if we expect a single state to include diverse cultural patterns, then 'intercultural' is different from 'cross national' and, at the micro level, all of our encounters are intercultural."

He is talking about nations, but he very astutely recognizes that everyone has a unique culture. Any larger, encompassing cultural environment includes a whole spectrum of individuals, probably a bell-shaped curve of cultural beliefs.

No doubt many readers are wondering if it really makes a difference... maybe an example would help. We recently announced the winner of the 2008 Kurodahan Press Translation Prize, and there is an excellent example in the test piece. Written by Okamoto Kidō (岡本綺堂), the story can be found in the contest package, or online at the Aozora Bunko site.

Ignoring the actual story for a moment, there is a line in it that reads:


This can be roughly translated as "Marudoshi people have always (or, since ancient times) been said to have straight, even teeth, well-suited to playing the flute." The problem is the word 丸年 (marudoshi).

In modern Japan, and indeed in much of East Asia, there is a tradition of counting age from "one," rather than counting from "zero" as most Western cultures do. A newborn babe, then, is one at birth, and becomes two a year later... In the West, a child is called a one-year old one year after being born. This is a traditional custom, and official ages are determined the same as in the West now, but it still pops up here and there to confuse things. For example, you will often hear Japanese people talking about the human gestation period being ten months... In fact, it takes as long to make a baby in Japan as in America, it's just that they begin counting from one rather than zero. This can be quite confusing if you don't know what's going on...

In preparing for the translation contest, I asked a large number of people just what this might mean... and got a host of answers. Everyone agreed that a modern Japanese phrase (丸一年; maru ichinen, one full year) was close, but in context it doesn't seem to make sense. The most likely meaning seems to be that in traditional Japan, everybody gained one year in age at the same time (lunar New Year's day), regardless of their birthday. This meant that children born shortly after New Year's would be a full year older (in real terms) than other children of the same nominal age. A child born just before New Year would be two years old on New Year's day (but in real terms only a few days old), whereas a child born just after New Year's day could also be called a two-year old, but physically be a one-year old.

(Sorry if this is all hard to follow... it's apparently hard for the Japanese, too, these days.)

It makes sense that people born at the right time, who are a year older than people of the same age-group born just before New Year's, would be more developed. And generally this will mean better teeth, too, when children.

It is interesting to note that there was a large number of other opinions, too... Several Japanese told me they had heard the word, and knew what it meant from their childhoods, which was exactly the sort of information I needed to judge translations.

Unfortunately, those informants gave me mutually contradictory explanations. They were all perfectly reasonable, but they didn't agree with each other.

The author is quite dead and cannot tell us what he intended, leaving the translators (and me) with an interesting question: What does it mean? I guess I have it easier, because all I have to do is believe the translator, but the translator has no choice but to make a reasonable guess.
Without knowing the author's culture it is impossible to guess what he might have meant, and impossible to say what the "correct" translation is. All we can do is make our best guess, based on what "most" Japanese say, while recognizing it could be completely wrong.


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