Intro to Translation Theory

So I’m lucky enough to be dating a Classicist who finds it charming when I get drunk and ramble about the genbun icchi movement, or structural differences between Japanese and English. This morning he made the mistake of asking,

“When translating English to Japanese, can you not attempt to write your translation as if a Japanese person had written it in the first place?”

To which I said…

You ask the question that is at the core of translation studies! Historically, translation has been thought of as a push-pull between being accurate and sounding natural. When you get lucky you can do both (as I’m sure you’re aware) but there will always be other parts where you have to choose one or the other. Fairly recently though, there’s been a shift toward thinking of it in terms of either bringing the audience closer to the text, or bringing the text closer to the audience.

In the most extreme version of the latter, the goal would be for the audience not even to realize it was a translation, because it would read as naturally and as fluently as if it’d been written in the target language from the start. This has the advantage of being more accessible, audiences are more able to get involved and emotionally invested in the story if there isn’t a sense of distance that keeps it feeling alien. Like the way the archaic language of Shakespeare can be an obstacle to people today getting involved in his plays. Or conversely, like when Shakespeare was first getting imported to Japan in the late 1800s and they completely naturalized it, recast Hamlet as a young samurai and his dilemma over how to avenge his father as the traditional Japanese conflict between giri and ninjou, duty vs. human feeling. That’s probably also how they framed Romeo and Juliet, because giri vs. ninjou has formed the backbone of practically all Japanese fiction since the medieval period, and they are well-accustomed to lovers’ suicide as the standard solution. In any event, the bring-the-text-to-the-reader approach emphasizes the commonalities between cultures rather than their differences.

On the other hand… if you don’t want to engage with other times/cultures, then why the hell are you bothering to read things in translation at all? Why not just go read John Grisham, if you’re not interested in being exposed to foreign modes of thought and expression? (And yeah, the answer may be “for entertainment.” Miyuki Miyabe is a bestselling suspense/thriller novelist in Japan, and it occurred to someone that they could make money by translating her into English and selling her abroad, and so they have. She’s not marketed to the foreign-film crowd, she’s marketed to the J.D. Robb crowd.)

The other approach is to preserve that sense of difference. Rather than scrubbing out the unfamiliar and either omitting it or turning it into something that the audience readily understands, leave it in, let it be a reminder that we’re not in Kansas anymore. This can occur on a direct textual level — preserving references to unfamiliar brand names, unfamiliar songs playing on the radio, calling it “soba noodles” instead of just “noodles” — or on a more abstract level, when characters’ motivations are being driven by values that are unintuitive to readers of the translated text.

Which, yes, is all very Improving For The Reader, but you also risk losing them. You risk making it so alien that they can’t connect with it at all, and this is in no way a judgment about ~small-minded readers~ or whatever, it’s just a fact. They’re coming from a different cultural context and so certain symbols, references, and phrases that are fucking powerful to readers of the original are going to be meaningless to foreign audiences. For example, the prologue to The Tales of the Heike, which functions a lot like the prologue in Romeo and Juliet, in telling you that shit’s gonna be tragic and it’s gonna be AWESOME:

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple
Echoes the impermanence of all things.
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree
Reveals the truth: that to flourish is to fall.
He who is proud is not so for long,
Like a passing dream on a night in spring.
He who is brave is finally destroyed,
To be no more than dust before the wind.

This is my favorite translation of that poem, because even through the obscuring imagery you still get a sense of the epic scope of it. (Tales of the Heike is about the war that brought the Heian period to a close, circa 1200, when the Heike, formerly the most powerful military clan, fought the Minamoto clan and got wiped out, root and branch. The Minamoto were literally slaughtering Heike infants to make sure that there would be no resistance from them ever again. So it’s about a bunch of noble warriors fighting nobly, and, to the last man, dying nobly.) (And their wives, who, after the Heike had lost the final battle, threw themselves into the sea rather than be taken captive.)

That said, if you’re not familiar with classical Japan, then unless you’re hella-Buddhist, the references to the bells at Gion and the double-trunked tree are bringing nothing to the table — all they do is rub your nose in the fact that you’re an outsider who doesn’t get it. Even a footnote saying that Gion was a hospice temple and the glass bells there are supposed to ring when someone dies, or that the “double-trunked tree” is the one that the Buddha was laying beneath when he died, and the flowers changed from red to white, isn’t going to impart the same depth and resonance that it would have invoked for people of the day.

So which strategy is better? Depends entirely on your audience. I’m more interested in bridging the divide between people from different times and cultures, and in drawing an emotional response from readers, so I generally come down on the side of naturalization. If I were to retranslate that poem, I would try to replace the specific imagery, of Gion temple and sala trees, with the images/feelings that they were meant to evoke, bells that ring at the hour of one’s death, and a dying god. The original was not intended to be alienating or distancing; it was intended to make grown men weep.

Shakespeare didn’t write to be highbrow, he wrote to be entertaining. Saikaku wasn’t aiming to become enshrined in the Japanese canon, he was writing about people getting their sexytimes on, and all those concomitant emotions. His Nanshoku Okagami, “The Great Mirror of Male Love,” was largely an academic curiosity (thanks to a plodding translation), until I reached one story that made me go, “Holy shit, it’s a Kano Miyamoto manga set in 1560 — snark and pathos and disaffected gay hookers.” All the emotions are there, and I think the translation that loses sight of that does the original work a grave disservice.

On the other hand, historians and textual critics don’t want your feels, they want a translation that is as accurate and literal as can be produced. So yeah.

ETA: He responded with a discussion of two different Latin translations of ‘The Jabberwocky.’ This is nerd courtship at its finest.

4 thoughts on “Intro to Translation Theory

  1. you’re nerd-tastically adorable!

    also i love this – it succinctly captures the translation issue that i think is never going to be solved but should always be considered.

    speaking of that, do you have any free time and interest in translating Japanese SF? my old professor is putting together a press and needs translators. it wouldn’t garner you a lot of money, but she is selling stuff on Amazon and the like so it wouldn’t be for free either…. here: i don’t know if you have free time or whatever, but maybe? thought i’d ask anyway.

  2. I could commit to some short stories, even with next semester’s workload that should be doable, but I would balk at promising a novel. I would enjoy that, actually — I like translating, and it would also be good to keep myself in the loop.

    I’m currently finishing up the final project for my translation class, an essay by Meiji-era physicist Terada Torahiko called 化け物の進化. I first downloaded it years ago, long before I was good enough to read it, and I think I thought it was about monsters in literature, but it turns out to be about ~SCIENCE~! I don’t know if you listen to “Welcome to Night Vale” but Shelley and I have dubbed this guy Meiji-Carlos — he would love to take his science to Night Vale.

  3. short stories are fine! lol yeah i wouldn’t commit you to a book, and i don’t think my prof would want that either. I’m going to be in touch with her in the next couple of days – i don’t have a proper email address for you – want to send it in an lj message and I’ll introduce you two via email?

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