Lost in Translation

This post was originally written as a guest post for Tanabata while she was gallivanting around in New York a while back, and I then used it on my own blog… which makes this the third time it has been published!  Hopefully, it is still a very relevant post, and one which will make people reflect a little more on their reading choices for ‘January in Japan’.


Michael Emmerich, Stephen Snyder, Ivan Morris, E. Dale Saunders: these are not names which most people would recognise. However, you, dear reader, an avid follower as you are of Japanese literature, should be praising these literary marvels to the skies, for without them your lives would be bereft of joy and laughter. Well, slightly bereft, anyway. You see, the above-mentioned writers are among that legion of unsung heroes who bring the wonders of Japanese literature to the unfortunates among us who have trouble distinguishing kanji from hieroglyphs. They are, of course, translators.

We owe literary translators an awful lot, and yet we treat them so badly. Often their names are hidden away in font size 3 on the page with all the boring information we can’t bring ourselves to glance at – if they’re lucky. Occasionally, their names are simply not there at all, as if the translator is of no more importance than the proofreader or the boy who brings the editor his tea in the morning. What kind of way is this to treat artists who, in reality, are creating unique, original pieces of art from a foreign source? Unfortunately, as long as many people still see translating as a mechanical process involving a computer, a dictionary and a bucketful of coffee, Snyder and co. will fail to get the recognition they deserve.

The importance of translators is especially important when it comes to languages such as Japanese. As most of you will no doubt know, the Japanese use three different types of symbols to record ideas (in addition to the romaji, or roman script, which occasionally creeps in): katakana (a syllabary for expressing foreign words); hiragana (a syllabary for expressing Japanese words, usually prepositions and verb endings); and kanji (a collection of pictograms adapted from Chinese specifically to torture unsuspecting Westerners who want to learn the language). When I left Japan eight years ago, I had just about become an intermediate-level speaker (on a good day) of Japanese. If I were to work with non-native speakers of English at the same level, I would be using carefully selected newspaper articles with helpful vocabulary hints. By the end of my Japanese studies, I was able to struggle through a Japanese translation of The Ugly Duckling. You can infer from this that my chances of reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the original are fairly slim.

Assuming then that your kanji skills are not up to scratch, you’re going to have to trust to a translation to enjoy the delights of J-Lit. However, if you don’t actually read the original text, then how do you know that you are reading what the writer wanted you to read? Are you reading the same book? The best translators are able to transfer the ideas across into idiomatic English while preserving the unique flavour that sets the author apart. Even in English, Mishima and Murakami have a distinct, consistent style which attracts the reader (in fact, some of Murakami’s detractors, the cynics that they are, say that his translators – Jay Rubin, Phillip Gabriel and Alfred Birnbaum – make him look better than he actually is!). On the whole, translators of Japanese works seem to do a pretty good job of capturing those quintessentially Japanese elements and making them comprehensible to an English-speaking audience.

However, there are some occasions where I have my doubts. One Japanese writer whose translations I’m a little suspicious of is Banana Yoshimoto. I love her prose and stretches of descriptive writing, but I really, really get annoyed by the trite, stilted, perhaps over-Americanised dialogue. Michael Emmerich’s translation of Goodbye Tsugumi and Russel F. Wasden’s translation of Amrita are the two books I’m thinking of when I write this, and being unable to check with the original, it’s difficult to know the reason for my unease. As both translators are American (and probably writing for an American audience), it’s probably understandable that Yoshimoto’s characters come across as classic US-TV teens. Still, that doesn’t explain the abundance of cliches and set phrases, which sound suspiciously like literal translations of formulaic Japanese conversational turns. Another explanation is that Yoshimoto is just really bad at dialogue. Or I may just be completely wrong – the point is that we’ll never know.

Some translations can also seem a little dated, and the language chosen to convey the Japanese meaning now appears bizarre and distracting. Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (which has a footnote explaining what sushi means!) is one example which comes to mind. Another is provided by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson’s translation of Soseki Natsume’s I am a Cat, where they decided to translate the names of the major characters into English to bring across the puns in their names – which, in my opinion, has the unintended effect of making the protagonists slightly less Japanese than desired. Still, this is not an uncommon issue with translating: even the legendary Constance Garnett, the woman who brought the great Russian classics to life for Anglophone readers, was criticised for making Russian serfs talk with a Cockney accent…

While I am an avid reader, I do not have the time (or energy) to undertake extensive research into the differences between translations of the same work (although I have heard of some stylistic differences between different versions of one of Murakami’s novels), and I definitely have no chance of becoming fluent in written Japanese any time soon, so I suppose I will just have to continue to rely on other people to do the work for me. Therefore, I would like to finish this post by paraphrasing ABBA (who needed no translators; they changed the words to Waterloo from Swedish to English all by themselves):

I say thank you for the translations – and giving them to me 🙂


About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
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10 Responses to Lost in Translation

  1. You have almost convinced me to pick a particularly contentious translation as my contribution to your event (Pound is who I am thinking about). There are many ways to translate well, many ways to translate badly.


  2. Tony says:

    Tom – Yep, when it comes to translation there's always the good, the bad and the truly hideous butchering of a classic. Sadly, in Japanese at least, I am never going to be able to check with the original 😦


  3. Definitely worth republishing this piece as it's rather timely given the conversations going on for German Lit and Russian Reading months. I definitely want to read more Japanese literature but am less certain of my tastes and translator preferences there so it's like an unexplored corner of the bookshop for me right now. It'll be fun to blog those discoveries though as most of my 'aha!' moments with French and Russian literature have happened off camera/off blog. And damn you, yes I'll sign up for January in Japan. 🙂


  4. Ally says:

    Let's say Japanese is quite difficult to translate, but when I see translations from French into Romanian that simply “suck”, that is a huge problem, indeed (or we are just too pretentious :))


  5. Think how this works with poetry, particulary something as short as haiku where half of what is said is actually not directly expressed but hinted at through kigo(season words) & then to confuse the issue further you have  kireji (cutting words) that merely bring a phrase to an end either to just stop, or to add a contrasting idea.


  6. Joy says:

    The George Szirtes comment about translators – “inhabiting the air between two cultures” is one that I like. I thought the Seidensticker translation of the Makioka Sisters was fine, the story engrossing with an inner rhythm, the translation and setting were only a few decades apart. I must admit I don't remember the footnote only the ones about the sizes of the mats, no idea why those facts stuck in my head. On the other hand with reference to your comment about Murakami I found a Birnbaum translation of Hard Boiled… jarring in his choice of words.
    Looking forward to suggestions for Japanese reading (and their translators).


  7. Tony says:

    Alex – Glad to have you on board! Translation is a subject close to my heart, so I'm very interested in the good and the bad – as you can see in my G-Lit posts, I belong to the bad category with my own efforts 😉


  8. Tony says:

    Alex – Even if we can't read the original language, sometimes it is very clear that what we are reading is a bad translation. If it reads badly in the new language…


  9. Tony says:

    Gary – That's another matter altogether; I never enjoy translating excerpts of poetry 😦


  10. Tony says:

    Joy – Thanks for that quotation 🙂

    I'll have to try 'The Makioka Sisters' again – at the time, I found it a bit dry and a little underwhelming (probably because I had very high expectations).

    Don't worry – I'm sure there'll be *lots* of recommendations 😉


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