On Translation

“Translations are like wives: the faithful ones are not beautiful, and the beautiful ones are not faithful.”

A horribly misogynistic quote to begin an essay with, I know, but it’s a quote that has stuck in my head since I encountered it a quarter century ago. I could have sworn I read it in Edward Seidensticker’s introduction to his translation of The Tale of Genji, but looking over it now I can’t find it. I may have attributed the quote to Seidensticker after the fact, since he was a translator who understood that what makes translation enormously difficult–and arguably impossible–is not whether or not you know the “words”, but rather the task of recreating as faithfully as possible the experience of reading the original. Seidensticker said, “I always liken the translator to a counterfeiter … his task is to imitate the original down to the last detail.” Some translators of manga today might misinterpret that simile to justify the inclusion of Japanese honorifics such as “-san,” “-chan,” “-sensei,” etc., but they would be missing the point. Seidensticker wrote beautifully, and he knew what made writing beautiful. One word that comes up again and again in his writings is “rhythm.”

There’s no diplomatic way to say this, so I’ll be blunt. The vast majority of my kouhai, my juniors in the field of manga translation, have no sense of rhythm, so sense of meter, so sense of what makes a line worth reading, and no sense of how to write a line worth reading. This becomes painfully clear when you read something they’ve written that is not a translation. A blog entry, for example. I recently read a self-introduction by a professional translator of manga in which the word “awesome” was used three times, without irony. Other essays by this same translator read like…well, like the blog entries of just about any non-writer with a basic grasp of grammar but no flair for writing whatsoever.

I was fortunate enough to major in creative writing as an undergraduate, and though I never realized my lukewarm desire to become a novelist, I did learn to write well. I wrote fiction, non-fiction, and poetry under the tutelage of very good writers. In a sense, I think what I learned in my poetry classes has served me better than anything else I studied. I have little patience for modern poetry (I’ll take Dr. Seuss over Ginsberg or Plath any day), and I have never written poetry “for myself” (ugh), but Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and William Carlos Williams taught me the importance of rhythm, of meter, of juxtaposition and alliteration.

And Twain taught me to use the right word, not its second cousin.

Manga translation further requires an ear for voice.

In any decent manga, each character has a distinctive style of speech. In some cases it is more subtle than in others. It seems that most manga translators today (Have any of them lived more than a year in Japan?) have their noses buried in their dictionaries, translating word by word, rather than looking at the speech as a whole, and considering the personality, background, and mindset of the speaker.

They cannot see the forest for the trees.

And even when they do manage to glimpse the forest, they simply lack the skills and knowledge to capture it. Like children in art class, they draw a bunch of brown trunks topped with green blobs and call it a forest. A character appears who speaks a regional Japanese dialect, and the translator, by default, renders it as a poor caricature of what the translator imagines to be “Southern English.” Another character uses a sophisticated vocabulary indicating a high level of education, and the translator awkwardly conveys this by using “fancy” words–again, like a schoolchild doing an embarrassing imitation of a stereotypical highbrow intellectual.

I should confess at this point that I rarely read translated manga. But it’s not for lack of trying. The fact is I can rarely get through more then ten pages of a translated manga before my blood pressure begins to rise and I put the book back on the shelf for the sake of my own health.

For obvious reasons, I am trying to avoid naming names here, but I will give a specific example here that illustrates some of the points I have tried to make. I love Nodame Cantabile. It’s one of my current favorite manga. Ninomiya has a talent for creating distinctive characters who often border on outrageous, yet never lose their believability. One day, while flipping through the English translation in a bookstore, I had one of those groan-and-slam-the-book-shut moments. I have neither the translation nor the original on hand, so I can’t recall the precise language, but there is a scene in which Chiaki’s ex-girlfriend calls him a maké inu. This translates literally as “losing dog,” but essentially means “loser” as that word is used in vernacular English today. In his response, Chiaki calls the woman a mesu maké inu, or “female losing dog.” This is admittedly a hard one to translate, because, while it sounds normal enough in Japanese, it sounds odd, to say the least, in English. I think I would probably translate the phrase, “If I’m a ‘loser,’ I guess that makes you a ‘lose-ette.'” The translators of the Del Rey edition instead had Chiaki call the woman a “bitch.” In Nodame, Chiaki is the foil, the straight man for the more eccentric characters around him. But he is by no means generic. He comes from a wealthy, upper-class family. He has a sharp tongue and can be insensitive, but his upbringing renders him incapable of vulgarity, let alone crude misogyny. If he were a native English speaker of the same temperament and upbringing, the word “bitch” would simply not be in his vocabulary. The translation was jarring, and grossly unfair to the character. But it was fairly typical of the kind of “errors of voice” that occur on almost every page of translated manga today.

To my kouhai translators, let me offer this advice. Learn to write English well before you attempt to translate Japanese well. Being a native speaker of English by no means makes you a master of English. That is why some people are paid to write, and others are not. “Knowing” Japanese is of course essential (and some of you need to work on that, too), but fluency in Japanese alone does not a translator make.

Here are a couple of books I would recommend:

  • all the fun’s in how you say a thing: an explanation of meter and versification, by Timothy Steele.
  • Writing Fiction, by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop

I would also recommend that you read lots of well-written books, both fiction and non-fiction, and analyze what makes them good. Compare, for example, Ursula K. LeGuin and, say, Terry Brooks. Brooks is certainly prolific and widely-read, but he is, frankly, a hack.

Finding out the meaning of a word and figuring out the best way to Anglicize a sound effect…. These are the hammer and screwdriver in the translator’s toolbox. If you think they are the only tools you need, well, it’s time to wake up and smell the o-cha. Don’t allow the praises of a few hardcore otaku go to your head. As far as they are concerned, an ugly wife must be a faithful one (and, conversely, a beautiful one must be unfaithful, and therefore suspect). They are simply unqualified to judge your work. The sad fact is that many of you are producing translations that are both ugly and unfaithful, and that is the very worst kind. You need to look at your own work with a critical eye.

To publishers of translated manga: You get what you pay for. I’ve heard industry people attribute declines in sales to any number of factors, but never to the quality of their own product. We’re both professionals, so let’s not mince words.

Your product sucks.

The manga generation that grew up on Pokémon and Sailor Moon is outgrowing your product. And publishing work targeted at twenty-somethings is not going to keep them buying if the quality of the translation remains at a junior-high-school level.

Sure, you can find any number of doe-eyed, young otaku who are willing to work for peanuts. But seriously. Do you actually read the translations they give you? I don’t mean proof-reading. I mean reading as if reading for pleasure. Do you, as an adult who has no doubt read plenty of excellent fiction, really think that what you are getting for the slave-wages you pay is of a quality to be proud of? Or have you lulled yourself into believing the otaku’s syllogistic fallacy that an ugly translation must be a faithful one?

The readership is growing up quickly. It’s time for the translators and publishers to do the same.

  1. quantula’s avatar

    Sigh~ I wish there was a way to edit comments, because it totally feels like I’m spamming your blog here.
    Anyway, I have another question– I was reading a translation, and this came up:

    A character said “Shitsukoi na, anta mo”.
    The translation was “You’re annoying”.

    Is that what one would call “too loose”? I don’t think the Japanese dialogue implied a “put-down” in the way that calling someone annoying does. But are translations like “You’re stubborn/persistent” or “Stop bothering me” too literal? As long as the translation shows some form of irritation, is it acceptable? Can you argue whether or not the character is irritated in the first place?

    In short, what approach should one take when translating subjective lines such as this?

  2. Matt’s avatar

    @MIchi, levels of formality are difficult to translate naturally (obviously, or you wouldn’t be asking). If the setting is contemporary, and not “extraordinary,” what I try to do is imagine how Americans (or perhaps Britons) would speak in the same circumstances. Real Southern American English (as opposed to the caricature we see so often written by non-Southerners) is closer to Japanese, in the sense that there are clear (or at least clearer) levels of formality. (For example, young Southerners always address adults as “Sir” or “Ma’am.”) I think the important thing is to avoid letting the trees blind you to the forest. In most cases, differences in linguistic formality are incidental, and not important to the story. They say “God is in the details.” This is true, but you have to make sure you’re looking at the right details.

    @quantula, context is everything, and you haven’t provided the context. You know who Mino Monta is, don’t you? He’s a celebrity television host. His name would mean nothing to anyone outside Japan, and I’m guessing that an explanation of who he is would not add anything to the translation, unless the characters then go on to discuss Mino Monta. Whether or not “counseling” is the right translation depends on the context. Do you know “Dear Abby” or “Ask Anne Landers”? Those were famous advice columns. There was a radio version of the former. Without knowing the context, the translation that pops into my head is, “What’s this? ‘Dear Abby’?” Sure, there’s no “Dear Abby” in Japan, but it conveys the identical meaning succinctly. If you don’t feel comfortable with the U.S.-specific reference, you could think of some more generic equivalent. Unless the speaker is irritated or angry, I don’t see a need for an expletive.

    EDIT: Oops. Your first two comments got caught in my spam filter. I wrote the above before reading them. Wow. Lots of very specific questions. But I don’t want to let this comment section turn into Mino Monta no nayami soudan koonaa. (-_^) Seriously, it’s just too much to respond to without charging a translation fee of my own. (Joking, of course. For the most part.) Just keep in mind the rules of thumb. What matters to the reader? What did the artist want to convey? What reaction did she want to create in the reader? Would she care if you explain who Mino Monta is? (My guess is she wouldn’t.) And, perhaps most importantly, do the English words you’re putting in the mouth of the character suit that character’s personality and state of mind at the moment?

  3. quantula’s avatar

    Haha, thank you =) I’ll keep those questions in mind! And sorry for getting carried away like that >_> I’m new at this so I really want to make sure I’m doing it the right way from the beginning itself.

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