The Value of Translation, and Its Conflicting Aims

Was reading some comics for teenaged boys the other day. You scoff, but what is a teenaged boy but a full-grown man who still doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to? Besides, my thirty-year-old friend insisted I try them.

Got to a scene featuring cat-themed pirates. Uh-oh. Conundrum. Why? Because where there are cat-themed pirates, there are cat-themed puns. That’s a good thing, you argue? Touché, my loyal reader. But imagine your job is to translate this wicked business from the language of the samurai and straight-laced convenience store clerk alike to the language of both Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley. Suddenly you’ve got a lot to consider.

Imagine, if you will, Magneto is locked in battle with Feral from the X-Force and he yells out something like, “Curiosity killed the cat, my dear pussy!” Makes sense to our English-geared brains. A typically corny comic line full of inappropriately light-hearted rhetoric. But imagine some foreign land has started importing X-Force comics, and they have no such belief that cats are particularly curious nor do they have a word that means both “cat” and “vagina”. To them, bats are considered curious, but a curious bat is said to be a sign of good fortune. “The curious bat cured my lupus!” as the saying goes there. What to do? Do you sacrifice accuracy in the name of producing something more coherent to the natives? Arguably, translation without cultural and thematic localization is a waste of time. If you make literal translations of a bunch of weird idioms and double entendres, a good fraction of your target audience are going to be left scratching their heads, wondering why people take Magneto so seriously when he’s clearly senile.

On the other hand, who is your target audience, really? Whether you’re translating X-Force comics or comics featuring cat pirates, you’re probably looking at a niche audience–the kind of niche audience that likes to refer to itself as hardcore while everyone else refers to them as sadcore. Do they want the distilled version, or will they put up with clunky translations in the name of preserving the original cultural reference, seeing it as a little bonus piece of trivia to be lorded over peers? In the land of curious bats of fortune, the man who knows about the treachery of curious cats is king. In translating Japanese works, publishers routinely leave in honorific suffixes, like -san, as is. They do this under the pretense that much of their readership consists of raving Japanophiles who either understand these suffixes to some extent already, or are willing and eager to learn them. But that’s a judgment call. If you can just leave stuff untranslated under the assumption that your readers will “get it”, then where do you draw the line? Maybe some of your readers will get that the seemingly nonsensical exclamation about stomping on a cat is an allusion to a common Japanese expression. After all, they’re probably Japanophiles. Hell, why translate it at all? If they’re really Japanophiles, they’ll just learn to read Japanese.

Therein lies the point, I think. The best translations are the most seamless, where you could look at the translated work and maybe not even realize if was from a foreign source. Often, this will mean sacrificing accuracy. But does it matter? Where does the value of a play on words, for example, lie? Is it in the literal meaning of the words, in the double meaning of the words, or simply in the fact that it is a play on words? Surely this requires case-by-case judgment, and a good translator may be able to translate a pun with another pun with similar meaning. Or sometimes, by the ever-devious threads of fate, a miraculous coincidence will occur in which the exact same pun works. Heian-era love poetry often featured imagery of pine trees because the word for “pine”, matsu, is a homonym for the word “to wait”–i.e., pine–for one’s lover (this is essentially all Heian-era aristocratic women did, and they were the ones making the poetry). But this truly is a case of a linguistic miracle. More often than not, translators must make a sacrifice.

I tried to show Yoko “Army of Darkness” once after raving at length about how funny it was and how Bruce Campbell was my lifetime hero because he was the master of one-liners. Upon viewing it, however, I realized that the Japanese subtitles failed to preserve any of the specialness of those one-liners. Bruce Campbell’s genius is all about the way he says things, not about the things he says. In translation, all of his great one-liners become, just, lines.

Today, I rented it again and went through with a notepad. Yes, somehow these are the activities of a man with a girlfriend. It’s hard to express how the Japanese subtitles fail to capture Bruce’s brilliance without just showing you the Japanese, so I’ve tried my best to translate the subtitles as literally as possible. In other words, these are translations of translations.

-English: “Well hello, Mr. Fancy-pants.”
-Japanese: “Hey, you old boaster.”

-English: (when asked by Henry the Red who he is) “Who wants to know?”
-Japanese: “What about you?”

-English: “You ain’t leadin’ but two things right now–Jack and shit. And Jack left town.”
-Japanese: “Snap out of that sleepy daze. You’re just an idiot.”

-English: “I never even saw these assholes before!”
-Japanese: “I’m not this guy’s subordinate!”

-English: “All right, you primitive screwheads, listen up!”
-Japanese: “You unenlightened morons!” (pretty good, I suppose)

-English: “Who wants some?”
-Japanese: “Who’s the next one who wants to be punched?”

-English: “This. . .is my BOOM stick!”
-Japanese: “This is what’s known as a GUN!”

-English: “Shop smart. Shop S-Mart. YA GOT THAT?!”
-Japanese: “If you wanna buy this, go to S-Mart. You got that?!”

-English: (when Sheela asks for his forgiveness) “First you wanna kill me, now you wanna kiss me. Blow.”
-Japanese: “Will you kiss me? You weathervane.” (apparently a fickle person can be called a “weathervane” because they’re constantly changing directions)

-English: “Yo. She-bitch. Let’s go.”
-Japanese: “Monster-hag. Come on.”

-English: “Groovy.”
-Japanese: “Ikasu ze.” (an out-of-date word for “cool”. Actually this is probably as close to perfect as they could get)

-English: (when receiving a gift from Sheela) “Good, I could use a horse blanket.”
-Japanese: A tattered rag?”

-English: “Gimme some sugar, baby.”
-Japanese: “I’m in love with you.”

-English: (just before boiling the mini-Ash inside his stomach) “How’d you like some hot chocolate, huh?!”
-Japanese: “I’ll boil you in my stomach!”

-English: (Evil Ash pulls knife out of his own back) “Backstabber!”
-Japanese: “Die!”

-English: “Hail to the king, baby.”
-Japanese: “You are my object.”

These are double-distilled excerpts, and granted they don’t sound quite this bad in Japanese, they certainly don’t sound like Ash, either. It’s not the translator’s fault. Campbell’s one-liners are so funny because of the exact wording he uses. There’s no way not to lose it in translation, short of finding his Japanese doppelganger. And here’s hoping someday we do. Until then, though, all translation comes at a fairly heavy price, and in this translator’s opinion, digestibility takes precedence over accuracy. This is literature, not some fan club for fetishists.

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