In my recent post, “Obsessive Linguistics Rant No. 29”, I concluded something to the effect of “Good translation relies heavily on lying.” Often, it’s impossible to translate something both accurately and deliciously. When you go for accuracy, you end up with incoherent oddities, the products of regional idioms and such. Raining cats and dogs avoids the status of “traumatizing imagery” only when you’ve been thoroughly desensitized to the concept. Going for delicious writing that is pleasing to the senses (whichever ones command reading) means replacing those oddities with something reasonably comparable in some capacity, or in certain not uncommon circumstances, with something you just made up. Take a simple example:


Think about the literal meaning. Arguably, someone unfamiliar with the expression could potentially take it as a compliment. “Sex? Me? In the same breath? S’wonderful!”

Let’s say you’re a Japanese translator doing an Englsh-to-Japanese translation. “Fuck you!!” your source material screams. It goes without saying that this won’t be translated literally, by the token that a verb meaning “to fornicate” applied to the direct object “you” does not necessarily, or even intuitively, equate to a harsh epithet. The translator then has little recourse but to replace the English with the angry Japanese exclamation of his or her choosing. Any number of options are available to our young translator, just as there’s no quantifiable difference between “fuck you”, “you son of a bitch”, “you bastard”, “go to hell, scum”, and “Go off somewhere and eat shit, shiteater”. Herein lies the inexact science of translation. The good thing is that these are the moments in which translators may leave their personal stamp. When translating Zaregoto: Book 1, I opted for “crammit” over “shut up” or “be quiet” wherever feasible, figuring the editor would just tell me to stop if it wasn’t working. I’ve been meaning to see if any of that made it into the final print.

But with these personal stamps, this freedom of choice, comes an inevitable variance in nuance. There’s no quantifiable difference between “shut up” and “crammit”, but one is decidedly more colorful. Is this color justified, or is it the translator overstepping a translator’s bounds? Another time, at a loss for an appropriate English word, I tried to get away with using the Yiddish word kvell. The editor’s response? “Somehow I doubt a Yiddishism is appropriate here.” Fair enough, I guess. The majority of American readers out there might see a word like kvell and immediately formulate an image in their head of Barbara Streisand, or worse, one of her fans. Yiddish conjures too many specific images. But if you have to avoid conjuring specific images, that essentially means draining the translation of any color. Any color in the translation, after all, is a form of bias, and a reflection of the translator rather than the writer. Choosing “cram your pie chute” over “quit yer gum-bumpin'” is a conscious decision, but “be quiet” is neutral enough that it doesn’t call any attention.

Beautiful, good, or entertaining writing is all about the precise selection and arrangement of words. In translating two languages as disparate as English and Japanese, there is literally no way to translate both the functionality–the actual meaning–of the words and the precise beauty or sharpness of their selection and arrangement. The translator is tasked with becoming the writer and rewriting the book. A good translator (and writer) will produce something that reads well, but cannot produce something that reads the same. There’re simply too many gray areas, too many options. Japanese to English translation is almost never as simple as one-to-one. At least, not when we’re talking literature. I sometimes tell people I used to translate technical design documents for a complex satellite system and they say things like “Wow, how’d you translate those design documents, man?” But in reality, technical Japanese is the easiest kind of Japanese to translate because all it has to be is utilitarian. Sure it’s nice if you can make it read like poetry, too, but certainly that’s no requirement. Things like video games can get away with the blandness that often accompanies translation simply because no one expects the same level of storytelling from a game that they would from a book, or even a movie. Most games have stories, but precious few of them even approach anything like literature. And those that do tend to achieve so by smartly utilizing the other strengths of the medium, not just words. Comics, too, have much of their soul in the artwork, so that a lackluster translation (or even lackluster plot) may be forgiven if the pictures pull enough weight on their own (translating the Afro Samurai comic meant little more than trying to find convincing onomatopoeias to match the Japanese ones). But translating novels? That’s hard shit.

What I neglected to consider in my previous post was the option of footnotes. I like footnotes very much. I think all translated works of literature could benefit from footnotes, if not all translated media. The popular opinion seems to be that footnotes are appropriate in scholarly or classic literature, inappropriate anywhere else. Something like Tale of Genji would be thoroughly peppered with bonus little tidbits and explanations, while something modern, like a Murakami Ryû book, just tosses you into the ocean without any flotation device. Some fan-translated TV series, especially anime, include the video equivalent of footnotes, where little tidbits flash on screen a la pop-up video, but critics of this seem to be in the majority, arguing that the translators should have just found a way to make everything transfer seamlessly into the psyche of Western viewers.

This is wrong. Ever see that episode of Simpsons where Marge runs a pretzel franchise while her competitors, “The Investorettes”, reluctantly take over a pita franchise after the pitch lady changes “falafel”, “tahini”, and “pita” respectively to “crunch patties”, “flavor sauce”, and “pocket bread”? Surely a large portion of these pop-up video naysayers are those who watched that scene or could hypothetically watch that scene without realizing that it was a joke and that they were the butt of it.

The reason I like footnotes is that they allow for a more faithful translations, and you get the bonus tidbit to boot. Example!

He sat at the patula altar1 and nibbled his bukathi bread2 in solemn dignitude3.

These foreign words are best left in as is, because they present very specific imagery. You can’t just go around changing things to make a buck. Bukathi bread is bukathi bread, and it ain’t the same as wafers, puff crisps, or whatever else you might have up your sleeve. And a patula altar ain’t just a dinner table4. Let’s not insult our readers by formulating gross equations. Let them see it like it is.

1A wooden landing used mainly for placing divine ornaments of worship used in rituals honoring the respective gods of chastity, fertility, and banquet-havingness.
2A light, oily bread baked in a cupped plate forged out of bat shit.
3Not a word.
4I made all that stuff up though.