Lost in Translation

This post was originally written as a guest post for Tanabata while she was gallivanting around in New York.  I was saving it up for a rainy day, but I thought I would dust it off now as I am planning to read a lot more Japanese books over the next few months – and because my next post will foreground the translator (and the writer of the introduction) a little more than usual.  Enjoy 🙂


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 Tanabata’s blog, 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 – actually make him look better than he 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 🙂


10 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. Great post on the weird position readers are put it when they rely on translators – extreme gratitude on the one hand, and vulnerability to weird personal choices on the other.

    I can one-up your sushi story: I started reading an old translation of a Japanese book once (and never finished because it was so stilted; I also can't recall what it was now) but there was a footnote describing what tofu was.


  2. Great minds indeed, Tony! Fantastic post that really gets to the root of my concerns about specific translations and yet also my gratitude (I missed it first time around). We are fully dependent on translators and the work they do; how poorer our lives would be if there were no translated fiction in it.

    So far (touch wood), I have had no bad experiences with Japanese translations except for the English names and puns in I Am a Cat that you point out. Offhand I only recognise Stephen Snyder's name from up top but I am new to paying translators the attention and credit they deserve.

    Is the Seidensticker's translation of The Makioka Sisters the Vintage edition above? I have a copy of that on its way to me for review/Nat's read-along/JLC4.


  3. Colleen – It's something I've been aware of recently as I read a lot of translated books, particularly Japanese ones. I have to admit though that I'm still not sure what tofu is myself (and I'm definitely dubious as to whether it's really food…).

    Claire – It is the same version, but don't let my post put you off; I do tend to stretch the truth a little if it makes my posts more readable, so it's probably not as bad as I make out! When I read 'The Makioka Sisters', I think I was more concerned that there was a hidden level that I, as a Gaijin, just wasn't getting, as I felt at times that the story was just passing me by and not leaving much of an impression. Definitely one I'd like to read again in a couple of years to see if it reads differently.


  4. More Australian bookbloggers I haven't met. Great to meet you two. I don't join challenges as I have too many reading commitments already but I like to check out what people are reading.

    I like Japanese literature and, in fact, am reading one right now, Haruki Murakami's Blind willow, sleeping woman. Love Murakami. Love The Makioka sisters, and so on…too many to mention.

    BUT translations always give me concern because I can never be really confident that I am reading what the author intended. Fascinatingly, some writers – Murakami is one and I think Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is another – write in their own language and then translate English works into their language. I can sort of understand why but wouldn't it be good to see if they translated their own works.

    Do you know how can follow comments on blogger blogs when I sign in using Open Id? Is it possible?


  5. Yes, it's always good to find other Aussies in the blogosphere – even if I'm only one on paper 😉

    I'm not sure how the following comments works with that system; I've only ever followed blogs, and it's easy if you do that (I'm still not 100% au fait with the myriad possibilities of blogging!).


    1. Erik – I wonder if any are authors. I know that a lot of famous writers from other languages translate from English. Anglophone writers? Not so much 😉


      1. Hi Tony, in the Netherlands there are indeed a lot of authors who besides writing themselves translate books from other languages (of course most of Englishlanguage books, a lot less of French, German and Spanish books). But I think the greatest translators are those who specialize in translation and write no fiction of their own (sometimes a book about translation). I guess the difference here is that The Netherlands is a relatively small country with a lot of foreign country around. Greetings, Erik


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