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Lost In Translators Dept.

The surest way to get people riled up in any field is to have one of its own scions slap it in the face. To wit: Matt Thorn, whose c.v. for manga translation is probably beyond reproach, recently had some pithy (shilling for venomous) things to say about the current state of affairs in that fine land. And to him, many things are rotten in the state of wordsmithing.

His argument comes down to two things:

  1. Most translators currently working today are a tin-eared lot. Their prowess in Japanese is not the point; it's their skill with English that's lacking. They have no sense of how to — as someone else once said — put together a sentence without using any nails.
  2. The lousy quality of such translations is a contributing factor to slumping manga sales in general.

I agree completely with the first argument. The second, not so much. But the first argument is spot-on in a way that is a little difficult to fully appreciate at first.

Good translation is hard. It ought to be. If it isn't, I'd think we were cheating ourselves out of a good learning experience. It is hard because writing with elegance and grace is a trial all by itself, and I say this as someone who has thrown out a whole order of magnitude more words than I will ever keep, because the sight of them made me ball my fists and reach for the DELETE key.

When I attempted to translate Akutagawa's "Rashōmon" as an exercise — and I don't claim I did a good job, just that I tried — I saw firsthand how easy it was to create a bad translation, because of the sheer difficulty involved in getting a halfway good one. It was easy to cop out, to settle for less. Not something that was technically unfaithful to the text, but a tin-eared, graceless piece of prose — something that you wouldn't bother with in English in the first place.

I struggled with that story, beat my head against it, and saw myself that to create something that people would actually want to seek out and read, and not just have shoved into their gullet in a college course, was an order of magnitude harder than just grinding out verbal sausage. It's easy to have just enough of a command of the language to create a translation of something that has — well, words but not music.

There is something else that Thorn tosses out, a crumb over his shoulder, but a crumb I imagine will spark many fights:

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.

I cannot count the number of times I have had utterly fruitless arguments with those very same hardcore fans about minutiae in a translation — stupid little things that shaded over into trivia, or downright obscurantism — which for them were total make-or-break details. This isn't, as Thorn put it, a question of using honorifics or not; it's a question of whether or not you're wrecking the future accessibility of your translation for the sake of appeasing a few loud people whose command of the language has most likely been scraped together from the very translations that they themselves nitpick endlessly!

I don't consider myself an authority on the quality of a translation. In fact, after breaking my knuckles on "Rashōmon" I'm inclined to spend that much less time assuming I know what I'm talking about in that department. I tried, though: I compared Black Lagoon and Guin Saga and a few others against their originals, and came away with an insight here and a revelation there. But all it did was reinforce how little I did know — and how the people who grew up with the language, who lived it when a great many others were just parroting back third-hand echoes of it, had an advantage I could never claim.

But I do know English, and I know lousy, graceless prose when I see it in that language. And such writing is all too easy to come by. The other week I finished Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood; he barely let a sentence go by in his career that wasn't either apple-cheeked with wit or fiery with insight. Then I ran across Laurell K. Hamilton's latest at the library. You could plow through the whole of her output looking for one sentence of Sturgeon's caliber; in the end, you'll just feel like someone who went into a Twinkie factory looking for fresh produce. (It's not that I think people shouldn't read Hamilton's brand of verbal junk food; it's that the taste for good cooking, as it were, is all too easily driven out of each successive generation's taste buds. Appetites for good books have to be protected and encouraged.)

The ultimately irony is how the people who seem least bent out of shape about this are fans and publishers. The fans care more about whether or not a given title is arriving at all in English, or whether or not it's being censored — not whether the translation they do get is artless and wooden (or horrendously misconceived; see below). The publishers ... well, look at the manga market, and tell me with a straight face that most of it is about artistic integrity.

Publishing is a thin enough business as it is, and the few who can make a living from their captive audiences lose no sleep over the damage done to the words they're buying the rights to. No more than, say, the original American distributors of The Seven Samurai had qualms about shearing down a third of its length. To them, Matt Thorn bulks far smaller than, say, Steve Jobs, or Rupert Murdoch. A tin ear is a small price to pay for gold in the pocket.

* * *

Purchase on AmazonThis might also be a good time to talk about Ōoku, a manga which in my opinion sports the single most misguided English translation I have yet seen.

The story is set in the Shogun’s court during the Tokugawa years, where the characters speak with a certain elegance and courtliness that is not found in modern Japanese. Perhaps it was determined at some point that this should be preserved in the translation, and I cannot find fault with that impulse.

But the way this has been implemented in the actual text is all wrong. It amounts to a kind of Chaucerian-to-Shakespearean hash that grates against the eyes at every line. It is a minefield of “thee”s and “thou”s and “‘pon my troth”s. I attempted—several times—to read the manga only to be stopped cold, again and again, by this approach.

It is not immersive or evocative. It is distracting and annoying. It is all but unreadable. It is tin-eared in a way that I suspect only someone utterly convinced of the necessity of such an approach could overlook.

Purchase on AmazonI'm not sure if I should blame the translator, Akemi Wegmüller, or VIZ's editorial board, for this mistake in judgment. I've seen Wegmüller's work elsewhere (Monster), and never ran into this kind of issue with it. Maybe someone saw Criterion’s edition of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, with its multiple English-language subtitle tracks, one of which was written (by Donald Ritchie, no less) in Shakespearean lingo as a way to further evoke the film’s roots in Macbeth. You can almost see the lightbulbs flickering on: Aha! Let's try that!

Fine. Except that with a DVD, multiple subtitle tracks are an option. One can choose between them. A manga provides us with no such flexibility. We get the one translation you give us and nothing more.

That is another reason, I suspect, why Thorn is annoyed, because the translations we're getting for most of this stuff are the translations we're likely to get for a good long time, possibly for keeps. They're not like public-domain texts which can be retranslated as a labor of love. They're copyrighted productions created for what amounts to a niche market within a niche market, and the vast majority of the time, one shot is all we get.

So. Unless there are major and normative changes in the way copyright works (the odds of which I can sum up as being Not Bloody Likely), we're stuck with the current set of pipelines we have for getting any of this stuff into English at all. Let alone the things that are not just worth looking at but worth reading.

If we must choose between having a few more manga titles and having better translated ones — more thoughtfully rendered ones, ones that will still be readable decades from now by audiences with no otaku cred to buff — sorry, but I'll take what's behind door #2.

(Then maybe I won't have as big a backlog to suffer through each month.)

Tags: Japan language links literature manga translation writing

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Previous: Big Man Japan

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2010/04/09 19:20.

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