Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bad Translation Makes Kittens Sad

See? See what happens when you FAIL at translation?

My wife recommended a book, one of her favorite books, and she even went so far as to research the English translation (my wife is Japanese).

It's called Crossfire, by an immensely popular writer over here: Miyuki Miyabe. She's been called "The Japanese Stephen King", which she MIGHT have been aiming for (she name drops him in the book, and this one, well...we'll get to that).

So I bought it, because hey--she's my wife. Luckily, the book is a kind of mystery/suspense thriller, which is right down my alley, so I didn't have to suffer through some syrupy romance crap (She also likes Nicholas Sparks...).

So the book arrives, and...I'm having some problems reading it.

I really want to like it. The story is cool--it's about a pyrokinetic woman (see? Stephen King INVENTED that word...) who becomes a vigilante, and a police woman who is chasing her, as well as a super-secret group of vigilantes with super powers, and it should be exciting and cool...but it isn't.

It's dull, tired and flat as a pancake. The reason, I HAVE to believe, is the translation.

Now, I have some experience with translation, both reading and writing, and I have some theory behind me when I say this: This translation is a failure.

It fails on the basic idea that when you translate a work, ESPECIALLY a work of popular fiction, you should make something worth reading. Something that works as a piece of English, rather than a piece of Japanese fiction, which happens to be in English words.

Let me give you a concrete example--
In the story, our main character is tracking down a scumbag murderer, and she is meeting one of his friends. She find him, and the place is described thus:
"an old, run down drinking establishment."

Now, this is a popular novel, a suspenseful thriller about cops and criminals. There is not a single character in this book that, were they speaking English, would use the phrase "drinking establishment". They would say "Dive". "Seedy bar". "A hole-in-the-wall".

That's how people talk. But the translators (Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi and Anna Husson Isozaki) apparently don't.

Then there are the weird refusals to turn a Japanese text into and English text. What I mean is, Japanese language and writing follow certain conventions that we just don't in English. Japanese texts DEMAND context and description, for reasons that I don't fully understand but I believe have things to do with the context-heaviness of the language. In this novel, it is expressed in the fact that the opening scene, which takes place in an abandoned factory, is preluded by three pages of detailed description of this factory and its neighborhood--none of which is never mentioned again.

Things like "Hammers, wrenches, and giant phillips-head screws about thirty centimeters across were scattered here and there on the shelves.". Those enormous screws, such odd things, never ever come up in the story again. They should--screws that size certainly seem significant, but nope. Nothing. In an English novel, if something is not actually important to the story, you don't put it in the story. But apparently that's ok in a Japanese novel, part of establishing the vital scenery, creating context that is so important. So the translators devote nearly 20 words to empty, overwrought description (and this certainly isn't the limit)--rather than saying "the place was littered with junk", as befits a passing thing in an English novel.

Another example...A young man who, like our main character, has paranormal psychic powers that he uses to punish criminals, is talking about a case he's on, and says "There's this pitiful man in his thirties who can't get along without periodically interfering with little girls."

Now, I understand the hesitation to deal with this sensitive a topic, but a young, wild man (dyed hair, extreme sports hobbies) would never, ever use "interfering with" as a euphemism for pedophilia. "Touching", "molesting", there are lots of 'em. But "interfering"? That may well have been a direct translation of the word in the original (I haven't checked yet, but I will), but it surely doesn't fit--it doesn't carry anything about the character, or the situation, or the atmosphere of the book.

I guess what I'm talking about here is that the translators simply did the mechanical task of turning Japanese words and grammar into English words and grammar, but did NOT do the real work of making an exciting, engaging English novel. I'm of the "translation as creation" school of thought, best described in this article by Fred Uleman on the Japan Association of Translators website.

This quote is perhaps best: "The words and the grammar are only important because they carry the meaning. Feel free to ignore them when they get in the way. This is the key to doing good translation." Or perhaps, most importantly,

If the source text reads smoothly, your translation also has to read smoothly. Just as you should not omit meaning, you should not add new meaning or add new awkwardness in the translation.

What that means is, if you're translating an exciting, suspenseful novel from Japanese, you should produce an exciting, suspenseful novel in English. Sadly, this takes more than just a good grasp of the two languages, it takes a good grasp of writing techniques and a sense for writing--in a word, talent.

Without that, you get a translation like the one I'm slogging through now (oh, what we do for love)--boring, flat and unengaging, with brief flashes of the best-seller that lurks behind it.


Mr. S. said...

All good points, except there is one other possibility: the novel blows. Japanese modern literature leaves me cold. Even when the writing is evocative like Murakami Haruki or Ryu, what the hell is their point?

As for translating between two languages at the far ends of the Eurasian continent, when I do it between speakers I just make $#!+ up. After all, they don't have the time for all of the nuanced explanations it would require to truly understand, so I just tell each whatever will make them smile at each other.

JimR said...

Well, I'm not ready to condemn everything but...I'm open to that idea. Increasingly so every day. I certainly haven't found any really good stuff yet.

As for translating...Hey, it sounds like you're an ambassador for peace!

Mr. S. said...

"An ambassador for peace" is too kind. For the most part lazy, and a day of accurate translation gives me a headache.