Friday, December 02, 2005

Found in Translation

I have been thinking about translations a lot recently--in part because of the Analects, and in part because of the VCDs from Taiwan of questionable legality I have been watching.

The interesting thing about translation is, the translator must make choices about which possible meaning he or she is going to go with. The translations of the Analects by Slingerland, Waley, Lau, etc., are instructive even to competent readers of Chinese because you can see the interpretation built in to the English.

In the VCDs, it is obvious that the translation process was careless. Much of the translation is based on mishearings of the English ("shark" for "shock," "make a bet" for "vampyre bat," etc.), and that obviously renders a good portion of the dialogue nearly nonsensical.

In the comments to Language Hat's very kind post about my blog, someone mentioned that making a translation true to the original is often a thankless task. Indeed, the best a translator can do is stay invisible and let his choices become a seemless part of the work. The translator of the VCD slipped up and showed himself.

It seems that translators get more grief than they do kudos. Some reviews of Philip Gabriel's translation Murakami Haruki's Kafka on the Shore complained of "jive" like "Jeez Louise" being used. I thought it was great--don't you think there's such a thing as Japanese jive, Janet Maslin of the NY Times?!

In an email exchange with fellow translator Jay Rubin, Gabriel also talks about Murakami's own decision for the Japanese chain restaurant Royal Host to be changed to Denny's in the English translation. This, on the other hand, I think is unfortunate. When I read something, especially in translation, I like to know that somewhere, on another continent, people are eating in a restaurant called "Royal Host." Readers should be allowed to find these things.

It's a fine line, and perhaps it is a thankless task to find it.


Matt said...

And even if you find the right line for most of your audience, there'll still be plenty who think you went too far or not far enough... for e.g. especially when it comes to older works, I like to read fat, complete, structurally faithful scholarly editions with lots of footnotes and introductory/concludory discussion, but I know that a lot of folks would just rather read the relevant bits, streamlined for international consumption. I have a lot of free time, after all.

Changing a restaurant name strikes me as kind of extreme, especially for literature -- what's next, changing character names? (Although this is of course S.O.P. in all-ages anime dubs... and this in and of itself causes astonishingly fierce controversy.)

I think the best thing a translator can do is, as you've said here and elsewhere, consciously decide what guidelines to follow (rather than pretending that personal prejudices are aesthetic laws) and explain their approach in the introduction. Or, if you're working on a monstro-super author like Murakami, in publicly available e-mail conversations. That would work too.

Tim May said...

Changing a restaurant name strikes me as kind of extreme, especially for literature ...

As opposed to, say, mentioning Marky Mark in a translation of a Soseki novel, Matt?

I agree with Amida on the jive and the restaurant. A translator should follow the principle of trying to create the intended effect of the writer in the mind of a modern reader in the target language, but not taken so far as to obliterate the work's particular origin. Or that's my taste, at least. Excuse me, my thoughts on translation are somewhat disordered and I find them difficult to put into words. Connotation vs denotation comes into it somewhere, but that doesn't really help to define where I want them to draw the line.

Huichieh said...

It's "thankless" (yes, I'm the guy who left that comment) in the sense that there are--often enough--multiple audiences with different interests and priorities that cannot be satisfied all at once. I think the trick is thus to be modest in ambition and to be upfront about one's procedures or presuppositions... But in the end, since "thankless" does not entail "unnecessary", the only conclusion might really be that the translator's job is like what the guardian at the stone gate said of the Master himself (LY 14.38): 是知其不可而為之者...