The anarchy of translation

By Nick Mamatas
Haika Soru

Being in the translation business leads to a hyperawareness of translation and its discontents. I’ve been reading much more work in translation lately, and these days head straight to the translator’s notes. I recently picked up two books: the venerable Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo (trans. James B. Harris) and the wild Lonely Hearts Killer by Tomoyuki Hoshino (trans. Adrienne Carey Hurley).

The Rampo book is a neat one. Copyright 1956, published in Rutland, Vermont! (I used to live in nearby Brattleboro, but sans car Rutland seemed like a distant dream) and one of the earliest books of popular fiction translated from the Japanese, the Harris/Rampo method of translation must have been exhausting. Rampo, we’re told “while fully capable of reading and understanding English, lacks the ability to write or speak it.” Meanwhile, the translator “a Eurasian of English-Japanese parentage, while completely fluent in spoken Japanese, is quite unable to read or writ the language…” Not exactly a punchline: the slim volume of short stories took five years to translate. The author would read the line in Japanese repeatedly and then explain “the correct meaning and nuance”, then the translator would write an English sentence on the typewriter for the author to read. Every sentence was drafted numerous times “until the author as fully satisfied with what had been set down in English.”

I will say this—the translations in Japanese Tales hold up. Sadly, we don’t have much interaction with the original authors of our books over at Haikasoru headquarters, but we contact them when we can, often to clear up some scientific terminology or to clear or approve a bit of cultural explanation. For the most part though, I’m talking about the author being contacted during the editorial process, not during the translation process. And there’s no way we’d get five years to work on a book.

Then there’s Lonely Hearts Killer, published recently by the radical Oakland house PM Press. (Dare I mention politics in a workplace blog? Eh, my boss has seen the state of my desk. I’m sure she knows that the theories of the anarchists hold sway!) The novel is about the death of an emperor, which Hurley tells us the author refers to as okami. The word means “’emperor,’ the ‘higher-ups’ or ‘the powers that be,’ but also ‘proprietress’ or ‘female manager’…” Tennō (heavenly emperor) is the more common phrase. The emperor is succeeded by his sister in the novel, which makes okami apropos. Further, Hoshino used katakana rather than kanji for the word, which also has implications for how the term is read in Japanese and how it stands out on the page. Ultimately, Hurley chose the term Majesty (bold included) to get the point across. But still, the point is nearly missed—”majesty” doesn’t quite have the same female connotation, though the use of bold does suggest a peculiarity and singularity to the role of the emperor. Of course, the extensive translation note helped too!

We get similar issues cropping up all the time with Haikasoru titles. If a character has a family name that translates into “Thermometer” for example—and no, it’s not a standard Japanese family name—do we call the character “Ms. Thermometer?” Even if the book is about a futuristic medical utopia? (Ultimately, the translator and I decided against. It just sounded silly.) When doing a medieval fantasy, what do we call clan leaders if the heir to the emperor is “prince”…which is itself a bit unsatisfying? Well, we might go for “duke” or “baron”, but that doesn’t quite capture the provincialism of the distant landlords—the clan heads are also not quite peers; they rank below what a westerner might call a duke or baron. “Head chieftain” is perhaps a close and almost literal translation, but that sounded a bit like “Boss President” to me. There’s also “laird” but that term has a regional specificity that would shock many readers out of the story. In the end, I went with “headman.” Though the translation isn’t over yet, so we might come up with something else… Because we’re doing popular fiction here, I try to keep editorial notes and footnotes to an utter minimum. Luckily, thanks to the popularity of Japanese pop culture these days, many of our readers are familiar with Japanese terms and the accoutrements of daily life. So far we haven’t had to explain or apologize.

Traduttore, tradittore the Italians say, which translates as “translator, traitor.” Or “the translator is a traitor.” Or “Every translator is a traitor.” See, even the pithy phrase about the unreliability of translations cannot be perfectly and unequivocally translated! But I think most translations, when done by people committed to the work, don’t betray the spirit of the text. They may, however, betray the letter of the text or the rules of a language for a more internationalist and less culturally specific meaning. The translator isn’t a traitor, the translator is an anarchist!

Back to Tomoyuki Hoshino’s Author Page | Back to Adrienne Carey Hurley’s Author Page