Japanese-to-English Translation Basics

Old Books

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a translation seminar with one of the finest translators of Japanese literature into English. The course texts she selected for the seminar presented all manner of interesting translation challenges, and she brought in a number of fantastic speakers from the Kyoto-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators to discuss these challenges with our class. Unfortunately, I was not able to take full advantage of this seminar; it was as if these professional translators were teaching us translation calculus, and I still didn’t grasp basic translation algebra.

I just finished a tertiary round of edits for two major translation projects, and I’ve noticed a number of patterns in the areas I’ve repeatedly needed to adjust. Once I became aware of the currents my editing was following, I started to imagine that I was getting at some of the basic and fundamental issues of Japanese-to-English translation. If I could go back in time and give my fledgling translator self some advice, this is what I might say…

(1) Japanese sentences tend to begin with prepositional phrases and other subordinate clauses that separate the subject from the verb. Although sentence variety is important in English, simple subject-verb-object sentences are the foundation of muscular and fluent English prose. Consider splitting a sentence into two sentences if the sheer number and frequency of subordinate clauses render a literal translation of that sentence into a hermeneutic puzzle in English. Also, never be afraid to switch the order of words in a sentence if it sounds better to your ear, such as in the case of placing adverbs after verbs instead of in front of them.

(2) Letting the reader know that information is hypothetical or coming from a secondhand source is a common feature of Japanese, but an overuse of expressions such as “it seems,” “I heard that,” “someone said,” “it’s often said,” “perhaps,” and “maybe” tend to weaken English prose. If the information being presented is obviously a subjective impression or something that the narrator/speaker would have no way of knowing on a firsthand basis, it’s usually safe to omit the attribution markers.

(3) Adverbs, especially temporal adverbs, are much more tolerated in Japanese writing than they are in English writing. If adverbs or adverbial phrases such as “suddenly” or “after a while” are clear from the context, the translator should feel free to omit them. Also, if the meaning of an adverbial phrase can be transferred to a verb, such as in the case of “said in a loud voice” becoming “shouted,” then the translator should consider doing so. This is not diluting the author’s language but rather transforming strong writing in Japanese into strong writing in English.

(4) Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. If the subject of a passive sentence can be inferred, insert it into the sentence and change the verb to the active voice. The implications of the passive voice are interesting and valuable but can usually be deduced in other ways, and passive sentence structures are much more common and natural in Japanese than they are in English, where they can quickly become jarring to the reader.

(5) The literal translation of the triple and quadruple negatives of Japanese rhetoric sounds ridiculous in English, a language in which a single negative or positive statement is usually considered infinitely more articulate.

(6) Think twice about retaining honorific titles such as “san,” “kun,” “chan,” “buchō,” “kachō,” and “sensei” in your English translation. Such Japanese-isms can feel gimmicky, and often they are not necessary to convey the relationships between characters. Moreover, if honorifics are maintained in translation, it may still be difficult to make the reader aware of what it means when a name is used without honorifics. Japanese is well known for being able to express multiple levels of formality, but English is no slouch at conveying degrees of distance and friendliness, and the manner in which two characters speak to each other can mean much more to the reader than which honorifics they use.

(7) The written approximation of dialect is common in Japanese, but don’t try to “translate” dialect into an English equivalent unless you feel absolutely comfortable doing so. The written approximation of dialect in English will almost always appear goofy and corny to the reader. Different grammatical patterns, tonal registers, and word choices will usually help to convey dialect better than means such as replaced, duplicated, or truncated vowels.

(8) When faced with the task of translating untranslatable words, consider not translating them. You have a smartphone, your grandmother has a smartphone, your four-year-old daughter has a smartphone, and it’s not difficult to run a quick Google search for something like “kotatsu” or “umeshu.” Even without outside sources, your reader will generally be smart enough to get an approximate impression from the context. When it comes to brand names, it’s especially easy for the reader to figure out what’s being referred to from the context, and it’s generally best to leave them be without any footnoting or inserted explanation. In some cases, however, leaving a word untranslated can feel silly and pretentious to the reader, so it’s helpful to have an ideal reader in mind and cater to the presumed knowledge, tastes, and expectations of that reader.

(9) When it comes to puns, jokes, proverbs, idiomatic expressions, and made-up words, crowdsourcing translation solutions is always an option. This is why Al Gore invented the internet back in the eighties, so feel free to use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as your own personal dictionaries of creative genius. Some of the problems you face in translating certain words may also be an issue of relative expertise, so there’s no shame in relying on other people for help if you need to know more about how to refer to certain foods, colors, meteorological phenomena, or American sci-fi stories from the seventies. Translation is just as much of a research project as it is an art, but there’s no need for research to be a solitary task in a lonely room full of dusty books (unless of course you’d like it to be).

(10) Make sure you do at least one read-through of your translation while completely separated from the original Japanese text. Even if you have a crystal clear translation of a certain word, expression, or passage, it’s all but worthless if it doesn’t gel with the rest of the English on the page. Also, if you can exchange favors for translation checking, proofreading, and copyediting, do so and count yourself fortunate. If your ideal reader is an actual person, then let her actually read your drafts. Translation is difficult and complicated work, and you might be surprised by the things you miss as you juggle multiple documents and languages.

Finally, don’t let anyone get you down with analogies about how a translation is like a woman that can’t be pretty and faithful at the same time, or about how reading a translation is like having sex while wearing a condom, or about how the translator does damage to a text by forcibly penetrating it with a phallus-pen. Such analogies are not only gross but also inane and banal. Translation is awesome, and being able to read things originally written in a different language is an amazing privilege for those of us who benefit from translation, and some of the best English prose I’ve ever read has come in the form of translated literature. For what it’s worth, the word games and creative challenges of translation are also a lot of fun.

If you’ve just started translating from Japanese into English, good luck! And check out the Kyoto Journal‘s wonderful piece They Who Render Anew for inspiration.


Title: Ayako
Japanese Title: 奇子 (Ayako)
Artist: Tezuka Osamu (手塚 治虫)
Translator: Mari Morimoto
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1973 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 700

Every once in awhile I will play a game with myself in which I try to imagine the perfect setup for a Gothic novel. Family secrets! Incest! Murder! A madwoman locked in the basement! Sex! Revenge! I was thrilled, then, when I found that Tezuka Osamu’s mid-career manga Ayako hits all of the Gothic genre high points, one after the other. In 1949, a man named Jirō returns to Japan from an American POW camp to find his homeland significantly changed. The political situation in Tokyo is bad, but Jirō’s family situation in rural Japan is even worse, as the powerful Tenge clan has lost most of its holdings in the postwar land ownership restructuring movements. Through a convoluted series of events, Jirō ends up committing murder and has to flee the countryside. Through an equally convoluted series of events, Jirō’s four-year-old sister Ayako, who is made to bear the blame for the family’s misfortunes, is locked in a cellar for more than twenty years before finally being rescued by her older brother Shirō, who has been biding his time while witnessing the slow decay of his family. Ayako escapes her family and flees to Tokyo, where she is reunited with Jirō, whose rise to power reflects Japan’s economic ascent in the sixties. The Gothic elements of Ayako’s family drama are enhanced by the Gothic elements of postwar Japanese history, with its unsavory secrets and shady backroom deals and assassinated activists all swept under the historical carpet.

The whole thing weighs in at exactly seven hundred pages, making it a book to be reckoned with. It is in fact a Book, beautiful and well-published (but probably too big to carry around casually; an e-reader edition would have been awesome, but alas). Perhaps because of the way it has been published, in a tasteful, hardcover, single-volume edition, its ad copy attempts to market it as a Novel, stating, “Ayako looms as a pinnacle of Naturalist literature in Japan with few peers even in prose, the striking heroine a potent emblem of things left unseen by the war.” I read the publicity for the graphic novel, got excited, and had Amazon ship it to me on the day it came out. If people were comparing Ayako to Faulkner and Tolstoy, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? Unfortunately, although Ayako is certainly a major accomplishment in the field of graphic novels, I am going to have to put my foot down and declare that it is not in fact on par with the best of Japanese prose. Far from it. As literature, Ayako is riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the storytelling. The plot is highly improbable from beginning to end, and its developments often don’t make much sense if the reader begins to question them. The ending, which reeks of poetic justice, feels especially heavy handed. If one simply accepts the story as it unfolds, it’s not so far-fetched that it’s ridiculous, but “a pinnacle of Naturalist literature” it is not. The pacing is also highly uneven. I am not referring to the beautiful drawings of city- and country-scapes that Tezuka often inserts under blocks of third-person, scene-setting narration, but rather to certain key plot points that happen way too quickly. This refusal to let the reader slow down and figure out what’s happening is especially bad at the beginning and end of the book. Perhaps this why the plot at these points feels so contrived, or perhaps Tezuka himself wishes to rush across his plot holes. In any case, I didn’t feel that I was in the hands of a professional at the top of his game.

Another thing I expect from the “literary” novels I read is a cast of deep, multi-faceted characters, but the dramatis personae of Ayako are all one-dimensional. The Tenge patriarch and his oldest son Ichirō, for example, do what they do simply because they’re evil people. The two most complex characters, Jirō and Shirō, merely flip between “good” and “bad” like cutout paper puppets. Perhaps the female characters possess a greater depth of personality, but the narrative doesn’t really seem to care about them. Of Ichirō’s second wife, Tezuka says only that she is “so bland and devoid of a role in this tale that she is not worth mentioning.” Why is this woman driven to marry a man who obviously murdered his first wife, and how does she deal with his moodiness, alcoholism, and deranged family? It’s not worth mentioning, I guess. Ayako, who has the potential to be the most interesting character, is the most disappointing. The image of her on the cover of the book says everything you need to know about her. She is young, beautiful, and mysterious, and she very much wants to have sex with you. We see her breasts, butt, thighs, and panties more than we hear her speak. (I am exaggerating, but only a bit.) Of course she is seriously psychologically damaged, but Tezuka doesn’t give this the narrative weight it deserves, choosing instead to have us view her through the eyes of his male characters, who regard her as both pitiful and sexually irresistible. A “striking heroine” and a “potent emblem,” indeed.

Other minor characters are so cartoonish and caricatured that they don’t add much of anything to the story. In fact, one might say they detract from it. Clones of Popeye, Olive Oil, and Dick Tracy don’t really help the story construct itself as “serious literature,” and Tezuka’s brief attempts at humor feel inane and misplaced. On that note, the art quality in Ayako can sometimes be shockingly bad. For example, I don’t think Tezuka was even trying in this panel:

There are many examples that are far worse, but it would be cruel to beat such an ugly dead horse. Furthermore, some scenes that should be highly dramatic, like Jirō murdering one of his subordinates, come off as silly because the artwork is so immature. The cartoon character designs and the rushed artwork are much better, however, than Tezuka’s occasional attempts at realism. Such drawings are, quite honestly, unlovely, and their effect on the flow of the story is akin to someone jumping onto the train tracks. I’m sure that someone at some point will write a paper on Tezuka’s changes in artistic style in Ayako, but I came away with the feeling that his excursions into realism were randomly placed and artistically useless. They strike the reader forcefully – not in the way that an amazing photograph on the cover of a news magazine does, but rather in the way that someone suddenly vomiting in a crowded train does.

Such an awkward analogy brings me to my final point of contention: the translation. Again, the ad copy bills Mari Morimoto as an veteran translator, but I’m afraid that her extensive resume gave her a sense of artistic entitlement that she then used to absolutely no one’s advantage. If you think that this is a mean, nasty thing to say, I encourage you to read a page of Ayako (click on the image for a larger version):

I believe that dialect is something that is much more natural and naturalized in written Japanese than it is in written English. In written English, one needs merely to say of a character that he has a French accent; there is no need to write his every line of dialog as something like, “Je would like zee wat-ere with mon caf-ey.” The translation of Ōoku, which employs a vaguely Shakespearean idiom to give a sense of all the de gozaru period speech patterns going on in the original Japanese, succeeds brilliantly because the touch of dialect is so light. It is suggested to the reader, not shoved into his face and down his throat. The translation of Ayako, however, not only draws unnecessary attention to itself but also robs the Tenge family of any power, dignity, tragedy, or pathos they might have possibly had by making them sound like a Family Guy parody of the Beverly Hillbillies. There are also strange aberrations in the speech of certain characters, like when Jirō suddenly and without warning starts calling people “Guv’nor” in the last quarter of the book. And then there are the occasional lines of dialog that make no sense, such as when a character who otherwise uses unmarked speech says something like, “Boss! Our lads will think you’ve prostrated yourself to the [rival gangster organization]! They’ll be all a-seethe!” They’ll be all a-seethe? Seriously?

Any of these problem areas – narrative structure, pacing, characterization, art, translation – would potentially be a deal-breaker by itself, but together they make Ayako awkward and almost unreadable at times. Ayako is a deeply flawed work, and its flaws are of the type that are simply annoying without adding any depth to the story. I am posting an abbreviated version of this review on Amazon, and I am giving Ayako four out of five stars, because, despite everything, it is an excellent graphic novel. If you come to it expecting a literary masterpiece on par with The Makioka Sisters or The Sound and the Fury, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Ayako is not high literature. It is a comic book: an engaging and thought-provoking comic book that was ahead of its time, but a comic book nonetheless.

I wholeheartedly recommend Ayako to librarians building a manga collection as well as to people who study manga, and I somewhat reservedly recommend it to people who are either Tezuka fans or otherwise used to reading manga published before the nineties. However, Ayako is not for literary types seeking an introduction to manga, and it is not for casual manga fans seeking an introduction to Tezuka. Unless you’re really sure that you want to read Ayako, warts and all, you’re better off trying a Tezuka title like Buddha or Phoenix. Better yet, skip the history lesson and go straight to Urasawa Naoki, who achieves the beauty of art and novelistic scope and density of character that perhaps Tezuka could have aimed for had he not been working on a dozen projects all at once.

In conclusion, I’m happy that Vertical has released Ayako in translation, but I find the ad copy misleading and counter-productive. It’s like talking about some entertaining yet vacuous commercial garbage like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and saying, “Look! This is literature! It references mythology!” in an attempt to get people to take young adult fiction seriously. There are plenty of literary manga out there, but Ayako feels like a relatively minor work in the canon, no matter how much money its publisher put into its release. If Vertical insists on producing deluxe editions, I wish they would pick up classics like Rose of Versailles or The Heart of Thomas, which have aged remarkably well. Otherwise, it is my hope that, in their ongoing battle against scanlations, they publish more affordable editions (like digital ones!) that might appeal to poor students such as myself, who sometimes get upset when their shiny new $30 investment isn’t everything it was promised to be.