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.

Lost Japan

Title: Lost Japan
Japanese Title: 美しき日本の残像 (Utsukushiki Nippon no zanzō)
Author: Alex Kerr
Translator: Bodhi Fishman
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Pages: 269

If you’re thinking about reading this book because you’re interested in Japan, I am sorry to inform you that Alex Kerr doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t think you’re very smart:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, “All is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land,’ where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] Since World War II, Japan has had fifty years of uninterrupted peace, during which time the concrete of its social systems has set hard and fast. It has become a land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this. (106, 107)

A Rhodes scholar friend of Kerr’s from Australia studying China, for instance, had the opportunity to become involved in the 1989 Tienanmen [sic] Square incident. What a hero! There is nothing more exciting than politically motivated massacres. If only they had more of those in Japan, amirite? Japan is such a boring place. All they have there are earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and nonviolent political upheaval, not to mention a dynamic feminist movement that really began to gather momentum in the years following an unprecedented economic downturn. Japan is home to a conformist society, where everyone is unbearably polite, and there aren’t any youth movements to capture to attention of intellectuals who have picked on the connections between Japanese society and their own.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. Lost Japan doesn’t have end notes or a bibliography, and the book works much better as a travelogue than as a serious study of Japan. Unlike many other “foreigner in Japan” books that came out of the nineties, however, Lost Japan is still in print and still referenced and recommended within communities of English-speaking people visiting and living in Japan.

As should be apparent from the passage I quoted above, Kerr is a person with strong opinions. As Kerr himself readily admits, his opinions tend to be polarizing, but it is their controversial nature that make them so interesting and compelling. Unfortunately, these opinions also tend toward sensationalism. Kerr seems to firmly believe that Japan is hurdling along a downslope slope towards cultural disaster. In order to demonstrate what Japan is losing, Kerr offers examples of the beauty he himself has experienced. These descriptions are vivid and immersive. Kerr details natural beauty…

As anyone who has hiked through the mountain ranges of Shikoku and Kyushu will know, Japan’s mountains are a jungle of sorts. Wherever one looks, the humid, dense slopes are covered with ferns, moss and fallen leaves. Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist. (17-18)

…architectural and artistic beauty…

Even within tourist-clogged Nara Park there are places which possess […] religious appeal. Entering the Sangatsu-do Hall, next door to the Hall of the Great Buddha, you find a quiet room far removed from the flurry of people in the park. In this dim space, there towers a magnificent gilt statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon Buddha, surrounded by a mandala arrangement of statues of guardians, the Sun and the Moon, and other bodhisattvas. From the halo behind the Buddha’s head project gilded rays, gleaming in the darkness. Tourists come to Sangatsu-do talking and laughing, but they soon fall silent in the presence of Fukukensaku Kannon’s fearsome light. None of them, including myself, has the slightest idea what the significance of Fukukensaku Kannon is. It doesn’t matter – those beams of light are enough. (207)

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

Other villagers from Tsurui came one by one to look at the foreigner, and then pitched in to help with the renovation. A foreigner was rare enough, but a foreigner who was trying to repair an old thatch-roofed house was doubly bizarre. Old folk took an interest, and would come over with straw to teach me how to weave straw sandals. […] At night, Shokichu and his friends told ghost stories in the spooky light of the floor hearth. (35)

What Kerr seems to love more than describing beauty, however, is describing ugliness. There is the ugliness of Japanese cities in general…

There are innumerable detailed building codes, but the overall design of a building and its aesthetic relation to street and skyline are ignored; the result is careless, disjointed, ugly. (66)

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitudes of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere – a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one’s head. This is a site which is considered a model of urban development. (50)

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

There is hardly a single object on the Kabuki stage recognizable to young people today. When stage chanters sing of fireflies or autumn maples, such things are now almost mythical objects in this land of vast cedar plantations. (67)

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

Japan’s national problem is homogeneity. The school system teaches everyone to say and think the same thing, and the bureaucracies restrict the development of new media, such as cable TV, the information highway and even movie theaters. As a result, no matter where you go, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all the houses look the same, the clothes look the same and people’s loves center around the same humdrum activities […] The passivity, the way in which [a department store counter saleswoman]’s shut out the outside world – it was a distinctive posture which I have seen in Japan so many times. Sensory deprivation? Passive silence? Fear of the world? I wish I could find the right words for it, but Japan is becoming a nation of people like this. (223)

…even though they know better:

I do not believe that the Japanese have completely lost the delicate sensibility of the Heian era. Somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know that Japan is becoming an ugly country. (51)

Sometimes I wondered whether Kerr really believed what he was saying, which seemed to be that Japan is an ugly country full of people who are either stupid or lazy. I wondered if it was really okay to say make generalizations like that about a country with a land area of more than 350,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 127,000,000 people. I also couldn’t help wondering what sort of person sees beauty only in very a small number of specific instances while seeing ugliness everywhere else.

It wasn’t just Kerr’s diatribes against ugliness that made me raise an eyebrow. For example:

Today, many Japanese would hardly know what the word yobai means, and it was a little short of miraculous that the custom still existed when I arrived in Iya. It was the subject of many a laughing conversation, and villagers slyly asked me now and then when I was going to start on my nocturnal adventures. At the time, yobai seemed to me just another local oddity, but later I discovered that there was more to it than I had thought. In the Heian period, the loves of the aristocrats immortalized in novels such as the Tale of Genji were modeled on the yobai pattern. (37)

Yobai, or “night crawling,” is when a young man breaks into a young woman’s bedroom late at night, often after a village festival (which usually involves alcohol), and ostensibly with the consent of the young woman’s parents. What an elegant, noble custom! It’s a shame that people don’t do this anymore. Let’s laugh about it, because there is nothing funnier than surprise sex! (Also, I think Kerr might be suggesting that marriage practices among the elite in an earlier historical period were modeled on a subset of rural customs from later historical periods, but this is excusable as everyone knows that history is like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.)

Also, sometimes Kerr says things that made me wonder if the Japan he’s talking about is some kind of bizarro-Japan from an alternate dimension. For example:

Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of [my younger cousins], has an almost complete lack of dirty words. (224)

The Japanese language has an almost complete lack of dirty words only if the words used to describe feces, effluvia, human genitalia, sexual acts, gay men, gay women, women in general, and displeasure at the behavior of others aren’t considered “dirty.” Seriously, there’s a whole book about this, and this book was written before cell phones and the internet became mainstream.

The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty – often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. (231)

I guess the huge historic Chinatowns in cities like Yokohama and Kobe don’t exist?

One can scour the history of Japan, however, without finding much in the way of articulated philosophy; to put it strongly, Japan is not a country of thinkers. (113)

Not only is this not true, it’s also not a very nice thing to say.

If nothing else, Alex Kerr is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and his strong opinions certainly contribute to the entertainment value of his writing. If one can simply take what he says with a grain of salt and understand Lost Japan as a story the author is telling about Japan, then it’s easy to enjoy being swept up in his tales of adventure. Kerr has had no small number of unique experiences, and he can take his readers into worlds that they would not be able to enter without him. Bodhi Fishman’s translation is both eloquent and frank, and each of Kerr’s chapters is written so that disappointment with one aspect of Japan will be balanced out by wonder and amazement at another.

Kerr’s follow-up book to Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons, reprises many of the same themes but contains a great deal more factual information. The author’s bitter and rancorous tone is somewhat gentler in Lost Japan than it is in of Dogs and Demons, however, and the earlier book contains much less ranting on the topic of how all popular culture is worthless and offensive. In comparison, Lost Japan has aged much better than Dogs and Demons, and its balance of adulation, criticism, colorful descriptions, and strong opinions make it an enjoyable light read more than ten years after its first publication in English.

Still, the book is far from unproblematic, and the reader is encouraged to maintain an attitude as critical of Kerr as Kerr’s own attitude is critical of Japan.

I’d like to end this review with a picture that I took while waiting for the bus one morning this past April just outside of the center of town in Kyoto, which Kerr describes as one of the ugliest cities in Japan. Is it really ugly? It’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up the reader to decide for him or herself.