Then and Now Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2011-09-01 04:54:50 No comments

[I've been deeply embroiled in work, but I've found some pieces I wrote but never published which I thought would be good to post after a little cleanup, just to keep things rolling here. I'll be posting one a day or so over the next couple of weeks.]

I've said before in conversations with friends that every work of art is a product of its moment in time, and that should be respected whenever possible. This is why I was bothered by George Lucas's constant reworking of his own movies: yes, they're his and he has the unalloyed right to keep tinkering with them, but that comes at the expense of seeing how they were products of their moments in time.

The more I think about it, though, the more this has other implications. I recently picked up the new Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of Genji. I have Seidenstecker's older translation, so placing the two side by side was striking. A great deal of incidental detail and cultural nuance has been restored in the new version. The old one is not bad, exactly, and a good case can be made for a translation that leans on the side of casual readability vs. one that is committed to fidelity.

I'd argue that both of those translations are products of their moments in time. When I first read Donald Keene's translation of Dazai's No Longer Human, I didn't know his use of the word "gin" was a substitute for the original word shōchū throughout the work. It made sense at the time: who in 1958, in most any English-speaking country, would know what shōchū was without needing a footnote? And since it didn't significantly alter the story, what difference would it make? For most any English-speaking reader, "gin" would be Good Enough.

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I have gone back and forth about the Good Enough school of translation, which has actually manifested rather strongly in anime. On the one hand, you have the fans, who may know just enough about the language to get into trouble; on the other, you have the paid professionals, who are often called on to make compromises between accessibility and fidelity. A show like ×××HOLiC, which is firmly anchored in aspects of Japanese culture for which there exist absolutely no Western substitutes, has to hew that much more closely towards fidelity or it simply doesn't make sense. A high-school story, maybe less so -- although there are people who will defend the need to have a show like that also rendered as closely as possible. So maybe it's best to start from fidelity and only step away from it as need dictates.

Today the art of translating has teetered that much more in favor of fidelity and footnotes, for any number of reasons. Cultural sensitivity, for one: gin and shōchū are, at the very least, not blindly interchangeable (doubly so, I'd wager, for anyone who has drunk both). I'm reminded of the way people (mostly Americans, sigh) still conflate sushi with sashimi.

The other is, I think, that fact that readerships are on the whole more casually cosmopolitan than they were even a decade ago. Technology is part of that, to be sure. It's trivially easy to look up a term with the e-book edition of a work, or to pop open your phone when dealing with a dead-tree edition. But even after from that we walk around with that much more casual consciousness of things than we ever did, and it's not a mistake to bank on that.

A third thing might be a change in the way translated fiction is brought to audiences. By and large, readers do not care where something came from. They care about whether or not it's a good read, although they will clearly give favor to works that are that much more directly accessible. That may be why mysteries from Japan gets short shrift in favor of, say, thrillers about Swedish girls with tattoos.

My theory: even the most exotic parts of Sweden are less outlandish to most English-language readers than the most conventional parts of Japan. If it's a Ryū Murakami book, then any notions about this being "conventional" Japan are kissed completely goodbye. In such a view, it matters little if shōchū becomes gin: if a Western reader sees "Tokyo" and doesn't also see "An American In" before it, the vast majority of the time their interest is automatically disengaged. What a shame.

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Finally, I wonder how much of a sense there is of a translation being a product of its moment in time these days. I suspect it is largely a matter of the work translated and the intended audience. A classic like Botchan, more so than The Devotion of Suspect X, if only because the former has been translated three (actually, four) times running now and the latter only once. And that one translation is likely to be the only one we'll ever see of it -- which was my beef with the mannered Shakespearean English of Ooku's translation. Why take what is ostensibly a great story and make it all the harder for the few people who would elect to read it in the first place by presenting it in such a contorted fashion? (I suspect that wasn't what they thought they were doing, but the unintended consequences of the choices you make during translation could easily fill a post unto itself.)

Tags: Donald Keene Edward Seidenstecker Japan Natsume Sōseki Osamu Dazai Tale of Genji translation writing