Lost and Found in Translation

If you know me from elsewhere online, you're probably expecting my first contribution to The Fifth World to be about comics or Transformers or maybe My Little Pony...or some fusion of all of these.  But I already talk about those things elsewhere, including on my own blogs.

Instead, I'm going to muse about the nature of translation and translators in fiction.  To some extent, I've been consuming translated content as long as I can remember.  I loved Speed Racer as a little kid in the mid-70s.  I got into Robotech and Voltron in high school, and while taking Spanish I got my hands on some Marvel and DC comics sold for the Mexican market.  In college I watched a lot of subtitled or outright untranslated anime (I don't speak Japanese, but I had summaries as well as friends who were taking Japanese classes specifically so they could make subtitled videos), and first started to read manga translated by companies like Viz.  In graduate school I got my hands on copies of Japanese-only Transformers series (well, okay, I ended up on Transformers after all) and watched them without even summaries to help me figure out what was going on, trusting to a general knowledge of the characters and the tone of the dialogue to help me figure things out.  I've seen good translations, bad translations, and no translations.

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What inspired this essay, though, wasn't animation or comics.  Rather, it was a Humble Bundle deal on Japanese prose science fiction.  The first two books I read were Yukikaze by Chohei Kambayashi (first published in 1984, revised in 2002, translated in 2009 through Viz) translated by Neil Nadelman, and Orbital Cloud by Taiyo Fujii (2014, Viz translation 2017) translated by Timothy Silver.  Other than both being Japanese-language prose SF that Viz decided to bring to English-reading audiences, they have very little in common.  Completely different generations, for one thing. And while both have a military component, Yukikaze is solidly in the "MilSF" subgenre while Orbital Cloud is more of a geopolitical science thriller (I kind of got ahead of the plot, guessing the Big Reveal without even realizing it was supposed to be a big reveal, since I'd covered the science behind it in my lecture a few weeks before reading the book).

The contrast that struck me the hardest, though, had nothing to do with the storylines.  Rather, it was the quality of the translations.  Yukikaze's was competent, but Orbital Cloud's was qualitatively, noticeably better.  In trying to figure out what the difference was, I had the germ of the idea that I ended up turning into this essay.

A translation can be evaluated by how faithful it is to three things: meaning, tone, and character.

At an absolute minimum, a translation must be faithful to the original writer's meaning.  I've seen translations that didn't even get over that hurdle.  If the meaning is changed, it's no longer a translation of the author's work, it's a new work.  Now, this doesn't have to be a literal word for word translation...in fact, as I'll explain in a bit, a word for word translation is rarely very good.  It's okay to change the words and phrasing as long as the core meaning is retained.  A technical work's translation can probably get by on dogged literalism, so long as the right literal translations are chosen.  But a literary work requires that the translator understand the meaning of the work, not just the meanings of the words that are used.  A lot of manga these days trusts to machine translation and an editing pass, because it's a lot cheaper to hire someone who can translate meaning.

Tone is harder, in large part because it's harder to consistently write for a desired tone in the first place.  Conveying emotions via choice of words and not simply by saying the character was exhibiting that emotion...that's hard.  One of the reasons certain stock characters show up so often is that there's an established shorthand for writing their moods. You have the emotionally damaged loner who only really cares about one thing, so he's really easy to write for, because he only has one emotion and it's usually over the top.  You have the author-inserts who are also easy to write, because you just have them say and do what you would.  And so forth.  Establishing tone in the original text is hard, and maintaining it in the translation requires a translator who is as good a writer as the original author, if not better.
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So far, I think both of the books I recently read pass the tests.  In Yukikaze the author plays the "sociopathic loner" character card a lot, albeit with a good in-story justification (the squadron at the focus of the stories picks its pilots for a certain level of sociopathic detachment, because they're meant to observe and report back, allowing others to die in order to get the data back to base). Orbital Cloud had a more nuanced set of characters, but a few did feel like author inserts or pastiches of the author's friends.  In both books, characters who were supposed to sound different did sound different.  Not everyone in Boomerang Squadron is a loner with flattened affect, and not everyone involved in the orbital mystery is a science nerd.

That gets to the third test, which from the list above sounds like it might be the same as tone, but isn't.  It's a bit more subtle, but when I talked about tone I was sticking to specific moments. Anyone can be angry, or sad, or enthused, or bored. But does the character hold together properly as a whole?  Again, this is something that is hard to do in the original work, but there's a part of it that poses a particular problem for translations: the interaction of character and culture.

A Japanese urban tough guy is going to behave differently than a Texan rural tough guy.  A computer nerd and a biology nerd are going to be dissimilar in important ways.  An old veteran soldier in 1960 is going to be similar to one in 2017, but there will be important differences because of how the job of being a soldier has evolved.

The author needs to know how to establish these differences and make a consistent character, and the translator needs to grasp those cultural points as well. When an American translator picks dialogue for a Japanese street tough, he needs to understand that culture well enough to put plausible words in the guy's mouth, simultaneously true to the original and also comprehensible to the new audience.  And, even more importantly, the translator needs to be willing to change the work when the author screwed up and had someone behave in a way that an audience who speaks the new language would pick up on immediately.  

For instance, a Japanese author in the 1980s who gets most of their understanding of American culture from TV and movies will severely underestimate how much we swear when not being filtered through 1980s Broadcast Standards and Practices.  Supposedly American soldiers, even on an alien world a generation into the future...they're gonna swear.  A lot.  American readers generally understand that TV and PG-movie portrayals of soldiers are bowdlerized.  Someone translating the dialogue of military men and women into English, unless they're in the YA market, is going to be ill-served if they don't sprinkle the translated dialogue with varying levels of expletives as are appropriate to the situation.  

And there's where the difference is between Yukikaze and Orbital Cloud.  Too often the dialogue in the former feels overly stilted and formal, even weird to this American's metaphorical ears.  It conveys the meaning clearly enough, and you can tell when a character has a distinct mood (not that the main protagonist has many moods).  But characters who are supposed to be American don't really sound American.  I can't really say if the Japanese characters sound Japanese, or if everyone sounds Japanese, but a lot of the dialogue just feels artificial somehow.  Meanwhile, in Orbital Cloud there's more consistent cultural differences between the nerds and the spies, the Americans and the Japanese, the old guard and the young turks.  It can get a little too pronounced at times (having American fighter jocks complain about metric units several times pushes the point a little too hard in my opinion, but it is definitely something they'd complain about), but it's definitely there.  Obviously, I don't read Japanese, so I can't tell if this is a case of the translator preserving the author's work, or a case of the translator fixing the author's mistakes, but either way it works better.

A competent translator understands the author's vision and can preserve it across languages.  A good translator needs to be a good author in their own right, willing to do extra research and help improve the work.  A collaborator rather than a contractor.

Lost and Found in Translation Lost and Found in Translation Reviewed by Dvandom on Tuesday, November 14, 2017 Rating: 5
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