Saturday, August 3, 2013


A bit of a change in direction with this next post. I've been reading a few text on translation studies recently, and some of the topics raised have been relevant to the novel I just finished reading, David Mitchell's second novel number9dream.

David Mitchell is a British author that spent many years living in Japan before her return to England to pursue writing full time. Along with his wife, Keiko Yoshida, he recently released an English translation of Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump, Naoki's autobiographic insight into the condition of Autism. David Mitchell decided to the translate the book after gaining valuable understanding of his autistic son's life, and way of communicating with the outside world. I have friends and relatives involved in special education, so I'm very interested in checking out the book when I get a chance.

But there are another couple of common themes in the book that piqued my interest. I wrote last week about the latest Hyakuta Naoki movie, Eien no Zero (永遠の0). It deals kamikaze pilots and weather they were heroes making the ultimate sacrifice, or terrorists blinded by an unhealthy ideology. Similarly, number9dream deals with the lesser known kaiten (回転) manned torpedoes, and the commitment, sacrafice, or madness of the men who volunteered to drive them.

The protagonist is 19 year old Eiji Miyake who is searching for his father. Written from a Japanese perspective, it reads like a translation of a Japanese novel. There are multiple references to Japanese culture and terminology that are untranslated and mark the story as non-English, even though it was originally written in English. A translated novel from a source that never existed.

There are some phrases that I'm sure if I weren't so familiar with Japanese that would have passed me by without a second thought. The first of which is the waving of one's little finger. Back in Australia, it's a bit of an insult, and indicates a man who is lacking in "size", but in Japanese culture it refers to girlfriends, as in "are you single?" The second was the phrase "daughter in a box", which is pretty meaningless in English, but is a direct translation of the Japanese 箱入り娘. It refers to a daughter who is raised in a very socially restricted manner, and doesn't have much experience with relationships. What comes across as a rather unclear expression in English is much easier to understand if you're familiar with the phrase being translated.

But this quasi-translation is used rather inconsistently through out the novel. One moment people are eating yakiniku, jankening, and playing pachinko but the next chapter is all octopus balls and rice balls (not takoyaki and onigiri). First Eiji is reading manga and later in the story he reads comic books. This inconsistency threw me a bit, but maybe I'm just being pedantic.

This comes back to the role of the translator, are they supposed to translate the story so that it is relateable to the target culture which reduces the foreignness, or do they retain the foreignness of the story, keeping localized words, phrases, and sentence structures, which all mark the work as a translation. Personally I'm on the "keep it foreign" side of the fence. When the story is taking place in Tokyo, I want to feel and breath the crammed trains, the smoky pachinko parlors. The setting is an important character of any novel, I don't want it erased and painted over to become Sydney, New York or London.

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