Eight Ways to Say You: The Challenges of Translation

Last year I had the honor of attending the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards ceremony in Massachusetts, not as an award recipient but as an accompanist — as the translator for Kazumi Yumoto’s The Friends, which won the fiction award. It was exhilarating to meet so many people who had actually read the book. Not only had they read it, but they had been touched by it, moved by it, as I was every time I read it during the translation process — which must have been at least ten times. These people shared the insights it had given them into their own lives, the encouragement it had brought them during a time of grief, the laughter it had sparked. And I thought, “Yes! This is why I translate.” It’s my way of sharing what I (a Canadian woman married to a Japanese man, with two children who speak primarily Japanese) have experienced here in Japan, both the universal and the unique; experiences that have forced me to think in new ways and look at life with new eyes.

People who have never translated often assume that it is a purely mechanical process. The translator, proficient in both languages, simply has to substitute one word in the source language for an equivalent word in the target language. To some extent this is true, particularly for texts with specific and frequently repeated terminology such as machine manuals, and especially if those texts are being translated into a language related to one’s own. If you have ever read some of the incomprehensible manuals that have come out of Japan for VCRs or electrical appliances, however, you will realize that there is more to translation than owning a good foreign language dictionary. Translation of literature is far from mechanical, and translating between languages that, like Japanese and English, are very different from each other requires fairly strenuous cultural and mental gymnastics. A cursory glance at Japanese sentence structure and some of the idiosyncrasies of Japanese composition will give you an idea of what a Japanese-to-English translator is really required to do.

Japanese sentences do begin with a subject, but it is often unstated and must be inferred from the context. There is no plural, either — or rather, there can be but it is rarely used, again requiring the reader to guess from the context whether there is only one of the subject or more. The subject is followed by the object, and then finally the verb. Suffixes on the end of the verb establish the tense and make the sentence a positive or negative statement while an additional suffix makes it into a question. The first task of a translator then is to unravel the sentence and rearrange the appropriate pieces in English order. When the sentences are embellished with extra clauses, this is rather like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, trying to find where each piece fits into place. Here is a sentence randomly selected from a Japanese magazine I happen to have on my desk. In Japanese, the order would be as follows: “International cooperation, when said, country or government or local administrative body do something is, we direct relation is not.” Rearranged in English order and with the addition of implied nuances and unstated information, the sentence becomes: “When we talk about international cooperation, we usually assume that it is the domain of the country, the government, or the local administrative body, not something that directly concerns us.”

More than grammar, however, it is the differences in writing style that are a challenge for the translator, because these reflect differences in cultural perspective and ways of thought. The most obvious differences between Japanese and English writing styles are organization and tone. My English composition classes in high school taught me that English is supposed to flow in a linear fashion, from introduction to body to conclusion, and that statements should be supported by logical explanations. Even in literature, a book works toward a climax and then a conclusion. In contrast, Japanese composition appears almost circular, and although it has its own logic and organization, it is very different from how I learned to write in school. Whereas in English we stress clarity, in Japanese subtlety is preferred. The Japanese writer dances around his theme, implying rather than directly stating what he wants to say, leaving it up to readers to discern that for themselves. He or she appeals to the reader’s emotions rather than to the intellect, and tries to create a rapport rather than to convince. The Japanese reader, in turn, is quite capable of taking great leaps of imagination to follow the story line. Direct translations of English into Japanese, therefore, often appear crude and abrasive, insulting the reader’s intelligence with their bluntness, while direct translations of Japanese into English are often frustrating to read because they come across as emotional, even childish, and without any point or conclusive ending. Although they may be faithful to what is actually written, this type of translation fails to achieve its purpose because it does not convey the author’s intended meaning. It is worth noting that there is considerable controversy about this issue among translators themselves and among authors being translated. Although translation should convey the meaning, and not necessarily in precisely the same words, there is a very fine line between translating and tampering with or rewriting the original text.

The first thing I need to know before I even start translating is the intended readership and the purpose of the translation. That information determines how I deal with implied but unstated content and foreign cultural assumptions. For example, when I am translating academic works or articles for publication in the West, if the purpose is to make an impact on the author’s Western peers, I will, with the author’s permission, occasionally go so far as to reorganize and even rewrite some sections to present the author’s point more clearly to the intended audience, overstepping the bounds of strict translation. I also routinely weed out inconsistencies and repetition that are unobtrusive and, in the case of repetition, even effective in Japanese, but very distracting and annoying in English.

Literature, however, is another matter, because to both the reader and the author the form is as important as the content. I must strive to remain true not only to the essence, but also to the style and tone of the writer in the source language while at the same time render it in a way that is understandable to someone from a very different culture and way of thinking. It is a balancing act, requiring sensitivity and intuition, a combination of humility, vigilance, and arrogance. I say humility because as a translator I must be willing to accept that the author comes first, and that even if I don’t agree, or think that I can say it better, the author is always right. Moreover, it is dangerous to assume that I understand, and thus I must be constantly vigilant. In Kazumi Yumoto’s second book, The Spring Tone (Haru no orugan in Japanese), due for publication this spring, she uses the word jersey, a term borrowed from English. The Japanese dictionary defined it as a garment made of jersey cloth and the English dictionary as a close-knit upper garment. A sweater, I assumed, and translated it as such, but it was one of the many small points that continued to niggle at me. When I mentioned it to Kazumi, she hastily informed me that she had meant a sweat suit or tracksuit, with pants and top, not a sweater at all.

Arrogance and humility may appear to be contradictory, but I need a certain amount of arrogance to believe that I have the ability to become the author in another language. If, for example, you give ten excellent translators the exact same passage to translate, you will invariably end up with ten excellent, but very different translations. Which one of those is “right”? I am terrified of reading my translation after it has been published because I know that I will find errors, omissions, or things that I would now say differently. I need that arrogance during the translation process to sustain me to the finish. Otherwise I would be paralyzed by doubts.

The target audience of the Japanese literature I translate is young adults. The objective is to bring the world of Japanese children and adolescents closer to them, to help them feel what Japanese kids feel, view the world through their eyes, while still appreciating the differences. Ideally, the translation should make them laugh where a Japanese reader would laugh, cry where a Japanese reader would cry, etc. Although I may be underestimating them, I do not expect this audience to have much prior knowledge of the daily life of an ordinary Japanese child or much tolerance for assumptions that are foreign to their culture.

Here’s an example. The Friends (Japanese title: Natsu no niwa) is about three twelve-year-old boys who are afraid of death. They decide to stalk an old man in their neighborhood in order to witness what really happens when a person dies, and the story follows the relationship that develops between the boys and the old man. I knew from the outset that school and juku, a kind of school after school, were going to be major obstacles to understanding for American readers. Although most of the story takes place outside of these venues, they set the rhythm of the boys’ lives and are an essential part of the backdrop. Elementary school conjures up similar images in both cultures, but the school year in Japan begins in April, and summer holidays are much shorter, with fairly heavy homework assignments. Without some knowledge of these aspects, many of the things the boys do just would not make sense to target readers. Similarly, although the word juku conjures up a common image for Japanese children, there is no real equivalent in North America. To simply translate it as cram school and leave it at that would make it impossible for North American readers to appreciate its implications in Japanese children’s lives.

These problems were solved through a three-way consultation process. I consulted the author, who was very clear that her priority was to make her work accessible to the North American audience, and asked her to describe in more detail how she envisioned school and juku in the boys’ lives, including how often they attended, the time of day, etc. I faxed this information to the American editor at Farrar, and she suggested a few key places in the text where additional description could be naturally woven in as briefly and unobtrusively as possible. For example, the longest addition reads:
Every day, Monday to Friday, we have cram school after regular school. We’re there from six until eight and sometimes even until nine o’clock at night, trying to cram in everything we’ll need to know to pass the entrance exams for junior high school next year. By the time we get out, we’re exhausted, not to mention starving.

It is short, but it makes a tremendous difference to how readers experience the rest of the book.

You can see from this example the amount of cultural significance that is packed into a single word. Trying to convey those unspoken cultural assumptions without overdoing it is one of the challenges of translation. Similar problems arise because of the different levels of speech in Japanese. Just off the top of my head, I can think of eight ways to say you, each with a cultural nuance that reflects the speaker’s sex or social status in relationship to the listener: a form only used by male speakers, a polite form for someone of a higher status, a more neutral form for a peer, a more familiar form for someone of lower status, etc. Moreover, the use of you is generally avoided because it is too direct, and therefore when it is used the translator has to consider whether it contains information crucial to understanding a character or a relationship. If it does, then an alternative way to reflect that in the dialogue must be found, because the word you will of course convey nothing of the above to a North American reader.

The Spring Tone follows the internal journey of Tomomi, a thirteen-year-old girl. She is angry and resentful at having to leave behind her childhood naiveté and sense of security and begin the painful process of growing up. We experience her dawning awareness of herself and others, her letting go of anger and judgment, through her changing perception of the world around her and her relationships with her brother, her grandfather, her parents, and a woman who cares for stray cats. At one point in the story, there is a brief encounter between Tomomi and Kinko, a boy from her school, that reveals an internal shift. Being rather timid and fastidious, Kinko is appalled to see Tomomi petting a stray cat. Parroting his mother, he blames the proliferation of strays on the people who feed them. She hotly refutes this, demanding to know why he does not blame the people who throw their cats away as if they were garbage. The tone of the encounter is set at the beginning by the following interchange:
“Was that your brother?”
“Yeah, so what?” He said ‘your.’ Why is he putting on airs, that jerk!

Tomomi’s anger seems totally unwarranted in the English. The boy appears to be asking an ordinary question. The word he actually used, however, was kimi. When this form is used by a child to his peers, it has a slightly snobbish although not condescending tone. It is an unconscious affectation of someone “well-brought up” and protected from vulgar society, a member of the upper class. To Tomomi he seems to be putting on airs, and she bristles with indignation. In order to give the reader the same impression, I settled for making his speech sound slightly affected and altered Tomomi’s response to correspond, as follows:
“That was your brother, I presume?”
“Yeah, so what?” You presume indeed. You jerk.

Even without the differences in levels of politeness and familiarity in speech, translating conversations often requires more ingenuity than descriptive passages. Having lived in Japan for twenty years, Japanese as a spoken language is very alive for me. I spend much of my time talking to children — my own children’s friends and schoolmates, and the many children who approach me on the street because I look so different. Kazumi Yumoto is adept at capturing the tone and easy-flowing banter of children’s conversations, yet the actual words would sound stilted or strange in English. In a scene in The Friends, one of the boys has been trying to convince his friends to spy on the old man. He finally succeeds, and the resultant altercation directly translated would read:
“All right.”
“. . . say?” Yamashita is nervous.
“To be more precise,” I avoid Yamashita’s accusing eyes. “It must not cause trouble for the old man.”
“Did it! Two against one!” Kawabe dances a little jig.

This does not convey any of the humor or rhythm of their give and take. To maintain a feeling for the way North American children speak and to prevent the Japanese language from dominating, I read American children’s books and watch American movies constantly during the translation process. Then, after reading a section like the one above, I close my eyes and visualize English-speaking children and imagine what they would say in the same situation. The result in this case was as follows:
“All right,” I say.
“All right what?” Yamashita asks nervously.
I avoid Yamashita’s accusing eyes. “But only on condition that it doesn’t bother the old man.”
“No!” Yamashita explodes.
“Yes! Two against one!” Kawabe shouts gleefully, and he dances a little jig.

The words in English are very different, but they capture the tone of the Japanese more accurately.

Probably one of the trickiest problems I face in translation is humor. More often than not, slapstick and situational humor transcend cultural boundaries. Culture specific jokes and puns, however, usually do not. There are several ways of dealing with this, ranging from the extreme of deleting the joke entirely to making up a completely different joke. In The Friends, there is a very humorous scene in which the main character Kiyama is caught daydreaming in class, a situation also familiar to children in America. The teacher puts him on the spot by asking him a question. Kiyama’s friend prompts him, whispering “round” and “smooth,” which Kiyama parrots. But he hasn’t a clue what the subject matter is. The question was actually about the characteristics of pebbles in the earth’s stratum, but the teacher traps him by rubbing his head and saying, “Right, round and smooth. Just like me. And whom do you think we are talking about?” Kiyama panics and blurts out the name of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a famous figure in Japanese history. The whole class, of course, bursts out laughing. The use of this name in the English translation, however, would be meaningless to an American child, and would rob the situation of its humor. An alternative was needed — someone with a round, smooth head who would be readily recognized by Americans but still plausible in a Japanese context. The American editor suggested Buddha, and after consultation with the author, this is what we used. The solution is a compromise: it does not convey the same meaning as the original Japanese, but at the same time it does not detract from the overall humor of the situation.

There are so many facets to translation, so many different problems and as many ways of solving them, that I could go on forever. Instead, I would like to share with you something that was very meaningful for me as a translator. The Friends was published in recorded book form in 1997, and I was sent a copy. It is five hours long, and I started playing it for myself during a car trip with my children. My son, then ten, had never read the book, and I thought that he was too young to understand, especially in English. I was surprised therefore to find him laughing at the funny parts and listening intently to the rest. When we reached our destination, he carried the tapes inside and listened nonstop for two more hours until it was finished. He wept, heartbroken, at the old man’s death (I still cry there, even now), and at the end, he said with satisfaction (and in Japanese), “That was a good book, Mom.” It is indeed a good book, and it was a gift to be able to share it with my own child, born of both cultures; to see him experiencing Japanese literature through the medium of the English language. And to know that it still came through.

From the January/February 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Cathy Hirano
Cathy Hirano is the translator of The Friends, winner, for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, of the 1997 Batchelder Award.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more