Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why translation is such a challenge

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is an interesting science fiction novel, published originally in China in 2008. In 2014, Tor published the English translation of Ken Liu who added a "Translator's Postscript" to the book in which he writes:

"The act of translation involves breaking down one piece of work in one language and ferrying the pieces across a gulf to reconstitute them into a new work in another language. When the gulf separating the two is as wide as the Pacific Ocean that separates China from America, the task can be daunting."

Because I am currently working with a Japanese conversation partner to translate a book of short stories into English, I know whereof Liu speaks. There are historical, cultural, and linguistic challenges. Liu uses an occasional footnote, and tried to keep them to a minimum by, wherever possible, adding a few information phrases. I have avoided footnotes entirely for informational phrases. For example, one Japanese story begins: "They decided to visit both parents' homes on the August Obon holiday, the first after their marriage. Obon after all is reunion time; the time to return to the family home, to visit all the relatives, and to clean the family graves. The time when the spirits of one's ancestors visit the household altar."

The italic sentence is not in the original because Japanese readers know what the Obon holiday is. I could have made the sentence a footnote, but because Obon is central to the story I felt it was important to save the reader the distraction of looking at the bottom of the page to understand the significance of the couple's decision.

Liu writes, "Overly literal translations, far from being faithful, actually distort meaning by obscuring sense." How true, how true. He continues, "But translations can also pay so little attention to the integrity of the source that almost nothing of the original's flavor or voice survives." I'm sure that's also true, and it is something I think about often.

He writes that the "best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture's patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language's rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people's gestures and movements." It sounds good, but I'm not sure I agree.

In Japanese, the verb—when it's not omitted because it's understood—comes at the end of the sentence. Dialogue may not need markers ("he said," "she said") because the speaker is using a masculine or feminine word. Japanese tends to use more double negatives than English. I have the impression that the Japanese I am translating uses the passive voice more than a contemporary American writer would. Japanese has no plurals, no articles ("the," "a," "an"), and relatively few pronouns.

My goal in translation is to convey the story's meaning clearly. I know that in certain passages, the English is less ambiguous than what is on the page. But I also know that native Japanese readers  understand meanings within the ambiguity that American readers cannot. I'm afraid that if that means the story reads as if it was originally written in English, so be it.

When the book is available, I'll let you know and you can judge whether the stories sound as if they were written in English or something between English and Japanese.

No comments:

Post a Comment