Getting to Know You: Character-Building in Romance

"Getting to Know You" sequences depend on
location, location, location.
One place that romances unfortunately often fail is the "getting to know you" part.

Romances need the characters to get to know each other. If they don't, the reader is left wondering, Why are these people together? The reader also needs to "see" the "getting to know you" parts--not simply be told that the characters spent an afternoon together exchanging recipes and jokes.

The problem for the writer, of course, is how long should the "getting to know you"  parts be? Too long, and the plot gets lost. Too short, and . . . Why are these people together?

Examples of "getting to know you" montages in movies and paperback romances:
The Lake House
Time travel scenarios are difficult because the characters often only know each other through a single medium: letters or phone calls or images. The Lake House is a remarkably credible film (and one of the few where I think Keanu Reeves is as good as he is in purely physical roles--it likely helps that he is acting opposite known-element Sandra Bullock). The characters not only exchange letters and share a physical space, they do in fact meet. And their meeting contains enough dialog and behavior to convince us, Yeah, that couple could make a go of it.

Beauty and The Beast (Animated)
Getting to the know the Beast works too well. Bring back the Beast!

Lisa Kleypas (Steamy)
In Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, a slim contemporary romance novel, the main characters/couple believably become friends, then mutually interested friends on ferry rides to and from Seattle (see first image). By necessity, Kleypas has to summarize. But she provides enough conversation and enough specifics in her summaries to make their budding relationship believable. When she does have to fall back on "okay, so, they talked; I couldn't transcribe the entire conversation," she tells us what they spoke of, what types of jokes they shared, and what they found enjoyable in each other's responses.

Location, location, location.
Likewise, in Kleypas's Regency romance Devil in Winter, Sebastian and Evie elope to Gretna Green for practical/financial reasons. They barely know each other, yet by the end of the journey (first 2-3 chapters) readers feel, "Hmm, maybe this will work." Not only are we provided with dialog but also with concrete behaviors. We learn, for instance, that Sebastian for all his aloofness is kind and, more importantly, efficient in his kindness (that foot warmer!). We learn too that they are easy with each other physically. And we learn that they are capable to taking a long journey without ripping each other to shreds (I had a roommate who said she would only marry a guy after she had driven cross-country with him--and not killed him. And she did: drive cross-country with the guy she ended up marrying. No deaths!).
"Getting to know you parts" are like sports montages: a series of scenes pulled together (sometimes with music) to prove that yes, the athlete did train; yes, the ending where the underdog beats the champion will now be believable.

Don't tell me that the relationship worked out--prove to me that it could!

Sully, Fly By Wire, and Another Look at the Power of Non-Action

Sully is a good movie. It has a reliable arc, Tom Hanks--excellent as always--Aaron Eckhart in strong support and a decent if slightly inaccurate "true" human interest story.

The movie tackles the landing of US Airways A320 on the Hudson River in January 2009 and its aftermath. The landing sequence is highly accurate. The behavior of Sully and Skiles, the co-pilot, is also highly accurate. The reaction of the NTSB, on the other hand, was likely not as negative/critical of Sullenberger as the movie portrays; William Langewiesche's description of the NTSB hearing in his book Fly by Wire: The Geese, The Glide, The Miracle on the Hudson reminds me of P.J. O'Rourke's comment about the tedious monotony of town democracies: "[It's] like being a cell in a plant."

Arguably by necessity (people go to see movies about people, not mechanical objects), the movie also  entirely ignores the primary focus of Fly By Wire: namely, fly by wire. On January 15, 2009, Sullenberger was flying a plane that did everything it was designed to do to compensate for the loss of the engines, prevent pilot error, and ground itself safely. Pilot and plane together made an astonishingly successful landing. 

Langewiesche does a fine job presenting a balanced account. He extols Sullenberger's achievement and defends every one of his choices (Langewiesche points out that the NTSB later requested simulated tests based on the event; in those that used real-world timing, the test pilots all crashed; Langewiesche is basically saying what Sully says in the climax of the movie).

At the same time, Langewiesche never forgets that pilot error is responsible for a great many (as in most) airplane accidents, a reality that pilots, pilot unions, and even passengers are often reluctant to confront. 

Consequently, one of Langewiesche's most profound compliments for the humans in the story comes during the three-minute glide. It is one of my favorites because it dovetails with my own personal philosophy, one I discuss in my review of Moneyball.

Sullenberger and Skiles are heading towards the Hudson. They have remained calm and collected. In his book, Langewiesche comments on Sullenberger's extraordinary ability to focus in a crisis, and he is doing all of that now. Skiles has followed protocol, running down the (relatively useless) checklist. The flight crew have prepared the passengers for landing. Everyone has done his, her, or its job, including the plane or Airbus.

Here Langewiesche reports the conversation between Sullenberger and Skiles right before the end of the glide:
This is when Sullenberger had the presence of mind to ask Skiles if he had ideas, and Skiles had the cool to say, "Actually not." The fluency they exhibited at such a critical moment, in continuing to discuss matters calmly, helps to explain why their passengers survived [my emphasis].
In another passage, Langewiesche relays the (proper) suggestions from air traffic control and Sullenberger's responses. Sullenberger concentrated on doing his job:
You fly the airplane first, you navigate second, you talk on the radio after that. Sullenberger was clear about priorities. His silences were brilliant [my emphasis].
In a previous chapter, Langewiesche details the crash of American 965 into a mountain in Columbia. The crash was not caused by any mechanical failure but by the pilots' snowballing errors. Many of those errors began and ended with the captain who refused to admit that he had made inaccurate calculations. Langewiesche doesn't spare his criticisms of pilot arrogance. He makes clear as well that a large part of the problem was the growing confusion and miscommunication between the captain and copilot as their mutual guessing led to more and more bad decisions.

Nobody said, "I don't know."

Nobody said, "Nope, I can't think of anything."

Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum, quotes Langewiesche, quoting Ziegler, the Airbus engineer, quoting the Latin proverb.

To err is human; to persist is diabolical.

Compassionate Heroines: The Exceptions

In a previous post, I mention that the compassionate heroine can be rather exasperating. I list Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary as an awesome exception.

Here are a few more:

Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation: Troi  marks the line between irritating "oh, Captain, I feel their pain" emphathizer and a strong women who sincerely wants to help people. Barclay's view of her in "Hollow Pursuits" is a good example of how Troi could be played (and viewed). My personal assessment is that Troi survives as a character despite the Barclay possibility not because she is tough (Joan Watson) but rather because she is fallible.

So she gets exasperated with her mother (multiple episodes), angry when she loses her abilities ("The Loss"), bemused by Barclay (multiple episodes), unyielding and even ambitious when she handles the bridge successfully ("Disaster"), silly about a crush ("The Price"), and irritated when she's drunk (see First Contact).

Her fallible side becomes clear when one compares her to Kess from Star Trek: Voyager. I quite liked Kess's character (and I really loved the way she dressed), but she had a shelf-life. Bad things could happen to her--but Kess herself was so perfectly sweet and tolerant and understanding that she kind of, yeah, totally needed to be replaced by a snarky Borg chick (there is a great episode where older Kess comes back and destroys the ship because she felt abandoned by Captain Janeway and . . . then everybody is saved by sweet Kess).

You see Turrell Baylor in hell, you
ask him what I wouldn't dare to do.
Brenda Lee Johnson from The Closer: Brenda is a strong emphathizer--it's what makes it possible for her to understand
the bad guys and their victims. She also extends sincere and unqualified compassion to, for example, victim's families, including a victim's crazy chef husband; Stana Katic's Russian ex-prostitute; Flynn's sex-changing cop friend, and her cat (and occasionally Fritz, her husband).

What makes Brenda so delightful (on the screen) is the streak of pure self-centeredness that runs through her personality. She empathizes with people right up to the point when she gets exactly what she wants from them. She is sure of her path/cause--to the point of being possibly the most tunneled-vision protagonist on television. She would be absolutely unbearable in reality. On-screen, she's great to watch since she is willing to get inside people's souls in order to take them down (to be fair, she doesn't care if her decision to get people to confess rips her apart emotionally). From a feminist point of view, she is relief to watch since her compassion never negates her principles: men are often allowed to have principles that trump all else; women  . . . not so much.

Judy Hopps from Zootopia: Judy is actually an adorkable optimist. However, I placed her here because it is her outsized compassion that gets her into trouble--then gets her out. She is initially easily conned; she goes through a period of disillusionment because people aren't what she expected them to be; she makes promises to a victim's family that she may not be able to keep; she reaches for an easy, so-called compassionate answer regarding the "savage" animals rather than a harder, more complicated one; she gives up because she hurt people.

On the other hand, compassion and empathy are her strengths. Her commitment to help the victims pushes her to keep looking; she figures out how Nick thinks and successfully anticipates his attempts to wriggle out of helping her (okay, she didn't see the sloths at the DMV coming--ha ha); she reaches out to others (including the local mafia boss and his daughter); she extends magnanimity to her childhood bully; she sees things through others' eyes and apologizes for her mistakes.

"You know you love me," Nick says to her at the end.

"Do I know that?" she replies. "Yes, yes, I do."

Romance Problems

I prefer characters to have what I call an internal identity arc. That is, I like a character's problem to be located in his or her personal integrity or self-knowledge rather than in how others treat that character. Below are common romance problems with examples of internal identity struggles;  these struggles create a more interesting story overall.

Czech translation: I love the play on
Loretta Chase's name.
Common romance problem: The person I loved years ago has changed; is our relationship still possible?

This problem is interesting. It is more interesting if the characters take responsibility for their changes. Sometimes, the characters regret their own mutability. Sometimes, they feel a sense of inevitability. Whatever the case, the characters are always more interesting if they desire to go forward rather than wallow in the past--we can't reclaim the past; maybe, we can remake the future.

A variation on this problem is when a character realizes that the type he or she always fell for in the past is not, in fact, the best type for that character to grow old with. Emma tackles this variation as does Little Women.

Another variation is for a character to realize that his or her memory of the past no longer applies. In Loretta Chase's Last Night's Scandal, Peregrine is reluctant to become reacquainted with his high-spirited childhood friend, Olivia, because he remembers all the trouble she got him into when they were younger. He wants a "steady" partner. He learns that, well, yes, she will still get him into trouble, but she'll also get him out of it. She isn't "flighty" or even particularly high-maintenance in the way that he remembered. She is reliable and efficient and won't let him down. 

Common romance problem: I don't think this relationship will last. 

Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. By itself, the yes/no possibility is less like Schrodinger's cat and more like a T/F question. Once it is over, it is over. Besides, if one is watching particularly irritating television, it's more or less a given that the relationship won't last (see Ross & Rachel).

Jane Eyre at a crossroads.
What makes this problem more interesting is if the characters tackle it from within their personal philosophies/self-concepts: Why would I want this relationship to last? An even more interesting variation occurs when the character ponders, How much of my self will remain if the relationship does last?

Jane Eyre is sometimes seen as dated because Jane runs away from Rochester rather than agreeing to live in sin with him. I have never understood this objection. I think the text makes clear than even before the crazy-wife-in-the-attic comes to light, Jane is worried that she is being overwhelmed by Rochester's personality. It isn't that he is domineering, per se. It is rather that his energetic, extroverted-to-the-max personality is overloading her circuits. She runs because she can't make a decision with Rochester hovering over her saying, "Pleeeeease stay. Please? Pretty please!!!!" She returns when she realizes that she has enough self-gumption not to disappear into the shadow of her partner's personality (and well, yes, also after events have toned him down just a bit). 

Common problem: "My partner cannot be trusted based on past behavior." 

This problem has almost no self-life. Either the partner can be trusted or not. End of story. (And solving the problem based on luuuvv makes the characters look stupid. If their sense of personal worth is so damaged that they won't take previous bad behaviors as a warning, they aren't worth investing in as characters.)

Common problem: "How do I prevent an external bad thing from happening to me and my partner?"

Clark/Superman is dismayed when he realizes that
even Lois has given in to the Superman hype.
This problem is necessary to most narrative arcs. But without an accompanying internal arc, it gets rather dry. I've never been particularly partial to narratives where more and more and more bad stuff keeps happening--hence, my distaste for television serials that force me to keep watching every week.

Example: Superman stories often stumble because they rest almost exclusively on external hurdles. In Lois & Clark, however, Clark struggles with internal conflicts regarding his personal identity. In a Season 2 episode, he worries that if "Clark" dies, leaving only Superman, he--Clark--will no longer have the same relationship with his co-workers. This legitimate worry dovetails with Clark's ongoing uncertainty of what constitutes his "real" self. The death of his human self isn't simply an external problem; it has an internal component that is tied to the character's personal philosophy: Who am I?

Summing up: internal issues such as confusion or disillusionment or doubt help any arc. But states of mind are often not enough to keep an arc going. Writers do much better if the state of mind goes back to a fundamental need or want--the character's place in the world (identity), not merely the character's temporary feelings.

The Compassionate Heroine (Who is Cool, for a Change)

Pollyanna is more the adorkable optimist than
the empathizer. Still, one can't help but worry
that Pollyanna will grow up to hand over
thousands of dollars to real estate fraudsters.
A common stereotype--occasionally archetype (see prior posts)--is the emotional, people-oriented heroine versus the grouchy, logical, people-eschewing hero.

There is some (minor) truth to this dichotomy. Generally speaking, more women than men tend to enter people-oriented professions. Ponder-worthy enough, women also move more easily between fact or "thing"-based jobs and people-based jobs while men tend to excel at one particular type of job. So men tend to rise to the tops of certain professions but they don't always prove as flexible as women when it comes to changing careers/roles.

Troi, on the other hand, is definitely an empathizer.
Still, I'm speaking in macros, not micros, here. There are men who easily change careers and there are men who love people-oriented professions, just as there are women who loathe them.

My focus here: the compassionate heroine who shows up to remind all the non-nice people how important it is to be nice. She is not ALWAYS awful (I will bring up some positive examples at a later date). Still, I often cringe a little when this heroine appears for the same reason that I cringe a little at church when people talk about women being more service-oriented than men because they "care" more about people's problems. I know exactly how service-oriented I am, and it rarely involves me wanting to climb inside people's personal lives and learn all about and/or fix their deep, dark secrets. (I often think, "Why can't we women be like the men and just clean people's garages?")

Which is why I have to give ultra kudos to Lucy Liu as Joan Watson.

Joan Watson's character on Elementary is people-oriented (as is Sherlock in a different way). She is also compassionate, empathetic, and more than ready to remind Sherlock of the importance of those attributes.

And yet, she is one tough cookie.

I hate to admit this, considering I was raised Christian, but Joan Watson's character is honestly the first time I have seen female compassion for others as a strength, not a weakness.

Yup, I'll admit that emotionally--not necessarily intellectually--I have almost always perceived compassion as something women should do/practice even though other people will take advantage. Don't get me wrong: the older I get, the more important I think compassion is though I still tend to prefer ordinary civility to "I feel your pain" empathy. Still, as AI philosophers and neurologists point out, emotion is part of the decision-making process, and empathy plays an important role in that (macro) process--that is, human beings differ but the human race requires some type of trend towards projected insight/feeling to survive. (To clarify, "compassion" is to feel sorrow and/or want what is best for someone; "empathy" is to see things from that person's point of view; "magnanimity" is to extend compassion to someone despite that person's poor behavior. For the purposes of this post, I've conflated these terms.)

Yet Joan Watson manages to help/care about people without leaving the impression that she is going to get conned into buying a condo somewhere to help somebody earn enough money to pay for that very important operation without which his or her child/mother/aunt/grandpa will die.

Joan's compassion extends to Sherlock. In Season 2,
she sets aside his "debt" to his father to concentrate
on what is best for Sherlock: to stay in New York.
That is, she has the capacity to create boundaries, yet not give up on being kind. 

I'm not sure that Hollywood or television realizes how powerful this type of woman is to other women. When I was still watching NCIS (I tend to give up on shows that last more than 7 seasons), I was surprised and impressed by how many female viewers liked the show precisely because of Ziva's character. I've mentioned elsewhere that this was because she was a tomboy, which I think is true. But Ziva is also quite feminine and compassionate. And yet, like Joan Waston, she retains the ability to say, "Okay, I feel for you. Yet I'm going to arrest you. I'm also not going to give you my stuff or let you take over my life."

Which is very, very cool.

K is for Konigsburg

Konigsburg illustration
And she's great!

Okay, that's the end of the post.

No, not really. 

Konigsburg wrote many books, among them The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, for which she won the Newbury and the Newbury Honor awards. (She achieved the Newbury again over twenty years later for a View from Saturday.) In anticipation of this post, I read her last book The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World and was surprised at how quickly I sped through it; at seventy-seven, Konigsburg hadn't lost her knack for an unusual premise with interesting characters.

The Mixed-Up Files is one of my favorite children's books. My mother read it to me in my youth before I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My eventual visit there was highly influenced by me trying to spot all the places the brother and sister visited from the fountain to the restaurant to the four-poster bed.

Konigsburg also wrote a lesser known book of which I am quite fond: (George). It is the story of a young teen, Ben, who has an imaginary friend--George--who says all the sarcastic things that he never says. George is also quite witty and insightful, Hobbes to an introverted Calvin.

The marvelous thing about this book is that although the young man worries that he might be a bit strange and/or sent in for counseling, the author's solution is not to get him "fixed" (sticking with the big cat theme there). The author's solution is to have George and Benjamin's personalities mesh as he gets older. After all, George--like Hobbes--lends ballast and confidence to Benjamin's observant nature.

I think that sometimes people forget that although our culture has gotten more tolerant in the past thirty-odd years, it has lost some tolerance too. Nowadays, everybody has to have a label!

Ben and George don't.

As a person who actually considered buying a Bluetooth, so she wouldn't look crazy working out character dialog out loud in her car, I totally approve.

Character Archetypes Continued

In a prior post, I discuss the power of archetypes. I end by admitting that stereotypes--as opposed to archetypes--often fall flat. I've read romance novels where the characters were little more than their labels--dominating hero, sweet heroine, wide-eyed innocent, reformed rake, damsel with hutzpah, perfect gentleman . . .

So what is the difference between an archetype and a stereotype, literarily speaking?

The archetype, as opposed to the stereotype, is all of a piece.

My positive example is Buttercup and Westley from Princess Bride. She is the ultimate damsel in distress. He is the ultimate romantic hero who will rescue the heroine at all cost.

Note that chin!
Buttercup: You can't hurt me. Westley and I are joined
by the bonds of love. And you cannot track that, not
with a thousand bloodhounds. And you cannot break
it, not with a thousand swords. And when I say
you are a coward, that is only because you are
the slimiest weakling ever to crawl the earth.

Buttercup being a damsel in distress does not prevent her having a steely determination, as when she pushes "Dread Pirate Roberts" off the hill or confronts her dastardly fiance (I don't write many reviews where I get to use the word "dastardly"). Robin Wright has a low voice (as opposed to a shrill one) and she uses it to advantage. She also has "speaking" eyes as when she gives Westley a level gaze in the fire swamp that clearly says, "You're just making the best of this situation, aren't you?" (see above).

Likewise, Westley's romantic hero persona doesn't prevent him from having a delicious sense of irony delivered with panache by Cary Elwes (see below).

And yet, they never break character. Buttercup doesn't deliver any karate chops or run screaming from the palace in a fit of madness. Westley, even dead, never forsakes his mission. Likewise, Buttercup's intrinsic toughness leads her to mock her fiance even at the wedding while Westley's devastating wit allows him to deliver an entirely convincing denunciation and challenge to the evil prince/king.

I think Shakespeare intended to go for
stereotypes in Taming of the Shrew. But
he's too good: he ended up giving us
archetypes and, therefore, people, instead.
In other words, assigning archetypes doesn't start and end with a single event or adhere only to the characters' personal relationship. It washes through all aspects of their lives and dovetails with prior behavior/events. Stereotypes, on the other hand, tend to remain consistent only so long as a character needs to be DOMINANT or TRUSTING or PUSHY or . . . whatever.

Because they remain whole and consistent, characters based on archetypes--Persephone, Luke Skywalker, Darcy & Elizabeth--remain memorable. More importantly, the psychology of their behavior makes sense. They don't do things because, hey, it's time for the MENTOR to give a speech, the VILLAIN to act threatening, and the HERO to demand a kiss while the HEROINE gets nervous.

The stereotype never moves beyond the annoying assumption that the reader will accept the behavior because, well, that's what a mentor or villain or hero or heroine does. The archetype, on the other hand, becomes the character becomes the behavior which confirms the archetype.

And archetypes are powerful! Well-crafted archetypes create interesting characters who capture their fans' hearts. They become more real than any amount of "well-roundedness" could possibly manage.

Character Archetypes

Archetypes have been famous since Jung help kick-start psychology and proclaimed them integral aspects of dreaming and storytelling. Of course, archetypes existed before Jung came along--as mythologists like Joseph Campbell have pointed out. The reason Jung is important is because Jung justified the use of archetypes, making them intellectually acceptable.

Despite Jung, conveyors of so-called literary fare  still tote the so-called "well-rounded" character--as opposed to the archetype. The "well-rounded" character is supposedly more substantive, better written, more interesting, more "realistic," and more demanding intellectually.

These effects are assumed. That is, literary types assume that the "well-rounded" character is achieving all these marvelous, literary things. But then literary types rarely stop and ask, "But does all this actually make for a better story?"

The power of the archetype is that it invites more reader participation, not less. 

An archetype is like a good metaphor or simile: it provides instant recognition alongside new insight, allowing the reader/viewer to say, "Hey, I know people like that! I never thought of them in this way."

Recognition is the first step: for characters and for metaphors/similes. If I write, "The knife was as sharp as the teeth of a Suvagian tiger," and you've never seen or spoken to a Suvagian tiger (probably because I made him up), the simile will fall flat.

One of my favorite examples of a recognizable simile comes from Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus":
Like a vessel of glass, she stove [broke by collapsing inward] and sank.
Imagine a glass bobbing in a sink full of water. It turns until it begins to fill. As it fills, it descends to the bottom of the sink.

This sinking glass is a recognizable, everyday image applied to a ship. In the poem, the simile becomes a slow motion moment in a series of fast-moving verses. It packs a wallop.

Archetypes accomplish the same thing by giving us recognizable personalities: The leader. The friend. The gossip. The bully. The tough guy. The tough gal. The mentor. The student.

Genre movies and books specifically offer the calm, wry friend; the cocked-eyed optimist; the troubled, angsty hero or heroine; the grouch; the steady planner; the inspired dreamer; the rival; the rival who tells the truth; the helper; the sarcastic helper; the damsel in distress; the damsel who appears in distress but can kick your butt and so on.

A free spirit and a grouch like Camille and Richard (Sara Martins and Ben Miller) from the initial seasons of Death in Paradise are instantly recognizable. They are also endearing. Most importantly, they invite the reader to discover more--why does this partnership work? How do these characters overcome their differences to solve cases? They are archetypes, so we know them. They are well-crafted archetypes, so we are led to ask, What makes them unique? How do they both fulfill and break their archetypes?

Archetypes invite writers and fans to speculate (with varying degrees of accuracy). As I mention elsewhere, the success of such speculations is often measured against the already givens. Readers will say about a piece of fan-fiction, "Yes, that sounds like them!" or "No, I don't think they would do that."  

Stereotypes, in comparison to archetypes, are similar to poor metaphors or similes: It was as cold as ice. It was as white as snow. Eh: been there, done that. The sense of recognition is slim, and nothing new is learned.

So what is the line between stereotype and archetype?

To be continued . . .

Series' Finales: The Good and the Awful

Although I don't care for the Phillip Stroh
storyline, The Closer ends on the right note.
It is Season 7 or 8 or--in the case of Law & Order--Season 500. The final episode looms on the horizon and . . . often falls flat.

The problem, of course, is all the pressure to make the end BIG and AMAZING and--even more problematic--to pay off all the stuff that came before.

Truth is, the best endings occur when the writers ignore the pressures and simply produce good story.

Here are a few examples of the good and the awful (of course, there are spoilers!):

Good: Monk
The final episode of Monk is surprisingly good, considering that the six-fingered man fell perilously close to big, bad, conspiracy theory territory.  But the story was neat, fast-paced, and psychologically accurate (I won't disagree with those who think Monk should have opened the present years earlier, but I also think Monk couldn't have handled the truth about Trudy--whom he always idealized--until that moment in the show). 
Awful: Castle
Let's face it: the entire Season 8 was a huge mistake. Nathan Fillion did his darndest to carry the show with help from the supporting cast but the absence of Stana Katic from many of the episodes makes the season practically non-canon.

On top of which, while Season 7--which was likely supposed to be the last season--ended on a lovely, lets-go-forward-into-the-future note, Season 8 ended with one of those stupid endings that ABC seems just a tad too obsessed with (see below): "they could be dead/they could be alive/it could be a dream!" endings.
Possibly one of the best finales of all time.
Good: Star Trek: The Next Generation
"All Good Things..." is one of the best series' finales on record (in fact, I think I'll rewatch it this afternoon!). It not only gives the viewer a nice recap of previous seasons/episodes, it also handsomely pays off the pilot and Q (John De Lancie) specifically. It includes an actual plot. It utilizes time travel intelligently.  And it leaves the reader with hope for the characters.

Unfortunately, by the time the writers reached the finales of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, they had kind of gone off the deep end in terms of trying to be "unique." Voyager's seasons contain some very, very clever time travel episodes. But I don't care for how it is used in the finale.

I'm not placing Voyager's finale in the Awful category, however, because--kudos to Star Trek writers--despite the tiresomeness of time travel, the finale is still a strong story with decent payoffs. It is not . . .
Awful: Dexter and Lost
I have never seen either of these finales, so I am going off the complaints I have heard. Which are many! Plus they are useful comparisons to the above examples because both utilize the "is it a dream/is it reality?" approach.

I consider this approach the second epitome of writing cop-out-ness (the first is using death to solve a problem). When I talk to my students about argument/persuasion, I always say the same thing:
"When you are writing your essay," I say, "and reach the end, do not abandon your thesis! You've just spent the entire essay arguing that people should support a particular cause or theory. Do not get to the end and say, 'Well, you have to make up your own mind. This is just my opinion. Whatever.' Waffle. Waffle. Waffle. I've read wonderful essays that totally convinced me of an argument until I reached the end, and the writer gave up. I get so upset, I throw the essay across the room!!"
Decent open-ended finale: Frasier.
This is exactly how I feel about series that give up on its characters because the writers are trying too hard to be "clever." 
Of course, I haven't included all those seasons where the writers meant to keep going but couldn't because the show was cancelled. Sometimes, that is the worse. Sometimes . . . it is nice to know that the characters are still out there somewhere treading their way through the wide, wide universe.

Getting Irritated about Assumptions about History

Twain is right--every historical event is unique to itself.
Human nature being what it is: patterns do develop..
One of my biggest irritations when it comes to the discussion of history is the assumption that "things were bad; now they are good" or (more commonly argued these days) "things were good; now they are bad."

There is a certain degree of truth to the former, simply because we live in a world where people have better medicine, more rights, and far more freedoms. I've written about this in detail elsewhere.

However, even the former argument bothers me a tad because it is predicated on the assumption that societal assumptions and expectations work on some kind of continuum or arrow--everything moves in one direction.

And it doesn't.

A good example of this is the concept of modesty. Every culture includes this concept--what constitutes socially, non-offensive clothing--but what constitutes modesty changes radically between cultures.

One is a hippie; one is a lord. For one, the hair style 
was indicative of rebellion; for the other, it was
just one style among many.
NOT because the concept of modesty works on a less-to-more (or more-to-less) pattern. It changes radically because culture changes and with culture, the assumptions and attitudes embedded within that culture.

There is little to no point comparing ancient Egyptians with Medieval aristocrats or high society Victorians with modern day working men and women. Each society has within it an idea of what constitutes modesty--how people should dress at work, in public, at school--and each society punishes those who violate those standards. However, what those standards are is unique to each society.

Medieval aristocrats, for example, would have made little to no connection between privacy and modesty--a connection vital to modern Westerners. Even within the last 70 years in the West, privacy as a measure of modesty has increased ("I dress alone," "I bathe alone," "I breastfeed my baby alone," etc.) The Medieval era wouldn't even have placed privacy on the table. It truly is a modern concept.

So Medieval peasants and aristocrats dressed and bathed (when they did bathe) in public while aristocratic men thought nothing of pissing against the castle wall, behavior now reserved for perverts in subways. 
But Medieval men would not have been considered perverts.

Believe it or not, this dress is incredibly
provocative, even erotic--
at least it was to people at the time.
Not that they wouldn't have been considered louts--some Medieval writers do complain about the sheer plethora of public urination. And it isn't like nobody noticed the smell (they did). It is that the act didn't automatically violate "proper" standards.

But other things did.

And that's the point--it isn't that the Medieval era DIDN'T have standards for modesty; it's that their standards simply don't correspond to ours.

Here are a few examples of how standards can change radically between cultures and time periods:
However, the low bodice on this
Colonial-era dress would not have
been considered inappropriate.
  • Nude bathing (men together; women together) was common in the United States through the 20th century. No more!
  • In some societies, a woman going out in long, even loose trousers would immediately violate that society's code of modesty--something that is clearly not true in most Westernized societies, where a woman wearing long trousers can actually be perceived as MORE modest.
  • The ancient Egyptians did not consider an exposed breast immodest. 
  • Aristocratic ancient Egyptians, however, would never have gone out without their wigs.
It is easy to see changes as always on a trajectory, to complain--for example--that kids these days are SO immodest what with their low-riding jeans (which I actually find rather adorable) and their tube tops, etc. But this type of selective response ignores changes/differences that many Westernized Americans/Europeans would find rather disruptive--like having to always wear a hat or kerchief or veil outside--and changes/differences that other cultures don't see as particularly salacious, such as family members bathing together.

History changes, often for the better, and societies can improve, but understanding history is best accomplished by ignoring comparative statements. Or at least comparative statements that insist that everything works along the same continuum. "Teens are more disrespectful these days" ignores centuries of disrespectful, high energy, and occasionally destructive apprentices in England and America (and probably other places as well).

Without context, differences become interesting, not informative.

J is for Jones, Diana Wynne

Dianna Wynne Jones (1934-2011) was a magnificent fantasy novelist. A number of her books fall into shaggy dog territory--Howl's Moving Castle the novel is surprisingly less cohesive than Hayao Miyazaki's interpretation (though just as much fun).

What sets Jones on high as a master storyteller is her use of character alongside fantastical developments. I am especially fond of her Chrestomanci series; my favorite of that series is Cat Chant's book, Charmed Life.

I am particularly fond of Charmed Life because I first heard it read by Tony Robinson, an audiobook version that is difficult to find now (Robinson has narrated a number of children's books, including several by Terry Pratchett). His reading of Charmed Life is wonderful: deadpan, funny, captivating--all delivered in Tony Robinson's singular voice (you can hear his voice on his Wikipedia page and below).

I also highly recommend Witch Week and the "prequel" to the series, The Lives of Christopher Chant (each book in the Chrestomanci series can be read separately).

Among other roles, Tony Robinson plays Baldrick on Black Adder:

Interview with a Translator, Part IV

This final post of an Interview with a Translator wraps up the major topics/themes covered in the previous posts. (More posts may follow in the future.)

Kazuki's response makes little sense, especially
to Americans, until one realizes that the surprised
underclassman, Wataru, forgot the honorific.
Kate: Idioms are very culture-based. Have any Japanese idioms ever tripped you up? Which (if so)? What is an example of an idiom that simply does NOT translate into English?
Eugene: Honorifics are a constant problem. Luckily some like sensei and -san have bridged the gap intact. I prefer to define honorifics in context without translating them since the standard forms of address--Dr., Professor, Mr., Mrs., Miss--sound unnatural.
I'd like to see the same thing done with Itadakimasu. The translated result is often a phrase that sounds clunky or anachronistic in English.

Itadakimasu (see below) literally means to humbly receive or partake. It can also mean "Dig in!" I would prefer to define it as "What Japanese say before eating." And then not translate it at all.

The gesture that accompanies
Itadakimasu is very common in
in manga.
Learning another language teaches you how irrational your own language is. All language is that abstract, even onomatopoeia. It's fun to compare the different "sounds" animals make in different languages, as if animals were multilingual (though that is a fun idea). In Japan, cats go "Nyaa nyaa." Dogs go "Wan wan."  
A not-technically-an-onomatopoeia unique to Japan is "Shiiinnn . . . " which is the sound of silence. Sparkly things go "Pika pika." An English equivalent might be "Bling." And there's more and more.
Kate: Is there a particular translator you would recommend (other than yourself)😀?
Eugene: I honestly don't read that many translations. Books, that is. I watch subtitles because my listening comprehension is not that good (another problem that plagues the late starter in language acquisition). By reading subtitles I can usually understand what I’m hearing. If a translation is good enough, it becomes transparent. So I tend to only notice a translation when I disagree with it.

So here are some translations I've disagreed with.

TokyoPop's translation of the Twelve Kingdoms novels rendered the titles of the emperors and empresses according to their literal meanings. That really annoyed me. It's the kind of thing that should have been relegated to a footnote. It's true that the nature of kanji means that the etymology is closer to the "surface." But people by and large tend to read "through" etymologies.

For the same reason my last name wouldn't be translated as "Buried Wood," Mr. Tanaka is Mr. Tanaka, not Mr. Middle-of-the-Field.

In Tamayura, the expression "na no de" is the protagonist's cute verbal tick. In the opening title, it's translated "so yeah," which I though was clever, in keeping with the personality of a teenage girl.

The problem is, it's translated the same way every time. I have praised consistency in translations, but there is such a thing, warned Emerson, as a mindless consistency. Because "na no de" is a ubiquitous conjunction whose meaning shifts around according to context, after a while I wanted to see a little variation, such as "just because" or "you see" or "that's why."

A really creative approach would be to come up with a slightly different translation each time, but that could turn out to be too much work for a marginal reward.
Kate: Zack Davisson states, "Knowing Japanese isn’t enough to make you a good translator. You have to be a good writer. You need creativity and imagination. It’s not too much work to master enough Japanese to read a comic, and any words you don’t know you can always look up. But to put that into English takes something more. In fact, I would say the balance of the job is something like 40% Japanese ability / 60% English writing. I have friends whose Japanese far surpasses mine, but they aren’t better translators."

You have written a number of novels. How did that writing influence your work as a translator?
Eugene: A multilingual computational linguist I knew a while back said the same thing: writing well matters more. One workaround is having a native Japanese speaker do a rough translation and getting a native English speaker to clean it up. This can cause problems if the English speaker doesn't understand Japanese well enough to correct the mistakes Japanese J-E translators make in English.
Any "literal" translation of Japanese will be littered with the passive voice, and the translator needs to channel his inner Hemingway. Miramax hired Neil Gaiman to rewrite the dub script for Princess Mononoke. Alas, not a step many publishers can afford to take.

Reading and writing and being critiqued a lot gives you more language construction tools to work with. It's easier to find the right word for something if you have more words in your vocabulary bank to start with.
Kate: What would you love to see translated?
Eugene: The light novel genre has improved tremendously over the past decade. Kadokawa, for example, bought a controlling interest in Yen Press and has partnered with Hachette. At this juncture, I couldn't tell you what titles have or haven't been licensed yet. That's a good sign.

The problem now is with (non-literary) best-sellers. Japanese publishers understandably want to see a big buy-in before licensing such valuable IP. To date, too many end up like the Twelve Kingdoms franchise, that was underfunded, undermarketed, and died on the vine.

The best-selling novel of 2014 in Japan was a YA historical adventure title: Daughter of the Murakami Pirates. It hasn't been licensed in the U.S. That's a title I'd like to see get more attention.
Kate: You are currently waiting for the next published novel from Fuyumi Ono. Do you have any projects in mind after Twelve Kingdoms? Or is Twelve Kingdoms a life-long project?
Eugene: Her next novel may well be the last in the series. If it still hasn't been translated, Daughter of the Murakami Pirates would be my next project.
Kate: As a job, how would you best characterize being a translator?
Eugene: Unless you're employed by a company, it's a free-lance writing job like any other free-lance job. It's also likely to be "work for hire," meaning that you don't retain any rights. So if you're not on "retainer" with a publishing house, after every job you've got to hustle up another one. That can be stressful.
Kate: As an avocation, how would you best characterize being a translator?
Eugene: It's one of those hobbies that takes over your life. You've got to enjoy that being the inevitable result.
Kate: What is the most important truth that partakers of Japanese manga, novels, and anime should understand about translation?
Eugene: First, things have never been better. Streaming changed everything. But the margins are still razor-thin. There's never enough time or enough money, meaning that quality is always going to war with costs. The only real long-term solution is to grow the market. It's an evangelical project.
Kate: Spread the word!

And thank you very much, Eugene!

Interview with a Translator, Part III

Part III of an Interview with a Translator focuses on the history and culture behind creating comprehensible yet faithful translations.

Kate: For your Twelve Kingdom translations, you supply many historical notes. Do you do this research while translating or is it information with which you were already familiar from other research?
Eugene: The Twelve Kingdoms takes place in an alternate universe that is parallel to China and Japan, with China being the bigger influence. As a result, Fuyumi Ono uses medieval Chinese terminology throughout, which sent me to unabridged Japanese dictionaries and Wikipedia.

Allures are allures are allures.
Often this meant, for example, reading a description of a Chinese castle in a Japanese dictionary and then looking up articles about medieval European castles to figure out how best to translate a word.

Here are two examples of starting with a medieval Chinese term and finding an English equivalent based on medieval European military history: Part 17-12 of Kingdoms and Part 19-12 of Kingdoms
Another early challenge was deciding how to handle terms describing the political divisions of the kingdoms. I looked at the nomenclature used in English translations of Chinese history books and tried to come up with a consistent set of rules. Consistency can matter more than specific accuracy.

Between the lines there's also a good deal of political commentary, couched as criticisms of Qin Dynasty-style legalism. So I spent some time researching that too.
Characters in Japanese settings visit shrines for
festivals, before tests, for New Year's. Homes
also have personal shrines to ancestors.
Kate: You lived for several years in Japan, once from ages 19 to 21 and once when you were older. Have you found that experience helpful to you when doing translations? In what way (if so)?
Eugene: A critical part of language acquisition is the accumulated exposure to unfiltered input. Living in the country, you're surrounded by the language. You see how things work close up, get a sensory feel for how the gears are turning, how the abstractions of language interact with physical reality. However you may feel it doesn't make any sense, it sure does to 127 million Japanese.

I often discuss on my blog the extent to which religion is an integral part of everyday life in Japan. It is rarely as overt as it is in U.S. political campaigns (even the Komeito party downplays its ties to Soka Gakkai in public). But it is inseparable from everyday life in Japan. Get outside the commercial core of a big city and you can't walk 100 yards without running into a shrine or temple or a little altar by the side of the road. What you rarely see in public in Japan (aside from the far-right nationalists) are the noisy evangelical movements common in the U.S.
Japan's most evangelical home-grown religion, Soka Gakkai, claims about 10 million members in Japan, a quarter of which are "active." By comparison, Catholic membership is five percent of that and Mormon membership is one percent of that. Harmful fringe cults still figure into the mix, but they generally try to keep under the radar (except when they go apocalyptic like Aum Shinrikyo).

Observing first-hand how religion "works" in Japan and how it "works" in the U.S. makes clear the deep differences in the culture despite how similar things can appear on the surface. Most Japanese claim to be irreligious. And yet religion governs their lives. The opposite is true in the U.S.
Kate: Regarding fantasy and science-fiction, what cultural issues/assumptions (Japanese sci-fi versus American sci-fi) come into play?
Eugene: Since so much manga and anime takes place among the teen demographic, you can never get away from the social dynamics of the high school hierarchy. That sense of the group and the collective identity affects every aspect of their lives for the rest of their lives.

From this springs a great deal of fascination with conspiracy as a plot device, and at the same time, a great deal of nonchalance about it. Call it "X-Files sociology." It evolved out of a real school of political philosophy called "Nihonjinron." It took off during the 1970s and 1980 but subsided as Japan fortunes waned with the bursting of the economic bubble in the 1990s.
Pop culture "Nihonjinron" influences during the rah-rah 1980s--depicted in Hollywood movies such as Rising Sun, Ridley Scott's Black Rain, and even Gung Ho (a Japanese firm buys an American car company run by Michael Keaton)--in no small part reflected "Japan as #1" attitudes.

It's a fair argument that Japanese writers simply latched onto Sean Connery's James Bond in You Only Live Twice (1967) and returned the favor. This certainly seems the case in the 009-1 series, replete with retro Cold War politics. Call it "Japanese exceptionalism."
These days, the "Nihonjinron" philosophy has largely faded from the scene. It now manifests itself between the lines in plots that posit that we keep screwing ourselves over because we're so blasted brilliant. These stories are closely linked to the post-apocalyptic conspiracy genre. Two examples are Vexille and Appleseed. Vexille explicitly refers to Japan, while Appleseed is more pan-nationalistic, but they both play off the everything's-a-conspiracy and flew-too-close-to-the-sun themes. 
Kate: How about horror and/or ghost stories? What differing assumptions show up there (if any)?
Eugene: Japanese are no less superstitious than anybody else. And in many respects, more so. A lot more so.
Relatively more superstitious Kenji
instructs the ghost to leave the
apartment. More pragmatic Shiro isn't
worried--but isn't disbelieving either.
It's common in police procedurals for cops to do the Buddhist equivalent of crossing themselves when they encounter a dead body. Haunted houses are as big in Japan as in the U.S. Omamori are ubiquitous. And somebody dying in an apartment is considered a curse.

I would say that several key concepts differentiate the horror genre from its Western counterparts: the lack of a fixed boundary between the mortal and the immortal, the sheer expanse of the transcendental, and reincarnation.

Hollywood makes shows about people who can see dead people. But as in Spirited Away, Shinto supplies a spirit world of almost infinite expanse and variety. Practically anybody and any thing can become a god or demon tomorrow.

There is also infinite variety in the moral nature of these transcendental beings. And in their job descriptions. Not every god or spirit world warrior needs to be constantly engaged with damnation or salvation or with a looming apocalypse. Not every horror is horrible. A lot of the time, the problem is simply insuring that the spirits and demons stick to their own lanes, stay under the speed limit, get to where they are supposed to be going.

In [U.S. television shows] Ghost Whisperer and Saving Hope, the dead go--somewhere. To heaven, presumably. Reincarnation, on the other hand, doesn't leave the eschatology up in the air. As in Angel Beats, the question becomes how you will be reincarnated, not whether you'll end up in an ill-defined "heaven."
Buddhist Naraka
But even when you're not getting reincarnated, the Buddhist and Shinto spirit worlds are more "concrete," perhaps closer to Greco-Roman concepts of the divine, where the mortal and immortal worlds intermingle and reflect each other in recognizable ways.
It's ironic that "Eastern religions" are stereotypically depicted as naval-gazingly "metaphysical," yet the Buddhist hell (naraka) out-Dantes Dante and reincarnation is plainly materialistic and comprehensible in its outcome.

So even though most Japanese don't consider themselves "religious" (in the "Christian conservative" sense), when push comes to shove, they're more than willing to make Pascal's Wager. Being superstitious is simply a way of hedging one's bets. On that subject, Justin Sevakis makes a very good point:
Every culture has its superstitions, and some are more widely believed than others. And since Asian cultures don't put much value in flaunting your beliefs publicly or confronting the beliefs of others, they do tend to take root a little more over there.
Plus, people tending not to walk around with religious chips on their shoulders gives popular culture more latitude to play with the types and tropes.
Kate: Do you think that translators have to be aware of these changing/differing assumptions or do you think Jung wins out in the end? That is, does it help if a translator understands variations in pop culture? Or can concepts like post-apocalyptic conspiracies and ghost stories be handled from the "Hey, everybody gets paranoid and wonders about death!" standpoint?
Kate: Leonard Cohen's "She broke your throne, and she
cut your hair" indicates story: the artist connects the
yearning of a broken heart to the pain of spiritual
doubt. "Delilah," on the other hand, is an allusive
term, short-hand for a clever, tempting woman.
Eugene: It's a paradox: the universality of story always triumphs, but you can't divorce the original context from the source culture. Hence, The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven share the same story, but the contrasting cultural reference points produce two unique works.

The translation process straddles that line. Understanding pop-culture references is important when differentiating between an aspect of the zeitgeist critical to the story in terms of substance, or an aspect of the zeitgeist that's in the story because the allusion was available to be plucked out of the air (see Kate's example above and Eugene's example below).
Eugene: In Chihayafuru, there really isn't any way
to get away from the Hyakunin Isshu and preserve
the meaning and intent of the series. The translator
will have to do some exposition along the way.
Fortunately, karuta is unique enough in Japan that the
author provides this exposition as a matter of course.
If the former (an aspect of the zeitgeist critical to the story in terms of substance), it has to be made comprehensible to the audience. The challenge then becomes to avoid bogging down readability by littering the text with additional exposition or footnotes (one nice thing about posting online).

If the latter (an aspect of the zeitgeist that's in the story because the allusion was available to be plucked out of the air), then it's the topicality and internal textual consistency that matters; the actual reference point is probably ephemeral and less important.

(Similarly, it is interesting--and revealing of our evolving biases and mores--to observe what ages well and what doesn't when watching old television shows.)

The translation of Harry Potter addresses such issues.

No matter what, the demands of storytelling must always win out.
For more of Eugene's thoughts on the supernatural in Japan, check out these posts:
Japanese Genre Horror
Anime Genre Horror
Ghostbusting in Japan
 Part IV of Interview with a Translator coming next . . . 

Interview with a Translator, Part II

Part II of an Interview with a Translator focuses on the nuts and bolts of creating a translation:

Kate: Have you translated novels? Manga? Both? Which do you prefer?
Eugene: I've only done one "professional" manga translation, Osamu Tezuka's Triton of the Sea in 2013. When I was at Microsoft, one of my coworkers asked me to do a chapter of Fruits Basket for a scanlation group. I suppose that was my first "published" translation. Around 2003, my translation of Whisper of the Heart was picked up by another scanlation site that also no longer exists.

Oh, and I did some First Love translations for you, Kate.

Triton of the Sea was the last project I did for Digital Manga. I'd previously done light novels, mostly yaoi. Digital Manga didn't have a big budget to work with. They mailed me a book, I emailed them a translation, they mailed me a check, and that was that.

I totally understand. I suspect in some cases they paid me more (at a bare-minimum rate) than they earned in royalties.

In the U.S. market, light novels are rarely (if ever) as popular as manga and anime. If a light novel doesn't have a manga or anime tie-in, the value of the IP in the U.S. market is close to zero. Twelve Kingdoms had an anime tie-in and still the novels (some of the best in the historical fantasy genre) floundered. I don't think any U.S. publishers pursued the license after TokyoPop lost it.

I'm sure Scholastic could make it into a hit, but that would involve a big up-front investment of the sort publishers don't like to make with unknown properties that already failed once in a market.
Kate: How much time does a translation take? In a perfect world? In a non-perfect world?
The rough draft of Triton went about as fast as I could type. Though technobabble and slang can slow things to a screeching halt. All things being equal, I prefer the more deliberate pace of translating novels. Maybe because there's more "there" there: novels provide more context for figuring things out. Yet without access to the author or editor, you still end up guessing.

With the Twelve Kingdoms novels, I've been able to immerse myself in a single fantasy world created by a single author; [I've] created my own style guides, found informative fan reference sites (this site run by Yoshie Omura has been invaluable), and gotten great feedback from readers. I can go back and revise long after the fact.  That's not an option on a commercial project. It's nice being able to do some things for the love of it.

The English-language publication of a massive literary work like The Clouds Above the Hill was a "three-year project funded through Japan Documents, an independent publisher under the direction of Saito Sumio." The contributors included three native-English speaking J-E translators, two native-Japanese speaking J-E translators, and a Russian language consultant.

And then there's the Lord of the Rings debacle.

Basically, the bigger the reputation (say, Haruki Murakami or anything John Lasseter gets behind), the more time allocated for translating and editing. And time is money. Less prestigious projects (the vast, vast, vast majority of them) can expect only the tiniest fraction of those resources.

I typically worked on two-month deadlines (plus or minus). Even if the publisher could stretch it out, the translator can't afford to. A free-lancer has to work fast or end up making the equivalent of minimum wage. However much time you spend is going to butt up against how time the editor has to edit (the level of feedback and back-and-forth described on this site is rare when it comes to most light novels, manga, and anime). So there's this vicious circle always going on.
Kate: I own several manga series and a few novels. Overall, I've noticed fewer grammar/language errors, such as vague pronouns and passive voice, with dialog than with exposition. Is dialog easier to translate than exposition? Do translators feel freer to take artistic license with dialog?
Stephen King suggests putting aside a 
manuscript for a month! But hey, he's
Stephen King and can afford the time.
Eugene: I think dialogue tends to fare better because we "hear" it, even when written down. The perpetual problem with proofreading is that, having written or read something, the meaning registers itself in our brains and we stop seeing the word-by-word text. A tried-and-true technique is to put a manuscript aside for a week or two so you forget what it "means" and have to reread it.
But again, the enemy is time. And time is money.
Kate: Language is inherently ambiguous--all those metaphors, idioms, and colloquialisms! A translator must--to a degree--make some decision about meaning. Are translators able to retain the ambiguity of figurative language when they translate?
Eugene: Like Zack Davisson, I believe that a translator can't translate literally and expect the reader to understand all the cultural references. The translation has to mostly reside in the literary context of the target language. So as long as it doesn't create anachronisms, I will employ references and allusions I believe the writer might have used if the writer were writing in English.

In other words, translators can retain the ambiguity of the original figurative language by not being tied too tightly (or tied at all) to the original figurative language.

In chapter 36 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind, for instance, I used "A whiter shade of pale." The adverb here is「白々」which Daijisen (Shogakkan) defines as "the state of the brightening sky at dawn" (白 by itself means "white"). It's close enough in meaning that I couldn't resist the allusion. Here is the relevant lyrics by Keith Reid from "A Whiter Shade of Pale":
And so it was later
As the miller told his tale
That her face at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale
As you point out, cultural references work their way into the language to such an extent that comprehension is not impaired even when the original references are lost. Consider "crossing the Rubicon." How many people who know what it "means" understand the original historical context? And is the original historical context a song by Journey or a reference to Julius Caesar?

In Japanese, "Crossing the Rubicon" can be translated as "Crossing the Rubicon" (ルビコン川を渡る). The translator has to decide whether the reader will understand "Crossing the Rubicon" in other than literal terms. If not, the task is to find an equally poetic or portentous turn of phrase that means, "Making a big decision after which you can't turn back."
Part III coming soon . . .