Interview with a Translator, Part 2: The Act of Translation

Poseidon of the East
The next two posts deal with the nitty-gritty aspect of translation: "All those words"!

Kate: While translating, what enables the translation process to get easier? What still causes difficulties?
Eugene: What enables the translation process to get easier is translating. The more you translate a particular author, the more you get used to that author's particular use of the language. Though you tend to absorb it along the way, so it's not something you pay a lot of attention to, if you notice it at all.

The fast pace at which translations have to be churned out to be profitable means you have to end up going with the "good enough" or even the "I'm pretty sure it's not totally wrong" version.

When you've only got time for copyediting (forget about line editing), an easy mistake to make is translating a certain expression the same way every time. Not all redundancies are created equal.
For example, it's not a good idea to get clever with a word like "said." But when readers point out that I've overused a particular expression, that I've simply translated the same expression the same way isn't a good excuse. When the reader starts noticing the prose, something's wrong.
The Wings of Dreams
Kate: In my various light novel readings, obvious differences about the original authors come apparent (some are better at plotting than others). It is harder to gauge tone--so much depends on the translator! However, some differences do tend to appear. Do you sense a difference in tone when translating?
Eugene: Not really, at least probably not during the translation process.

The problem with tone is that it arises as a byproduct of the entire effort. To be sure, I can get a grasp from the start on genre, whether the prose is "hard-boiled" or "romance" or "high fantasy, and that dictates the tone and register of the translation.

I tend to begin with assumptions and adjust them along the way.

I do notice writing quality. The better the writing, the easier it is to translate. Vocabulary is of only peripheral importance. The Chinese cognates Fuyumi Ono uses don't make her prose more difficult to understand, though it can take longer to think up translations for fantasy terms.

If the worst thing you can say about somebody's writing is that you have to look up some words in the dictionary, you're on firm ground.

I've been surprised at how readable Natsume Soseki is. Granted some of his vocabulary and usages are dated (as well as the geographical references to Tokyo a century ago), but his prose does not otherwise suffer from any lack of clarity.  
Shadow of the Moon
Kate: Many of the light novels I've encountered--with a few exceptions--seem quite Jane Austen-like in their semi-omniscient narrators. Points of view shift easily within a chapter. Do Japanese novels worry about point of view or is that a Western obsession? 
Eugene: I don't know if this is something that Japanese writers writing about writing worry about to the same extent that English writers writing about writing worry about it.

In Shadow of the Moon, Fuyumi Ono maintains an admirably strict third-person POV with the omniscience voice limited to the protagonist alone, the world seen only from her perspective. And even in her multiple POV novels, she doesn't let her omniscience wander.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with "head-hopping," but I think this speaks more to the skill and style of the writer than to the culture. I suspect the ongoing tension between the two is a pretty universal concern--among those of us who think excessively about such things.

For everybody else, what matters is whether the author tells a compelling story. Less about how.
A Thousand Leagues of Wind
Kate: As a reader, I occasionally note plot errors in novels. One paragraph said that the character went home but the next paragraph clearly indicates that the character went to school. I don’t assume it is the translator's fault! As a writer, I am always wary of making these types mistakes (a character sets out to do something in the morning but in the next scene, I mistakenly refer to the time of day as "twilight"). Have you ever encountered these errors as a translator? Do you fix them? Do you think translators should fix them? Or leave them as original to the text?
Eugene: I wouldn't be so certain [a change in tense or time of day] is not the translator's/editor's fault. Japanese narrative prose tends to follow the same POV rules as English prose. Tense, however, is far more fluid, switching from "present" to "past" tense in the same paragraph.

In Japanese it's easy to confuse aspects of the perfect tense and participles in general with the present tense. As an oversimplified example, a participle phrase can be split off in the present tense, and followed by the rest in the past.
"Floating in the pool, I gazed up at the clouds."

"(I) float in the pool; gazed up at the clouds."
This use of the "historical present" is VERY common, and is independent of the "quality" of the writing. When translating, I will simply render everything in the past tense.

(I studiously avoid fiction written in the present tense and loath the trend of narrating historical documentaries in the present tense. If it happened in the past, put it in the past tense!)  
The Shore in Twilight
Kate: Are you ever tempted to the fix bigger issues, such as stories with no pay-offs or lack of character development? Or is your main focus on making the language work?
Eugene: As for actual mistakes in narrative structure, I tend to unconsciously knit everything together so it makes sense on the page. Though as noted previously, during the translation process, I can get so close to the text that I completely miss these types of mistakes.

I avoid thinking much about bigger issues. It being completely out of my purview, to start with, and not having the time in any case.
I don't think it's the translator's job to make those kinds of editorial decisions, so if I don't have an editor to bounce things off of, I don't.
Dreaming of Paradise
Kate: C.S. Lewis stated in his autobiography that he knew he had begun to master Greek when he no longer translated the word into English first. The Greek word “boat” brought up the image boat, not the English word (followed by the image). But translation involves doing exactly this—thinking of the word rather than the image. In fact, translation appears to involve multiple skill-sets from understanding to writing to rearranging words at the sentence level—do you feel yourself switching “hats” as you translate?
Eugene: There's the meaning part and the wordsmithing path. Like good acting, good writing shouldn't normally call attention to itself. The right words pull the right meaning out of our experiential memory banks. The better the word, the better it does that (without us noticing).

One problem comes when the words access the wrong thing.

A good example (from the Nibleys) is "Aegis" as the name of a ship vs. "Aegis" as a class of guided missile cruisers (referring to the combat system). And translating Fuyumi Ono, I have to keep the Chinese references distinct from the Japanese references.

At times, the only thing in a particular memory bank location is wrong. Or is blank. The etymology only goes so far, so I have to find something to fill it. The Internet makes that much easier. I can Google Image a Chinese word and realize, "Oh, that's what she means."

There's is also the problem of the words themselves gumming up the works—to continue with the above metaphor, acting that calls so much attention to itself that it distracts from the story. The challenge is to find the right word that doesn't trip over its own two feet.

If you're John Lasseter, then you hire Neil Gaiman to rewrite the script for Princess Mononoke. That's not usually in the budget. There's more leeway with subtitles because the visuals and voice acting can cover much of the "wordsmithing" chores for you.

With prose, if the story starts to sag for any reason, the tattered edges of the words will start to show.
Coming Next: WINDING UP with "Words Words Words"

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