Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Translating Story

Kate: As discussed in the prior interview, you have translated a number of the Twelve Kingdom novels. Wikipedia lists 8 novels; you have translated 6. What about the other two? Are they related to the six? Would you translate them if you could?
Eugene: I haven't translated Masho no Ko ("The Demon Child") and Kaze no Umi, Meikyu no Kishi ("A Sea of Wind, Shores of the Labyrinth").

Fuyumi Ono wrote "The Demon Child" before she started the Twelve Kingdoms series and fit the crossover material from the later novels around it, especially in "The Shore in Twilight" and "A Sea of Wind."

All of the above feature Taiki, and were touched upon in the NHK anime series. The hope and expectation is that Ono will finally conclude the Taiki arc in her upcoming novel. I'm sort of waiting on that too.

I'm currently slowly at work on Hisho no Tori ("Hisho's Birds"), a second short story collection.
Kate: What attracted you to the Twelve Kingdoms series?
Eugene: In the late 1990s, I discovered JWPce and online tools like Eijirou. And Honto. Unlike Amazon, Honto offers SAL shipping, which makes ordering books much more affordable. Then Windows 2000 and Window XP debuted with full Unicode support.

I used to peruse the manga section at bookstores to try and pick out titles and authors that I might want to read in Japanese. I started translating manga just for the heck of it and a couple of light novels. A girl at work asked me to do a chapter of Fruits Basket for a scanlation site she contributed to.

And then I saw the NHK anime series, and that turned out to be a deep well to draw from. (At the time, the books hadn't been licensed.) It certainly helped that the books turned out to be even better than the anime.

The entire Microsoft customer support team I was working on was getting transferred to India, so we were getting paid to sit around for hours without anything to do. So that's when I started emailing myself scans of the novels to give myself something to do at work.

And since I was translating them already, and was teaching myself HTML and website hosting, I decided to post them online. And I actually got feedback on the material I was posted. So I kept on going.
Kate: The Wings of Dreams can definitely be critiqued as a hero's journey a la Joseph Campbell. Does awareness of universal tropes help when translating or hinder? That is, can recognition of a familiar trope help the translator or will it prevent the translator from seeing the individual story?
Eugene: Creating expectations for yourself can cause big problems when you anticipate the story going one way and it goes another. This is especially true if you've encountered the story before out of the original "creative order."

The NHK Twelve Kingdoms anime series, for example, invented at least one character out of whole cloth, and borrowed characters and mixed in plot elements from different novels in order to condense the entire series into a single storyline.

So you've got to forget about what you think about the story, take off the critical analysis hat, and rely on the text to guide you through.

Most of the time, you're down there at the sentence level, a rat navigating a maze with little time for the big picture view. It's sort of a postmodern thing--all that exists is the text. You're encountering the story the way the reader will, though at a much slower pace.
Kate: How does Fuyumi Ono's storytelling/tone compare to other authors, Asian and Western?
Eugene: She compares well, proof that good writing is universal. I'd place Fuyumi Ono among the high fantasy greats. World building par excellence. That's medieval Asian world building, not medieval European world building. (She also does contemporary horror.)

She approaches her prose a bit like a fusty 19th century historian, with the occasional old spelling and not dumbing anything down. But the narrative is always leavened by her wry political and social commentary. She is an astute observer of the human condition and the political animal.

One political theme that runs through the Twelve Kingdoms is a critique of legalism and how the paternalistic state succumbs to totalitarianism.

Her dialog, however, is reasonably contemporary and accessible without being so glib that it quickly becomes dated. Over all, she has a straightforward writing style, a disciplined POV, and no more grammatical complexity than necessary.

Though, again, one tough aspect about high fantasy or SF technobabble is coming up with translations for words that don't really exist in the source language either, or were adapted from yet another language (Chinese) to start with.
Kate: Although there are elements of story that are universal, some elements seem more translatable than others. Frozen was hugely popular in Japan. Harry Potter apparently made its way across the ocean. What are some popular Hollywood tales that didn't make it to Japan? What about the other way around (the tales that don't make it here because they are too culturally embedded)?
Eugene: Unlike the ubiquitous action movie (from the shoot-'em-up to the space opera), conventional Hollywood comedies don't do well in Japan. They do better when combined with an accessible genre, like romantic comedy or musical comedy.

One consistent observation from long-time western observers is that Japanese don't do the whole "dripping with irony" thing, what with the winks and the nods and the sarcasm. The "American joke" (that's the actual term) is sand in the gears of a culture that depends so much on hints and assumptions.

The usual Hollywood blockbuster films show up in Japan, but also a surprising number of relatively obscure art house human dramas from around the world.

Similarly, Natsume Soseki [writer of realistic fiction circa 1900] can be an easier read than Fuyumi Ono [the Twelve Kingdoms], not because of the language but because of the difficulty of translating a high fantasy culture based on medieval China. The angsty characters in Kokoro from a century ago, for example, remain surprisingly accessible.

To turn Tolstoy's adage upside down, unhappy people are pretty much the same the world around.

A Harry Potter or Frozen will still zoom to the top of the charts, but home-grown films hold most of the top-twenty spots. The irony is, they often do so by fitting into Japanese culture in ways that Hollywood films can't, by exploiting currents and trends that are literally foreign outside Japan.

So while "accessible" family films and more conventional copies of Hollywood actioners from Japan get crowded out by behemoths like Disney (to the extent that most are never released in the U.S.), anime and manga have thrived by being not-Disney, by finding a media niche all to themselves not easily duplicated.

The evolutionary spiral that results has been termed "Galapagos syndrome," referring to products so customized to Japan's isolated island culture that they are incompatible with the rest of the world.

Dante's journey can be enjoyed for the
journey--his contemporaries would have
"got" all the snarkiness, without footnotes.
The recently released Rurouni Kenshin trilogy follows the Hollywood action flick playbook, with slick production values and lots of action paired with a dumbed-down script stocked with cardboard characters (played by actors better than their parts) and head-scratching plotting (that fizzles out in part 3).

And yet the Rurouni Kenshin series [containing Shinsengumi characters] assumes at least a cursory understanding of the Bakumatsu era (during which the various sides negotiated by day and assassinated each other by night), the Boshin War, and the early Meiji leading up to the Satsuma Rebellion.

 Even a Japanese kid who slept through every history class in school will have absorbed the rough details along the way. Western audiences would have a much harder time figuring out what the heck is going on.

By contrast, Memoirs of a Geisha didn't do anything that Japanese period melodramas don't do on a regular basis, and without any popular Japanese actresses in the leads. What was exotic to western audiences was ho-hum in Japan.

Consider an equally dumb Jason Statham actioner like The Mechanic: Resurrection or the much better John Wick with Keanu Reeves. Both movies present bankable stars in stories denatured of cultural specificity, hitting plot points instantly recognizable to anyone anywhere in the world.

That's why Hollywood prefers to make Hollywood versions of foreign films, going way back to Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai, with bigger budgets and wider audiences in mind. It looks like they might get the formula right with Ghost in the Shell too.
Kate: One cultural aspect of light novels and much manga are authors' afterwords. Many Western tomes have afterwords and/or "book questions"; the Japanese literary afterwords, however, are cute little "Howdy, I'm the author--I enjoyed working on this novel--let me tell you about what I did today" blurbs. Does the translator handle these? Or are they added in later/translated by someone else?
Eugene: In most cases, I translate everything (aside from the copyright pages and advertising inserts), including those personal notes from the author. Though they can be a pain, what with the inside jokes and the off-off-offhand style that can be like trying to translate half of an overheard conversation.

Makoto Shinkai
They can also be awfully self-deprecating, and that doesn't translate very well. But it's a Japanese thing. It's hard to imagine an Hollywood director saying about his own blockbuster film, as has Makoto Shinkai, that he wasn't entirely happy with all of it and some parts could be improved.

Oh, and maybe everybody should stop making such a big deal about it.

Though I wish that had occurred to George Lucas.
Kate: I have also noticed the self-depreciation! Sometimes, the authors will even admit to health problems, a failure to meet deadlines, personal crises, etc.—the type of stuff that often shows up on American authors' blogs but rarely on their book jackets. What accounts for this incredible willingness to "bare all"? Aren't Americans supposed to be the ones who "let it all hang out"?
Eugene: I fall back on my go-to explanation that introverts living in an introverted culture don't necessarily mind being extroverted about their introversion when they can do so without leaving the house.

An author and media star like Naoki Matayoshi started out doing stand-up (manzai) comedy, yet in public he still maintains a quite reticent demeanor. Being loudmouthed and opinionated is Hikari Ota's fairly unique shtick, and he's also half of a manzai duo.

If you're a Freudian, manzai is the public expression of the Japanese repressed id (I say almost seriously).

Shiro thought he was going to a non-political dinner
with his class of fellow apprentices. Nope, the
canny host ends by hitting them up for favors.
Shiro is thinking, "Dammit. The only way to get out of
this is to pay back the equivalent of tonight's bill."
These authors otherwise aren't going on Oprah and exposing their souls. They might not be J.D. Salinger, but aside from what they write, can be quite reclusive.

I think they have much in common with the original Star Trek convention circuit. The vast majority didn't get where they are [writing a bestseller] out of the block. They slowly built careers out of "1000 true fans," starting with doujinshi back in high school and college.

So there's a large measure of on and giri at work here, the ongoing cycle of favor and obligation that's been a tireless engine of Japanese social relations for two thousand years. An element of this reciprocation inevitably shows up on the inside covers of their books.
COMING NEXT: Light novels and psychology


Joe said...

A little off topic, but interesting that Frozen popped up since I though about writing an email on this.

Last year, I took McKinley and her mom to Frozen on Ice. It was very well done, but what I remember the most were all the kids in the audience belting out the songs, especially "Let it Go."

Believe it or not, I didn't actually see the movie until several months after going to this show. Overall I thought it "meh" [especially the last half], yet it made gargantuan amounts of money at the box office, especially in Japan.

So, why is Frozen so popular amongst younger kids? I don't buy many arguments since they project adult reasoning onto kids. This like is visceral, not some social response.

I find parallels to The Little Mermaid; both feature female protagonists who, due to the animation style, still have childlike qualities and who acting independent. Yet Frozen seems to have had more impact (well, except McKinley who is obsessed with mermaids.)

I think it's the music. Specifically, music during the "independent" scene. Where The Little Mermaid stumbled in this regard is that Ariel's song is a wishful ballad whereas in Frozen, Elsa's song is declarative belting pop. The point is that it's not just the words, but the music itself. (In the story outline, this scene in Frozen was marked with "Elsa's badass song", which sums it up. Ariel (or, for that matter, Belle, Mulan, etc.) didn't have a badass song, just scenes.)

(I still love the four main songs, Do You Want to Build a Snowman, For the First Time in Forever, Love is an Open Door and Let it Go. Kristen Bell has an amazing voice--no vibrato!--and the ability to emote in song. For the Japan release, Syaka Kanda as Anna and Takako Matsu as Elsa were exquisite casting. Seriously, watch Takako Matsu's version of Let it Go.

While searching, also look up Kirsten Bell and Kristen Anderson-Lopez singing songs from Frozen; shocking good voices. I'm always impressed with people who can sing so well live.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think you're on to something with the "badass" comment. Adults may want little girls to grow up and be Pollyanna. I suspect that it isn't so much that little girls would rather grow up to be real estate brokers and race car drivers. I doubt they think that far ahead. I suspect their obsession with the anti-Pollyanna Elsa has more to do with wearing a cool dress, being able to make stuff out of nothing, and having a powerful voice.

Remembering back, I think I mostly admired Princess Leia because she had cool hair and a cool demeanor. And she could order around a Wookie. But I don't think I thought about the "why" that much.

(Along the same lines, I've always assumed that girls' liking Barbie--which granted I never did--was not for all the reasons that adults assume or worry about. Rather . . . she has lots of shoes. And a house. And a car. And is way more important than Ken. What more needs to be said?)

Katherine Woodbury said...

More to be said: The more I think about it, the more I think that the little girl who wants to be Elsa isn't all that different from the little boy who wants to be, say, a race car driver. In both cases, the draw is glitz, glamour, and a bigger-than-life persona. And a six-car pile up. Or equivalent.

The desires are translated differently (I couldn't help the verb) but are ultimately the same--though not in any way parsed out or even fully comprehended. As you say, Joe, it's visceral . . . which goes to prove something about children and/or the fundamental nature of human beings . . .

FreeLiveFree said...

You know I prefer the children's visceral reactions to a lot of adult reasoning. Reason is a tool like a hammer. It can be useful in certain situations, but you can also smash your thumb with it.

I never really liked Disney animated movies even as a kid. I don't typically like musicals. They always just turn me off. I do like a lot of Pixar's stuff. There was some Disney animated TV shows I liked such as Duck Tales and Gargoyles.

Katherine Woodbury said...

What happened to Ghost in the Shell: Eugene's review.