Sometimes I give the impression of knowing Japanese, but I really don’t. I have no claim to it. I never made a real study of the language, I don’t know kanji and thus can’t read at all, and even in speech I can’t exchange more than pleasantries or the most rudimentary logistical information. The small bits I do know aren’t scaffolded in any orderly way, either— they’re just a patchwork of random words, mostly useless, scraped from the detritus of childhood memories and pop culture. I say all this because even though my Japanese is objectively terrible, I also can’t experience a Japanese film, anime, or game with subtitles and not hear at least one line that makes me think: “Huh. I would’ve translated that differently.”
It’s funny how little Japanese you have to know before you can quibble with a translation. You can hear the Japanese words and phrases inside the more rudimentary translations quite easily. Fansubs— amateur translations of anime— are notorious for simply leaving dozens of Japanese words as they are, then over-explaining them in footnotes. People sometimes mock these concessions to the original language. After all, that’s the whole point of localization, to find analogues instead of insisting there’s no good equivalent. But I find myself sympathetic to these attempts to represent the subtle truth of the source material, even if they aren’t always particularly helpful. They inadvertently highlight what a miracle it is that people are able to communicate at all.
A clumsy translation isn’t always wrong. In some circumstances one may even be desired. The way Japanese is structured means overly literal translations have a unique sound to them that possess a certain aesthetic quality in their own right, which many of us have come to regard as cuteness: “As for Tuesday, it is tacos!” A translator friend of mine was once asked to dial back the native Englishness of her translations for this very reason. Her client wanted the international version of their website to possess this type of endearing imperfection. Aren’t they charming and delightful, those knock-kneed, snaggle-toothed phrases you see printed on knick-knacks at Daiso or Kinokuniya? “I want to create happy life with you.” They’re used for effect.
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Translation is endlessly arguable. The traditional debate pits fidelity to the text itself against fidelity to an interpretation of the text, which very quickly spirals into a thousand related and equally unanswerable concerns: What’s the difference between the text and the meaning of the text? Where does meaning reside, if not in the text? If the text contains multiple meanings, does the translator need to ensure that every one of them is somehow represented? Is the purpose of translation to provide a seamless experience to those who read and speak other languages, or is it to bring the unique qualities of one language into another? In other words, is the perfect translation one in which I remain completely unaware of the work’s foreign origin, or is it one that makes me feel like I’m experiencing the language it comes from?
Perhaps because of this arguability, translation is fertile ground for a particular brand of literary dick-waving. Vladimir Nabokov loved to ridicule others’ translations of Russian classics while making his own highly subjective and somewhat cavalier translations. I doubt this was only about the noble goal of achieving the one perfect translation of a literary work from Russian into English. To me, this behavior also reads as a kind of power play. I, Nabokov, am the only one who can provide full access to the genius of Pushkin or Lermontov. I am the sole inheritor and interpreter of the Russian literary tradition; everyone else sucks. Famously, Nabokov’s friendship with fellow literary titan Edmund Wilson soured into rivalry as they traded blows over Nabokov’s difficult translation of Eugene Onegin, which— amusingly enough— resembles the fansubbed anime I mentioned earlier in its footnote-clogged zeal to convey the original in all of its full-spectrum splendor.
The power dynamic inherent to translation exists because the translator is a gatekeeper, a high priest who reads the holy texts in ancient languages and tells us what they mean. It’s understandable if we’re at least a little suspicious. How do we know what we’re being told is what’s really written there? If the interpreter missed something important, we might have lost something, or find ourselves in the embarrassing position of having formed an opinion on something we didn’t fully understand. And of course there’s always someone who comes along with that exact accusation: You ignored this idiom, this subtext, this wordplay. How could you? It changes the whole meaning of the source, upends all you thought you knew. Learning this can make us upset, but if we follow the thread to its logical end we quickly come to the problem of language itself. How can we be sure that we are accurately representing what we want to say, and that other people are, in turn, understanding the message?
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It may be the mood I’m in these days, but while I appreciate the good localizations I can perceive from works originally created in Japanese, uninspired ones don’t really bother me. When I was writing this I was initially prepared to have a much more technical discussion of the differences inherent to different languages and the ways translations between them can never be perfect. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt an almost childlike wonder at how meaning is able to survive the translation process at all. Even in a single language what people say is so often misheard or misremembered; what people write gets distorted or only halfway read. We like to imagine that language is the representation or expression of some set of meanings that exist on their own in a Platonic sense. If that were true, translation would be easy: Just re-represent those ideas using the alternate set of symbols and constructs that the other language affords. That approach can work for some material. But literature shows us that language and thought are both imperfect and firmly entangled with one another. That’s the reason all translations are, in some sense, inadequate. Language itself only takes us part of the way.