Volume 8, No. 2 
April 2004

  James Hobbs

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A Unique Resource
by Gabe Bokor

Index 1997-2004

  Translator Profiles
The Dinosaur Hunter's Tale
by Ingrid Gillmeier

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Alicia Gordon—1950 - 2004
by Robert Killingsworth
In Memoriam: Emilio Benito—1947 - 2004
by Danilo Nogueira

  Translation Nuts and Bolts
Navigating through Treacherous Waters: The Translation of Geographical Names
by Gilberto Castañeda-Hernández, Ph.D.

  Science & Technology
English ⇔ Spanish Maritime Glossary
by Ana Lopez Pampin and Iria Gonzalez Liaño

  Legal Translation
Réflexions sur la traduction des formes de sociétés
by Benjamin Heyden

  Biomedical Translation
Características del discurso biomédico y su estructura: el caso de las Cartas al director
Esther Vázquez y del Árbol, Ph.D.
Translating SOPs in a Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Environment
by Anne Catesby Jones

  Literary Translation
The Translator's Dilemma—Implicatures and the role of the translator
by Antar Solhy Abdellah
Bridging the Cultural Divide: Lexical Barriers and Translation Strategies in English Translations of Modern Japanese Literature
by James Hobbs

His Excellency and His Interpreter
by Danilo Nogueira
Some Advice on Preparing for Simultaneous Interpretation of Current Political Themes
by Igor Maslennikov
Bibliography on the Profession of Interpretation
by Heltan Y.W. Ngan, Ph.D.

  Translator Education
To Be a Good Translator
by Leila Razmjou
The Importance of Teaching Cohesion in Translation on a Textual Level
by Aiwei Shi

  Book Review
The Talking Parcel Learns to Speak Russian
by Mark Hooker
Science in Translation
by Beverly Adab, Ph.D.

  Translators' Tools
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  Translation Journal

Literary Translation


Bridging the Cultural Divide:

Lexical Barriers and Translation Strategies in English Translations of Modern Japanese Literature

by James Hobbs
Iwate Medical University, Morioka, Japan

1. Introduction

iterary translation is a complex, controversial, and ultimately imperfect discipline. Striving to carry the original author's message across a linguistic and cultural divide, the translator faces numerous obstacles. There will be lexical items whose referents lie outside the experience of the target reader. There will be texts whose messages depend not on a literal understanding of the words on the page, but on the cultural connotations of a particular word, phrase, or action. There will be puns and other constructions that exploit the phonetics of a particular word. These issues are examined here in the context of published English translations of four contemporary Japanese novels. An attempt is made to identify both the obstacles that translators face in translating text rooted in Japanese culture, and the strategies they use to overcome these obstacles.

A translator cannot reasonably be expected to consistently account for each and every one of the meanings buried in the original author's text.
Central to the analysis is the realization that a single sense-segment can embody a range of meanings and connotations derived from the native speaker's experience of its referent. The translator must determine which meanings are relevant to domestic readers, and in doing so will often have to choose from among a range of possible translations. Hence, to observe yukata rendered as summer kimono in translation should not imply that these two sense-segments share identical meanings and connotations, nor should it imply that the same translator will necessarily make the same choice the next time this item is encountered. Ultimately, however logical, however sensitive, however insightful the decisions made by the translator, it will be impossible to produce a translation which accounts for each and every feature that makes the original text unique, while at the same time the translation will release potential new meanings through features which relate only to the domestic language and culture. This is inherent in the process of domestication of the foreign text, as explained by Venuti (1995(a):18):

"Translation is the forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target language reader. This difference can never be entirely removed, of course, but it necessarily suffers a reduction and exclusion of possibilities—and an exorbitant gain of other possibilities specific to the translating language."

2. Research procedures.

The analysis is based on four texts that are easily obtainable both in the original Japanese and in English translation. The range of subject matter and publication dates was expected to provide for a rich qualitative analysis, but it should be recognized that the number of texts is far too small to allow for a rigorous quantitative analysis of current trends in translation practice, and that this has not been attempted. The texts analysed are listed below:

Original Title/
Title in Translation
- Junichiro Tanizaki (1951)Tade kuu mushi
Edward G. Seidensticker (1955)Some Prefer Nettles
- Ayako Miura (1973)Shiokari toge
Bill & Sheila Fearnehough (1987) Shiokari Pass
- Haruki Murakami (1985) Hitsuji o meguru boken
Alfred Birnbaum (1989)A Wild Sheep Chase
- Wahei Tatematsu (1983)Enrai
Lawrence Howell & Hikaru Morimoto (1999) Distant Thunder

One may wish to begin by looking at the original texts to find culture-specific references that pose obstacles for the translator. However, it is equally possible to begin by looking at the translations for references to objects or behavior particular to Japanese culture. For example:

A particular kimono required a particular cloak and a particular sash.

(Some Prefer Nettles, p.8)

The sound of bedding being pounded free of dust echoed between the buildings.

(Distant Thunder, p.29)

Matsuzo always claimed the snail flesh tasted best with shochu, a distilled liquor made from potatoes, rice, or wheat.

(Distant Thunder, p.172)

(Underlining used for emphasis, italics used where used in the published text.)

The first example clearly contains three references to items of Japanese clothing. The second, meanwhile, describes a typical daily scene that will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time in Japan, but which may be outside the direct experience of many readers of the translation. In the third example it would appear that the translator has supplied additional text to explain a culture-specific item that may be unfamiliar to domestic readers. Once identified, such examples can then be compared with the corresponding sections of the Japanese text in order to identify the obstacles facing the translator, and the strategies used to overcome them.

3. Sense-segments rooted in Japanese culture: three strategies for translation.

In varying degrees, all four Japanese texts refer to objects and concepts rooted in Japanese culture. This is not to say that all such items necessarily lie outside the experience of Western readers; the word sushi, for example, has made its way into the lexicon of most native speakers of English. However, the translator cannot hope to capture in one word, or even in several words, every nuance of meaning that a word such as sushi conjures up for a typical Japanese. The best that the translator can hope to do is to capture those meanings and connotations that appear most relevant in the given context. To do this, the translator would appear to have three basic strategies at his disposal: 'borrowing' a word or sense-segment from Japanese, offering a Japanese item together with extra defining text (either within the body of the text of in a footnote), or representing the item entirely in terms rooted in the domestic culture.

a) Borrowings.

Besides the most predictable examples such as kimono, geisha, and sushi, examples of words borrowed from Japanese include the following:

Kiku had prepared sukiyaki, in honour of the guests.

(Shiokari Pass, p.138)

To prevent yellowing of the tatami and to inhibit mold from growing...

(Distant Thunder, p.11)

...its reflection cracked on the surface of the saké he poured into a teacup.

(Distant Thunder, p.56)

"Hey Pa, make carp sashimi for us."

(Distant Thunder, p.74)

...... placing canned food, instant ramen, and other goods into a paper bag.

(Distant Thunder, p.93)

The men settled down and read manga.

(Distant Thunder, p.96)

She was in a happy mood, cooking the family's first real meal in a while. Sukiyaki.

(Distant Thunder, p.118)

...loading tomatoes into a cardboard box normally used to store mikan.

(Distant Thunder, p.205)

That most of these examples appear in Distant Thunder may partly reflect the translator's attempt to capture the novel's underlying theme of a rural community torn between clinging to traditional rural culture and embracing urbanization (and with it Westernization). But it may also reflect the fact that this is the most recently published translation. Knowledge of and interest in Japanese language and culture was certainly more widespread in 1999 than in 1955, or even 1989, hence the translator is perhaps able to be somewhat bolder and include words such as mikan and manga. Italicization, and the acute accent on saké, effectively mark these items as borrowings, and spare readers the extra cognitive effort of noticing this for themselves. Undoubtedly some readers will recognize neither mikan nor manga, but the translator appears to have decided that it will suffice if the reader grasps the fact that manga refers to something which is read and mikan to something stored in boxes, probably a kind or fruit or vegetable.

b) Borrowing plus footnote.

Another strategy, especially useful if a word or phrase is to appear repeatedly in the translation, is to use a Japanese word together with an explanatory footnote. This strategy is used several times in Shiokari Pass:

"We are of samurai stock, so you mustn't do such a thing." (p.14)

(footnote: The samurai were traditional warriors, vassals of a feudal lord.)

Roku sold combs, tasseled ties for men's kimonos..... (p.14)

(footnote: A kimono is a loose robe with wide sleeves, fastening with a sash.)

Masayuki placed his hands together on the tatami matting with grave formality. (p.21)

(footnote: Japanese homes are mostly floored with mats of woven straw.)

The forty-seven ronin were there, too. (p.29)

(footnote: The ronin were faithful samurai who avenged the death of their lord.)

Clearly, several strategies can be employed simultaneously. The example of tatami embraces several strategies: borrowing a Japanese word, using italicisation to signal foreignness, adding the defining word matting to the text, and providing a footnote offering further elaboration. Significantly, however, the Japanese word used in the translation need not necessarily be taken directly from the original text. In fact, in all four of these examples the Japanese word used does not actually appear in the corresponding section of the original text; for example, of samurai stock is a translation of the Japanese shizoku, while men's kimonos refers to an item of clothing known as a haori. The word kimono, while borrowed from Japanese, has not been taken from the text that it translates; rather, the unfamiliar foreign object has been represented as a subclass of a familiar foreign object. We will look at this strategy more closely later.

c) Definition within text.

Footnotes, however, are perhaps typical more of academic writing than of a novel. In novels it is not just semantic correspondence that matters, and the reader is likely to become irritated if constantly forced to pause in mid-sentence and consult footnotes. Gutt (1991, in Venuti, 2000:377) argues that a translation "should be expressed in such a manner that it yields the intended interpretation without putting the audience to unnecessary processing effort." Exactly what the "intended interpretation" is will often be a matter for debate, while the question of what constitutes "unnecessary" processing effort is also a subjective one, but clearly a translation will become unreadable if every page is peppered with foreign words requiring explanatory footnotes. Perhaps the only readers who would not grow exasperated with such a strategy would be students of Japanese using the translation as a guide to understanding the original Japanese text. Exactly who does read Japanese literature in translation is far from clear (see Fowler, 1992:3-4), but it seems reasonable to assume that the texts discussed here are not targeted at such a narrow readership.

Another option is to offer a definition within the text. This may involve using a foreign word together with defining text, or it may involve "deculturalising" a sense-segment rooted in the foreign culture by defining it entirely in terms rooted in the domestic culture. Let us look at each of these strategies in turn.

(i) Japanese term plus definition.

The translator may choose to introduce a Japanese term but add some defining text, as in the earlier example of 'tatami matting'. Gutt's (1991, in Venuti, 2000:377) concept of "optimal relevance" suggests that the translator must focus on those features of the object that are most relevant to his readers, as an attempt to convey each and every sense of an item as experienced by a native Japanese may destroy other relevant features of the original text. Certainly, a Japanese person's understanding of the term Obon will include not only the knowledge that it is a festival held in honour of the dead, but also knowledge of when it is held, how and where it is usually spent, it's atmosphere, the special foods and rituals associated with it, and so on, but to include all this information would place a gratuitous burden of mental processing on the reader. Instead, the translator is restricted to including the information deemed necessary for communication to succeed. One way of achieving this is to use the Japanese word as a premodifier of a head noun that is a functional equivalent of the foreign object. In this sense the following example reflects the same translation strategy as used in the earlier example of 'tatami matting':

Mitsuo clambered out of his futon bed and went downstairs.

(Distant Thunder, p.26)

Alternatively, a sense-segment rooted in Japanese culture may be expressed as a paratactic nominal group complex, in which defining text is added immediately after the Japanese word:

...one evening in Obon, the Festival of the Dead, Nobuo was invited to the home of Reinosuke Wakura...."

(Shiokari Pass, p.169)

Matsuzo always claimed the snail flesh tasted best with shochu, a distilled liquor made from potatoes, rice, or wheat.

(Distant Thunder, p.172)

He stumbled along, finding it hard to move in his hakama, a pleated garment, which puffed up around him.

(Distant Thunder, p.250)

In translations of dialogue, however, excessive pre- or post-modification in the nominal group may result in awkward, improbable utterances. This can be avoided if the defining text appears outside the dialogue, in the form of an overt communication from the translator to the reader:

"What would you say to an omiai?" Mitsuo squirmed. Omiai is a formal meeting between an eligible man and woman, arranged by a third party. He raised his eyes but found he couldn't bear his mother's gaze.

(Distant Thunder, p.35)

The term omiai is used repeatedly in later dialogue. Given this initial definition within the text, the reader is able to assimilate this word into his lexicon, and is ready to process its next appearance a few pages later:

"I'm doing omiai."

(Distant Thunder, p.40)

At other times, however, it may be possible to include the necessary information within the dialogue by adding an utterance that does not appear in the source text. In other words, the translator speaks through the character:

"Their house was five ri away. Oh, I guess nowadays you'd say that's about twenty kilometers."

(Distant Thunder, p.90)

Here the significance of the term ri is that it is a long-since obsolete unit of measurement, and is thus an important marker of the sub-text, or "meaning behind the meaning" (Newmark, 1988:77), which in this case concerns an elderly Japanese lady whose values are rooted in the past. To write simply "Their house was twenty kilometers away" would miss this completely.

The translator may sometimes add text that defines one sense of the original term's meaning, implicit for the Japanese reader, and relevant in a particular instance. In A Wild Sheep Chase, a text with strikingly few features to situate it within a Japanese cultural context, this strategy is used twice to deal with place names. In the case of a reference to Hokkaido the translator gives the additional information, implicit for the Japanese reader, that Hokkaido is an island, while when referring to Haneda Airport the translator adds the information that this is in Tokyo:

Mekurameppou ni Hokkaidou o urotsukimawaru yori wa madamashi dakara ne. (vol 2., p.26)

(lit: Anything's better than blindly wandering all round Hokkaido.)

Anything is an improvement over scouring the entire island of Hokkaido totally blind. (p.199)

Yokujitsu no chuushoku wa hikouki no naka de tabeta. Hikouki wa Haneda ni tachiyori, sorekara mou ichi do tobitatta. (vol.2, p.226)

(lit: The next day's lunch (I) ate in the plane. The plane stopped by Haneda, and then took off again.)

The following day I took a plane to Tokyo-Haneda, then flew off again. (p.351)

While the reference to Tokyo has been added, the reference to lunch has disappeared. It is certainly not a difficult sentence to translate, and we can only speculate that the translator was looking to economise. Berman (1985, translated in Venuti, 2000:290) observes that the need for the "unfolding" of meanings that are "folded" in the original is one reason why translations tend to be longer than their source text; as Steiner (1975) puts it, translations are "expansionist".

In A Wild Sheep Chase we find a similar strategy used to deal with car names:

Chuusha-jou ga ari, kuriimu iro no fearedii to supootsu taipu no akai serika ga chuusha shite-ita. (p.93)

(lit: There was a car park, a cream-colored Fairlady and a sports-type red Celica were parked.)

In it were a cream-colored Honda Fairlady and a sports car, a red Toyota Celica. (p.252)

This might be considered a controversial translation strategy. Clearly, in making explicit what the original author consciously chose not to say, the translator deviates from the source text. Moreover, the potential for error must also be considered; in this case, car enthusiasts will note that the Fairlady is in fact produced by Nissan.

(ii) Definition without Japanese term: "deculturalising" a cultural word.

At other times the translator may avoid any direct reference to a Japanese 'cultural' word used in the original text, choosing instead to offer definitions composed only of words rooted in the domestic culture:

Zabuton o nimai hara no shita e shiite tatami no ue ni houzue o tuite ita Kaname wa...

(Tade kuu mushi, p.5)

(lit: Kaname, on the tatami with two zabuton under his belly and his chin on his hand...)

Kaname lay sprawled on a couple of cushions, his chin on his hand.

(Some Prefer Nettles, p.3)

The Japanese text here throws up two 'cultural' words: the zabuton under the character's belly, and the tatami on which he is lying. The first thing that will be noticed is that the reference to tatami is unaccounted for. While this may have been omitted because of concerns about text length, it is equally possible that the translator simply decided, rightly or wrongly, that this detail is not of optimal relevance to his readers, that the processing load would be too great if it were included. Zabuton, meanwhile, has been replaced by the functional equivalent cushions. There are several connotations, both descriptive and functional, that cannot be conveyed by the word cushion alone: that a zabuton is usually larger, flatter, and firmer than the typical western cushion, that it is specifically intended for use in a tatami room, in which chairs are not normally used, and so on. Newmark (1988:83) describes this strategy as "deculturalising a cultural word", a concept which seems to capture the essence of what is going on, but his observation that this involves using "a culture-free word" should not lead us to deny that such translations can conjure up images rooted in the domestic culture. In a sense, no lexical word can ever be entirely culture-free, and even a seemingly innocuous term such as cushion can release meanings rooted in the domestic culture; besides matters of size and shape, it might be quite reasonable for the image of cushions to suggest a nearby armchair or sofa from which these cushions have been taken, or a carpet on the floor, etc.. Certainly, it is unlikely that word cushion will be associated by English readers with the tatami referred to in the Japanese. While we cannot know exactly what image will be created by any one reader, it seems likely that there will be common features in the images created by Japanese readers that do not appear in the images created by English readers, and vice-versa. In other words, a zabuton is not, and will never be, simply a cushion, but the translator is unable to find a strategy to encode the more specific features of a zabuton without at the same time destroying other relevant features of the text.

This is not to suggest that a different strategy might have achieved greater success, but merely to remind ourselves that however rigorous the translation, communication can occur only if readers are able to connect the words on the page to images drawn from their own experiences. As Venuti (1995(b):9) notes, "the goal of communication can be achieved only when the foreign text is no longer inscrutably foreign, but made comprehensible in a distinctly domestic form." In the example above the choice of cushions focuses the reader's attention on the features of the object that the translator deems relevant in this instance. The functional equivalent will usually be a more general term than the Japanese term, and the translator may supply extra information explicitly through classifiers and epithets. In other words, the Japanese object is represented as a subclass of an item familiar to domestic readers. For example:

in Some Prefer Nettles:

nurimono (p.23) ⇒ wooden lacquerware (p.20)

koushi (p.36) ⇒ latticed window (p.33)

noren (p.40) ⇒ shop curtain (p.38)

yukata (p.118) ⇒ cotton summer kimono (p.111)


in Shiokari Pass:

haori ⇒ men's kimonos (p.14)

himo ⇒ tasseled ties (p.14)

ramune ⇒ fizzy drink (p.25)

butsudan (p.66) ⇒ family altar (p.55)

obi (p.122) ⇒ ornamental waistband (p.93)

As noted earlier, an unfamiliar foreign item can be defined in terms of a familiar foreign item, hence yukata and haori each become a subclass of kimono. At other times, however, many more 'folded' meanings may need to be unfolded if communication is to succeed. Consider this example:

Machiko ga tsukutta teruterubouzu ga noki ni nureteita.

(Shiokari toge, p.117)

(lit: "The teraterabouzu made by Machiko had gotten wet in the eaves.")

A borrowing will not suffice here as the item is unfamilair and the cotext, which informs us only that the teraterabouzu was made by Machiko, and that it was hanging in the eaves, offers few clues to its meaning. The translator must uncover a whole array of relevant senses of teraterabouzu, implicit for the Japanese reader: that it is a kind of doll, that it is relatively small, that it is made of paper, and that Japanese tradition holds that making one and hanging it up outside one's home is believed to keep the rain away. The translator chooses to include all of this information in a single nominal group complex:

The little paper doll that Machiko had made as a charm to keep the rain away, hung limply from the eaves.

(Shiokari Pass, p.90)

This is perhaps a good illustration of the impossibility of perfection in translation work. Although the most relevant aspects of the item may have been captured, the increase in processing requirements is marked in comparison to the original text (one word has become eleven), and yet the definition given still embraces objects that a Japanese reader would not recognize as a teruterubouzu. A teruterubouzu may indeed be a doll which is both small and made of paper, but this is not enough information to ensure that the mental image in the reader's mind corresponds closely with the actual referent. The domestic reader's imagination is restricted only by size and material, and remains otherwise free to create a doll of whatever shape, color and texture it chooses. Moreover, though explicit information about the doll's function is given, readers may still fail to realize that this is normally the reason for making a teruterubouzu, and that it is a quite typical thing for a Japanese child to do.

4. Beyond words: ritual exchanges and codes of conduct.

Like any culture, Japan has many customs and codes of conduct which involve ritual exchanges of formulaic expressions. These pose another obstacle for the translator. Literal translation may result in nonsense, but the expressions in the original often cannot be simply ignored:

Nobuo ga 'itadakimasu' to hashi o totta toki, Machiko ga bikkuri shita you ni itta.

"Ara, o-niisan. O-inori shinai no."

(Shiokari toge, p.47)

(lit: When Nobuo said 'itadakimasu' and picked up his chopsticks, Machiko

spoke, as if shocked: "Hey, (my) Brother! Don't you pray?")

A literal translation of "itadakimasu" would be "I will receive", but this would clearly not suffice to illustrate that this a fixed expression always said before eating. The closest Western cultural equivalent would be saying grace, but a translation that imposed a Christian interpretation on an action unconnected with religion would be patently wrong. Moreover, the point of this scene is the Christian Machiko's shock that her long-lost brother does not say grace, thus revealing to her that he is not a Christian. The translator appears to conclude that English simply does not a have an equivalent expression, and chooses to replace part of the dialogue with his own report of the dialogue:

Nobuo picked up his chopsticks, said the customary words of thanks and began to eat. Machiko looked thunderstruck. "Hey, Brother! Don't you pray before meals."

(Shiokari Pass, p.43)

A similar example appears on the very next page, and is dealt with in much the same way:

Nobuo wa, okaerinasai to aisatsu suru koto mo wasurete, bonyari to sore wo nagameteita. (Shiokari toge, p.48)

(lit: Nobuo forgot to say the greeting 'okaerinasai,' stared numbly at that (scene).)

Forgetting his customary words of greeting, Nobuo looked on numbly.

(Shiokari Pass, p.44)

On another occasion, however, the same translators opt for a literal translation:

Kono Takashi-san ni wa, ie ga tonari na node yoku o sewa ni natte imasu.

(Shiokari toge, p. 164)

(lit:This Takashi, as his house is next door, I'm often indebted to him)

"I live next door to Takashi, and I'm indebted to him in many ways."

(Shiokari Pass, p.120)

In purely semantic terms the translation is accurate, but what the translation perhaps fails to convey is that "O sewa ni natte imasu" is a fixed, ritual expression, variable only through the form of the verb naru, and the use of which does not imply that the speaker is actually any more indebted to Takashi than he is to other neighbours. In short, this expression usually carries no greater illocutionary force than an expression such as "This is my good neighbour Takashi." Indeed, it is significant that the Japanese node ('as', 'because') is unaccounted for in the translation, removing the nuance that the speaker is indebted to Takashi because he lives next door, a nuance that could in itself have helped to signal that this is no more than a ritual exchange of pleasantries.

5. Hidden culture: the translator as cultural guide.

At other times we find allusions to normal customs of behaviour, or violations thereof, which are implicit to the Japanese reader but must be 'unfolded' in the translation:

Chichi to otto no mae mo habakarazu, Misa wa koe o agete naita.

(Shiokari toge, p.341)

(lit: Without hesitating in front of her father and husband, Misa cried loudly.)

...and disregarding Japanese custom, Misa burst into loud sobs in her father's and husband's presence.

(Shiokari Pass, p.250)

We can see here how the translators weave into the text their own interpretation of the sub-text. More examples can be found in which the translator adds information to guide the reader to the sub-text. The following exchange concerns to the name of a pet dog:

"Nan to iu namae?"

"Rindii. Rindobaagu no koto da yo, haikura no na darou?"

(Tade kuu mushi, p.45)

(lit: "What's the name?"

"Lindy. As in Lindbergh. High class name, isn't it?")

The sub-text here is clear to the Japanese reader, but the non-Japanese reader may fail to realize that it is the foreignness of the name Lindbergh that makes the speaker consider it high class, and will certainly miss the significance of the speaker's choice of the expression haikura, derived from the English high class. The clashes between characters in this novel are intentionally symbolic of a wider struggle between traditional (Japanese) values and customs and new (foreign) customs and values. The sub-text to be unfolded here is the second speaker's enthusiasm for all things foreign. Hence:

"What's his name?"

"Lindy. It's short for Lindbergh. A high class imported name."

(Some Prefer Nettles, p.43)

In the following example the reader again needs the translator's help to uncover the sub-text:

"Futon o bou de utsu oto ga tatemono to tatemono no aida ni hibiita."

(Enrai, p.35)

(lit: The sound of hitting futons with a stick echoed between building and building.)

The original text describes a scene familiar to anyone who has lived in Japan, but others might be left wondering quite why futons are being hit with a stick and whether this is normal. The translator explains:

The sound of bedding being pounded free of dust echoed between the buildings.

(Distant Thunder, p.29)

The image is made clear by the choice of the more specific pounding rather than the literal hitting, and the reference to the dust being removed perhaps satisfies the reader that there is a logical reason for this activity. Through these subtle lexical choices the translator aims to uncover the original author's sub-text, namely 'in the nearby apartment buildings people were busy going about their normal daily business.' This scene appears again later in the novel, by which time such elaboration is no longer necessary:

They listened to the slap of someone beating bedding on a porch. (p.165)

6. Puns and beyond: translating the untranslatable.

Puns are yet another aspect of language that poses a formidable obstacle to the translator, who will probably have little choice other than to either ignore them or to add his own comment on the text:

"Kimi no na wa Nagano da ga, nani ni shite mo nagai hanashi datta naa."

(Shiokari toge, p.334)

(lit: "Your name is Naga-no (literally 'long-field') and it's certainly been a long story.")

In this case the authors add a footnote:

"Your name is Nagano, and it's been a long story."

(Shiokari Pass, p.245)

(footnote: 'One of the Japanese characters in the name Nagano means 'long'.')

On another occasion, however, we see an overt communication from the translators within the text. In this scene the main character is writing something, and when asked if it's a love letter, he replies that it's a love letter of sorts. Thereafter:

"Ja, dare da?" (So, who's it to, then?)

"Kami-sama da yo. " (It's to God ('kami-sama'))

"Kami-san? Doko no kami-san dai?" (Landlady (kami-san)? Landlady where?)

(Shiokari toge, p.307)

"It's to the Lord." And Nobuo used an expression which Mihori took to mean the 'landlady'.

"Some landlady! Where does she live?"

(Shiokari Pass, p.225)

Puns are virtually untranslatable because the phonological resemblance between sense segments whose referents are unconnected is unlikely to be reflected in another language. The translator may also struggle when the source language offers several distinct lexical items where only one exists in English. A familiar example is the important distinction between vous and tu in French, for which English can only offer you, but similar obstacles abound in Japanese:

"Kitto namae to iu mono ga suki ja nai'n darou ne. Boku wa boku de, kimi wa kimi de, wareware wa wareware de, karera wa karera de, sorede ii'n ja nai katte ki ga suru'n da."

"Wareware-tte kotoba suki da yo. Nandaka hyougajidai mitai na fun-iki ja nai?"

"Hyouga jidai?"

"Tatoeba, wareware ha minami ni utsurubeshi, toka, wareware wa manmosu o karu beshi, toka ne?"

(Hitsuji o meguru bouken vol 2., p.10)

(lit: "Basically I don't really like names. Me for me, you for you, we (wareware) for we (wareware), they for they, I feel as though that's enough."

"I do like the word 'we' (wareware). Has an Ice-Age feel, don't you think?"

"Ice Age?"

"Such as, 'we move south', or 'we hunt mammoth'.")

"Basically I can't see what's wrong with calling me 'me' or you 'you' or us 'us' or them 'them.'"

"Hmm," she said. "I do like the word 'we', though. It has an Ice Age ring to it."

"Ice age?"

"Such as 'We go south' or 'We hunt mammoth' or..."

(A Wild Sheep Chase, p.188)

The translator opts for a literal translation that perhaps fails to rationalize the second speaker's comments. To appreciate this text requires an understanding that Japanese offers numerous words, at varying levels of formality, that correspond with the English we. Wareware is a rather formal, emphatic expression, used to convey a strong sense of unity, hence common in public speaking and particularly in emphatic generalizations such as "We Japanese...". It lends a particular nuance that is entirely appropriate to the image of brave Ice Age hunters in fearless pursuit of mammoth. To substitute this with the English we, which does not have such connotations, seems to miss the original author's point. McCarthy (2000:22) reminds us that "the most carefully and beautifully constructed passage and character can, in a moment of impatience or thoughtlessness, be brought unceremoniously crashing down." Perhaps the effect here is not quite so catastrophic, but it is certainly likely that the character's dreamy, abstract logic will appear to English readers more like rambling nonsense. At the same time, however, it is perhaps unfair to dwell too long on such criticism if we cannot suggest a better alternative. As McCarthy (2000:20) also notes: "one can be in total disagreement with the choice of another translator and at the same time far from satisfied with one's own solution."

Another reminder that the job of the translator is not just a matter of matching words with objects appears in Shiokari Pass (p.25):

"Father, what are the chrysanthemum dolls like?"

And three lines later:

"Are they figures decorated with chrysanthemums, or are they real people dressed in chrysanthemums?"

The semantic content follows the original, but what the translation is unable to account for is the relative frequency of the Japanese kiku and the English chrysanthemum in the speech of young children. The chrysanthemum, like cherry blossoms, has a close association with the samurai, and is a prominent symbol in Japanese culture. Moreover, the simple, two-syllable kiku poses no more problems for pronunciation that does roses for an English-speaking child. However, when the English chrysanthemum is placed in the mouth of a young child, there is perhaps a danger that the translation will release meanings not intended by the original author (e.g. the child is especially well-educated, has a larger than average vocabulary, etc.).

7. Conclusion.

When faced with sense segments that do not have an obvious English equivalent, or that refer to objects and concepts that lie outside domestic readers' experience, the translator must make choices, both about which meanings to include, and about which to exclude. A translator cannot reasonably be expected to consistently account for each and every one of the meanings buried in the original author's text, and literal translation is certainly unlikely to achieve this. As Newmark (1988:xi) wryly observes, "you only deviate from literal translation when there are good semantic and pragmatic reasons to do so, which is more often than not." In reality, the translator will normally be forced to settle for accounting for only those meanings in the original that can be considered most relevant to his readers, as to do any more than this may place an unacceptable burden of mental processing on the reader. Gutt (1985, in Venuti, 2000:386) explains:

"Sometimes it is possible to achieve a higher degree of resemblance but only at the cost of a decrease in overall relevance because it involves an increase in processing effort that is not outweighed by gains in contextual effects."

When looking at a translation of a text rooted in a foreign culture, it may often be possible to find gaps, or to suggest changes that will produce a closer semantic resemblance to the original, but it will never be possible to produce a translation that accounts for each and every one of the features that made the original text worthy of being read. To say that the translator's work is finished suggests only that no more can be done to improve the translation. In essence, the translator strives to bridge the cultural gap between readers and the foreign text that lies beyond their reach. When the original text throws up objects and concepts that have no obvious counterpart in domestic readers' experience, the translator must ask the question: "Which meanings and connotations are most relevant to the Japanese reader, and how can they be conveyed in English?" This may require the translator to settle on a text that both fails to account for some aspects of the original text and adds features that were not present originally; while the conscientious translator always aims for perfection, this will rarely, if ever, be achieved.


Berman, A. (1985) 'La Traduction comme épreuve de l'étranger.' Texte:67-81. Translated by Venuti, L. and reproduced in Venuti, L. (2000) pp:284-297

Fowler, E. (1992) 'Rendering words, traversing cultures: On the art and politics of translating modern Japanese fiction.' Journal of Japanese Studies 18:1-44

Gutt, A. (1991) 'Translation as Interlingual Interpretive Use.' Chapter 5 in Translation and Relevance: Cognition and Context. Oxford: Blackwell. Reproduced in Venuti, L. (ed.) (2000) pp:377-396

McCarthy, J. (2000) 'Why two translations?' Donaire 14:18-24

Miura, A. (1973) Shiokari toge. Tokyo: Shinchousha

Miura, A., translated by Fearnehough, B. & Fearnehough, S. (1987) Shiokari Pass. Tokyo: Tuttle

Murakami, H. (1985) Hitsuji o meguru bouken. (Vol.1 & 2) Tokyo: Koudansha

Murakami, H., translated by Birnbaum, A. (1989) A Wild Sheep Chase. New York: Vintage Books

Newmark, P. (1988) A Textbook of translation. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall

Steiner, G. (1975) After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. London: OUP

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Venuti, L. (1995(b)) 'Translation and the formation of cultural identities'. in Schäffner, C. & Kelly-Holmes, H. (eds.) Cultural Functions of Translation. Clarendon: Multilingual Matters

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