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Haters gonna hate: Mori Ogai on translation

A translation of Mori Ōgai 森鴎外’s Honyaku ni tsuite 「翻譯に就いて」 (“On translation”), published in 1914 for a collection of essays by famous writers on literary technique.


Translation and fallacy

I have been asked to write something on translation for this book. It appears that I am considered a major figure among translators. Very well — but on the other hand, there are those who put it about that my translations are almost entirely erroneous, that I have no talent for translation, and that my translations have no value.

It has become fashionable of late for translators to bring their work to my home and have me write an introduction to it. Even those with no connection to me whatsoever come to make these requests. Some even admit that they do so despite reservations on their own part because the “vulgar masses” trust my introductions. Some only use my introduction after altering individual characters to meet some mediocre or even erroneous stylistic standards. It seems to me that many of those who request introductions from me are the very same people who claim to find errors in my own translations.

When I do examine some word or phrase identified as a flaw in one of my translations, I find myself in agreement only very rarely. Translation of novels and plays is not philological research. One’s work is not completed simply by translating each word individually and arranging the results in lines. And so complaints that words not in the original were added deliberately and accusations that words in the original were intentionally left out do not distress me in the slightest.

The real-life example of Nora

Complaints have been voiced of late about Nora, my translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Here I shall discuss two or three of the most ridiculous examples.

The term used for the boy whom Nora has carry the Christmas tree home I translated denbin 傳便. This is an error; it should rather be what was once called a kobashiri 小走, a “messenger boy” in the West of today — so I was informed, with a knowing look. But the first city in our country to have “messenger boys” was Ogura Kokura in Kyushu, and this is where the word denbin was first coined. Ogura is a queer place in general, and one which also saw the first appearance in Japan of the advertising pillars known as “Litfass columns” in the West. As for what a kobashiri might be, I do not know. In old Edo there were men known as tayoriya 便屋 [“letter carriers”], but these were not the same as denbin.

Writing of Nora’s house, I mentioned a zenbō 前房 [literally “front room”]. This is actually something like a corridor, people told me, or “a small sitting room by the genkan,” or the genkan itself. What’s more, they took care to preface these remarks with “in the houses of Norway…” That the zenbō is something like a corridor is true in all the countries of the West. Every country, more or less, has a word corresponding to zenbō, and I have used it with this meaning for some twenty or thirty years. To translate “door to the zenbō” as “door to the genkan,” as I was urged, would be rather odd. Genkan, they say, originally referred to the gate of a zen temple. In a personal home, it is the front entrance. There may be a door in the genkan, but surely not a door to the genkan. And as for “a small sitting room by the genkan,” such phrasing is sheer self-gratification.

Amedama and macaroons

The sweets that Nora eats I translated makuron マクロン. Write rather amedama 飴玉, I was told. Advice like this simply boggles the mind. Tins of almond macaroons have been shipped here in great number so that you may buy them at Aokido whenever you please. Reflect, if you will, on the difference in situation between a woman of the West eating a macaroon and a child of Japan eating an amedama. I recall one scene in a novel by someone-or-other wherein two female university students in Paris’s Latin Quarter munch on macaroons as they trade stories of heartbreak. To switch those macaroons for amedama, of all things — well, it would certainly be comical. The gist of such teachings is that item should appear in translation as appropriately chosen items unique to Japan, but as for myself, I strive to avoid things unique to Japan, the better to produce an extraordinary effect. Furthermore, we only consider here cases where there is an appropriate corresponding item. When uniquely Japanese and inappropriate items appear, the results are quite unbearable.

These past few days have been uncommonly hot. I have been unable to write anything worthwhile. Besieged nevertheless with demands to write, to write, I dashed off this trifle. Please be assured that no offense is intended.

January 19, 2010

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

23 Responses

  1. LS Says:

    I found this pretty entertaining:

  2. Peter Says:

    Nice post.

    PS: Ogura? Kokura?

    Sorry, not hating, just differentiating the city from the ditzy model.

  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    What is this, philological research? (Fixed.)

    LS: Huh, interesting watch. Thanks for the link. His moral judgments seem a bit extreme, but he describes the issue well: fansubbers used to aim to emulate the mainstream of modernization, as a prestige thing, but otaku culture has since gone postmodern, and fansubs are just another way of performing your otaku identity.

  4. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > A translation of Mori Ōgai ”On translation”

    Oooh, I see what you did there.

  5. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > the mainstream of modernization

    I should note that the professional translation (English dubbing!) of the Persona games added quite a lot of –san and –kun and –chan where there was none in the original.

  6. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    …also, to complain that people are being postmodern when fansubbing Sayōnara Zetsubō Sensei is kind of unfair. How else could you do it?

  7. LS Says:

    It’s pretty clear that fansubbers are doing something other than traditional translation for otaku-performative purposes (they aren’t paid, after all). And nowadays it seems most people watching fansubs speak at least some Japanese; the subs are more like cliff’s notes than an experience of the work itself.

    His criticisms re: using titles for people’s names but not for first-person pronouns or sentence endings are way off, though — the latter breaks English grammar while the former does not.

    In general I think he’s just on a declensionist/elitist kick, but it is fun to point out excesses and errors. As far as actual Japanese comprehension goes, I’m always struck by how much worse fansubs from around 2006 are than the ones done overnight today. They’re getting much better.

  8. Adamu Says:

    He’s absolutely right that translations should be plain to the point of near-invisibility, but good luck getting anime fans to give up the competition for being the most elite fansubber out there. Sorry but that series of videos is way more interesting than Mori Ogai whining about cookies.

  9. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Wait, I meant “mainstream of localization.”

    I would say that he’s on the same sort of elitist kick as the “journalist” side of “journalist vs blogger.” (And I don’t mean “elitist” as an insult necessarily.) The situations are very similar: gatekeepers and professional types upholding (at least in theory) quality and ethical standards vs open-source mob who want MAXIMUM INFODUMP NOW NOW NOW, and who don’t recognize the old guard’s standards because they have new standards of their own.

  10. Adamu Says:

    There is a big difference between bloggers and anime fansubbers. The fansubbers have adopted practices that make it extremely difficult for new fans to watch the material, whereas there is no similar phenomenon among bloggers.

    I think there’s a practical concern at play. Once a title gets officially licensed, the Fansubber Code mandates that they take down the pirated copies. Therefore, the longer a title remains something cherished among a small group of dedicated fans, the more fun they can have.

  11. Adamu Says:

    btw, to keep this thread from getting sidetracked I posted my thoughts on Mutant Frog:

  12. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    The fansubbers have adopted practices that make it extremely difficult for new fans to watch the material, whereas there is no similar phenomenon among bloggers.

    I don’t know that it’s all that difficult for new fans to watch the material. They’re teenagers who spend most of their lives staring at a screen with nine information sources open at once anyway.

    My point is just that he’s only “right” about how translation “should” be insofar as you buy into the standard ethical and aesthetic arguments about translation. We might buy into them too, but what’s more interesting: patting ourselves on the back about it, or trying to figure out where and why fansubbers disagree?

    Sorry but that series of videos is way more interesting than Mori Ogai whining about cookies.

    That’s a pity, man, because Mori is actually arguing for an interesting middle ground. I bet that a Japanese Otaking 100 years ago would be among those saying “Why does he translate this word ‘makuron’ when we have a perfectly good native word like ‘amedama’ in Japanese? LERN 2 TRANSL8 N00B”

    Ogai even has a parenthetical note explaining what a “denbin” is, right there in the text of his translation. Can you believe the ineptness and crudity of that, uh, central figure in modern Japanese literature?

  13. M-Bone Says:

    “I don’t know that it’s all that difficult for new fans to watch the material.”

    Could also argue that many of the titles that are being fansubbed and the character goods, etc. that are sold through commercial channels are only viable products if a geek/hardcore Japanophile consumption niche is created and maintained. In so much as these (often spectacularly stupid) fansubs are breaking in new nerd consumers, I’m not sure that they are such a bad thing (aside from the fact that they ensure that awful moe anime keeps getting made).

    For more casual viewers or people not interested in the fansubber subculture, I’m not sure that layers of subs even register. I watch a moderate amount of fansubs, but don’t know the name of a single fansub group.

    In the end, a “Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t need fansubbers to help it get as mainstream as it is going to get, but something like “Kanon” is only going to sell as long as a certain type of fantasy Japan becomes a fetish and fansubs very well may help with that.

  14. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    I insist that, when the original material is things like Sayōnara Zetsubō Sensei and Puni Puni Poemi, it’s already completely unacessible to beginners from the start. Guys, the source of navel-gazing postmodernism here is the entire anime industry. Fansubbers are just following the trend.

    I mean, have you seen Zetsubō Sensei? I absolutely love it, but there is so much text it’s basically impossible to watch without pausing every fifteen seconds. Without counting subtitles.

  15. Shii Says:

    Fansubs from the early 1990s were usually awful. I don’t see where that guy gets off on criticizing modern fansubbing that usually has far superior QC and timing work.

    Similarly, to get us back on track, the criticisms of Ogai in his article sound like jealousy, or sour grapes.

  16. xee Says:

    well, Ogai’s not exactly going to choose criticisms that make him sound unreasonable, is he?

  17. Adamu Says:

    Well, perhaps it would be better to say that otaku flame-wars are more interesting to watch, but Mori Ogai’s influence was probably much more significant. I think Mori Ogai was operating in a very different era. Back then, Japan was early in the process of adopting thousands of katakana words, so there was a real disagreement on how to treat all these new concepts. Given his influence, the decision to use makuron (or other choices like it) must have had an immense impact on the way Japanese developed into what it is today. Presented with a similar problem, the Chinese clearly took a very different route. But imagine if Japan had leaned toward kanjifying everything or translating it into something Japanese-sounding?

    Turning back to the fansub debate, I am seeing signs of a similar tension over the direction of loan words in English (except on a much more fringe level). There’s an off chance that these debates could help chart the direction of English in the years to come as well.

  18. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I insist that, when the original material is things like Sayōnara Zetsubō Sensei and Puni Puni Poemi, it’s already completely unacessible to beginners from the start.

    SZS is a special case, to be sure. Kumeta Koji’s work is so heavily reliant on language (even apart from marginalia and in-jokes) that an Ota King-approved localization would be a rewrite of Asterixian proportions.

    Presented with a similar problem, the Chinese clearly took a very different route.

    I don’t know enough about the history of Chinese to say, but I bet practical issues (lack of kana, lower general literacy) have a lot to do with this.

    But imagine if Japan had leaned toward kanjifying everything or translating it into something Japanese-sounding?

    It is interesting to look at certain fields and see how they turned out one way or the other. Food and fashion: Mostly straight-up loanwords. Politics and philosophy: Mostly translations (into Sino-Japanese, natch). Music: Somewhere in between… And then of course you have the practice of writing 極美 and giving it the furigana アイデアル. What column does that one go in? Ah, I love Meiji Japanese.

  19. Chuckles Says:

    Whats interesting about this kind of apology for a style of Japanese translation is how much it is itself indebted to struggles to free Japanese thought from chinese influence through the years – Ogai and his ilk make little mention of it, but several, several decades earlier, Motoori Norinaga did as much – and his stance against chinese mindedness most definitely was a major stylistic factor for new generations of Japanese as they engaged the new “it” “window to the world” European languages. One could even reread the entire essay in the context of Kara gokoro versus Yamato gokoro – the arguments are not even particularly original.

  20. Oi-lin Says:

    Presented with a similar problem, the Chinese clearly took a very different route.

    This is not wholly true. The Chinese (especially Cantonese) have adopted many words from foreign languages (nothing like the Japanese), and there are characters that are basically used only for foreign loanwords. I’m guessing that these are somewhat like manyougana from back when, but I’m of course not certain, not being a student of Japanese philology. :)

  21. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Chuckles: I think the big difference is that both Ogai and his critics agreed that the literature of the West had value at least as a source of ideas. If anything it was a dick-measuring contest over who understood it better, rather than a wholesale denouncing party a la kokugaku. (I assume that the folks who carried on the straight-up kokugaku tradition of keeping wa “pure” would not be quibbling over how to translate the word “macaroon”.)

    Oi-lin: Yes, and some of those words even made it into Japanese (e.g. ). I think there is a difference though in terms of scale, although I don’t know much about Cantonese specifically… and I wouldn’t be surprised if the language spoken on a Britified trader’s island had more loanwords than the language defined by a landlocked, communist capital.

  22. Oi-lin Says:

    Treyvaud: Check out each year’s updates to the “neologism” (新词语) books put out in mainland China — a good bit will be phonetic loanwords (many also based on meaning). There is of course a difference in scale (thus why I’d say that it’s “not wholly true” as China has nothing on Japan), but the mainland’s opening up and English craze has given birth to a number of loan words.

    (Should also state that Macao also has interesting loan words in Cantonese, but that they a) have also adopted many of HK’s English loan words, and b) seem to be adopting loan words from Mandarin [where another word would be used in Cantonese], pronounced in Cantonese than HK. I’d love to find out if anyone’s done studies on this, but I’ve barely the time to follow interesting blogs. :)

  23. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Thanks! I’ll be sure to check that out if I get a chance.