TRANSLATION TO AND FROM JAPANESE.

Matt Treyvaud of No-sword regularly writes for Néojaponisme, where he has a new translation of Mori Ōgai’s 1914 essay Honyaku ni tsuite 「翻譯に就いて」 (“On translation”), a lively response to his detractors (“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”). The first comment in the thread links to the first in a series of five YouTube videos by Paul “Otaking” Johnson, a considerably livelier full-scale assault on the practices of the “fansubbers” who create their own amateur subtitles for anime films. He says the first such amateurs tried to imitate the self-effacing nature of professional subtitlers, but the newer crop is more and more intent on showing off their detailed knowledge of the language and customs (and their ability to produce eye-popping visual effects), placing distracting footnotes at the top of the screen and inserting obtrusive translations into the film itself, to the detriment of enjoying the movie they’re supposedly putting themselves at the service of. I, a certified old fossil, am entirely in agreement with him (and greatly enjoyed his reductio ad absurdum at the end of the fifth and final video), but many of the (presumably hip, young) commenters on Matt’s thread think he’s in the thrall of an elitist hegemony that contradicts the essentially postmodern and multitasking nature of today’s reality. Or something. Anyway, a couple of tidbits; his response to the subtitle “What is this fast thing?” is “Seriously, if that’s the best English you can come up with, you may as well go and drown in a pool of your own making.” And: “Because so many fansubbers believe that the Japanese must not be changed, you often see lines like ‘I… I… you!’” Enjoy. Or disdain, if you prefer. This is Liberty Hall, you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard.
Addendum. Exactly the same debate is going on with respect to manga (comics). Thanks, David!

Comments

  1. I haven’t watched much fansubbed anime, but it’s good to hear that I’m not the only one to find it unhelpful. Of course, I come from a tradition of subtitling, rather than dubbing, so I have expectations of the product. (Another issue is that Japanese voices seems to annoy me most of the time …)

  2. I write this as a fansubber, and as one who enjoys anime, fansubbed or otherwise.
    There are many groups out there fansubbing, and as many styles of, and attitudes towards, fansubbing as there are groups. Are some of them monstrously annoying? Of course there are. There are also, however, groups who do a job at least as good as professional subbers; sometiem*s better. One should also bear in mind that the number of series that are subbed by only one group is minimal; it’s usually possible to watch a series you like subbed by a group you like. There are, believe it or not, people who like those notes, and I’ve read many complaints that the karaoke for the opening and ending songs isn’t fancy enough.
    I sub for a group that favours readability; you’d be surprised at the discussions that take place over one line, just so we’re sure that it reflects what is said, while simultaneously appearing in good, natural English. This may or may not be common, but it’s certainly far from unique.
    If you’re going to pick a subbing group at random, I’d say that there’s a thirty per cent chance that you’ll pick one that considers good, readable English to be essential. Sure, that means that seven out of ten care more for other aspects – speed, style, literal translation, whatever – but if you’re going to watch fansubbed anime (and I think you should (obviously)), it’s worth looking for groups that share your belief in what constitutes a good translation.

  3. I have watched the five part video series. I tend to agree in general with what OtaKing says. Obviously, not all fansubbers do this, but a good amount of them do. I particularly hate the side notes interfering with the picture. Put them either in a .txt file or at the beginning or end of the video.

  4. There are, believe it or not, people who like those notes
    Oh, I believe it; I love notes myself (and kept pausing the video so I could read them). But as aeug says, they should be in a txt file, not cluttering the screen.
    Thanks to both of you for your informed responses!

  5. Hat, do you know the origin of that Liberty Hall phrase? In particular, does it predate A. Bertram Chandler? (“Liberty-hall” is found in She Stoops To Conquer, but not the rest of it.)

  6. John Emerson says:

    Are you speaking against Woody Allen?

  7. I watch and read a lot of fan-translated works. The quality really varies.
    The worst are the groups that subtitle based on translates; for example, they have a manga that is originally Japanese, but since they speak Chinese, they make an English translation based on the Chinese version. It’s like a game of telephone.
    But there are some really talented people out there. There is actually a lot of discussion about translation among fans: Should we leave honorifics in? Should we translate this word? Should we change this metaphor or include a footnote?
    Even *good* fansubs violate some of the “rules” of translation. Footnotes are an example; good fansubs don’t have many of them, but if the choice is between changing a reference and putting in a footnote, in general, I think fansubbers will put in a footnote.
    But I think that it’s important to remember that many these are being created for a niche audience that has different preferences and needs than a mainstream audience. (To start with, because we watch fansubs on the computer for the most part, it’s easy to pause to read a footnote if you need it to understand. The audience is also more familiar with Japanese/Korean/Chinese language and culture than the average English speaker, and more open to putting in some work to understand something that would have lost too much meaning if changed to English.) What’s more, fansubbers are themselves part of this niche audience, which means they closely interact with them. There are many discussions in fandom about the best way to handle translation, and a lot of it is intelligent and well-reasoned. Some of it, though, would probably seem very weird to a person who professionally translates novels.
    /defense of fansubbers

  8. Thanks, Kutsuwamushi, that makes a lot of sense, and I fully recognize that I’m not part of the relevant subculture, so I have no business judging how it does things. It’s just that as an old fossil, I think of movies, even anime, as experiences to be enjoyed continuously, as the creators presumably intended; sure, if it’s something you love you can go back and watch it again, pausing as often as necessary to pick up details or think about what you’ve just seen, but it should be possible to just watch the whole thing through with as few distractions as possible. Again, though, although I’ve seen and enjoyed a few anime in theaters, I’m not the target audience.

  9. The same thing’s going on in manga, apparently: http://www.tcj.com/manga/and-the-puns-oh-the-untranslatable-puns

  10. Going by your description of it, that russian translator couple is an example of the same phenomenon; stiff and poor translations that fool people into thinking their more genuine.

  11. mollymooly says:

    “they have a manga that is originally Japanese, but since they speak Chinese, they make an English translation based on the Chinese version. It’s like a game of –”
    mmmpf. must avoid obvious jokes.

  12. The same thing’s going on in manga, apparently
    Thanks very much; I’ve added that to the post.

  13. Reading Ōgai’s piece is interesting because all of his choices are now pretty much archaic. 前房 zenbō is now used mainly in a medical context (e.g., the anterior chamber of the eye). マクロン makuron is now normally written マカロン makaron. And 伝便 denbin is not used at all, except perhaps in Kokura…
    Such is the fate of a translator at a time of rapid linguistic change. There was no doubt logic in Ōgai’s choices, but they were simply choices, nothing more, and they haven’t really stood the test of time.
    In one sense, however, some of the thinking that he expresses may have had a major influence on the later development of Japanese. For example, he obviously felt that ame-dama was so quintessentially Japanese that it would have been ludicrous to have a European eating one. The use of the Sino-Japanese expression 前房 for what is presumably the antechamber is another. Ōgai is protesting against the use of a good Japanese word (玄関 genkan) for what is obviously a Western concept (and don’t be fooled by his erudite reference to the gate of a zen temple; this is just a red herring thrown in to try and bolster his case). And with denbin he has taken an (at-the-time) modern regionalism and used it in preference to a more established term.
    These are all good examples of the split personality that is now a mark of the Japanese vocabulary, a split that Ōgai may have helped to foster: European names (or at least separate names) for European things, Japanese names for Japanese things. This habit is still deeply engrained in the Japanese psyche. For example, a Japanese acquaintance once told me he felt it quite ludicrous that a samurai helmet (kabuto) was called a ‘helmet’ in English, because a ヘルメット herumetto is quite clearly one of those rounded things that construction workers, motorcycle riders, and modern soldiers wear. Such is the power of particularism. It is a habit of mind that I regard in some fuzzy sense as having given rise to some of the most creative and at the same time some of the most reactionary aspects of Japanese culture.

  14. Re the zenbo/genkan issue: the original word seems to be “forstuen” (“En dør til høyre i bakgrunnen fører ut til forstuen”), although I doubt Ogai was working from a Norwegian text. Whether his particularism here is justified by real differences in character and function between Japanese genkan and European “forstuen”, I do not know. I imagine that some LH comment thread regulars might know a thing or two about 19th-century European architecture, though.

  15. The worst are the groups that subtitle based on translates; for example, they have a manga that is originally Japanese, but since they speak Chinese, they make an English translation based on the Chinese version. It’s like a game of telephone.
    Do you mean “based on the Chinese-translated version”?
    In the instance of manga, many of the official Chinese translations are very good (especially those coming out of Taiwan). (I’m a professional C->E translator who does J->E and F->E freelance, so I hope that I can be a judge of this.)
    Additionally, it is unlikely that Ogai himself was working off of the original Norwegian text as my recollection is that he did not speak that language.

  16. Spit on the welcome mat?
    The “cat” is the cat-o-nine-tails (?), the scourge used to whip sailors in the British Navy (and other navies?). (You’re not beaten for thinking the cat is a “bastard” – weren’t the sailors emphatically encouraged to understand it in exactly that way?)
    So: “Do whatever you want — but what you do do will expose (to the astute) what it is that you do want.”

  17. Fansubbing sounds like a version of what rap/hippity-hop song producers have been doing for 30 years: taking something that’s, if not in the public domain legally, then in the public realm of manipulation technologically — and making it their ‘own’, making it new. There are now also a zillion mash-ups of video-and-song on youtube.
    Borges’s Menard’s Quixote, The Waste Land, Duchamp’s Gioconda, Shakespeare’s North’s Amyot’s Plutarch — it’s a pretty well-rehearsed conversation! – and one that’s included translation as a medium of its own since, well, the primordial Syntactic Grunting of proto-world.
    As I see things, the issue of whether fansubbing (fanslation?) is done at all should be separated from whether – and the questions of how – it’s done well.

  18. Bathrobe: This sort of semantic narrowing is very common in borrowings. My favorite example (and most suitable for this blog) is Spanish sombrero ‘hat’ > English sombrero ‘traditional Mexican hat’.

  19. Spanish sombrero ‘hat’ > English sombrero ‘traditional Mexican hat’
    Is it also true that Russian borscht ‘soup’ > English borscht ‘traditional Russian beet soup’?
    Or did I maybe invent or dream that?

  20. Well, I don’t know about other people, but in my (English) family borscht is always beetroot.

  21. it is unlikely that Ogai himself was working off of the original Norwegian text as my recollection is that he did not speak that language.
    Although I do know some 15 year-old Norwegian twins who claim to be learning Japanese from reading comics. They are very smart kids.

  22. Is it also true that Russian borscht ‘soup’ > English borscht ‘traditional Russian beet soup’?
    No, the English word carries over the Russian meaning. The Russian word for ‘soup’ is (wait for it)… sup.

  23. Michael Nico says:

    For me, it is good in using subtitling rather than dubbing in a movie…but I want to hear japanese voices particularly in anime because it sounds good to hear but the disadvantage is that, I don’t understand…so it is important to put subtitle so it is easy to understand the dialog of the characters.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    generic to particular:
    Spanish sombrero ‘hat’ > English sombrero ‘traditional Mexican hat’
    Russian borscht ‘soup’ > English borscht ‘traditional Russian beet soup’
    French gâteau ‘cake’ > French cake ‘traditional English fruitcake’ (now often replaced by “gâteau aux fruits”).

  25. Russian borscht ‘soup’ > English borscht ‘traditional Russian beet soup’
    This was Ø’s invention or dream.

  26. John Emerson says:

    DFo the French make invidious “cake” jokes? If they do, shame on them too. Fruitcake is wonderful, at least my mother’s was. Just be sure to use enough rum or brandy, don’t let it get dry, and leave out the Brazil nuts and maybe the citrons.
    Granted, the Methodist prohibition fruitcake is to be avoided.

  27. I don’t use gateau in English myself — it’s a BrE term — but I bet it is semantically narrowed with respect to French.

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