The Ghost Dog Principle.

Translator Lily Meyer writes about her process for Bright Wall/Dark Room (archived):

Not too long ago, I spoke to a writer acquaintance who is learning to translate. He was worried about a sentence that, as he put it, did not want to go from French to English. All his translations of it either changed the original’s meaning or were too ugly to tolerate. He was looking for permission to change the meaning. I gave it to him. I’d like to say I helped him give it to himself, but the truth is that I just told him to change it. Afterward, though, I walked him through the thought process to which I return every time I decide, as I often do, that a scrupulously or fundamentally correct translation of meaning is hideous, clunky, or in some other way unacceptable, and cannot remain in the English text I am creating.

My process has four parts, three of which I shared. […] First, I remind myself that my intentions toward the project I am translating are fundamentally good. I respect it and want to share it; I understand it; I want my translation to do the work and its author justice. Second, I remind myself—I wish this one were no longer necessary, for me or for anyone else—that translation is an art, and I am, therefore, an artist. My aesthetic judgment matters. Bearing those ideas in mind, I then test myself for literary bias. Do I dislike the sentence at hand because it is too far from the conventions of contemporary English-language prose? Does it make me itchy because it wouldn’t fly in a workshop, or because it might freak a publisher out? If the answer is yes, or could be yes, or if I have the slightest doubt that the answer might not be no, the sentence stays, to be revisited down the line. If I feel in my bones that the answer is no, it goes.

I did not tell my acquaintance the last bit of my process, which I was afraid would sound discouraging or bleak. My final step is telling myself, once I have decided to change a bad sentence but before I start playing with it, that what I do does not matter. I say this not in a broad sense, but a narrow one. Literary translation matters; it also matters to preserve the meaning of a translated text. Preserving the meaning of every single word, though? No way. I recognize that this may seem perverse, but while I translate, I often encourage myself with the thought that a sentence’s meaning does not mean much. In translation, just like any other form of writing, each sentence has to play well with others. Its tone has to match; its rhythm has to work; it has to flow naturally from, and feel coherent with, everything that came before. Disrupting any of that is a far bigger crime than losing a little meaning here or there. […] And besides, in real live human communication, meaning is rarely the most relevant thing. Privately—and, now, not privately—I refer to this fact as the Ghost Dog Principle, after Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It is a movie I would like all translators, and their readers, to watch.

Ghost Dog’s eponymous protagonist—played by Forest Whitaker, for whom Jarmusch wrote the script—is an ardent reader of translation. One translation, rather. He is devoted to the samurai philosopher Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, a spiritual and logistical guide to life as a samurai written around the turn of the eighteenth century. It is a roaming, anecdotal collection of some 1,300 short texts that, taken together, form one of the central distillations of the ethic by which many samurai fought and lived. Ghost Dog lives by it, too. Jarmusch’s first shot shows Ghost Dog lounging in the rooftop shack where he lives, reading his battered, translated copy of the Hagakure; bits of Yamamoto’s writing, read in Whitaker’s gravelly baritone, break up the film. The first such quote begins, “It is bad when one thing becomes two.” Not to a translator, I always think.

Ghost Dog is two things himself. In his heart, he is a samurai. He is also a Black man working—tenuously, it turns out—as a Mafia killer in a nameless, decaying industrial city that, going by its architecture and its residents’ speech patterns, is based on Newark, New Jersey. He is loyal to Louie, a Mob underboss played by an excellently despairing John Tormey, who once rescued him from a vicious beating and is bemused to have wound up with a feudal-style retainer as a result. Still, the two have more in common than Louie realizes: both live by “old ways,” albeit not the same ones.

Ghost Dog is two things, too. Jarmusch imbues it with a drifty, dreamy beauty that does not obscure, or even collide with, the fact that it is a violent portrait of poverty and precarity. […] Ghost Dog owns a katana, but on hits, he uses a silenced pistol or automatic sniper rifle. His best friend is a Francophone immigrant named Raymond, played by the Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankolé, an ice cream vendor whose English is limited to a handful of words. Raymond and Ghost Dog’s relationship is the sweetest strand of Ghost Dog, and the one that feels closest to magical. It is also the source of my Principle. Ghost Dog and Raymond cannot convey meaning to each other through words, and yet—Jarmusch does not permit the viewer to doubt this—they understand each other perfectly.

Ghost Dog is not a big talker. He seems happiest when communing with the homing pigeons he raises and uses to contact Louie. […] Whitaker plays him with such expressiveness and grace that it seems hardly relevant—though certainly noticeable—that he does not speak until thirty-seven minutes into the movie, when an elementary-schooler named Pearline strikes up a conversation in the park where Raymond parks his ice-cream van and Ghost Dog likes to sit. She asks if it’s true that, as her mother says, he doesn’t talk to anyone and has no friends. In order to disprove the latter, he brings her to Raymond’s van, where a beaming Raymond announces in English that Ghost Dog is his best friend before reverting to French. “Can’t you understand what he’s saying?” Pearline asks Ghost Dog, who tells her, “No. I don’t understand him. I don’t speak French, only English. I never understand a word he says.”

Ghost Dog is full of nonverbal communication—consider the pigeons—but that isn’t quite what is happening between Raymond and Ghost Dog. Jarmusch opts to subtitle Raymond’s dialogue, so non-Francophone viewers know it lines up precisely with Ghost Dog’s. Often, the two men repeat the same statement—or one asks a question, as if rhetorically, that the other then answers in similar language. Rather than seeming coincidental, this mirroring reveals the depth of their friendship. […] It seems that the two are bonded by their affinity for the dreamlike or anachronistic: in one scene, Raymond tells Ghost Dog he’s found a sight he will love, then takes him to watch a man building a boat on a roof. For a moment, the friends marvel together. Ghost Dog asks, “How the hell is the guy ever going to get it down from there?” Raymond says the same in French, then calls their shared question to the boatbuilder, who replies in Spanish, “No entiendo! Sigo trabajando!”—I don’t understand! I keep working! He is outside the small realm of understanding-without-understanding that the friends have built.

You could take their ability to talk to each other as magical—certainly Ghost Dog, with its persistent dreaminess, invites that reading—but I prefer to consider it an exaggerated version of reality. Raymond and Ghost Dog do not need language, shared or not, to demonstrate affection; they do that with daily visits, free ice-cream cones, body language, time spent talking without any expectation of a direct reply. I may not have an endless supply of ice cream to distribute, but I still recognize their ways of showing love from my own life.

I may have to watch that movie.


  1. Alan Joyce says

    Re: this comment:

    “Jarmusch opts to subtitle Raymond’s dialogue, so non-Francophone viewers know it lines up precisely with Ghost Dog’s.”

    I saw Ghost Dog when it first opened in NYC, at the Angelika. I distinctly remember that these scenes were *not* subtitled in the print I saw. Years later, I watched it again on video and was completely surprised to see subtitles. As a non-Francophone viewer, I didn’t have any idea how precisely the characters’ dialogue lined up when I first saw it, but those scenes are filmed and performed so beautifully it was still absolutely clear that they fundamentally “understood” each other despite the lack of a common language. I’ve always wondered if that early print was a mistake, or if Jarmusch added subtitles later in response to audience reactions. I honestly preferred the original, non-subtitled experience; in comparison, the subtitled experience made those scenes come a little too close to being a gag. (Though I can’t say how I would have felt about them had I not had a different first viewing.)

    Whether you have subtitles or not, though, it’s a fantastic movie. One of Jarmusch’s best.

  2. I too saw this when it came out and while it’s been nearly 25 years, I still think about this scene, where the mafiosi discuss naming conventions, on the reg:

  3. Keith Ivey says

    I saw it when it came out. I should rewatch it.

  4. Any excuse to rewatch Ghost Dog is good, and I think her advice is also fairly good, but not for a beginner. The beginner needs to learn that there are many, many more ways of translating that sentence than he has thought of so far—not because he’s a beginner, but because there always will be. Before looking for an excuse to either change it or stick with a version you find hideous, you ask a group or groups of other translators for suggestions. You ask multiple native speakers for their readings of it, in case something has escaped you. You always put it aside and go back to it. In other words, you listen to Janis Joplin and try just a little bit harder. Maybe Meyer thinks that’s obvious, but I’ve read too many published translations that were either riff sessions or calque fests to believe that what new translators need is more encouragement to chill out.

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    He was dressed in a Newmarket coat and tight-fitting trousers; wore a shawl round his neck; smelt of lamp-oil, straw, orange-peel, horses’ provender, and sawdust; and looked a most remarkable sort of Centaur, compounded of the stable and the play-house. 
    Charles Dickens, Hard Times, C.6 “Sleary’s Horsemanship”

    Il portait un habit à la Newmarket, un pantalon collant, et un châle roulé autour du cou ; il sentait l’huile à quinquet, la paille, la pelure d’orange, le fourrage et la sciure de bois, et avait l’air d’une espèce de centaure très-étrange, produit de l’écurie et du théâtre.
    –no translator specified, source:
    There are clunky aspects which to my eye are not reflected in the French, (e.g., the French could be made clunkier by omitting some of the articles and the “il” in “il sentait…”). The French uses about 20% more words, but I do not find this significant: “roulé autour” for “around” but “fourrage” for “provender of horses” (although maybe the latter is a removal of redundancy caused by the choice of “écurie” for “stable”). My final impression is that the French is smoother than the original. I suppose this is a hazard for a translator, noticing clunkiness and reproducing it. What I am getting that is “was the French sentence to be translated into English a bit clunky in French?”

  6. Translated by one William Hugues. See also “Address of the English author to the French public” (vii–viii).

    Try this (and pardon my lean unlovely French):

    Un châle autour du cou, il portait une redingote et un pantalon moulant. Odeurs d’huile à lampe, de paille, d’écorce d’orange, de fourrage, de sciure: une sorte de centaure curieux, composé de l’écurie et du théâtre.

  7. David Marjanović says

    the French could be made clunkier by omitting some of the articles and the “il” in “il sentait…”

    That would be grammatical archaism close to ne sait quand reviendra.

  8. jack morava says

    Jarmusch and Sam Fuller go on a road trip to revisit the

    people in Brazil that Fuller attempted to use in a John Wayne movie

    seventy years ago, in Mika Kaurism\”aki’s fantastic film about things that never were. See it with your friendly neighborhood anthropologist.

    While I’m at it, may I also include a shout-out for `Mystery Train’ and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins?

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