Monday, April 23, 2012

Literal Schmiteral


A person, some sacrifice not existing, any gaining cannot do.
Something to gain for, an equal price necessary becomes.
That, the in-alchemy equivalent exchange principle is.

The above quote is from Al’s opening monologue in the world-popular animated Japanese TV series Fullmetal Alchemist (2003-2004)… as “literal” as I could make it without completely breaking the rules of English grammar. As translations go, it’s as faithful as a dumb puppy dog. But it sounds more like Yoda on drugs.

The reason why should be obvious: languages word things differently, a fact so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning. But even knowing that, discerning critics in anime/manga fandom still continue to clamor for “literal” translations of their favorite shows and books. Almost any deviation brings outrage from legions of angry fans. It’s as if they actually want the translations to sound bad.

As a translator of some of those same shows and books, I have to admit that for a long time I found this prevailing attitude really confusing, because even the most hardcore literalists would have to agree that the translation above goes too far. They don’t really want it that literal. What they want is grammatically correct English where the word choices somehow “match” the Japanese vocabulary of the source text. And once I realized that, I hit on the answer to the question: Fans don’t want translations to sound “bad”—they want them to sound foreign. If you can’t use the Japanese as-is, the next best thing is distorting the English to sound more Japanesey. That way it’s more authentic, right?

There’s just one problem: Japanese people watching a Japanese show on TV in Japan don’t think the dialogue sounds foreign at all.

Think about that for a second.
If the people who create these stories are trying to communicate something to their audience, then “authentic” should be passing that message along to whatever audience watches the show, in whatever language. That’s what translation means. Yet why do so many anime/manga fans in the West prefer the message served up on a bed of—let me say it plainly—manufactured exoticism?
Honestly, I don’t know. But I know they’re not alone. The debate between “literal” and “idiomatic” translation has been raging for centuries. When defending his translations of Greek into Latin, the Roman orator Cicero answered with his own notion of equivalent exchange: “Rather than count out the words like so many coins, I felt it was my job to give the reader the value of their weight.” But the only ones who seem truly swayed by that argument are other translators. Most of the reading and viewing public believes quite strongly that nothing short of the “exact” phrasing of the source text will do. And since that’s rarely if ever possible, translators are vilified as cruel deceivers. Traduttori tradittori holds the Italian saying—“Translators are traitors.”

What many people don’t seem to understand is that every translation is interpretive to one degree or another. The first level of interpretation is the words themselves: which source nouns map to which target nouns, and so on for verbs and modifiers and other grammatical relations. That’s the level most newbies remain stuck at, before they do enough to learn for themselves that translation can’t actually work at that level alone. Their naïveté stems from the common misconception that words carry meaning like boxes carry goods. In their eyes, translation is just transferring the units of meaning from one set of boxes into another set of boxes.

But of course there’s another level of interpretation—the discourse level, involving recognition of the fact that language is a form of communication between people that always takes place within some sociopolitical context. The people on both ends of the discourse act each bring their own values and beliefs and agendas to bear on the language in complex ways that can’t be conveyed by simple-minded mappings from one set of words to another set of words . At the discourse level, meaning doesn’t come in boxes, it comes as trees. And when you want to copy a tree, you can’t simply make a mold, pour “tree” into it and wait for it to harden. You have to grow your own tree. You may take a seed from the original tree, but when you plant it you don’t end up with the same tree. What you get is the effect of your climate on that type of seed. That’s what translation is like.

Let’s look at just one example, taken from the first episode of the animated Japanese TV series When They Cry: Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (2006). This line is spoken by the main character Keiichi:

Toki ni wa ore ga sensei ni kawatte, Rena ya Mion no benkyo o miru hame ni naru.

Sometimes I end up having to look over maybe Rena or Mion’s work in place of the teacher.’
The above translation is my own, a bit contrived for the purposes of this example. The tricky part is the phrase hame ni naru, which indicates that the subject is stuck in the position of having to do something undesirable; most dictionaries will give translations like “plight” or “predicament” for hame. I was able to find five different translations of this line—three unofficial (done by fans) and two official (done by professional translators contracted to a licensed North American distributor). The portions in boldface type indicate how each one handles the tricky part:
A) Sometimes I become the teacher and check Rena’s and Mion’s work.

B) Sometimes I help by teaching Rena and Mion as well.

C) When other students need help, I sometimes end up having to teach Rena and Mion myself.

D) I sometimes end up teaching Rena and Mion in her place.

E) I’m sometimes forced to help teach Rena and Mion.

Which would you say is more literal? (A) is arguably closest to the original in phrasing, but treats the hame nuance as irrelevant, while (E) goes too far in the other direction, taking it as the key point of focus. Both extremes fail to convey the right tone, which is more closely approximated by (B) or (D), although the latter two have different takes on whether the helping is a positive act (B) or a predicament (D). The correct answer is that it’s both: Keiichi helps the class (positive act), which involves having to teach other students (predicament). The only one that gets it right is (C)—the official dubbed (not subtitled) version of the line—which is ironically the least literal of the five.

Note also in passing that all five versions ignore the nuance of ya (non-exclusive ‘and’), which indicates that Rena and Mion are only examples of students that Keiichi might teach. None of the translations treat this tidbit of information as important because the scene shows Keiichi helping Rena and Mion only, so the line functions better as narration with the simpler “Rena and Mion” instead of a more confusing (but more “literal”) rendition like the “maybe Rena or Mion” in my own contrived translation above.
What this example shows is that every translation is forced to interpret the words of the text in light of what the translator believes the communicator (often presumed or abstract) is attempting to convey to the audience (also often presumed or abstract). In this case, the translator attempts to see the situation from Keiichi’s point of view and use both linguistic and cultural knowledge to judge what the point—what we might just as easily call the “meaning”, but in a broader sense—of this particular act of discourse is. Is Keiichi complaining? Is he bragging? Is he offering someone a justification for his arrogant behavior? The words themselves don’t tell us. Only a deeper analysis of the total context of the utterance can help us here. By judging the tone of Keiichi’s voice, the expression on his face, the significance of the audience to him and many other factors, we make an educated guess as to what he is trying to say and why, and then attempt to say roughly the same thing in roughly the same way using the target language.

The danger of “just” translating the words of the text—an impossibility in any case—is that a mere listing of the isolated meanings of the words can get in the way of presenting what the text actually communicates, which is both more contextual and subtextual. As we have seen, languages word the same ideas differently because each language has developed out of a different cultural history and expresses a different approach to carving up the world of phenomena. Dictionary definitions don’t even come close to containing all of that. At best, they are a crude approximation of the truth, sort of like how a pawn on a chessboard represents (or “means”) a foot soldier: the concept is there in the abstract, but the details are left to the player’s imagination.

So how do I answer the charge that my own translations ought to be more “literal”? Literal schmiteral, I say. There ain’t no such thing.