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What’s Up, Tiger Lily? No really, what’s ‘UP’?


Arturo and Camilla

I did some translation from English into Japanese yesterday for my thesis.  The passage wasn’t very long, but was much harder to translate that I initially thought it would be.  Here is the passage in English:

“…one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humour and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity. The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me.”

My translation after having it proofread is:


I stand by my translation and think that it is a pretty good one, even though it takes quite a few liberties.  Here is the literal translation back into English.

“One day, when I happened to take down and open a random book from the bookshelf, I found it.  I stood for a moment, reading.  Like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried it back to the table. The lines flowed easily from page to page.  Each line overflowed with energy, continuing on to the next line.  The lines expressed an emotion as if something had been carved into the page.  And then, there, appeared an author who was not afraid of emotions.  Humor and pain were mixed with a superb simplicity.  The beginning of that book was an intense and enormous miracle to me.”

One of the techniques that the original author uses to give this text a poeticism, and in turn convincing us that he has indeed been moved by what he has read, is his use of secondary clauses after the main clause.  Mimicking perhaps his overwhelmed response to the book he held in his hand, his thoughts don’t quite follow standard grammatical rules.  But when we read it, it doesn’t strike us as unnatural.  Translating this kind of sentence structure into Japanese is very difficult, perhaps impossible.

I read an essay in Japanese once were the author was trying to convey a similar sense of respect for something he had read in a similar way.  Even though I am by no means native, seeing this kind of sentence structure recreated in Japanese struck me.  I initially thought, “hey you can do that in Japanese too,” but then came to realize that this author was in fact imitating what I am often told is a very, “english (language) expression.”  This means that, even though a native Japanese speaker can understand what is trying to be conveyed, their immediate response is, “A Japanese person would never say it like that.”

Why is there a resistance to using an unfamiliar form even if everyone understands what you are saying?  Perhaps it is cultural, or perhaps it is because the Japanese language, unlike English, has a standard that is studied like it were mathematics.  When I was getting the passage above proofread, the biggest, and only real change came from the line, “The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it.”  Just as in my translation there are ‘extra’ words that do not exist in the original text, there are, from a Japanese language perspective, words that, while they can be translated are, ‘extra.’  Extra because no native speaker would ever phrase things that way.

For example, “the very substance,” seems simple enough, but the word very causes some troubles.  In this context, very is used in much the same way as ‘itself’ is if you were to phrase the sentence as ‘the substance itself,’ and while an world expressing this idea exists in Japanese, that is a word that stresses the immediately preceding or proceeding noun/gerund, it is too formal to be used in such a poetic context.  So you start by leaving out ‘very’ from your translation and feel that part of your soul has gone alone with it.

The other major problems is the relationship between the words ‘a form’ and ‘a feeling.’  Is the author trying to express his attempt to strive for clarity by following the world ‘a feeling’ with the word ‘a form’?  If this is the case then the lines themselves give the page both form and a feeling of something carved into it.  Or is the author describing the sensation of reading a page in which its form is made up of the lines themselves by saying that it feels like something has been carved into the page?  Part of the appeal of this sentence and this style as a whole is that these points are left ambiguous, an ambiguity that only serves to express the authors emotional response even better.

Japanese, is too precise for this.  Unlike in English, subordinate clauses always come before nouns, acting as a kind of adjective.  This means that you have to pick one or the other; does the author want to describe the effect of reading, or is he hesitating with his word choice?

I watched Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” the other day with Japanese subtitles.  They were atrocious.  All of Woody Allen’s self-depricating humor was lost.  He was too literal in translation.  The part that sticks out to me the most is from the beginning when he is sitting at a restaurant with three friends and suddenly lights a cigarette.  His date says, “What are you doing?  You don’t smoke?”  and he replies, “I know, but I just can’t help myself because I look so incredibly handsome with a cigarette in my hand.”  The Japanese subtitles read, “I know, but I look handsome with a cigarette.”

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