Translating full of judgment calls, compromises


Second of two parts

In this concluding segment (Part I appeared last week), Lynne E. Riggs, translator of Shishi Bunroku’s novel of postwar Tokyo, “Jiyu Gakko” (1951; English version, “School of Freedom,” 2006), discusses the process of translation.

Let’s look at the book’s opening. It introduces Komako, about 30, busy at her treadle sewing machine (this is 1950) while her indolent husband winces at how noisy the thing is.

The paragraph in full reads: Gasha-gasha to iu oto. Mishin oto to iu mono o, dansei wa, amari konomanu yo da. Dai-ichi ni, urusai. Soshite, gakki yori mo etsubin ni, tsukaite no kanjo o tsutaeru kara, komaru.

A translator has to make countless judgments. Will the onomatopoeia gasha-gasha be translated as sound effects, adjectives or as adverbs? Does dansei mean “the man” in the scene or “men” in general? How “noisy” is urusai? And so on. An excessively faithful early draft stumbled over too many big words:

The frenetic whirring of the sewing machine was annoying, but what bothered him even more was that it so unmistakably transmitted the ill-temper of its user. No [musical] instrument could have played his wife’s tune so well.

Two or three versions later I had:

Her treadling filled the air with the whirring and clanking of the sewing machine. To a man’s ears, it was noisy, but worse, it played out the mood of the user more eloquently than any musical instrument. A treadle driven by an angry or irritated spouse can be quite a performance.

Yet this important first sentence should be as light as the original but with the necessary content, and words needed weeding out.

The final version is:

That whirring and clanking, clanking and whirring! To a man’s ears, the sound of a sewing machine is unbearably noisy. Beyond that, it all-too-eloquently conveys the mood of the user.

Shishi introduces a lot of Occupation-era slang in the episode when the fashionable young couple, Yuri and Takabumi, are quarreling at Oiso. Was that difficult?

Very. I tried all sorts of things. I wanted to preserve the delightful flavor of young people’s vernacular in that era: toppoi (you’re impossible! you’re a nitwit!); pinchi (in a pinch, out of pocket), chaji (“charge,” pay the check), hei-chara (no problem, easy), hen na keishikishugi (strange formalism/classical manners/weird customs), neba suki (I’ll never like you). Yuri is a bold, strong-willed girl of good family who disdains old-fashioned ways. Takabumi, a dandyish romantic, seems fated to be dominated by strong women. Here we made a compromise between the translator’s wish to preserve as much as possible of the original and the editor’s conventional wisdom that it just wouldn’t work.

Yuri is giving Takabumi a hard time. My first draft read:

“You’re impossible! [fumes Yuri]. I bet you haven’t the least intention of going to ‘Hama [Yokohama] for some fun. You’re just making excuses. I bet I know why. You’re pinchi (hard up for cash), right? If you haven’t got the money, why don’t you just say so — go ahead, just admit it! Gee, why don’t you relax. I’ve got money — plenty of money — to go to ‘Hama for Chinese food. So there.”

[To which Takabumi replies,] “Tonde mo happen (No way!) No; I won’t have it. How could I let Yuri (chaji) take the charges?!”

“Oh, you’re so infuriatingly old-fashioned! Why do you insist on being so classic? Never suki (I’ll never like you) if you keep that up!”

In the final draft that became:

“Oh! Come on! You’re such a nitwit! I bet you haven’t the least intention of going to ‘Hama for some fun. You’re just making excuses. I bet I know why. You’re in a pinch, huh? If you haven’t got the money, why don’t you just say so. Go ahead, just admit it! I’ve got money-plenty of money-to go to ‘Hama for Chinese food. It’s a cinch!”

Never happen—no way! No, I won’t have it. How could I let you pay?”

“That’s what I can’t stand! Can’t you forget such weird customs? Never suki—I’ll never like that kind of thing!”

The English has to be a little clunky because Komako, listening, is portrayed as having a hard time understanding the “new slang.” Language melanges like this are really a handful for both translator and editor.