In memory of Geraldine Harcourt, who passed away in New Zealand last month, we republish an interview with Geraldine from JAT Bulletin 182 of May 2000.

The Challenges of Translating a Best-selling Nonfiction Work
by Geraldine Harcourt

This month Geraldine Harcourt (winner of the 1990 Wheatland Translation Prize) has generously agreed to answer some questions about her latest project, the translation of Hirotada Ototake's autobiographical bestseller, 『五体不満足』, under the title No One's Perfect. Bulletin readers who live outside of Japan might not have heard of this book, in which the author, who is still in his twenties, relates his 'life in progress'. Born with no arms or legs, he has not let this stop him from tackling life with humor and great gusto, becoming involved in basketball, American football, a range of school activities and, in recent years, the movement to establish a 'barrier-free' environment for the disabled in Japan. No One's Perfect was published in Japan in February, and is to be released overseas later this year.

JAT
Firstly, congratulations on your achievement in bringing this Japanese bestseller to English audiences. It will be interesting to see how it is received outside of Japan. It must have been very rewarding to translate this heart-warming book. Did you get a chance to meet with the author?

Harcourt
Yes, five times, to ask questions. Doing the translation was indeed very rewarding but also very hard work, and when I got bogged down these sessions motivated me by keeping me aware of what a very likeable personality I was trying to represent in English.

JAT
How were you selected as translator? Or were you the one to propose translating this?

Harcourt
Since the original was published by Kodansha, when it became a best-seller I think it was a foregone conclusion that Kodansha International would publish a translation. I don't know how I was selected—I'd done three books years ago that were published by KI, but since this one was so much more colloquial than those literary books, and KI's main market is the U.S. and I'm not American, I would have thought I was an unlikely choice. Anyway, I was the lucky one.

JAT
In the English version the author's name on the cover is given simply as "Oto", rather than his full name, Hirotada Ototake. Was this because it is his nickname, or because it was felt that the full Japanese name might be too "foreign"for English readers?

Harcourt
I wasn't involved in the decision, but as I understand it, the easily remembered and universally pronounceable "Oto" was preferred, from KI's past experience, and it was also felt that it had a friendly feeling to it. The jacket design might have been a factor too.

JAT
Do you know why the photo on the book jacket was changed for the English edition?

Harcourt
KI's translations usually do have different jackets from the originals. The photo that was ultimately chosen for the English edition was in a booklet that came with the Japanese audio (CD) version—it had to be retaken for the jacket, but it's the same pose. It was chosen at the initiative of the Editorial Director, Stephen Shaw. I believe he felt that the photo was just right to convey the joie de vivre of the book.

JAT
One thing that struck me was the "cool" American slang used in much of the dialogue, in keeping with how elementary or high school boys in the United States would speak—e.g., Duh!; Bummer; crack the books; he got zip; mojo man; wimp out; gross. As a New Zealander and a woman, did you find it difficult to "speak" in a young "American" male voice? Did you have to "study" to come up with these expressions—e.g., by reading "hip" English? And did you consciously aim at using somewhat less formal language in the translation than was used in the original book?

Harcourt
Before I get to the slang, I should mention that a more difficult challenge was the shift in tone that needed to be made because the book is written for all ages, which sets up different requirements in the two languages. As JAT members will know, even when writing solely for adults, Japanese authors tend to be more 親切 or solicitous toward their readers (e.g., recapitulating previous points when introducing a new one), and an English translation that retains all these features can make us feel (at best) that the text is wordy, or (at worst) that the author is underestimating our intelligence. In 『五体不満足』, Ototake-san was writing for ages ten and up. The text has furigana throughout for that reason, and there's a note at the front explaining this. So not only are the Japanese text's adult readers more comfortable with 親切 than English readers, but they have in front of them a constant visual reminder that they're sharing this book with readers in the upper grades of elementary school. Not that the original's vocabulary or style is that of a children's book—it must be quite difficult for 小学生 —but I think the quality that you've identified as formality might in part reflect the careful way in which the author makes sure he's getting across to younger readers.

Also, it seems to me that, in English, books written for young adults and even preteens are stylistically closer to adult books than is the case in Japanese. As it happened, over the same period my friend Yuko Matsuoka was doing the Japanese translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, another book that's been hugely successful among all ages in its original language, and she faced the opposite challenge: finding a style that wouldn't exclude younger readers, which she was afraid that a too-direct translation would do. No One's Perfect seems to have passed the test of adult readability, and though I'm no J.K. Rowling, I'm fairly sure it can be enjoyed from middle school up. I'm trying to encourage my eleven-year-old niece to give it a go.

To get back to your question: I'm more or less okay as far as basic American usage is concerned (I've lived in the States, and I find myself unconsciously saying gotten, for example). Friends helped, and the final manuscript was copy-edited by an American, Kit Nagamura, who caught the expressions I hadn't known were British and improved on many others. (Mojo was Kit's, by the way.)

But within American English I did have to be highly conscious of demographics. You've politely not pointed out that, besides being a woman, I'm twice Oto's age. That was a biggie. I "studied" a lot—for example, I made a note when the DJs on the American Forces Network radio station used an expression I wanted, and did frequent Internet searches for phrases to check out whether the people using them were young or old, male or female, and so on. I tended to come up with expressions out of my head first and then start paying attention to the contexts they occurred in, rather than read "hip" English for inspiration.

The aim wasn't to be "hip," exactly, because hip English tends to be associated with a worldview that's too cynical for this book. Also, English slang changes faster than Japanese slang, and the hipper it is the faster it dates; since we want the book to read well in five years' time, I tried to avoid the most ephemeral slang. I also avoided stereotypical teenagerisms—no awesome's and only one totally and one "--, like, --,". But "banter" phrases such as Puhlease and Duh! and Whoa and Yeah, right are so popular these days that I came to feel they were almost de rigueur; if I didn't use those resources, I'd end up making Oto sound too earnest and uncool. On the other hand, I didn't want to risk making him sound illiterate. 『五体不満足』 uses some quite literary turns of phrase. So I read a lot to see how people blend colloquialisms and more formal vocabulary. Striking a plausible balance was tricky—it caused me a lot of angst at the editorial stage.

I know I've gone quite far in the direction of assimilating the text to American culture, but I felt that to ask readers to relate to life without arms and legs and the full force of the foreignness at the same time would be too much. I think the personality that comes across in Oto's telling of his story is engaging and remarkable in ways that are universal, but there are aspects of the book which will be distancing to English-language readers, such as the fact that we don't see much of his life outside of school, and so I felt it was essential to make the diction as easy to relate to as I could.

JAT
I was impressed by how you managed to compensate for puns or introduce new ones on occasion. Do you have any comments on this?

Harcourt
It was Oto's sense of humor that made the project irresistible, while also making me wonder if the book was even translatable. I felt that since the playfulness or colorfulness of the language inevitably got lost in some places, I was justified in introducing new plays on words or colorful language in other places, as long as I sought the author's approval when I thought I might be going too far. I was tentative at first, but I guess I was encouraged when he liked my efforts. This example isn't a pun, but in the sentence 「自分はモテるという妙なウヌボレではない」 all I could think of for both モテる and ウヌボレ were longer phrases, and so the sentence went flat and explanatory. Then "I don't mean I thought I was God's gift to women" came floating down from somewhere. That got モテる and ウヌボレ in one, but somehow it stood out more than the original wording, so I asked Ototake-san's permission. He read "God's gift to women," laughed as he translated it into Japanese, and said "Do you say that in English? What a great expression!" That encouraged me to go a little bit over the top now and then, if the alternative was to err on the conservative side.

Perhaps my most egregious innovation was "I was spinning my wheels." When it occurred to me, as what I consider to be a close equivalent in meaning (though not in register) to 「とても無駄な時間を過ごしているのは分かっていたが、自分ではどうすることもできなかった」for a moment I thought that his using a wheelchair ruled it out, though I wouldn't hesitate to use it in a non-wheelchair user's book. But then I thought that if Oto were writing in English he might use it himself, so why not run it by him? And he said okay.

JAT
One challenge in translating this book would have been the handling of culture-specific expressions. Usually you've done this by unobtrusively adding a brief explanation where necessary, but at times you have taken it further than that. For instance, in the Prologue the Japanese text comments on how Oto's mother unquestioningly accepted not being allowed to meet her baby for a month after he was born, but in the translation a whole paragraph has been inserted about the authority of doctors in Japan and "informed consent”. The description of the mother's gradual awareness of her baby's disability seems quite different in the two versions. Was this change made to cater for differing views on disability in Japan and the West? Was it at the publisher's suggestion or on your initiative?

Harcourt
We (the two editors and I) were concerned that readers who didn't know the cultural background would find his mother's reaction to being told she couldn't see her baby incomprehensible. And since it comes in the first couple of pages, this is the first impression you get of his family. As Oto says, first impressions are important. We wanted to make sure that Ototake-san was aware of the cultural gap and how it would affect reader's perceptions of those events, and when Kit and I discussed it with him he decided to write some additional material for the Prologue of the English edition. It came to about two 原稿用紙 pages.

JAT
The chapter or section headings are sometimes quite different from the original headings—e.g., ついに、手術の日: The Surgeon is Ready (I'm Not). Did you feel that the Japanese sometimes lacked "punch" and needed to be spiced up a little for an English audience?

Harcourt
I'm embarrassed to say that that was as close as I could get. Since the headings had to be as pithy as the Japanese, I decided against trying for an equivalent for ついに, which I always have trouble with even without the constraints of brevity, and went instead for the general sense of the arrival of an anticipated negative outcome, which sort of implies "sooner than one would have liked, "hence " I'm not ready."

There are a number of headings that I intentionally changed; once or twice it was just to avoid a repetition, but in a few places it was for impact. "My Favorite Stooge?!" for "ドリフ?!" is an obvious one, since "The Drifs?!" would have been meaningless and "The Drifters?!" misleading by itself, so I borrowed the gloss I used when the Drifters occur in the text.

In the American football chapter I offered Ototake-san a choice between the literal "Showdown in the Rain," which works fine, and "How 'bout Those Hornets?,". I explained to him how the latter expression is used, and he opted for the change. In both the football and the basketball chapters I faced a situation where the average American reader is more familiar with the vocabulary of the sport than the average Japanese reader, and to withhold terminology because it wasn't in the Japanese text seemed problematic—in English, it would make him appear inexpert. E.g., in the basketball chapter, 大活躍 could—and, I felt, should—be translated as "a great assist," since an assist is what it's referring to. And 「バスケを少しでもかじったことのある方なら」 became "if you've shot a few hoops." Changing "Showdown in the Rain" was an extension of that approach. But I don't think of it as spicing it up; I just want to be sure the author comes across as kakko ii, and "How 'bout Those Hornets?" hopefully does that.

JAT
In his Epilogue in the English version, Oto says that he himself chose the English title, No One's Perfect. Did you as translator have any other titles in mind, or were you happy with this?

Harcourt
From the start, everyone was asking me with great concern how I was going to translate the title, and I hadn't a clue. Then Stephen told me that Ototake-san had suggested a title. It questioned the concept "perfect," but it was a little unidiomatic. As Stephen and I talked about it, I said that we have the saying "no one's perfect." I was just free-associating, but Stephen liked it. After we got off the phone I remembered that Americans more often say "nobody's perfect," but an Internet search turned up six books that had already used that title (some with a subtitle, such as "Not Even My Mother”). Stephen was able to confirm that there'd been only one No One's Perfect and that it was out of print. I did go on trying to think of alternatives, without success, and when we proposed No One's Perfect to Oto he liked it, so that settled it. Where it's mentioned in the Epilogue, I was adapting a sentence that referred to why he gave 『五体不満足』that title, and I used "I chose" in the sense that he gave us the idea and then approved No One's Perfect. Am I happy with it? Very, because it's going over well.

JAT
There was a rumor on RENET (Oto was once a member of this mailing list, whose members are mostly either Waseda students or community residents) that the English title must have come from the last phrase in Some Like It Hot featuring Marilyn Monroe. Do you know if this is true?

Harcourt
I wish I could say it was—it's a great rumor, and Jack Lemmon is great as Dorothy, or was it Daphne, about whom the line is said—but I'm afraid not.

JAT
How did translating this autobiographical work compare with the seven other books you've translated, all of which have been literary works, I believe?

Harcourt
(One was a sociology book, the others were fiction.) It was harder. Of course you have to honor the author's intentions with fiction too, but when the author is writing the story of his own life, you feel that responsibility to him more directly. It keeps you honest. (A movie review that I read while working on the book said that the director "takes great pains with his liberties, "a notion that appealed to me.) When you realize that Ototake-san is going to meet people whose impression of him as a person will have been filtered through your translation—and, too, he's bound to become fluent in English, so they'll be able to compare the way he expresses himself with the way you have—that's quite a reality check.

JAT
Are you working on another book now that you've finished No One's Perfect? For example, what about Oto's picture book for younger children that was published in Japanese in mid-March? (This is based on 『五体不満足』, but focuses on Oto's elementary school days.)

Harcourt
No, I've gone back to my regular work. No One's Perfect was done under deadline pressure and I'm still decompressing.

JAT
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with readers of the JAT Bulletin, and all the best in your next venture.