On Translating Someone Else's (Emotional) Landscape

I grew up reading all sorts of books that had been translated into Japanese without really thinking what they would be like in their original languages. When I started to learn English in middle school, I was excited to discover “another means” by which to express my thoughts. Having declared at the tender age of 11 that I would be a novelist when I grew up, I was not thinking about translation. I never even imagined I would become a translator and make a lucrative living by expressing someone else’s thoughts in “another” language.

Expressing someone else’s thoughts and describing someone else’s emotional landscape in another language, however, is not an easy task in any language, much less in a language that is not the author’s, or for that matter the translator’s. A case in point: “Write what you emotionally know” was the writing on the blackboard on my first night at a creative writing class. I wrote a not-too-bad short story about something I knew well enough emotionally. The instructor recommended that I read Raymond Carver and Richard Ford to further my study. While I was doing this intensively, one of the Carver stories (“Feathers”) sounded familiar. I thought to myself, “I’ve read this story before—in Japanese, but I swear it was in a different setting.”

As it turned out, the Carver story I read in Japanese was translated by none other than Haruki Murakami. I did not know who he was at that time. The story had a sophisticated, urban feel to it. At least that was the image Murakami’s translation evoked. Two decades later, I was reading the original Carver, imagining dusty gravel roads, cows, and grease under fingernails.

It was a very different landscape. It was Carver’s landscape, which I was probably more familiar with than Murakami’s.

As the Japanese story was in a borrowed book, I have no way of comparing the original and the translation. I am sure Murakami’s translation was superbly crafted. Nonetheless, it became the same story told by two different writers in different languages, and of obviously different personal landscapes. This still haunts me whenever I sit down to translate business documents. Was something lost in translation? Or, was something created in translation? I have yet to find the answer.

Lyrica Bradshaw

Source: Translator Perspectives 2012