Loyalty or Betrayal?
Ginny Tapley Takemori

Whenever the issue of being “faithful” to the original comes up in discussions on literary translation, I only have to think of the case of Izumi Kyoka to be reminded of the impossibility of this proposition. My experience of translating his story “Kaiiki“ (“Sea Daemons“) convinced me of the futility of trying to replicate the original and of the need for creative license on the part of the translator.

Of course, Izumi Kyoka is an extreme case. If I had translated it “exactly” as is (if such a thing were possible), then I would certainly (and deservedly) have been lambasted as a terrible translator. He breaks all the rules of grammar and is incredibly elusive in detail – as one blogger wrote, he requires the reader to have a “decoder” operating in their brain. Readers, however, do not grant the same kind of license to a translator as they do to an author.
I was forced to consider, firstly, why I was even attempting to translate this – and my answer to that was because it is an amazingstory that deserves a broader readership (plus, it was a challenge). Secondly, then, what were the characteristics of the text that I could capture in the translation in order to do the original justice? There were two main features: striking visual imagery; and a certain rhythm that carries the tale.

The visual imagery was mostly connected to the sea, and especially to its ghosts and monsters. Of course, all island nations have tales of ghosts at sea, and in order to choose the English terms for the monsters featured in the Japanese I drew heavily on Western seafaring tales for inspiration. This must be done with caution, since names conjure up particular images in the reader’s imagination, and the translator must avoid using inappropriate images. On the other hand, it is useful to draw on more familiar terms in order to draw the reader into the story; if images are too difficult and unfamiliar, you risk getting your reader too bogged down to be able to enjoy the reading experience. The imagery is further carried by the rhythm of the prose – the choice of words, how they sound and how they fit together to form the phrasing are all essential elements to this. As with so much in translation, the art lies in getting the balance right.

All literary endeavour is, to a greater or lesser degree, dependent on individual interpretation, whether as a reader or translator. Indeed, the same piece of text translated by several different translators will read substantially differently, yet (assuming competence) none will be “wrong” as such. Readers, too, have different impressions of the same text, and the same reader going back to the same story at different stages in their life will find their interpretations changing over time, too. Yet it is possible to betray a text through wrong choices, and it strikes me that the art of a literary translator is to judge the fine line between loyalty and betrayal as they strive to bring the story to life in a new language.


Fred Uleman

As a business/political translator, I am told to reflect the source text’s content and style to evoke the same reactions. This is often taken to mean I should imitate the source wording. If I am translating a book of advice for businesspeople and have a passage such as セミナービジネスを批判する場ではないのでこれ以上の言及は避けますが、基本的にはセミナーも“ビジネス”であることだけは認識しておいてください , for example, I should be very circumspect in English just as the author is in Japanese.

However, that understated style will not evoke the same reaction from an American reader. American reader expectations are different, and you have to exercise considerable editorial license to have the same impact. Rather than “I will refrain from commenting because it would be out of place here to criticize the seminar industry, but you should please be aware that such events are essentially business functions,” you need something such as “This not being the place for a full-court smack-down, I’ll hold my fire except to say these things are basically intended to make money for the people who run them.”

Similarly, another book by another author has the subhead “そんなバカな”と思われることから創造は生まれる . This could be translated as “Creativity is born out of what looks like astonishing foolishness,” but that would not have the same impact as “Creativity from WTF Moments.”

Translating for the author or the author’s agent, I owe it to the client to have the desired impact. We need to consider not only “who is it for?” but also “what is it for?” Once you know that, do what needs to be done so it has the same impact in the target language as it does in the source language. Fidelity to the message is what counts. Fidelity to the wording is secondary at best.