Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Botchan - How Many Translations Are There?"

I was looking around on-line for the original Japanese text to Natsume Soseki's Botchan, when I came upon yet another translations of the book into English. About twenty years ago, I read two different English-language translations, one by a Japanese person and other by a foreigner, possibly American. I remember that, at the time, I thought the Japanese translation was the better of the two, as it retained more of the book's original ambiance, and the one done by a foreigner had been over-translated into an English-culture story, which it isn't. (Generally, it's a pretty good rule of thumb that a translation should be done by someone who is native to the target language, but in this case, it seemed to be the other way around.)

The new (compared to twenty years ago anyway, I think it came out a few years ago) translation seems to be fairly good (based on the first section of the book that I read), but I think it's not really possible to do the book real justice in any other language than the original Japanese. Translations change things, and the ambiance of the translated version is never quite the same as the original. The original (I think) translation by Yasotaro Morri (1919) explains this difficulty well in a forward to the book (just the first two paragraphs of the longer forward here):

A Note by the Translator
No translation can expect to equal, much less to excel, the original. The excellence of a translation can only be judged by noting how far it has succeeded in reproducing the original tone, colors, style, the delicacy of sentiment, the force of inert strength, the peculiar expressions native to the language with which the original is written, or whatever is its marked characteristic. The ablest can do no more, and to want more than this will be demanding something impossible. Strictly speaking, the only way one can derive full benefit or enjoyment from a foreign work is to read the original, for any intelligence at second-hand never gives the kind of satisfaction which is possible only through the direct touch with the original. Even in the best translated work is probably wanted the subtle vitality natural to the original language, for it defies an attempt, however elaborate, to transmit all there is in the original. Correctness of diction may be there, but spontaneity is gone; it cannot be helped.
The task of the translator becomes doubly hazardous in case of translating a European language into Japanese, or vice versa. Between any of the European languages and Japanese there is no visible kinship in word-form, significance, grammatical system, rhetorical arrangements. It may be said that the inspiration of the two languages is totally different. A want of similarity of customs, habits, traditions, national sentiments and traits makes the work of translation all the more difficult. A novel written in Japanese which had attained national popularity might, when rendered into English, lose its captivating vividness, alluring interest and lasting appeal to the reader.

That people keep re-translating and republishing new versions of the book in English is testament to people's belief that they can do a better job translating it, but if they believe they can accurately convey the story completely intact into English, they are deluding themselves. Having read all of the books I'm referring to, including the Japanese original (with the caveat that I've only read the opening pages of the third English translation), I think I have a right to my opinions on this. I'm not complaining that it's been translated again - as it's a pretty cool book and I'm glad interest in it continues, but I can't help but shake my head a little at the fact that there are at least three J-E translations of it now. I wonder if it's becoming something like a musical score from Mozart that is reinterpreted by one group of musicians after another. In time, will there be a dozen versions of Botchan?

Just in case it's interesting, here is the fist paragraph of the book in the original Japanese, followed by the 1919 English translation.

親譲りの無鉄砲で小供の時から損ばかりしている。小学校に居る時分学校の二階から飛び降りて一週間ほど腰を抜かした事がある。なぜそんな無闇をしたと聞く人があるかも知れぬ。別段深い理由でもない。新築の二階から首を出していたら、同級生の一人が冗談に、いくら威張っても、そこから飛び降りる事は出来まい。弱虫やーい。と囃したからである。小使に負ぶさって帰って来た時, おやじが大きな眼をして二階ぐらいから飛び降りて腰を抜かす奴があるかと云ったから、この次は抜かさずに飛んで見せますと答えた。

Because of an hereditary recklessness, I have been playing always a losing game since my childhood. During my grammar school days, I was once laid up for about a week by jumping from the second story of the school building. Some may ask why I committed such a rash act. There was no particular reason for doing such a thing except I happened to be looking out into the yard from the second floor of the newly-built school house, when one of my classmates, joking, shouted at me; "Say, you big bluff, I'll bet you can't jump down from there! O, you chicken-heart, ha, ha!" So I jumped down. The janitor of the school had to carry me home on his back, and when my father saw me, he yelled derisively, "What a fellow you are to go and get your bones dislocated by jumping only from a second story!" - "I'll see I don't get dislocated next time," I answered.

Sore dewa, mata!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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