Sunday, November 19, 2006


The following is my (brief) translation of the (brief) prologue to the Japanese book View From A Small Town. (The title is also my translation.)

In Japanese, the follwing four sentences are set apart from each other, read from right to left, descending downward, as is the Japanese reading-and-writing style. No punctuation is used in the original.

Here goes:

This is my town. A small flag stands there.

This is my town. With small shoes I walk.

This is my town. With a tiny voice I sing.

This is my town. A giant rainbow spans its length.


Not exactly, um, majestic prose, is it. I did my humble best. Pine Grove Public School offered a course in Handwriting, so I took that, instead of the Japanese Translation course they offered. You know how it is. We live with the choices we make.

Here's some of the problems I found myself dealing with.

1) The Lack Of Punctuation -- In Japanese, with its downward structure, the absence of a period is barely noticed. In English, reading left to right, the lack of a final stop would give it a self-conscious, 'arty' tone, which I don't think is present in the original Japanese. So I tacked on the periods at the end of each sentence so that it wouldn't have a pretentious feeling that the original didn't.

2) The Lack Of A Human Subject -- In English, we almost always have to say 'I did this' or 'You did that'; in other words, a person is there, in the sentence, doing stuff, staying active. In Japanese, you don't need a human subject; it's implied, it's obvious, it's better left unsaid. And it's consistent with the collective nature of the people and the culture. Japan was (and is) a very stratified society, with different language being necessary for different levels of rank, thereby downplaying and downgrading the individual, and that's totally reflected in the language.

The problem, though, comes when trying to translate that 'lack of a subject' into our own complicated language known as English.

For this excerpt, there was no problem with the first sentence of each stanza, as, in the Japanese original, there is a subject -- watashi -- which translates, basically, as 'I'. So the repetition of 'This is my town' that begins each section is roughly compatible with the orginal.

But what about the second and third stanzas -- 'with small shoes I walk', ' with a tiny voice I sing', etc. In Japanese, there is no 'I' here -- shoes are being worn, a song is being sung, but nobody specific is doing it. It's just happening.

That sounds quite normal in Japanese. It's one of the cool aspects of the language, offering a nonchalant ambiguity that is imbedded in the way they see the world, in their 'the-whole-is-more-important-than-the-individual' conception of the universe. But were I to translate that directly into English, it would create an odd effect that wasn't present in the original language -- 'small shoes are walking', 'small voices are singing'. "Huh?" the reader of the English version might ask. "Whose shoes? Whose voices?"

Or, I could have thrown in a collective 'we' into the mix -- 'with small shoes we walk', etc., but that would introduce a collective tone that isn't necessarily there, overtly, though it is there, covertly -- in the basic structure of the Japanese language, the collective consciousness inherent in the language itself. But that consciousness is not at all inherent in English, and therein lies the rub. However, given that the first sentence does include -- in the original Japanese -- the overt, obvious presence of the 'I' narrator, I felt it was more important to preserve that voice than maintain a collective one that would deviate from what I perceive to be the author's original, more personal intent.


Confused yet?

I am.

The translator of Japanese into English, besides taking on the difficulties of the language itself, will be constantly forced to figure out how to take a language that often omits its main subject from the sentence and somehow transfer it to one where such a subject is almost always present. Four different people could have translated what I did four different ways, depending on how they viewed the original tone, and what they decided was the best way to embody that particular essence in English.

Somebody famous once said that you can't know your own language until you know another one, and I'm starting to believe that. There is a world out there in words other than our own, and it's a fascinating one.

What tone or effect is the author going for? we have to ask. And how can one get that in English without changing too much the taste and texture of the original Japanese?

That's the challenge.

(And the curse, perhaps...)

People ask my why I haven't studied Cambodia's Khmer or the Philippines' Tagalog more than I have.

All I can say is: "Do you know how long it takes me to translate three or four sentences in Japanese?"

Adding one or two more tongues, at this stage, would make the padded room with its comfy straitjacket seem very, very inviting.


I remember reading an article last year, in the Philippines, in NEWSWEEK, about how Japan was slowly but steadily losing its Japaneseness, and whenever I read one of those kinds of analyses (published annually, or so it seems), I always wonder what crack the author is smoking, and where they bought it, and whether they've thought about getting their money back.

Of course western culture has invaded Japan, the Far East, the Orient. And certainly the young people are enamored of all things American -- and British, to a certain extent. Canadian, um, not so much. Though the youngsters sure as hell love them some Avril Lavigne, so at least we got that going on.

But look.

At the way the trains run to the minute.

At the manner in which young people past twenty maintain an innocence worthy of the age of twelve, or a teenager at most.

At the language, the sound of it, its density, its prevalence, in bookshops and newsstands where English is banished to a meager, sheltered corner, like a child in a dunce cap at the corner of the room.

At the smells of beef and fish and rice.

At the uniformed ladies in blue, crisply, punctually, metronomically guiding the children safely across the narrow path of the road.

At the generous cushion drivers allow one another at stop lights and crosswalks, themselves set so far back from the traffic lights.

At the machines that ignite when they sense your oncoming, approaching footsteps.

At the tip of Mount Fuji, glistening white in the near distance.

At the neon lights and unending pulse that hint at another, alternate beat, vivid but opaque, impenetrable in its amber glow.

Returning, observing, with alien eyes, Japan, to me, for what that's worth, seems more Japanese than ever. Comparing to Canada, to Cambodia, to the Philippines, it seems more like itself than it ever was.

Finding out what that exactly means is an inquiry best left abandoned. Deciding that a country is somehow losing itself hints at an audacity and arrogance that is not only misguided but somehow inherently corrupt in and of itself, as if the soul of a land can be categorized and qualified, weighed and measured, dismissed and affirmed after cursory glances.

With thousands of years of its own identity hiding behind the glow of that fragile red sun, for better or worse, for good or for ill, I suspect that Japan and all its Japaneseness is present, now, and not going anywhere but here.


Sometimes I wonder what the scholars of the future are thinking as they review the endless visual and written date that accumlates, by our own individual seconds, minutes and hours, as the web expands, and us along with it.

Surely all of our blogs and emails are accessible via some monumentally small, skin-implanted microchip somewhere and on someone in the year 2347. The birth of the electronic self has been continuing for the past, what, fifty years, and we are surely still at the root of its laborious entry into all that will come.

And there, after, ahead, centuries down the line, sits a young boy or girl, reading these words, and yours, too, the way we pull dusty books off forgotten shelves. That child wonders what this time, our time, was like, the way we speculate about Dickens' London or the red-stained grass of the American Civil War. Only those in the future, our descendants, will have proof -- blogs, random emails, lists of downloaded songs and photos. Us, virtual, for them. Me and you and this very posting are already there, in the future, being read. The 'me' that is me, now, here, in Japan, and the 'you' that is you, there, in Australia, America, Canada, the Philippines, Malaysia, whereever, is long gone, but your imprint has lasted. Of this, I am sure.

And that boy. Or that girl. Somewhen. Right now (only hundreds of years later), that child is reading your emails, staring at your photos, wondering what made you tick, why you did what you did, when you laughed and who you loved, where you went and what you treasured, before you were, against your will, forced to leave.

That child is listening to you.

1 comment:

Christa said...

Hi Scott,

Just checking in to say hello and read a couple of your recent posts. Hope all is well in Japan.