Let’s Mistranslate!

I finished reading Bruce Feiler’s Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan on the plane back to New Orleans last night. It’s a reasonably good book by a former-JET participant who was in Sano, Tochigi Prefecture. For people who haven’t been to Japan it might even be "a revelation", as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says on the back cover. There were parts that even *condescending italics* I */condescending italics* found interesting, notably the effect of homeroom groups (kumi) on students in middle school.

But Feiler caricatures the Japanese people throughout the book, almost purposefully translating everyday Japanese verbiage into awkward, robotic phrases.

For example, Feiler goes to a hostess bar [these range from chaste to adventurous, the one in the book on the more chaste side of things] with his supervisor and the hostess greets them:

    "I am so honored to receive you," she said with a smile. The mama took a special interest in the newcomer. "Oh, the honorable foreigner speaks Japanese so weeelll," she said with a subtle flutter of her eyelashes. (52)

Passages like this are numerous. In this case, I really only have beef with the addition of "honorable". While there is probably basis for the addition in the language she used, it seems unnatural. Couldn’t he just have used "It’s so great that you came"? Instead, he opts for a more literal translation of the Japanese.

The most egregious case of mistranslation is when he translates parts of a booklet given to ninth graders before their school trip to Kyoto. Here are the objectives of the trip given in the booklet as translated by Feiler:

    1. By working together with teachers and each other in an unfamiliar environment – let’s develop lifelong memories.

    2. By visiting various historical places directly – let’s deepen our studies and understanding of our heritage.

    3. By working together within a group with good health and safety – let’s learn about public manners and have a positive experience.

Translation that dirty makes me want to take a shower. The Japanese syntax is immediately apparent. This is informed speculation, but I bet the Japanese sentences all looked something like this:

(Clause A) て, (Clause B) おう。

A gerund clause (Clause A, which ends with a verb in -te form, the standard gerund form) which is followed by a volitional verb clause (Clause B which has a verb in volitional form). Feiler has separated the two clauses with a dash in each case. The gerund clause explains the means by which the volitional verb will be accomplished. Feiler, however, decides not only to keep the Japanese order (usually a big mistake) but also to translate a verb in volitional form in the same way that Japanese people usually do: using the word let’s. In Japanese class, volitional form is taught as either "let’s (verb)" or "should we (verb)?" In many cases it probably means something more along the lines of, "I/we will (verb, with perhaps a bit more emphasis)" or "Want to (verb)?" The construction "let’s (verb)" is used so often, that many times Japanese people turn nouns into volitional sentences by turning them into gerunds. Hence, Let’s Murakami Haruking.

A cleaner translation would be something like this:

    1. We will work with each other and our teachers in Kyoto to develop lifelong memories.

Or, alternatively:

    1. We will develop lifelong memories by working with each other and our teachers in a new environment.

It makes me wonder exactly how much Japanese Feiler knew before he went on JET. At one point he mentions that there is a family in Osaka he has visited before. I think he also mentions that he studied the language at university. On the other hand, errors like the above translation pop up. He also has a pretty sharp memory – he fills in detailed speeches. How much did he shape them to fit the narrative? Yes, the objectives that he lists are pretty insane in and of themselves. But, Feiler exacerbates this by translating them like a Japanese high school student would.

Feiler did not alter his own words when he translates a speech he gave in Japanese (which I am willing to bet was far from perfectly natural Japanese), but throughout the book he translates Japanese people’s natural Japanese into unnatural English.

The facts, however, do speak for themselves in many cases, which is why this book is reasonably interesting.

Originally posted July 20th, 2005