I like translating. I enjoy the experience of entering a text, digging beneath the surface of the language in search of patterns and meanings and movement. I am exhilarated by the challenge of making these discoveries come alive in a second language. When it all comes together, when it works, it’s like alchemy: mysterious, organic, and very nearly magic.
Becoming adept at the craft of translation, however, did not prepare me for the business of translation. When I was given the opportunity to translate Kirino Natsuo’s novel, Grotesque, the word “grotesque” took on more than one meaning for me.
Translating Grotesque was my first experience with a major trade press. I had translated Japanese literature before, of course. I translated several stories by Uno Chiyo for an academic book with the University of Hawai’i Press. I had also translated a number of works by Meiji women writers for Columbia University Press. But on both occasions I proposed the projects and had to convince the publishers to take on my project.
My first experience with a non-academic press came in the late 1980s when I was approached by the British publisher, Peter Owen. He had been taken by Phyllis Birnbaum’s translation of Uno’s Confessions of Love (Irozange) and was hoping to follow it with a similar work. He asked me if I would recommend a work and then translate it for him. I selected The Story of a Single Woman (Aru hitori no onna no hanashi). I think Mr. Owen was disappointed when he finally read the work in English. Given the title, and what he’d heard of Uno’s love life, he was expecting something a bit more “racy.”
Peter Owen Publishers is a very respectable, independent press known for bringing international authors to a British readership. Working with him was similar to working with a university press. He was willing to produce a book that retained the flavor of the original, even if it placed demands on his readership.
Translating for a major trade press was different. There was a greater urgency to produce a volume that would read much as any English original would read. While working on Grotesque, for example, there was talk of rendering monetary sums in dollars, rather than Japanese yen. That plan was scraped (to my relief).
On another front, there was no guarantee that my name, as translator, would appear on the cover. (It appears on an inside page,) Perhaps most surprising for me was the editing process. After I completed the translation—in 790 manuscript pages—and submitted it to the press, the editing began. Of course, editing is crucial to any publishing enterprise. Translators are writers, after all, and they make mistakes, in the original and in their native language. Also, when you’re translating, sometimes you lose sense of what sounds “right” in your native language, and you write sentences that just don’t make sense to the English reader. It’s important to have a good editor to challenge you on places where logic seems thin or to catch inconsistencies or grammar mistakes. I was fortunate to have an excellent copy editor for Grotesque.
But I hadn’t been prepared to have the editor propose cuts to the translation. In the interest of making the novel more accessible to the press’s readership, they wanted it to be trimmer. I have since learned that this procedure is standard with the large trade presses in the US. But it seems European-language translators are not confronted with the same editing expectations. In fact, from what I’ve read, they are shocked by the American approaches.
I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand I shudder at the thought of re-shaping a work that has already been published in the source language. But on the other hand, I recognize that the publisher is producing a book for an entirely different audience. It is not the same book. Even when the translation is “faithful” or “literal” or whatever term you want to use, it really isn’t. It is not a mirror, a perfect copy, or an equivalent. It’s a separate work for a separate audience with a completely different reading experience. In the case of Grotesque, the author understood this. And she agreed to the edits.
During a reading she gave in the United States, Kirino mentioned that some parts had been edited. Somehow, her reference to cuts was later represented as “censorship.” The author of the Wikipedia entry on Grotesque states that the publisher censored scenes in the book because they were deemed taboo for an American audience. I doubt this. After all, the book deals with incest, statutory rape, prostitution, SM play, and necrophilia . . . all of which appear in the 480 pages in English. Scenes were edited not because they were “shocking” or “taboo” but because they were deemed repetitive.
Grotesque is a difficult work. It is long. It includes a variety of narrative voices and narrative forms. The main narrator is untrustworthy; and the entire novel challenges concepts of truth and lies. Perhaps it is not unreasonable, then, that the translation as well participates in this narrative game by also appearing “truthful” but also somehow deceitful. In a way, paraphrasing Ryan Fraser (Underground Games: Surface Translation and the Grotesque), all translations are “grotesqueries.”
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
I enjoyed learning of the challenges of translating works into English. Thanks much for your insights.