Thursday, 17 November 2011

Lost in Translation/Translating Culture

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About a year ago I received my first translation contract (Japanese to English, computer software GUI and 600 page manual). While I have never formally trained as a translator nor studied Japanese language in any official capacity, I have however lived, worked and loved in Japan for close to eight years. When I had free time at work, I studied kanji (Chinese characters), when I had a day off, I would do grammar drills, endlessly writing out example sentences and my own variations. Although my mother was bilingual (English, Slovenian), home-life was all English. I grew up monolingual and made myself bilingual.

Recently, I came across Mattie Brice’s story on Popmatters about English language voice acting in games originating from Japan. Brice’s article in many ways mirrors and clearly articulates a few thoughts I have had rumbling about in my mind over the last few years. Several years ago, I came across a news story (which, despite searching around has failed to reappear) about translation of Toni Morrison into Japanese. I cannot comment on neither the veracity of the argument nor the accuracy of my memory, but I distinctly remember mention of the use of Japanese regional dialects (particularly the well known/stigmatised Aomori and Tohoku dialects) as substitutes for regional and African American dialects. However, I was able to find reference to this phenomenon in Mie Hiramoto’s essay on the Japanese translation of Margaret Mitchell’s well known 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind (Hiramoto, 2009):


While it is certain that the minority characters’ use of non-Standard Japanese – which

strongly resembles the stigmatized Toohoku dialect, or Toohoku-ben (TB) – is a

translation of the original non-Standard English (SE), the assignment to them of

something resembling a particular regional Japanese dialect reinforces linguistic

inferiorization of the slaves and poor whites, as well as TB speakers. The use of

this pseudo-dialect is an important element in the linguistic representation of

marginal characters and likewise underscores the salient marginality of TB in

Japanese language ideology.

Dialect is notoriously hard to translate, with feeling. That is, while the basic meaning of a regional non-standard utterance can be easily translated, translating the context of that dialect is much more difficult. For example, when at home with my family, I often use Owari-ben (a north-west variation on Nagoya-ben). In Owari-ben the existence verb –iru (English: is/am/are) is substituted with oru (a humble form of -iru). This usage most frequently appears when talking about the location of people and animals as well as in the present continuous verb conjugations.

Is 6810 around?

Yeah he is.

6810、おる?

うんおるよ。

6810, oru?

Un, oru yo.

That was easy enough, right? Well, yes and no. You see, what is absent from this translation is the reasoning behind usage of non-standard Japanese. In other words, when I use oru instead of iru, what else am I trying to say?

I refer you back to my earlier posts on where I am from, my “people” so to speak. I spent my childhood in a poverty prison known as a housing commission estate. As a result, there are certain forms of intonation, word choice and word order which resonate with me almost twenty years later. To use my own English dialect in Japan would make me quite difficult to understand. This is because the cultural gap between Australia and Japan in terms of public housing, wealth distribution and poverty is more like a chasm. If I choose to speak such English, I choose to foreground an aspect of my identity which if I am brutally honest has little to do with the life I currently lead (even if does, as I said earlier, still resonate). However, when I reminisce with my brother, the poor, rural dialect peppered with Bundjalung (Northern NSW Aboriginal cultural/linguistic group) feels much closer to and more capable of accurately representing our experience. So when I choose oru over iru, again I am making a decision to foreground my sense of belonging to the area I have called home for the past eight years. I stand up and say, “Hey, I’m from Owari, by the Kiso river. I might be a foreigner, but I’m kind of local now”.

Similarly, Japanese television, cinema, literature and music often (though not often enough, there is still in many cases a stigma attached to non-standard Japanese dialect) makes use of dialect in order to place people. People placed in a geography and a history are given an identity, most likely foreign to that of the reader (the opposite situation, where literary dialect speaks directly to the same regional identity of the reader is worthy of further thought, another day perhaps?). The result is infers difference and otherness.

If this is too difficult to grasp (especially for the mono-lingual reader), then let me try to briefly explain it in reverse. Take Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The difference in dialects of black characters, poor white and wealthy southerners, young and old is obvious even to a reader unfamiliar with them. Each dialect depicts a different identity based on race, age, location and wealth. So how do we then translate these subtle and not-so-subtle linguistic differences, replete with idioms and other expressions contemporary to the period setting? Do we go for the “meaning” approach in which we render the basic meaning of the various expressions? Do we make the language less temporally foreign and find equivalent contemporary, more now expressions in order to connect with a reader unfamiliar with the original cultural context of the novel? But in doing so, we run the risk of erasing the specific historical and cultural identities of characters and prevent their language play from ringing out clearly. Yet again, do we attempt to match the languages or literary conventions of the period and emulate them (the American south in the 1880s with Meiji era Japan)? It would appear then that dialect, however imperfect, is the way to go. Since dialects are living (though as a result of specifically targeted Meiji Era policies, many are rapidly disappearing) and effortlessly convey a sense of place, time and culture they have a function which modernisation and emulation cannot approximate. That said, we ought to take note of Hiramoto’s warning against implicit discrimination when matching dialects of different languages to convey specific meaning.

But what does all of this have to do with video games? As you may know, Japan is video game Mecca. With a few notable exceptions, global gaming culture has been undeniably shaped by Japanese language, culture, and identity. Almost every charismatic video game character is of Japanese invention. During the heyday of the original video game boom, the regional North American branch of Nintendo was responsible for both the language and cultural translation of Japanese games for the American (and in fact European and Pacific) market. Both Lvls and Legends of Localization have thoroughly dug into the peril and humor of translating games across language and culture. Nintendo of America is infamous for substituting or otherwise editing out themes and characters, especially those concerned with sexuality or the occult. Whole stories have even been retrofitted to English language versions of games, erasing their cultural specificity and updating language to what was perceived as hip at the time. Meanwhile, in the current age, voice acting has taken on a much greater role in modern games. What struck Popmatter’s Brice as odd, also rubs me the wrong way. While understandable (after all the primary market is the US) the translation from Japanese to (American) English, recalling Gone With the Wind sees a similar use of dialect and accent to represent (and marginalise) difference and otherness. In this scenario, a supposedly generic standard American accent is used to represent the American consumer and others, whether human or otherwise are spoken with different accents and dialects. This is a problem of awareness.

For a multilingual consumer, it is possible to read with nuance and affection the contours and limits of linguistic variation. Meanwhile, for the (majority) monolingual player, dialect choice runs a serious and likely risk of compounding stereotypes via unreconstructed repetition. Translation is rarely perfect, indeed there are good and bad translations. How we judge the merits of translation, like anything else is directly related to our expectations, experience and intent. For instance, as a metal head I have seen both “literal” and poetic translations of death metal lyrics. Perhaps it reveals my age in saying so, however, I prefer the poetic to the literal. If you asked me five years ago, my answer would have been the opposite, for at that time “literal” was about all I could handle and it helped consolidate my Japanese language knowledge and skills. And here we arrive at the very simple thing I wanted to say from the beginning: when we translate language and culture, how do we decide, calculate just how much complexity and difference the end user can “handle”?

Hiramoto’s 2009 article, “Slaves Speak Pseudo Toohoku-ben: The Representation of Minorities in the Japanese Translation of Gone With the Wind”, originally published in the Journal of Sociolinguistics (13/2, 249-263) can be found here.

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