The other thing that made last week such an excellent translation week for me was the translation masterclass at the Free Word Centre with the utterly brilliant Michael Emmerich (also organised by BCLT. Aren’t they great?). Michael sent us several unidentified Japanese texts to translate beforehand, and two English translations of Oe Kenzaburo’s story Shiiku (飼育 – translated as ‘The Catch’ by one translator and ‘Prize Stock’ by the other) to compare and contrast. The Japanese texts, as you might expect, bristled with puns and cultural references, and were all written in interesting and unusual styles – it was fascinating to translate them, and even more so to compare my translations with others’.
I really appreciated the fact that the focus of the masterclass was not on how to extract the meaning from the Japanese texts and convey it into English, but on the stage that comes after that: how to produce an English text that can live as a text in its own right. When I first started to translate at school, I found that translating in this way came fairly naturally to me, but it’s something that was slowly educated out of me – in order to get the best marks in exams, we were expected to translate in a manner that demonstrated that we understood the grammar, sentence structure and meaning of the original language, and we all knew that ‘tweaking’ the text too much could lose us marks. I was never very good at translating in this manner (my A-Level Latin teacher’s comment that ‘Lydia’s translation style makes me a little nervous’ remains one of my all-time favourite comments about my translation ability), but I gradually internalised it, and these days I’m still struggling to shake it off and return to my more creative earlier style.
We spent the first couple of hours looking at the two English translations of the Oe story: one was by John Bester, published in the early 1960s, and one by John Nathan, published in 1977 (I think?). The story, set during the Pacific War, is about a group of children living in a remote Japanese village, and a black American pilot who is shot down nearby and is taken prisoner by the villagers. The translations were surprisingly different: as a student of Translation Studies it was tempting to immediately categorise one as domesticated and one as foreignised, but there was much more going on than that. The earlier translation cut several passages out: it was clear that some passages were cut due to their sexually explicit nature, but at other points we really couldn’t work out why a passage had been removed (maybe it was as simple as needing to reduce the word count?). Comparing the two translations also provided a very clear illustration of the power of language: the two translators expressed the main themes of the story in very different ways, with differing emphasis, purely through their choices of vocabulary and writing style. I guess this is one of the things people are thinking about when they talk about things being ‘lost in translation’, but surely the alternative is not to translate at all? As Michael said, we have to make choices of this nature when we translate anything. All we have are choices. (incidentally, I have a lot to say about the phrase ‘lost in translation’. Another time).
We then had the opportunity to hear from some people involved in the translation publishing business: Jim Hinks of Comma Press (who, by the way, has the best ‘how I got into publishing’ story I have ever heard in my life), editor Elmer Luke, and Michael Staley of the Staley Agency. We started out talking about What Publishers Want, but sort of ended up talking about formalist theories of the short story instead, which was very interesting. I always love meeting people who are involved in publishing translations: it’s something I’d like to get involved with myself one day. And it was great to see Michael Staley again – we attended the BCLT Summer School together in 2011, and afterwards he started up his own agency and I quit my job to do an MA in Translation Studies (seriously, the Summer School does that kind of thing to people. It should come with a warning attached).
The last thing we did was to talk about the texts we had translated in preparation for the class. We were asked to read our translations out loud, which was horrifically uncomfortable for me but also very useful – somehow the awkward bits and the slightly translationese-y bits were immediately apparent to me in a way that they just weren’t when I read them through to myself. Read your draft translations aloud, everybody. I’m definitely going to from now on.
Again, it was fascinating to see how different translation choices affected the way in which the story came across: even when you think you’re translating something as objectively as possible, it’s all still filtered through your own understanding of what the story is about. I was particularly interested to compare my translation of an extract from Manazuru with translations by the other participants and by Michael himself, and see how the relationship between the two main characters came out subtly differently, depending on how we as readers had experienced that relationship.
The class ended at 5pm, but I didn’t get home until midnight – first we all went to a talk Michael was giving at the Swedenborg Society, and stayed there drinking sake until they threw us out, and then we went to a nearby pub and stayed there until they threw us out. I got home feeling effervescent – there’s nothing like spending time with other people who care about the same (rather niche) things as you do, geeking out about translation and reminiscing about Japan and arguing about books. If you’re reading this, guys, thanks for a wonderful day.