Sunday, March 4, 2012

Exoticism is not an excuse

This has irked me for a while now. Seeing how I haven't gotten over the actual incident, which took place over two years ago, I figure it's a running issue with me. Feel free to say "no one actually acts like this", but this is just something I need to get out of my system.

Rant -->

As someone who has grown up considerably immersed in both cultures, I can't help but wince when someone simply dismisses a cryptic passage, for example, as simply part of the "exotic and incomprehensible Japanese culture". Some people even pride themselves on being "accepting" of this supposedly unfathomable culture, even condescending upon others who actually say out loud that they cannot understand.

I've seen people give themselves airs over how they have simply accepted the mystic nature of the Japanese language as it is, even implying that questioning it just proves of how uneducated you are. What's ironic enough is that oftentimes the people questioning it are the ones who are right - it's not even supposed to be mysterious-sounding. It's just badly translated.

I've read books translated into English from other languages, and there's nothing more irritating than a translation that constantly reminds you that you're reading a translation. It's like having someone smiling down at you smugly every moment while you read, telling you, "ah, but you see, you are missing all of the nuances of the source language, because the source language is simply too immense to render into English." Uh, no. That means the translator has copped out and taken the lazy way out, using the handy excuse of exoticism (that works so well with Japanese, sadly enough). Either that, or the translator probably doesn't understand what he/she is translating either, hence incomprehensible rubbish. (Note that I'm talking about contemporary literature, not classics, which become cryptic in every language the further back in time you go.)

My ultimate goal with translating a work is translating it in such a way that an English reader will have the same relationship with the text as a Japanese reader reading the Japanese text. After all, why not? Why should a passage that makes perfect sense to a Japanese reader appear cryptic to an English one?

Now I'm pretty sure people have a more critically sound eye for Japanese culture nowadays, and perhaps it's just me being over-sensitive. But a particular situation which I found extremely irritating was in one of my Japanese literature classes. Because it was a general course, all texts studied were English translations. One day, my prof brought in various translations (twenty-four, if I remember correctly) of the same Japanese poem to compare. Some ranged from quite cringingly literal, to plain ridiculous (a limerick!).

What was astonishing to me was that most of my class seemed to favour the cryptic (in my opinion) translation. Their reason? It sounded "more Japanese". I don't mean to pull a "well I'm from this culture so I must know everything about it" card, but I couldn't help but think, "so what exactly is 'more Japanese' about it?" Its mystery, maybe - except the original Japanese read as plainly as day. Perhaps the broken English? Because although was faithful for the purposes of literary analysis (word order, all that), frankly, it was a horrible piece of writing (which the Japanese wasn't). Which brings me to the question - why did bad and unintelligible writing suddenly become more tolerable once you found out it was translated from Japanese?

I've read so many translated Japanese novels which are "oh-so-mysterious", making me burn with curiosity as to how cryptic the original passage was, only to realize it was just a badly translated idiom. I think my biggest disappointment was when I discovered that a particularly sombre passage in English was hilariously laugh-out-loud in Japanese. It was supposed to be funny, for God's sakes, and it had been sacrificed for the sake of retaining its "Japaneseness". Writers work hard to put humour in their work, and if demolishing that isn't sacrilege, I don't know what is.

Translators who give the knowing nod, and smile smugly that "oh, Japanese is just mysterious that way" are the ones that insult the culture the most. By dismissing it you refuse to understand it. Japanese culture is a living, breathing entity, and so is its language. And as the same human beings, we are astonishingly similar to everyone else. Japanese teenagers act just as stupid as Western ones do; Japanese people enjoy a good satire as much as the next person. It is possible to render Japanese in way that makes sense (and I mean resonates) in English.

It should be the translator's job, who knows both cultures from the inside to find what's common between them, and explain it to the culture in their own words. In no way should this be about lording the "cultural superiority" of the source language over speakers of the target language. Alienation is exactly what the translator's job isn't. It disgusts me when translators pull the exoticism card, and frustrates and saddens me when readers wholeheartedly resign themselves to it.