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Archive for March, 2010

The anarchy of translation

Being in the translation business leads to a hyperawareness of translation and its discontents. I’ve been reading much more work in translation lately, and these days head straight to the translator’s notes. I recently picked up two books: the venerable Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo (trans. James B. Harris) and the wild Lonely Hearts Killer by Tomoyuki Hoshino (trans. Adrienne Carey Hurley).

The Rampo book is a neat one. Copyright 1956, published in Rutland, Vermont! (I used to live in nearby Brattleboro, but sans car Rutland seemed like a distant dream) and one of the earliest books of popular fiction translated from the Japanese, the Harris/Rampo method of translation must have been exhausting. Rampo, we’re told “while fully capable of reading and understanding English, lacks the ability to write or speak it.” Meanwhile, the translator “a Eurasian of English-Japanese parentage, while completely fluent in spoken Japanese, is quite unable to read or writ the language…” Not exactly a punchline: the slim volume of short stories took five years to translate. The author would read the line in Japanese repeatedly and then explain “the correct meaning and nuance”, then the translator would write an English sentence on the typewriter for the author to read. Every sentence was drafted numerous times “until the author as fully satisfied with what had been set down in English.”

I will say this—the translations in Japanese Tales hold up. Sadly, we don’t have much interaction with the original authors of our books over at Haikasoru headquarters, but we contact them when we can, often to clear up some scientific terminology or to clear or approve a bit of cultural explanation. For the most part though, I’m talking about the author being contacted during the editorial process, not during the translation process. And there’s no way we’d get five years to work on a book.

Then there’s Lonely Hearts Killer, published recently by the radical Oakland house PM Press. (Dare I mention politics in a workplace blog? Eh, my boss has seen the state of my desk. I’m sure she knows that the theories of the anarchists hold sway!) The novel is about the death of an emperor, which Hurley tells us the author refers to as okami. The word means “’emperor,’ the ‘higher-ups’ or ‘the powers that be,’ but also ‘proprietress’ or ‘female manager’…” Tennō (heavenly emperor) is the more common phrase. The emperor is succeeded by his sister in the novel, which makes okami apropos. Further, Hoshino used katakana rather than kanji for the word, which also has implications for how the term is read in Japanese and how it stands out on the page. Ultimately, Hurley chose the term Majesty (bold included) to get the point across. But still, the point is nearly missed—”majesty” doesn’t quite have the same female connotation, though the use of bold does suggest a peculiarity and singularity to the role of the emperor. Of course, the extensive translation note helped too!

We get similar issues cropping up all the time with Haikasoru titles. If a character has a family name that translates into “Thermometer” for example—and no, it’s not a standard Japanese family name—do we call the character “Ms. Thermometer?” Even if the book is about a futuristic medical utopia? (Ultimately, the translator and I decided against. It just sounded silly.) When doing a medieval fantasy, what do we call clan leaders if the heir to the emperor is “prince”…which is itself a bit unsatisfying? Well, we might go for “duke” or “baron”, but that doesn’t quite capture the provincialism of the distant landlords—the clan heads are also not quite peers; they rank below what a westerner might call a duke or baron. “Head chieftain” is perhaps a close and almost literal translation, but that sounded a bit like “Boss President” to me. There’s also “laird” but that term has a regional specificity that would shock many readers out of the story. In the end, I went with “headman.” Though the translation isn’t over yet, so we might come up with something else… Because we’re doing popular fiction here, I try to keep editorial notes and footnotes to an utter minimum. Luckily, thanks to the popularity of Japanese pop culture these days, many of our readers are familiar with Japanese terms and the accoutrements of daily life. So far we haven’t had to explain or apologize.

Traduttore, tradittore the Italians say, which translates as “translator, traitor.” Or “the translator is a traitor.” Or “Every translator is a traitor.” See, even the pithy phrase about the unreliability of translations cannot be perfectly and unequivocally translated! But I think most translations, when done by people committed to the work, don’t betray the spirit of the text. They may, however, betray the letter of the text or the rules of a language for a more internationalist and less culturally specific meaning. The translator isn’t a traitor, the translator is an anarchist!

Two New Books, Starring My Dog!

Advance copies of Slum Online and The Stories of Ibis came in to the office today, and by extension, to my home. The books won’t hit stories until sometime next month (we had a little delay in our schedule, sorry about that) but that just gives you, dear reader, more time to contemplate your reading choices for the next month. Slum Online is a slice-of-life story about a guy who is nearly addicted to a martial arts MMO, The Stories of Ibis is a novel-in-stories about the rise of artificial intelligence and the decline of humanity (…and the completion of humanity’s greatest dream!) But which is better? To find out, I asked my dog Kazzie.

First, she was undecided:

But finally, remembering her love of Holden Caulfield, made a choice!

Slum Online it is!

Of course—and this was a shameful secret—my dog Kazzie can’t actually read English. But she’s made her choice. What might yours be? Intellectual science fiction, or youth-of-today martial arts drama? You tell me! Heck, you can get your hands on both and join the Kazzie Book Club today!

Pancha Diaz on Ooku

We were thrilled last week when Ôoku vols. 1 and 2 won the Tiptree award. I asked editor Pancha Diaz to share a few words with the Haikasorunauts. She even gives away a few tidbits about future volumes, so do check it out. By the way, the third volume of the series will be available next month!


Ôoku just won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and this is exciting for me on a number of levels. It’s always wonderful when a title I work on is nominated for an award, and even more so when it actually wins. That Ooku was the first comic awarded this prize, and that this prize recognizes the exploration of how we understand gender through literature makes me gleam with joy and pride. I am incredibly proud to be a part of the team that brings this excellent story to an English readership, and of the hard work Akemi Wegmüller does in translating Fumi Yoshinaga’s exceptional work. For the curious, we use a variation on Elizabethan English because we feel it is the best way to convey the archaic Japanese Yoshinaga uses in the original.

The premise of Ôoku is simple: three-fourths of the men in Edo Japan are wiped out by a mysterious plague, and when it becomes clear that the disease is not burning itself out anytime soon, the women have to step into all the roles previously assigned to men. Including that of shogun. When we are first introduced to this world in volume, the Redface Pox has been around for over eighty years. Many people no longer remember a Japan plentiful with men.

At first glance, it seems a rather straightforward reversal of gender roles. But Yoshinaga takes it further than that. While men are no longer in positions of authoritative power, their scarcity makes them “precious bearers of seed.” Even the lowest ranking of men are coddled and given the best food of the household, even if this means mothers and sisters are starved. Yet at the same time, men are prostituted out by their own families, to friends, neighbors and strangers. Only wealthy women can afford to buy husbands, and he provides an easy way to augment their coffers and recoup the groom price.

Women also take over the trades once performed by men—farming, fishing, carting, etc—and yet still do the traditional women’s work. The men don’t take over the household duties or childcare when they are banished from the fields out of fear for their health. Essentially, the only role given to men is reproductive. And while in our own world women’s roles have been defined by their reproductive potential, they are not totally limited by it. The men of Ôoku, especially those in the shogun’s Inner Chambers, have been cast adrift. They are necessary only because humans reproduce sexually. In all other ways, this new Edo society has done away with the need for men.

I’ve been able to read up to volume five, so without spoiling anything, I will say that this reducing of men is being felt more keenly in each volume. Since most women in the world of Ôoku don’t interact much with men, masculine stereotypes are shifting. All the good qualities once ascribed to men have been granted to women (along with all their jobs), while all the bad male qualities have been heightened. The male characters readers are introduced to are frustrated with their lot in life, but lack the vocabulary to explain why. For them, this is how life has always been, and always will be.

I can’t predict where Yoshinaga will next take Ooku (which is one of the reasons I enjoy the series so much) but I eagerly await each new volume and the deft unfolding of this tale.


I’m off to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in just a few minutes, but I needed to log on to congratulate the folks at VIZ for the selection of Ooku Volume 1 and Volume 2. as a winner of this year’s James Tiptree Jr. award.

This marks the first time a manga has ever won the Tiptree, which is a prestigious award (with cash prize!) for science fiction or fantasy that examines and expands our understanding of gender. I’ve been to a couple of Tiptree ceremonies at Wiscon and it’s quite a party. Congratulations to mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga, and to the hardworking editors who midwived the translation of her work! YAY

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