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Mardock Babble-A Q/A with translator Edwin Hawkes

by nickmamatas

We’ve gotten some nice notices and comments about Mardock Scramble and especially the smoooooth translation by Edwin Hawkes. So I thought some of you might like to hear his thoughts on all things Japanese, science fiction, and in translation.

Edwin is a pretty smart dude, and chatty too, so make yourself comfy and watch out for the occasional spoiler if you’ve not yet read the book! Here we go:

Q: So you’d read Mardock Scramble in the original Japanese before we had even contemplated translating it. What did you think of the books, and their place in Japanese SF?

A: Hmm. I seem to remember our original conversation when you first contacted me going something like this:

Nick: “Hi. I hear from our mutual acquaintance [SF writer Charles Stross—NM] that you translate from Japanese. Do you like Japanese SF?”

Edwin: “Yes.”

Nick: “What’s your favorite?”

Edwin: “Mardock Scramble.”

Nick: “Uh, we’ve just acquired that. Would you like to translate it?”

Edwin: “Yes please.”

It all seems such a long time ago, now!

I read the original back in 2005, so after it had been out for a while and made their mark. So I didn’t experience first-hand the media furor and controversy in Japan over the uncompromising portrayal of child prostitution, but I was aware of it.

In terms of the work’s “place” in Japanese SF? I’m not sure it slots easily into the canon, insofar as there is one in Japanese SF. Mardock Scramble‘s not hard SF, not quite urban fantasy or cyberpunk, and not quite your standard near-future dystopia, either. More to the point, it’s not quite “Adult SF” but also not quite “Light Novel” material, but draws heavily from that tradition: breathless dialogue, snappy half-sentence paragraphs, strong on plot and characterization. I wouldn’t quite say it was a game-changer, but it certainly opened up intriguing new possibilities for Japanese SF to explore in the future, as it proved pretty conclusively that you could have a book conceived on a massive scale, and one that is ambitious in unusual ways at that, and yet still have a big commercial hit on your hands.

Q: I wonder if you could give us a little insight into how the trilogy was received, or at least consumed in Japan? Here in the US, if I published a book that ended in the middle of a gunfight, I’d be ragetweeted to death by angry fans—thus our 800-page piece of furniture with writing in it.

A: Haha—well, in Japan you’d be ragetweeted to death if you dared to publish in such a bulky format! I mean, how is anyone supposed to fit that doorstop in your jacket pocket so you can slip it out easily during your commute on the crowded Tokyo subway?

I’m being flippant here, but there’s actually a strong element of truth in that. Books are, still, I think, seen as more consumable in Japan; they’re there to be bought (cheaply), read (voraciously) and then discarded (carelessly). I’m wildly over-generalizing, of course, but Japanese books are certainly less objets d’art than they are in the West. If you visit a Japanese home, even a highly literate middle class home where reading is prized as an activity, you’re unlikely to see the bookshelves upon bookshelves of accumulated literary flotsam in the way that you would in my home, or those of many people I know! And the mindset is contagious, trust me. My father, who’s due to retire from his job as professor at a Japanese university in a few years, has no idea what he’s going to do with the books that he’s acquired over the years there, and will probably just end up throwing most of them out. Even the books he’s translated himself!

Also, if you’re referring to the fact that Book 1 ends on a cliffhanger then I’m not sure you’re drawing an entirely fair analogy. Bear in mind that it’s fairly common for a longer book to be split into sections in Japan; the fact that a publisher chooses to do so doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily sees the book as anything other than a coherent whole. Western books translated into Japanese are split into different volumes if the length justifies it; War and Peace may appear in three volumes in Japan, but that doesn’t mean it’s thought of as a “trilogy” in any meaningfully different sense from the way it’s viewed in the West. It’s just a massive book that happens to be split in three parts. Sound familiar?

Regarding the reception of Mardock Scramble, one thing that’s interesting to note is the interval between publication dates of the three volumes: they had a month’s interval between them when they were originally published in 2003.

Fast forward three years to 2006 and the publication of the prequel Mardock Velocity (an equally dark and delicious work, by the way, charting the backstory of Dimsdale-Boiled and descent into the abyss) and you’re looking at an interval of exactly one week between publication of the three volumes.

Quite a difference, huh? And I guess you can imagine why—who wants to wait that long? I guess the publishers decided, after the stunning success of Mardock Scramble, that they could ramp things up a little quicker. But they still felt it worthwhile to publish in three separate volumes…Interesting, no?

And before anyone suggests it: no, it’s not (just) so they can sell more books! Small paperbacks are pretty cheap in Japan, and I’d say that the cost of all three volumes are roughly equivalent in cost to the single English edition (bargain that it is!) The Japanese expect—and get—bang for their yen!

Q: What do you think are some of the greatest cultural difference between Japan and the US as reflected in Mardock Scramble‘s plot, structure, etc.?

A: (Semi-spoiler-alert:) Well, take, for example, the scene set in the casino. That section was (as I’m sure you remember all too well) probably the toughest-going section of the translation, and took me the longest to get it so I was satisfied with it. Not because it’s technically difficult—in that sense, it was actually probably the easiest section—but because it was so important to try and capture that sense of uphill struggle, of a seemingly never-ending and virtually unwinnable battle for the protagonist. All without making it repetitive or boring to read! I’m still not convinced that I entirely succeeded on this point and would welcome feedback from your readers, by the way, good or bad!

The reason I cite it as a cultural difference is because I imagine this sort of scene as being one that’s more readily accepted by Japanese readers, as long as it’s good. Probably because of reader expectations: the serial novel plays an integral part in modern Japanese literature. Whereas in English the serial novel more or less died with Dickens. Yes, there are notable exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions, and no longer really a mainstay of English-language literary culture.

So not only is there more tolerance for length per se in Japanese novel, there’s an acceptance of the idea that a novel, a scene, a story, a paragraph—whatever—can go on for as long as is needed. At first this can be frustrating from the perspective of relatively homogenized Western tastes, but if you embrace it, it’s actually quite liberating and even thrilling: the sense of really never knowing what’s going to come next, because nothing has to be bound by convention or preexisting aesthetic boundaries.

Q: How did you end up in the translation business?

A: Just fell into it, really. It never really occurred to me that I wouldn’t end up as a translator in one capacity or another. I was born in Kyoto, which is quite a big city (pop 1M+), but not quite big enough to have the international infrastructure of, say, Tokyo or Osaka; there’s no big expat community, and you really do need Japanese to get around. All my friends were Japanese or half-Japanese, and bilingualism was the order of the day; we never really thought about about it. One of my earliest memories was speaking Japanese to a visiting (Western) friend of my parents and being puzzled that they didn’t understand me…

Add to that the fact that my father is a translator, it was kind of inevitable. I’ve never done it full time (although it damn well felt like it during this book!), but I can’t imagine ever not doing it either; it’s a compulsion as much as a job, particularly when the source material is as exciting as it is here…

Do you folks out there in Internetland have questions for Edwin? Leave a comment and I’ll make sure he sees them and answers a couple!

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5 Responses to “Mardock Babble-A Q/A with translator Edwin Hawkes”

  1. Al Jigen Billings says:

    Is Mardock Scramble going to be available as an ebook?

  2. Andrew from Hamburg says:

    Hi Edwin,

    There are a number of books that I have read both in the original and in translation (though not English/Japanese), and I have been struck at how often translators need to deviate from the original (or feel that they need to). E.g. jokes are often amended or replaced, and names are sometimes changed to make them more pronounceable or accessible.

    For such an impressive undertaking as Mardock Scramble, how did you go about finding the right balance between faithfulness to the original and producing a text that would be consistently digestible to native English speakers? Do you have any interesting examples?

  3. nickmamatas says:

    Yes, later this month for both Kindle and Apple products.

  4. Andrew Lee says:

    Nice work Ed 😉 Congrats! I look forward to reading it.

  5. Edwin Hawkes says:

    Andrew from H.:

    Wow, great questions to start us off—I could go on all night on these, as you can imagine, but I’ll try and restrain myself!

    I’ll take your points one at a time so I don’t repeat myself:

    1) Jokes/humor: You’re absolutely right, and humor is notoriously difficult to translate. Fortunately, in the case of this translation it wasn’t not too much of an issue, as the humor in the original is not really “laugh out loud.” Rather, it’s pretty subtle, and usually used quite skilfully in order to lighten and change the mood. For example, the Doctor’s or Oeufcoque’s bad puns are usually there to try and divert/distract Balot and each other from the immense pressure they’re all feeling. They’re gestures of gentleness, of humanity.

    Once I realized that this is what the “humor” in the book was about—and not an attempt to induce belly-laughs (and let’s face it, MARDOCK SCRAMBLE is many things, but a light-hearted family sitcom it ain’t!)—the whole task became much easier, as it opened up new ways of tackling the issue. For example, where there’s no direct translation of a pun, rather than try and force a joke or come up with some lame alternative, I thought of other ways the characters might lighten the tone instead, such as speaking in slang appropriate to their characters. A bit of a work-around, maybe, but I felt it worked better than disrupting the flow for the sake of trying to be “funny.”

    2) Names: these were again not too much of a dilemma, as we’re hardly talking about traditional Japanese names that needed to be localized in an effort to make them more accessible. Also, the author provides, in the original, Roman-character readings of the names of the main characters in a dramatis personae at the beginning of each volume, so in those cases I just decided to go with them to preserve an aura of otherwordliness (and also to stay in keeping with the egg—’n’—Alice-in-Wonderland leitmotivs).

    One area with the names that was interesting, and where creative decisions needed to be made, was with the institutions, the world-building aspect. Again, generally fairly subtle, but cumulatively they made a real difference to the whole intricately detailed backdrop. Lots of little things. Like the main evil organization the protagonists were fighting. In the original, it’s オクトーバー社. , or “October Company”, but with “October” as a transcription from English, rather than the native Japanese word. In other words, it has a cool, slightly sinister feel to it, so I went for a slightly more bureaucratic translation that had sinister undertones. Hence “OctoberCorp.”

    Lots of little things like that, basically, which I hope, over the course of the 800 pages, add up to something in terms of creating an atmosphere, even if individually they don’t make a radical difference.

    3) Ah, yes, the old translator’s dilemma: finding the balance between adequacy and acceptability. How “faithful” you need to be to the original in order to do justice to it vs. how “readable” the final version needs to be for the target audience to truly appreciate the author’s intentions—and also, uh, to enjoy the book, which is kind of the point, isn’t it?

    Fortunately, I actually consider this traditional “problem” to be something of a false dichotomy. Or, at the very least, the two concepts (acceptability/adequacy) don’t necessarily need to be mutually exclusive. There certainly aren’t any substantive cuts or additions in my translation, for example: this isn’t an adaptation. Even when Nick and I made conscious decisions to deviate from the original text, it was always in order to try and serve the story, the characters, the impulse behind the original. And these were few and far in between.

    Mostly, though—and particularly once we established a working rhythm (in some cases sending back and forth 5000 words a day)—the M.O. I settled on was mainly about not sweating the small stuff.

    Not in a careless way: we were always careful to be accurate, and I did spend a fair bit of time looking up obscure points and double—checking references (the author is quite a polymath!) But what we stopped doing was rewriting purely for the sake of “polishing.” Because the original IS breathless, spiky, with sentence fragments galore and with deliberately stylized syntax and relentlessly neologistic vocabulary (which is also occasionally archaic!) We realized that it didn’t need to be smooth, and that it was the jagged edges, the dialogue that isn’t quite naturalistic but is always compelling and believable even so, that gives the book its majestic sweep and also its gawky charm, the twisted and yet meticulously detailed logic that sucks you in and drags you along whether you like it or not.

    Whew! I’ll stop talking there for now. Not because I feel that I’ve done any more than scratch the surface in answering your deeply interesting questions, but because I’d be very interested in hearing your—and anyone else’s!—reactions to what I’ve said so far.

    Cheers for now,


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