What’s It Like To Translate A Light Novel?
In case you haven’t been keeping up with my Twitter feed, I’ve been spending the last couple of months translating the Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko light novel. The first volume is finally complete – you can read it here.
I know that not all of my readers are necessarily interested in my translation or in light novels in general, but I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of the challenges in translation. This shit is important, guys! If you’re not a Japanese speaker, chances are translation has a huge impact on your anime experience. But unless you’re a translator yourself, you’re probably not likely to think very deeply about the transformations a work of media undergoes when it gets translated.
So here’s a post about translating, right from the horse’s mouth.
(No pics in this post! It’s also a bit theoretical, but it should all be understandable.)
What’s So Special About Light Novel Translation?
Light novel translation is probably the “freest” kind of translation you’ll find in this subculture. Unlike anime, manga and visual novel translation, there are no space limitations to observe. I can’t speak for other LN translation groups, but at Nano Desu, I was given an extraordinary amount of leeway. There were no set conventions about style and word choice that I had to follow and I was allowed to translate at my own pace. I was even allowed to keep my sexy British English spelling, which was sweet.
Light novel translation is also, for the most part, an entirely solitary effort. Part of it is that there are simply not enough translators to go around. LN translation projects are huge and the demand for speedy LN translations isn’t that high compared to other media. The other reason is that different translators have different writing styles, and these differences are glaring and obvious even to the casual reader.
I regard light novel translation as fundamentally more difficult than any other kind of translation I have mentioned so far. Anime and manga are partly intersemiotic translations, which is fancy translator lingo for “there are pictures and stuff, too”. The translator conveys meaning not just through words but through images, so while they must pay strict attention to facial cues to make sure the words match the context, the visuals tell half the story anyway, which makes their job a lot easier. (Hell, I wrote a post on this.) LN translators don’t have that luxury. LN translators must have a strong grasp of literary composition, because they are not just conveying meaning – they are conveying literary form.
Good Writers Are Good Translators, And Vice Versa
Good translating requires you to understand how writers achieve things like word flow and style. To most readers (and even writers), these are intangible things that you can identify but wouldn’t know how to describe. Translators work with those things on the nitty gritty level. An author’s style isn’t some magical hubris that no one will ever understand – style is constructed purely through words. Many of the world’s greatest writers are also translators precisely for this reason: they understand just how words work.
When I translate, I don’t just translate word-for-word or sentence-for-sentence. I read the whole text first and try to get a feel for the rhythm of the words and the overall tone. Then I put the individual words and sentences into context and try to understand what the author is trying to say through the basic, literal meaning. Finally, I start writing, adapting where it suits in order to reconstruct that intangible feel in English. This is called sense-for-sense translation.
Constructing Literary Style In Henneko
The prose in Henneko, as in most light novels, is rather plain and unadourned. It’s written in first-person with very colloquial Japanese. It’s quite a silly and ridiculous comedy, but it actually took a while before I pinned down the writing style I wanted to use for it.
One of the most surefire strategies in translation is to read parallel texts. These are texts that resemble the tone and genre of the piece you are trying to translate. I’ve read plenty of light novels, both in English and in Japanese, so I had a rough idea of the level of language that was expected. But I’m strongly critical of English light novel translations, so I looked in other places for my influences.
Unexpectedly, I ended up drawing on fanfiction, of all things. It actually makes sense when you think about it. Light novels are themselves pretty “fanfic-y”, and many anime-inspired fanfiction negotiate Japanese culture and English text in precisely the manner I was doing in my translation. There was no way I could make the prose sound “classy” or “literary”, but that’s fine. The content itself wasn’t exactly deep or profound. I focused on making the text feel brisk and lively, simple in lexicon but colourful in flow. Not too ambitious, but harder than it looks!
Foreignisation Versus Domestication
The whole issue of “foreignisation” (keeping in the Japanese words) versus “domestication” (or localising) is often portrayed as a black-and-white issue by those who don’t translate. There’s obviously no clear right way, and most of the time when you’re translating, you foreignise some lines and domesticate others. Most translations skew somewhere in the middle, rather than settling entirely for one end of the spectrum.
When you’re writing a fan translation for anime fans, it’s safe to assume that your readers will “get” the otaku humour without having to explain it. This strongly influenced my translation choices. Nano Desu encourages footnotes to explain cultural and linguistic issues, but I tended not to use them very often myself. Sometimes, my editor asked me to add a footnote, but in general, I let the text speak for itself.
Since I was writing for readers who understood otaku culture, I felt I could be creative with the English language in ways only an English-speaking otaku could be. Take this short excerpt, for instance:
When I got out of the arcade, God, who usually caused me so much misery, turned dere for me. An unoccupied taxi drove into view right before my eyes. The instant the door opened I leaped inside and shoved my wallet into the driver’s hand. “Go as far as this money can take us!”
… which was followed up, later on in the chapter, by this:
My blood went cold. Just how much time had passed since we had left [Azuki Azusa] downtown? I took my wallet back from the driver and paid him for the mileage he had driven. Between Tsutsukakushi and I, we were broke.
The taxi dropped us off on the national highway. It was about four or five kilometres back to the main street. There was no train close by, and we had left Tsutsukakushi’s bag in the arcade. I’d gotten Azuki Azusa’s cell phone number, but thanks to that weird photo incident, it’d been deleted. Just as I thought, God was a tsuntsun.
If you compare my translation to the original Japanese text, there are actually quite a few changes here and there. I localised cultural elements when they were linguistic in nature, like sayings and puns. I felt more inclined to do this when I thought I could preserve the humour. I felt that using a footnote to explain the joke would be beside the point.
For example, there’s a running gag in the novel where the club president girl mistakes the protagonist for his nonexistent “twin brother”. In order to keep up the deception, the protagonist pretends to be his twin brother by changing his speech patterns. He uses ore instead of boku. I knew that many anime fans would be familiar with this linguistic convention, but I still wanted to show the contrast instead of explaining it. So I settled on this:
“Yeah… it’s me, no, INDEED IT IS I… YOKODERA’S BROTHER. YOU HAVE MET YOUR MATCH.”
I made Yokodera talk like a hammy villain, basically. It actually fits the context and Yokodera’s personality, since he likes over-exaggerating things in general. This was a case where, even though you technically “lose” something through translation, you can potentially “gain” other things as well. Which I think would make my translation interesting to read, even if you could read Japanese and knew where I was being unfaithful.
I also combined paragraphs, added dialogue tags, changed sentence structures, and even within sentences there is a lot of variation. I’m sure there are even a few mistranslations here and there. (I was doing this alone and by the seat of my pants.) But in general, readability was my number one priority.
Mental Blocks in Translation
The actual translating part was really gruelling. Some days I didn’t feel like doing it at all. I didn’t get translator’s block so much as I groaned at the time sink. Each page took at least half an hour to translate – more depending on the number of kanji.
I relied heavily on the dictionary, not because I didn’t know the words but because I wanted to make sure of the full range of possible meanings available at my disposable. I’m picky about word choice. Sometimes, I looked at all the dictionary meanings and picked another word altogether. But in any case, as invigorating as it was to write my own sentences, trying to make every word choice perfect made the task very tedious. I have a perfectionist streak, and I’ve been editing and re-editing chapters long after they’ve been released.
There were other times when I got discouraged, thinking, “Nobody really cares that I’m translating a light novel. Light novels are just trash, anyway. Even if I make this translation sound good, no one will treat it seriously as literature.”
I got over it, though, because I’m still idealistic enough to believe in myself, at least. My frustration with the quality of light novel translations led me to start writing my own one. Given the choice, I’ll always choose a constructive form of action over a destructive one.
Tying it all Together: Respecting the Source Material
The most faithful translation is generally agreed to be one that draws from the widest range of inferences (that is, aspects related to the text) and channels them into the most coherent package possible. Translations will always be different depending on the needs of the target audience and how the source text is viewed at the time, so there is no such thing as a “definitive” translation.
In order to write a good translation, I think it’s necessary to understand the source text from all possible angles. It’s not possible to translate something well if you think it sucks. I’d been doing a lot of thinking about light novels before I started translating, and while I do regard Henneko as low-brow literature, I don’t disrespect it for that. As soon as I let go of my need to “improve” the text for the sake of lifting up the shoddy reputations of light novels, my writing felt a lot smoother. Perhaps the lesson I learned from Henneko was to have faith in the author. My translation is liberal, but I ultimately felt that it was at its best when it was faithful.
In the end, I got a lot out of this project. It improved my Japanese a lot, and plus it always feels satisfying to finish such a huge task. I felt like I was writing my own novel alongside Henneko’s author. The final work is just as much mine as his, and I feel the same creative release I get from finishing one of my own stories.
Henneko liked to quote Oscar Wilde a lot, mostly for humorous effect. Right now, his most famous of quotes is running through my head: “All art is quite useless.”
Maybe so, and that’s probably why we do it.
I’m not continuing with Henneko, as much as I enjoyed the translation. I’m handing that title over to another translator. My next series will be Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Come wa Machigatteiru, which I’m picking up from volume 2. I’ll probably start that translation early next month since I have exams and stuff to deal with. Plus I have anime to catch up on!
This ended up being quite a long post. Perhaps my passion for translating came through somewhat…? Heh heh. Well anyway, ’til next time, guys.
Posted on May 20, 2014, in Editorials, Translations and tagged hentai ouji to warawanai neko, shitty light novels, translation, yahari ore no seishun love come wa machigatteiru. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.