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Translation, Fanfiction and the Idea of “Fidelity”

You may have noticed that I have not been blogging much lately. I don’t have an excuse, but I do have an explanation: I’ve been busy with translation-related work lately.

I recently had some of my translations published on Crunchyroll: an interview with two voice actors from the Re:ZERO anime, as well as an interview with the director and composer. Check them out if you like. (As always, if you’d like me to translate something for you personally, feel free to send me a commission.)

Another reason why I haven’t been in the mood for blogging lately is because I’ve been getting back into fanfiction. I haven’t written any fanfiction for about a year now, but apparently I’ve been doing it on-and-off for ten years (h-o-l-y c-o-w). So I guess you could call me a fanfic veteran now.

Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai - 01 (2)

Someone didn’t outgrow his Chuunibyou phase

Speaking from the perspective of someone who is fairly experienced in both activities, It’s been really interesting doing translation and fanfiction side by side. Actually, the two things have a lot more in common than one might casually assume. They’re both considered derivative work, and they are both incredibly difficult to make look easy.

But the commonality that interests me most is the idea of “fidelity”. Literary translators and fanfic writers are often expected to capture the “soul” of the original work. Even when a fanfiction belongs to a completely different genre than the original work, fanfic writers are often praised for writing something “in-character”, and they are just as frequently lambasted for getting things “out-of-character”.

The same expectations apply to translators, although they probably have it worse because translations generally function as substitutes for the original. As a result, people can get anxious about translations. For those who can’t speak the original language, they can never be entirely be sure that a translation is accurate. Even though a translation can never be the same as the original, even minor changes to the text can be construed as a “betrayal” or a “bastardisation” of the original work.

As you might imagine, I have some mixed thoughts about this state of affairs.

“Fidelity” is a complicated concept

It’s worth pointing out that the idea that a translation ought to be faithful to the original is a Eurocentric notion. The translation theorist Hans Vermeer speculated that this idea has its roots in ancient Sumeria. After Sumeria was overrun by the Akkadians, Sumerian was still used as the language of sacred texts, while Akkadian was the language of commoners. In this cultural context, translations were intended only for those who could not read the original, which contributed to their inferior cultural status.

In other parts of the world, translation was still associated mainly with oral interpreting rather than texts. In other words, translation was a spontaneous act of communication. Adapting messages for different audiences was considered par the course. Even written texts were frequently approached in this manner. This was particularly the case within Chinese translation tradition, for instance, where it was common for translators to appropriate Buddhist texts and pass them off as Chinese originals. [1]

So basically, the idea that a translation ought to be faithful to its source is arbitrary in the first place, and certainly not the default way for things to work. In fact, the very assumption that a translation and its source are separate (though related) works is also Eurocentric. Yet for better or worse, these distinctions are codified in Copyright law.

Nevertheless, “being faithful” to the original is not actually too constraining upon creativity

In fact, the creative challenge of capturing the “soul” of the original may be one of the reasons why so many people take up fanfiction and translation.

With fanfiction, the appeal is obvious. It can be very entertaining to create an original yet entirely plausible scenario featuring characters that you already have an emotional connection to. As for literary translators, it can be very stimulating to recreate an author’s writing style in another language. “Dostoyevsky’s writing style in English” is entirely a construct of the translator, but it can also read very differently from the translator’s usual writing style. This is because translators attempt to occupy another writer’s head space. Being faithful to the original in this respect requires an enormous amount of imagination and creativity on the part of the translator.

I am also reminded of the concept of kata in Japanese arts. It is usually translated as “form”, although it encompasses more than just method. By repeating the patterns over and over again, the practitioner ideally learns how to incorporate the art into their very being. The goal is to internalise the form to such an extent that the practitioner can make it look like their own natural movements. When enacted by a master, fidelity can be an expression of individuality.

The task of replicating the original does not constrain a writer’s creativity; it is only constraining when it is presented as the only way for fanfiction or translation to be done. Personally speaking, I enjoy fanfictions and translations that take a more liberal approach. But that doesn’t stop fidelity from being a worthy goal in its own right.

In order to “be faithful”, you need to perform a critical reading of the original text

Some critics and commentators have decried fanfiction, regarding it as a self-indulgent form of writing that encourages lazy and uncritical analysis. Fanfic writers simultaneously put the original creator on a pedestal (they literally call the original work the “canon”, lol) while insisting that they can do whatever they want to the work regardless of authorial intent, and that their own interpretations are equally valid. Such myopic focus on on the author and “the text itself” completely ignores crucial considerations like technique, form and the broader social context in which the work was produced.

I can’t really argue with these criticisms. I happen to share similar concerns about fanfiction culture. But I can offer some observations as a fanfiction author-cum-translator who has grappled often with the concept of fidelity.

One of the staple pieces of advice they give you at translation workshops goes like this: “Analyse the text before you translate it.” In 1988, Mary Snell-Hornby came up with a template for text analysis that is an absolute clusterfuck to look at, but it gives you a broad idea of all the numerous concerns the translator considers (however briefly) when they analyse a text.

texttype-relevent-criteria

Source: Jurnal Linguistik Terapan

The best literary translators go to extraordinary lengths to immerse themselves the cultural and historical context of the work they translate. Gregory Rabassa apparently spent years cultivating friendships with Latin American writers before he penned his translations. It’s probably also no surprise that many famous literary translations are produced by historians and academics (e.g. Robert Fagles, Donald Keene, to name just a few).

Beyond all of this preliminary work, the act of translation itself demands close reading. When you read something, it is possible to skim certain passages. Not so with translation. Every single sentence must be read and interpreted before it can be translated. As a result, translators often become more familiar with the text than the authors themselves. If you ever want to become a literary critic, I recommend you translate literature at least once in your life, just to know what it’s like to engage with a text on such a close level.

Similar reading techniques can be applied to fanfiction. In terms of method and craft, fanfiction has a lot in common with literary adaptation – the art of transposing a narrative from medium to another. Even when you write a fanfiction of a work written in prose, a certain degree of adaptation is involved. You must consider things like genre, differences between mediums and how best to convey action and emotions in prose.

It should also be clear that being “faithful” to the original requires more than close familiarity with the work by itself. The socio-cultural context of the work is also deeply worth considering, especially when it comes to things like anime and manga. No matter how carefully you analyse “the text itself”, it is easy to miss crucial cultural differences. Writing about English fanfiction writers in the early 00’s, Antonia Levi remarked that “The same fanfic author who fails to notice that the [Japanese] school year is entirely different, may devote considerable care to reproducing a character’s clothing, hairstyle, and character traits according to the series’ canon.” [2] This cautionary tale about cultural blind spots can be easily applied to other areas of English-language analysis and commentary about anime and manga.

In other words, while the discourse around fanfiction does no one any favours, the craft itself – when taken seriously – encourages close reading and the ability to approach a text from multiple angles and cultural perspectives.

Copyright is the reason why translations and fanfiction usually suck

It’s often pointed out that fanfiction has a long literary tradition. This is true. Fanfiction scholars (yes, they exist) often refer to Arthurian traditions as an example of early fanfiction writing. In a pre-Copyright world, collective authorship was probably the norm.

These days, it’s not a viable option for professional writers to make a living through fanfiction. Some professional writers do write fanfiction, but because of fanfiction’s shady legal status, it can only ever become a passion project. Even fanfiction writers who turn professional must alter their work to make it “original” before they can legally publish it.

Because there is no money to be made in fanfiction, the scene is almost entirely dominated by amateurs. Yes, there are Pulitzer Prize-winning works of “professional fanfiction” but these are invariably based on stories that are outside of Copyright jurisdiction.

Translators are only slightly better off. The legal status of translation as a “derivative work” affects the level and pay and prestige assigned to them. Unless it’s a translation of something outside of Copyright, translation publishers have to sign a deal with the original creator, usually in the form of paying royalties. In order to drive down costs, most translators get paid dirt.

tldr; You’d have to be bonkers to try it. But on the plus side, it’s pretty fun.

Footnotes

[1] For more information on this subject, read “Chinese and Western Thinking on Translation” (1998) by André Lefevere.

[2] From “The Americanization of Anime and Manga: Negotiating Popular Culture” page 53 in Cinema Anime (2006), edited by Steven T. Brown.

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Posted on August 10, 2016, in Editorials and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I’m a bit wary about the 1:1 mapping between modern fanfiction and historical precedents (the Aeneid’s relationship to Homer, Arthuriana, &c) that students of fanfiction are fond of. Rather than claiming a direct genealogy—saying that their work too was fanfiction—I think it’s safer to say that these writers experienced the same /impulses/ but operated in a different ecosystem—one not distorted by print and the development of copyright and the hard professional–fan divide. Neither ‘professional’ nor ‘fan’ seems right for these writers. Nor does ‘fiction’, which didn’t yet exist.

    And medieval European writers in particular tended to avoid claiming originality whether or not they were inventing their material; to be an author—to have auctoritas—you usually had to be dead, and preferably long dead. To them, of course, everything of any worth ultimately derived from one divine Author/authority anyway. This seems to me to be another of those spheres in which medieval behaviour was at once very like ours in some ways an completely unlike ours in others.

    • Rather than claiming a direct genealogy—saying that their work too was fanfiction—I think it’s safer to say that these writers experienced the same /impulses/ but operated in a different ecosystem—one not distorted by print and the development of copyright and the hard professional–fan divide. Neither ‘professional’ nor ‘fan’ seems right for these writers. Nor does ‘fiction’, which didn’t yet exist.

      Ahh, yes, this is a great point. It also reminds me of how much of what we now see as “translation” was not thought of as such in its historical context either. Modern Copyright laws really have influenced the way we think of creative ownership on such a fundamental level.

      Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  2. Leave my canon alone, Frog-kun! :) I never made the connection, but fanfiction and translation do go hand in hand, as they both demand close reading and interpretation. Your points explain why I am very much a fan of reading fanfic AU’s which simultaneously support and challenge the fidelity of the original work. But it’s always amusing (and heartening) to see fanfiction be “truer” or “better” than its “canon” counterpart (i.e. good fanfiction from bad/mediocre works). Prestige is a social construct as is literary value. Of course, such a notion, if widely accepted, would topple the publishing industry (or at the very least, radically transform it). The difference between a professional and amateur writer is experience with the craft, rather than credentials or formal training. Professional writers have devoted more of their time to exclusively honing the craft. Amateur writers may do so, but typically not as concentrated or as focused within the same time frame.

    • Hmm…

      As my post may have indicated, I think that the legal status of fanfiction prevents it from obtaining prestige. It’s not just a case of people deciding for arbitrary reasons that fanfiction can never be good. Fanfiction can’t obtain government support and funding, it can’t be showcased at cultural festivals, it can’t even be talked about openly in mainstream publications. I know that academics find fanfiction endlessly fascinating, but a fledgling art form needs material support in order to obtain prestige on a wider scale. Such was the case with animation and comics, at the very least.

      As for the difference between professional and amateur writers, I find it curious that you didn’t mention that the former gets paid while the latter doesn’t. Yes, amateurs can be extremely skilled at their craft. And professionalism in itself is not an indication of quality. (I can name you dozens of pro writers off the top of my head whom I think are tripe.) But without money, nobody can support themselves purely through their passion. There’s no industry support or training. Fanfiction can only ever be a hobbyist activity. Is it any wonder that fanfiction rarely ever lives up to its potential?

      • Yeah, I didn’t think too much about the economical aspect of the craft. I completely agree that professionalism is by no means a measure of quality–however, it is socially perceived as such, which is why people tend to trust those who can affirm their professional status through their curriculum vitae, credentials, etc. And why fanfiction can’t ever be taken seriously. But despite the obvious drawbacks of fanfiction as a curiosity, there must be something said that there’s something freeing about it as a hobbyist pursuit? A common problem we see in professional writing (at least for traditional publishing) is that there’s a tendency for publishers to play it safe with their selections and to stick to established genres and authors who have the track record of success. Fanfiction, because it’s so uncensored, has a lot of potential for more original or experimental takes (ironic, considering the premise is centered on providing a derivative work!)

        The most “legitimate” fanfiction I can think of currently is probably the Star Wars franchise, with the bajillions of novels produced by multiple authors. Obviously, Lucas probably gets most of the profits but I imagine the writers might get a cut…could be a potential avenue for other similarly large fandoms. Naturally, I consider HP & the Cursed Child a fanfic work too, considering that the screenplay was not written by JK Rowling.

        • Mmm, I agree with most of this, but I wanted to stress out that HP and the Cursed Child is a work of three authors, one of which is Rowling herself. At the very least it’s marketed like that. From what I gather, Rowling didn’t write the screenplay, but supervised it and co-worked on it. I wouldn’t call such a thing a fanfiction in its raw, “original” form. Maybe a special case, but still.

          I used to frown at fanfiction and dismiss it for being “unprofessional”, but the truth is, it doesn’t have much of a choice. Another problem, I think, is that an average person imagines the non-canon shipping stories upon hearing “fanfiction”, which certainly doesn’t do it much justice.

        • EDIT: I found that Rowling (and J. Tiffany and J. Thorne) made the story, but the script for the play was written by Thorne alone. In that regard, I wouldn’t consider it a fanfiction at all. What was left for Thorne, though, are the exact points Frog-kun talks about – making the characters believable and applying the HP language to an entirely different medium.

          • Not all fanfic writers aim to make the characters believable or make an effort to apply/adapt the author’s in an entirely different medium, but the good ones endeavor to. Certainly, fanfiction (prose) is an adaptation in of itself of visual works such as anime/manga/film.

            Given the evidence you’ve mentioned, I agree Cursed Child is a bit of a special case, given that JKR had a bigger hand in working on the screenplay with Thorne. Which raises the question–to what extent is fanfiction considered fanfiction? How much creative “ownership” must there be to differentiate a fanfic from a “canonical work”? Is this even quantifiable (or even a useful measure?)

            • With the fanficiton being as it is (handled mostly by “amateurs” without any sensible professional backing whatsoever), the line is where a person draws it, I think. I personally wouldn’t consider a book a fanficiton if the original author has their hands in any part of the work, save publishing/producing maybe. If they do, I’d call it a collaboration more than anything.

              However, without a universal consensus, your take on things may be just as good as mine.

              Also, sorry for replying this late, I kinda forgot about this thread… :D

  3. Very well written article, Frog. (I always love your translation posts. <3)

    For those who want to try out translation, you can also try game translation out. Some indie game developpers are sometimes searching volunteers for "fantranslations", just ask them politely. The best about these is you can often experience various kinds of translation (Dialogue, flavor text…).
    Obviously, it's not technically the same as pure literary translation but it still makes for a good understanding of translation as a whole process. (And the concept of "fidelity with constraints" as well.)

  4. Really nice post! It certainly an interesting thought how fanfiction and translation do go hand in hand.

    Actually, this talk of fanfiction reminded of my own two attempts to make sprite based fan webcomics back when I was in high school. Ahh, those were the days. Never able to get em of the ground though.

  5. I think it is quite fascinating how translation is much deeper and more complex than what most people think. It is a shame that not a lot know of the effort and hard work that goes into translation, and that translators themselves don’t get enough credit. You said it yourself; “most translators get paid dirt”. (Oh and I was wondering, the little function you can do where you can take quotes from the passage or from someone else’s comment and put it in that box, is that something only you can do as the admin of this site? Just curious).

    To be honest, before I read your posts I also never gave much thought to the work of translators. Sorry if this insults you but I did think it must have been easy back then. However, posts like this have opened my eyes and learning more about its difficulties have been sort of interesting. Hope to see more in the future, and though you don’t receive any credit for the translations you have done (money wise) you do deserve respect for doing them period.

  6. Woa, this was fascinating reading. As a fanfic reader (I’ve never done it exactly because it’s hard to be faithful!) and curious about translations (I’d like to try it at least once in my life to do a complete thing, even if short, to see how it goes and how I feel about it) this subject is super fascinating.
    I always feel thankful and amazed when I see fans write fanfics or even do fan translations for fans (as text or patch) because writing by itself is hard, having to pick something already existing and capture its soul and feeling without fucking up is scaaaaary.
    I personally really love AU’s, but also love when they follow the original story and then deviate it to make it even better/how I wish it’d gone. I guess it boils down to wishful thinking :’D

    • I think that there’s more freedom with fanfiction. Like you mentioned, AUs are fun! And sure, it’s hard to write fanfiction well, but it’s not hard to do it in the first place. You can just pick up a pen and start writing anytime.

      Translation is a much more intensive task, but also rewarding in its own way. I definitely recommend you give it a shot sometime. But yes, it’s best to start off with something small-scale to gain some confidence first.

      • Fanfiction can be hell and heaven mixed into one, it’s made me cry a lot ༼ಢ_ಢ༽
        Thanks, I will start with something small when I get better! (●>ω<●)

  7. Very interesting! I have a question, though, about the copyright issues. I understand that when talking of translation you mean the translation of original books… and what about the translation of fanfictions? If I want to translate and publish online (just for fun, not money) a fanfiction, which is a derivative work itself, do I still need the fanwriter’s consent or not?

  8. I believe there is the saying that men never outgrow their childish toys… so, I guess it’s perfectly fine to retain that chuunibyou-ness? =P

    As for fanfiction Fidelity, I think that depends on the “genre” of the fanction. There is a broad range of interpretations from supplementary — something that could happen in canon but was simply never touched on by author — to complete AU fanfics where entire character backgrounds are rewritten. What’s important is that the author of the fanfiction makes it obvious to the reader just what level of ‘fidelity’ they’re going for.

    I’m not sure I agree that all translations are bastardizations of the original work though. A proper, literal, professional translation can attain the same level of legitimacy as translated documented in politics and business. The only difference is how much effort is the translator willing to spend — because a good translation can often be just as hard as writing the original (since it requires careful word choice, sentence structures, pacing, etc.)

    I thought this would supplement this post well:

    As an individual of Chinese origin, I must also point out that Chinese literary traditions (and translations) have changed a ton over the ages. Historically, Chinese scholars like to weave a narrative around whatever they deal in — whether it’s religious texts or historical ones — and this forces the writer to create a narrative that could be understand within the cultural boundaries. But since coming into contact with the west, this perspective has been gradually replaced by a more hard-boiled approach; the onset of communism (and its worth of proper scientific procedures at the cost of cultural values) only accelerated this.

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