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.
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. 
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.
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.”  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.
 For more information on this subject, read “Chinese and Western Thinking on Translation” (1998) by André Lefevere.
 From “The Americanization of Anime and Manga: Negotiating Popular Culture” page 53 in Cinema Anime (2006), edited by Steven T. Brown.