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Translation, lost and found

Well, from this point on I am restarting this blog about things that personally interest me.  I thought I knew what direction I was going to go in with this, but later on I decided to start up a new blog.  So this is more of the stuff that I find interesting but I’m not really expecting everyone else to.

One thing that doesn’t make sense to me is, with how much I truly enjoy Japanese, why I am not continuing to try and study it on my own formally.  Although I suppose listening to music, watching movies, and comics counts for something, I’ve been pretty lazy about grammar patterns and kanji.  Well, I know I will be taking it next year, so I guess that’s part of it.  I do have informal conversations with my friends in Japanese (well, the ones who speak it) and that helps a lot.  I like realizing that I’m able to do that, you know?  It makes me feel so good.  And when I’ve been listening to my new Pizzicato Five music lately (TL;DR I pretty much have the whole discography now whereas before I only had one CD that I borrowed from one of my very very favorite people) I have been able to understand whole chunks of lyrics on the first listen with no prior access to translations of any kind.  That has been super awesome.

I’m deeply interested in translations as well as localization techniques for certain entertainment, such as the localization of video games.  It’s often occurred to me “Why did they change this from the original?” and a loooooong time ago, when I was reading Chobits, I remember wondering why they changed Hideki’s character so much.  Welllll, I don’t know how much, but comparing the Kodansha International translation with the Tokyopop translation, the language is so different. Unsurprisingly I preferred the Kodansha translation which featured Japanese right alongside the English.  How I wish they would have continued that.  Nowadays I need to check out the Dark Horse translation, but I digress…  Perhaps it’s because I’m not exactly the average American or even the average manga reader (it’s hard to assure you of this if you haven’t had personal experience with me in this field, but I’m giving you my word…) but I really didn’t mesh with the story as well with these kinds of localization changes in the Tokyopop translation.  I could go on with a long long complaint about the way things seem to be translated (gah, the Case Closed manga translation is so inconsistent and in my mind sloppy) but I do realize I relate to the manga in a different way.  It bothers the heck out of me when the original spirit of a piece seems to be lost in translation, or when important details are lost through a lack of attention to linguistic nuance (just a single reason of many).  I’m of the mind that many many things can be art, manga included, but just as there are masterpieces in the fine art world, there are also sloppy, awful paintings.  I know that manga and anime have gotten worldwide renown in part because of the recent (well, perhaps the last 20 years or so really) proliferation of stories with heavy reliance on sexual objectification of characters rather than strong stories.  However, few people seem to understand that there is much more than that type of story available, if you only know where to look.  I have been reminded that because I am a female and many of these well-known manga with sexual objectification present objectify women, I have an immunity to it that a male reader may not have.  I am reminded of Ai Yori Aoshi-a personal favorite, due to the storyline and well-fleshed-out characters despite the presence of more than one instance of female nudity.

But what does this all mean?  I mean to say that if people have come to expect certain things out of stories they are going to get translations which reflect their expectations.  Which brings me back to my statement that I am very much unlike the average manga reader in America.  I will say that there are a few companies that seem to be better with translations, namely the (now defunct) CMX imprint and DelRey.  I appreciate reading things from DelRey because the translation notes connect the reader with the story on a deeper level without assuming their prior knowledge of various aspects of Japanese culture. That’s absolutely fantastic to me, since it may interest people who have no prior knowledge by providing rich, yet accessible information.  Anyway, the overall conclusion I’ve come to because of my experience with translated manga is that I prefer to read or listen to something in its original language.

I kind of always got the feeling that Tokyopop wanted to promote a lifestyle and push product more than actually caring about how accurate their translations were.  They’re the most mainstream of the publishers, certainly.  Furthermore, the American “otaku” (different from the Japanese otaku in many ways imho) is a powerful consumer so of course it matters to sell them product.  Viz is alright…Saikano was certainly beautifully done, but Case Closed frustrates me.  The thing that I wonder about translations that I don’t like due to a high degree of localization is whether or not it is due to the kind of blind spot in one’s head created by long-term familiarity with a subject.  (I have been known to assume other people’s knowledge of Japanese cultural practices to the point that what I am talking about is unscrutable to the unfamiliar audience around me.)  I don’t think that is necessarily true; however.  In the end, I find myself feeling that if something was Japanese, it should retain these characteristics and not become completely unrecognizable as such apart from say, character names and art style.  I suppose what it becomes is a segue into my personal feelings about culture as well–I love that forms of media from around the world such as television shows, music, movies and books tell us a great deal of complex information about the culture from whence they came, and I definitely think that it’s better to know more about other cultures than to know less in terms of internal enrichment for one’s personality development and external enrichment in ability to apply effective communicative techniques based upon the situation at hand.  (Haha, I know that I am being clumsy with words at present and also not necessarily the most clear, but it makes me feel better to know that these kinds of things can exist in my head and I am capable of complex thought; a capacity which I had been worried that I lost a long time ago in my acclimation to what was expected of me and what would help me get along with my peers.  But if you care to know about that, it is an entirely different story that should be left to another time.  I don’t wish to seem haughty, of course, but I have been told before that I had a great deal of potential intellectually.  Or should I say, TL;DR I’m not dumb yay)

Now, all of this information has been based upon my personal experiences, of course.  Yesterday I decided to revisit the movie Sakuran (oh, the colors!  The costumes!) in its Japanese DVD release form which actually came with English subtitles.  They are really good subtitles which do much to capture the original spirit of the piece but something struck me as interesting…besides the obvious inability to translate directly without regard for grammar, little bits and pieces of sentences were gone (that is, I noted a discrepancy from the words in the original Japanese audio) which confused me because they seemed to be important little bits at times.

And today, I came across this through a series of events in StumbleUpon.  The link is here.

“As many of you are painfully aware, most Japanese-language movies, TV dramas and animes still have no subs on the DVDs. Foreign/Hollywood movies dubbed into Japanese generally do have subs, but these are almost never exact dialogue transcripts (at least, I have never seen one), rather they are a rewording or a paraphrasing.

But why? I needed answers. So I went to my local video rental store, and asked to speak to the manager. (Names changed to protect the innocent). And I said to him, I said: “Mr Nakamura, Double-U. Tee. Eff. Why are the subs so often inexact or nonexistent?”. And Mr. Nakamura told me that the thinking in Japan’s movie industry has typically followed two distinct lines:

  1. Hearing-impaired people can go in the general direction of heck.
  2. Subtitles on foreign movies are not merely intended to repeat dialogue, but to convey, clarify and expound on dialogue — in other words, to pick up perceived slack in the audio translation.”

Waaaaaaait…back up a sec…#2.  Yes, that’s it!  That is it!  I finally get it now!  It’s so simple but fantastic.  Of course, for me this means watching a movie like Sakuran would ideally demand Japanese fluency and attention paid to the English subtitles at the same time, but the information would be so rich…!  Maybe if I was fluent I wouldn’t need to use the subtitles to get the nuances being conveyed since I tend to pick up nuance after hearing a term used in a variety of situations, but…!  It was just a particularly interesting thing for me to find that the missing piece was there, kind of.  From the standpoint of someone who doesn’t know a language, it’s kind of pointless to have subs that expound on things one doesn’t know.  I assume the post was actually talking about something that’s been subbed and dubbed into the same language, and discrepancies between the sub and dub, but I feel the same kind of idea of trying to find the missing piece applies anyway.

At the end, I guess translation remains an imperfect art, a bridge.  It is not, I feel, always sufficient to rely on a translation of something as opposed to actually learning the language, but that then goes into how much effort one is willing to, or has time to, expend in learning a foreign language.  Merely learning a language to understand, say, a product manual sounds absurd even to me, despite my inner anthropologist’s insistence that it would be such a wonderful side effect to have increased the size of your mental “world” in terms of accessible knowledge of mankind by learning it.  But, outside of the most pragmatic reasons, isn’t that what people learn a language for?  Well, at least for me it is one reason.


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