Sunday, April 23, 2017

Archetype: Dreamy Hero/Heroine

A common archetype in Japanese manga and light novels is the dreamy hero/heroine.

This type exists in American literature, television, film. Generally speaking, however, happy go-lucky optimists alongside tough authority figures are somewhat more common--think Kaylee and Mal on Firefly. Or, to reverse the genders, Wash and Zoe. (Follow the link for manga examples.)

That is, American entertainment tends to favor the active, quippy type. Dreamy heroes or heroines are often entirely dreamy or eccentric--Phoebe on Friends--or savant-like--Cassandra on Librarians.

The dreamy Japanese hero or heroine, however, is almost always non-eccentric as well as quite competent job-wise--despite his or her "quiet spells." Wataru from Only the Ring Finger Knows is a hard-working student. Ryo from Fake is a reliable cop. On the shojo side, artist Kira from Mars is perceived by other students as somewhat more eccentric and savant-like than her male counterparts. Nevertheless, her "normalizing" as Rei's girlfriend is presented as a positive, especially since it doesn't negate her pensive nature.

In other words, the dreamy archetype in Japanese literature is not marketed as outside-the-box for being so reflective and/or spacey. If anything, these characters are portrayed and discussed as utterly ordinary--with a subtle difference. They are normal if interesting. Just like everyone else except . . .

The closest approximation is J.D. from Scrubs who is a perfectly capable doctor who just happens to have a vivid fantasy life. So he can go about his day helping people, performing procedures, and making accurate diagnoses while at the same time imagining his bosses as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar. (Charlie from Saving Hope is a variation on this plot but not a variation on the archetype--he didn't choose his dreamy side.)

J.D. is perceived as somewhat odd but not in any way eccentric; his behavior is never excused--as is Sheldon's on Big Bang Theory--as "well, you know, that guy lives by his own rules." J.D. is expected--rather like Leonard expects of himself--to conform to the culture around him. And he is does--except for all the times he secretly doesn't.

This is quiet, personal, individual rebellion--not big noisy, "look how strange I am" rebellion.

There's a place for both types: What would we do without Sherlock Holmes?! Of course, the Brits seem to have their own version of "I'm not strange--yes, you are--wait, that's not strange" banter. The pleasure of the dreamy Japanese hero or heroine is one gets to enjoy their wandering minds without feeling like the wandering has to make a point. After all, as long as they don't wander too far, what's the harm?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thoughts (and Fan Fiction) on the Psychology of The Guilty

One of the more fascinating aspects of Japanese manga and light novels is the introspective objectiveness, the continual acknowledgement that how a character sees him or herself  is not entirely how that character is seen by others.

American literature will point out the disparity between one's view of oneself versus others' views of one: this revelation is common currency in romance novels and can be quite effective in furthering a plot; the ultimate goal in American romance is to bring the two views in sympathy or alignment with each other.

Japanese romance light novels and manga use the disparity with equal effectiveness; however, characters do not always resolve problems with complete alignment. To a large degree, they and the author assume (1) that the disparity is inevitable and (2) that the disparity will continue. Success is measured by the amount of understanding the characters achieve in a single moment. Reading Japanese romance is rather like reading Pride & Prejudice taken to a whole other level.

For a writer, light novels consequently offer many opportunities for readers and fan writers to "read between the lines"--there's so much of it there!

Below is an extra imagined interior monologue to The Guilty series by Katsura Izumi. The monologue is from the point of view of Hodaka, the secondary protagonist. Most of the novels are written from the point of view of the primary protagonist, Toya, and it is helpful to remember that Toya perceives Hodaka, not himself, as the elusive partner (more character analysis follows the interior monologue):
His lovers in the past never stayed overnight—not that there had been that many. Hodaka had never had the number of lovers conjectured by the scandal sheets.

The few who had crept into his life had been brief liaisons: valued for the moment, released in the next. Hodaka had never seen the need to sustain those fleeting connections. Mutual interest led to enjoyment led to inevitable separation. That was the norm.

Until now.

No lover had ever enthralled him like Toya. No lover fascinated him so much.

Hodaka wasn’t concerned by his fascination (another fleeting emotion). It was his need for Toya, for the type of relationship that Toya offered, that unnerved him.

His heart troubled, Hodaka slid out of bed. He pulled on a robe and quietly leaving the room, headed for the house’s library.

Toya had come to Hayama to fetch Hodaka’s latest manuscript for his employer, Sozan Publishing. Several weeks earlier, he had resigned as Hodaka’s editor, but his devotion to his job was stronger than his disappointment in Hodaka, so he had come to Hayama since Hodaka wouldn’t hand over his manuscript to anyone else.

Hodaka was not sure even now what he had done to push Toya to call off their relationship.  He knew that Toya desired him. Why else would Toya propose his own body in exchange for Hodaka’s manuscript? Especially while he was still engaged?

That engagement was now at an end. Hodaka was not surprised. He had met the woman briefly—a sweet-natured, candid person. Hodaka had already known by then that Toya required something hardier than sweetness. Toya was too complicated a man to be content with a normal, placid relationship.

Toya claimed that he wanted Hodaka’s heart. I’ve given it to you, Hodaka had tried to tell him, but Toya seemed to need something more, something so mysterious Hodaka could only agree to his demands and hope understanding would follow.

Waiting to learn more about his lover meant a long-term relationship, something Hodaka had never felt the need for before. Now, he felt its allure—due to Toya, no doubt, but Hodaka also sensed a growing dissatisfaction with his own past attachments. Were they truly not enough?

If he pursued a long-term relationship now, he would depend on Toya. Toya claimed to love Hodaka. He had said it again and again when he arrived in Hayama. And yet—

Toya was so much more contradictory than Hodaka. He was intelligent, ambivalent, self-effacing: a mass of circuitous thoughts.

The only way Hodaka could stay ahead of Toya was to demand what he, Hodaka, wanted and trust Toya would agree.

But would his demands be enough to keep Toya beside him? Suppose he decided that enjoyment with Hodaka was not enough to outweigh his misgivings? Suppose Hodaka handed over the manuscript, and Toya ended their association for good?

Hodaka’s latest novel was unlike anything he’d written before. It was a mystery, of course, with a strong psychological component. It was also a love story, something Hodaka had never felt impelled to write before. So many empty, unsure nights without Toya—Hodaka felt impelled to express the uncertainty of love as if he were a young man again, poised on the edge of confused attraction.

Suppose Toya read the manuscript and was alarmed by Hodaka’s new approach? Toya claimed to be a fan of Hodaka’s work, and Hodaka had to admit that Toya discussed his work with all the fervor and enthusiastic dissection of a true fan. Suppose, like many fans, he’d wanted Hodaka to write more of the same—not try something new?

Toya was a gifted and reliable editor—he could set aside his disappointment as a fan. But suppose Hodaka’s expanding emotions embarrassed him? Away from Hodaka’s arms, Toya could be fastidious and absolute in his self-sufficiency.
Part of the fascination of Toya and Hodaka's relationship is that it begins in betrayal--namely, Toya's betrayal of his fiancee. This false start adds an extra psychological burden to the relationship, which explains why, generally speaking, relationships between cheaters don't last.

Alongside all the normal doubts and fears is Toya's unhappiness with himself. He doesn't entirely trust the "him" who behaved so badly; he isn't a playboy by nature and had no idea he had such devious cruelty inside him.

Consequently, he is constantly trying to put on the brakes with Hodaka, to rein in their relationship, to establish lines between the personal and work--to not be the guy he was when he hurt his fiancee.

Hodaka, unfortunately, reads this behavior--Toya's retreat to "company manners"--as disinterest or, worse, as Toya moving on, "trading up." Hodaka is perceptive enough to recognize that Toya is not (usually) the playboy type: he doesn't go around picking up partners right and left. Yet Hodaka is also perceptive enough to recognize that Toya did walk away from a supposedly steady relationship despite being a normally dependable man. Who is Hodaka to say that Toya won't walk away from another relationship? After all, if one wants to know how people will behave in the future, the past is the best indicator.

There's a reason Volume 2 is called Original Sin. It isn't merely a clever title--it highlights the problems brought about when relationship ills originate in tainted first contact. Both characters carry the weight of their first mistake, yet both are sure that the other person has everything all figured out. Consequently, they both interpret the other person's behavior in terms of confident resolution (arrogance) rather than blustering uncertainty (fear)--which naturally leads to misunderstandings. And . . . problems ensue. 

All this psychology packed into a few slim volumes--light novels are remarkable fare.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Collection Review: Maiden Rose--and Thoughts on Understanding a Genre

Delve into a genre--romance, mystery, country music, possibly even literary fiction--and what appears monolithic from the outside (All fantasy is the same!) appears far more variable from the inside (No, it isn't!).

Not all comic books/graphic novels/manga are the same.

Delving, however, takes effort. It means actually reading (and discarding) different works by different artists within the genre. It means developing an inner criteria or standard about what makes something bad or good. (Teachers should also do this: develop a personal theory or ideology about teaching; I have always enjoyed taking classes from teachers who have developed their own theory/style--even if I disagreed with their ideological perspective--more than from teachers who teach-from-the-book or teach-lesson-plans-developed-by-someone-else.)

I mentioned in a previous post that delving with yaoi is somewhat more difficult than with shojo--simply because yaoi is less accessible. When I started my research, I ordered three yaoi books through Amazon: A Gentleman's Kiss, But You're My Teacher, and Maiden Rose.

At this point, I was batting 1 out of 3.

The short story collection, But You're My Teacher, falls into the category that I discuss in my posts about manga short stories: Only a Premise. It is basically porn and reminded me of the endlessly amusing Provenza quote from The Closer:
Do you know why I hate porn? Guy delivers a pizza, it never gets eaten. Girl's refrigerator breaks, it never gets fixed.
Gentleman's Kiss was my introduction to Ken-doll art and to the problem of a couple that I was given absolutely no reasons to believe should be together. It was my introduction to the problem of relying on stereotypes (rather than archetypes) to sell the characters.

Maiden Rose was--and continues to be--in a class to itself.

The soft sigh or silence before
chaos descends is well-captured
in Maiden Rose.

Maiden Rose was also confirmation that explicitness does not automatically equate to erotica. Neither does it automatically equate to porn.

Maiden Rose is quite remarkably explicit, so much so that I artistically censored it for my own peace of mind (something I have never bothered to do with Black Sun). But it isn't porn. I attempt to tackle why in other posts. Suffice it to say here, the use of sex in any type of fiction to further that fiction's plot is only as salacious as (1) its tone; (2) its effectiveness.

Maiden Rose is nearly impossible to describe adequately. It belongs to high romance. It also belongs to history, being a thinly veiled exploration of Japanese culture and politics between WWI and WWII. It is also incredibly well-written, having strong, memorable characters (not only the main characters but the supporting cast) and quick, insightful, show-don't-tell dialog. The politics is believable and organic, arising naturally from the series' world. Both volumes are impressively well-translated, being possibly the only contemporary works I've read where the word "equites" is used properly and as a pun.

Ultimately, Maiden Rose is a love story. It's high romance love, so despite the relationship's consummation, there is the same ongoing, heart-aching sense of yearning that one experiences from other slice-of-life artistes, such as Makoto Shinkai (Voices of a Distant Star, Garden of Words) and Hayao Miyazaki.

Which brings me to my final point: the art of Maiden Rose is the most impressive out of all the manga I read. The series is in a class of its own.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Words Words Words

From Holy Kaw
Wrapping up with some reflections on language.  

Kate: What accounts for the excessive passive voice and vague pronouns in poorer translations?
Eugene: It's mostly from translating Japanese too quickly and too literally.

Japanese advantages its close integration with the culture and society to "compress" the grammatical structure whenever possible, shifting most of the heavy lifting to the verb and a myriad of agglutinative conjugations at the end of the sentence.

Consider as well that the shadow of feudalism lasted into the 20th century. Along with it came the lexical complexity of marking status and using honorifics. Thus dropping the subject of a sentence became a desired efficiency. (Along with titles taking the place of pronouns.)

But the "compression" in Japanese is often "lossy," which is difficult to reverse because of lost information. Unlike English, which tries to pack all the available data into self-contained sentences (and uses subject placeholders like "it" to keep the structure intact), Japanese can scatter information all across the page.

From the perspective of English grammar, Japanese favors "passive" formations that skip the subject ("Mistakes were made"), and sees no problem in failing to mention the subject for another several paragraphs. A Japanese writer can easily create a page of third-person narrative that fails to clarify the sex of the POV character. That's hard to reproduce in English.

One translation "shortcut" is to have a native Japanese speaker do a rough translation and then have a native English speaker do the cleanup. The problem here is that the cleanup editor may have no way figuring out the antecedent to one of those vague pronouns.
Purple Prose,  Prather-style
Kate: Some light novels have what is sometimes referred to as "purple prose"--it varies considerably from poetic to explicit. Do translators make a conscious choice which approach to take? Does the original text make the decision for the translator?
Eugene: I'd say the original text pretty much dictates the final product. There's always leeway in tone and word choices, but the explicitness of the terminology pretty well controls the explicitness of the prose.

Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Elmore Leonard wrote detective novels, but their use of "vocabulary," shall we say, is quite different. It mostly comes down to a matter of discerning the sociolinguistic milieu and the genre, and then deciding who the audience is.

 Harlequin novels--rights likely obtained for cheap--turned
into manga by Japanese artists.

Or rather, figuring out who the author pictured as his readers. Once you get all those variables adjusted properly, so that you are writing in the same mindset for the same readers, you don't have to think about it that much.

Although there is always the challenge of making purple prose not sound so purposely purple.
Kate: In the previous interview, we discussed colloquialisms—the difficulty/necessity of translating figurative language between cultures versus letting the phrases/references stand. Some translators seem to fall back on clichés due to lack of imagination. Sometimes, however, the original writer appears to deliberately use a cliché. How does a translator recognize and handle clichés?
Eugene: In a very real sense, all language is a cliché or we couldn't understand each other. Like continents and species, language drifts and mutates. Before long, the past and the present (and the here and there) are miles apart and have adapted to quite different environments.

Language is thus a moving window that attempts to pin down usage within a certain time-frame in order to maximize comprehensibility. Most usage is effectively transparent. We process it without paying undue attention to the semantic and syntactical structure.

When we do start paying attention, that window starts moving. Some usage, like the subjunctive, dwindles away over the protests of a few stubborn grammarians. A lot is like fashion. Some usages never go out of fashion, and others can't go fast enough.

Stock Phrase
So there are expressions that last for centuries, while others, like bell-bottoms, get shipped off to the Salvation Army with a roll of the eyes. And maybe some creative soul will find a totally self-aware use for them that brings the cliché back to life again.

In Japanese, there is a whole category of what are called four character idioms, often adapted from Chinese. They are expressions compressed to their essence, like saying "Two birds one stone." A couple dozen would qualify as cliches. The rest can get quite arcane.

And as in English, Japanese has stock phrases. For the non-native speaker, it can be difficult to identify an ironic usage when it comes into play. Luckily, Japanese tend to avoid irony. But contemporary references can be just as tricky. You can at least look up historical allusions.
Kate: Speaking of allusions, they can crop up unexpectedly. As P.J. O'Rourke mentions, when Senator Kennedy mocked Vice President Bush during the 1988 Democratic Convention by asking, “Where was Bush [during Reagan’s scandals]?” the reporters watching immediately responded with, “At home, in bed, with his wife.”

Is the creation of contemporary allusions/slogans easier or harder to see in another culture? How “current” do you have to stay in order to “get” other cultures’ allusions?
Eugene: The most recent Godzilla movie apparently makes veiled references to Fukushima and the subsequent political storms. Those are easy enough as long as you keep up on the news. Harder are trends that truly are "socially constructed," that come and go like mayflies.

On the other hand, language that is to subjective would probably not be accessible to a foreign audience either, so translated too literally you could end up with translated language that isn't any more comprehensible. 
Kate: Different countries use different punctuation. For example, American quotations are double (“) on the outside, single (‘) on the inside; the reverse is true in much British literature. And when I was taking French literature, many of the books used <> to indicate a speaker speaking.

What do the Japanese do? Do you “translate” punctuation?
Introduction to Japanese Punctuation
Eugene: I've always found Japanese punctuation to be logical and comprehensible. Perhaps because there is no interference from the familiar conventions I already associate with Latin scripts, my brain maps punctuation marks pretty much on a one-to-one basis.

Japanese has adopted several punctuation marks directly from Latin script, including the exclamation point, question mark, parentheses, and the comma. And increasingly uses smart quotes (“…”) alongside the traditional kagi kakko (「…」 and 『…』).

Emphasis (italics) is indicated with a dot or comma next to (or above) each character (bouten, meaning "side mark").

NHK in particular likes using smart quotes rather like "air quotes." Kagi kakko remain the standard in narrative fiction and the usage is almost the same, although it is quite common for any dialogue enclosed in kagi kakko to be separated into its own paragraph.

Yes, this can at times make it easy to lose track of dialogue tags.
Kate: Is there any grand unifying theory that explains how language works? And does a grand unifying theory help the translator?
Eugene: Language universals do exist, but it's tricky getting from there to the "universal grammar" concepts pioneered by Noam Chomsky, that tie language to structures in the human brain that work exactly the same for everyone everywhere.

As a result, a "linguistic theory of everything" remains as elusive as it does for physicists, who end up with compelling explanations and neat ideas and no way to empirically test them.

Unfortunately, Chomsky was still all the rage when I was in graduate school so I had to study transformational grammar. This was Chomsky's attempt to create a calculus of language.

It is a useful tool for analyzing language but not necessary for creating real-world
Language is a grass-roots thing.
functionality or for describing how language actually works in the minds of the human beings using it.

But in the 1980s, Moore's Law was taking off. The revolution in computer technology
triggered much wishful thinking that rules-based computing could solve all the difficult algorithmic problems that had eluded the more mechanical processes to date.

One of the goals of the Fifth Generation Computer project, initiated by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1982, was machine translation. It pretty much completely failed.

Simply consider the imprecision of rule-based grammar checkers. They're useful only when paired with human beings who can weed out all the false positives.

A chess or go program based on algorithms alone can play a pretty good game. But beating a smart human requires pattern recognition based on massive real-world data sets and machine learning systems. Saying "Oh, this resembles that" a billion times a second.

Pattern recognition is the key. It's at the core of all modern machine translation systems. It's what the human brain does best (so well we eagerly perceive patterns where they don't exist).

But, again, we can't confuse explanation with application, descriptions of how language works with prescriptions of how it ought to work. What's of actual use to a translator also involves universals but at a much higher level. I'm talking about story universals.

In other words, Joseph Campbell instead of Noam Chomsky. Less universal grammar and more monomyth. (Well, and you do need a good copy editor.)

Granted, art can get so abstract at one extreme, and so culturally-bound at the other, as to defeat reasonable attempts to identify the shared patterns. But neither is there a point in translating stories without universal appeal.
Ah, words are not enough . . . except, Thanks, Eugene!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: The Act of Translation

Poseidon of the East
The next two posts deal with the nitty-gritty aspect of translation: "All those words"!

Kate: While translating, what enables the translation process to get easier? What still causes difficulties?
Eugene: What enables the translation process to get easier is translating. The more you translate a particular author, the more you get used to that author's particular use of the language. Though you tend to absorb it along the way, so it's not something you pay a lot of attention to, if you notice it at all.

The fast pace at which translations have to be churned out to be profitable means you have to end up going with the "good enough" or even the "I'm pretty sure it's not totally wrong" version.

When you've only got time for copyediting (forget about line editing), an easy mistake to make is translating a certain expression the same way every time. Not all redundancies are created equal.
For example, it's not a good idea to get clever with a word like "said." But when readers point out that I've overused a particular expression, that I've simply translated the same expression the same way isn't a good excuse. When the reader starts noticing the prose, something's wrong.
The Wings of Dreams
Kate: In my various light novel readings, obvious differences about the original authors come apparent (some are better at plotting than others). It is harder to gauge tone--so much depends on the translator! However, some differences do tend to appear. Do you sense a difference in tone when translating?
Eugene: Not really, at least probably not during the translation process.

The problem with tone is that it arises as a byproduct of the entire effort. To be sure, I can get a grasp from the start on genre, whether the prose is "hard-boiled" or "romance" or "high fantasy, and that dictates the tone and register of the translation.

I tend to begin with assumptions and adjust them along the way.

I do notice writing quality. The better the writing, the easier it is to translate. Vocabulary is of only peripheral importance. The Chinese cognates Fuyumi Ono uses don't make her prose more difficult to understand, though it can take longer to think up translations for fantasy terms.

If the worst thing you can say about somebody's writing is that you have to look up some words in the dictionary, you're on firm ground.

I've been surprised at how readable Natsume Soseki is. Granted some of his vocabulary and usages are dated (as well as the geographical references to Tokyo a century ago), but his prose does not otherwise suffer from any lack of clarity.  
Shadow of the Moon
Kate: Many of the light novels I've encountered--with a few exceptions--seem quite Jane Austen-like in their semi-omniscient narrators. Points of view shift easily within a chapter. Do Japanese novels worry about point of view or is that a Western obsession? 
Eugene: I don't know if this is something that Japanese writers writing about writing worry about to the same extent that English writers writing about writing worry about it.

In Shadow of the Moon, Fuyumi Ono maintains an admirably strict third-person POV with the omniscience voice limited to the protagonist alone, the world seen only from her perspective. And even in her multiple POV novels, she doesn't let her omniscience wander.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with "head-hopping," but I think this speaks more to the skill and style of the writer than to the culture. I suspect the ongoing tension between the two is a pretty universal concern--among those of us who think excessively about such things.

For everybody else, what matters is whether the author tells a compelling story. Less about how.
A Thousand Leagues of Wind
Kate: As a reader, I occasionally note plot errors in novels. One paragraph said that the character went home but the next paragraph clearly indicates that the character went to school. I don’t assume it is the translator's fault! As a writer, I am always wary of making these types mistakes (a character sets out to do something in the morning but in the next scene, I mistakenly refer to the time of day as "twilight"). Have you ever encountered these errors as a translator? Do you fix them? Do you think translators should fix them? Or leave them as original to the text?
Eugene: I wouldn't be so certain [a change in tense or time of day] is not the translator's/editor's fault. Japanese narrative prose tends to follow the same POV rules as English prose. Tense, however, is far more fluid, switching from "present" to "past" tense in the same paragraph.

In Japanese it's easy to confuse aspects of the perfect tense and participles in general with the present tense. As an oversimplified example, a participle phrase can be split off in the present tense, and followed by the rest in the past.
"Floating in the pool, I gazed up at the clouds."

"(I) float in the pool; gazed up at the clouds."
This use of the "historical present" is VERY common, and is independent of the "quality" of the writing. When translating, I will simply render everything in the past tense.

(I studiously avoid fiction written in the present tense and loath the trend of narrating historical documentaries in the present tense. If it happened in the past, put it in the past tense!)  
The Shore in Twilight
Kate: Are you ever tempted to the fix bigger issues, such as stories with no pay-offs or lack of character development? Or is your main focus on making the language work?
Eugene: As for actual mistakes in narrative structure, I tend to unconsciously knit everything together so it makes sense on the page. Though as noted previously, during the translation process, I can get so close to the text that I completely miss these types of mistakes.

I avoid thinking much about bigger issues. It being completely out of my purview, to start with, and not having the time in any case.
I don't think it's the translator's job to make those kinds of editorial decisions, so if I don't have an editor to bounce things off of, I don't.
Dreaming of Paradise
Kate: C.S. Lewis stated in his autobiography that he knew he had begun to master Greek when he no longer translated the word into English first. The Greek word “boat” brought up the image boat, not the English word (followed by the image). But translation involves doing exactly this—thinking of the word rather than the image. In fact, translation appears to involve multiple skill-sets from understanding to writing to rearranging words at the sentence level—do you feel yourself switching “hats” as you translate?
Eugene: There's the meaning part and the wordsmithing path. Like good acting, good writing shouldn't normally call attention to itself. The right words pull the right meaning out of our experiential memory banks. The better the word, the better it does that (without us noticing).

One problem comes when the words access the wrong thing.

A good example (from the Nibleys) is "Aegis" as the name of a ship vs. "Aegis" as a class of guided missile cruisers (referring to the combat system). And translating Fuyumi Ono, I have to keep the Chinese references distinct from the Japanese references.

At times, the only thing in a particular memory bank location is wrong. Or is blank. The etymology only goes so far, so I have to find something to fill it. The Internet makes that much easier. I can Google Image a Chinese word and realize, "Oh, that's what she means."

There's also the problem of the words themselves gumming up the works—to continue with the above metaphor, acting that calls so much attention to itself that it distracts from the story. The challenge is to find the right word that doesn't trip over its own two feet.

If you're John Lasseter, then you hire Neil Gaiman to rewrite the script for Princess Mononoke. That's not usually in the budget. There's more leeway with subtitles because the visuals and voice acting can cover much of the "wordsmithing" chores for you.

With prose, if the story starts to sag for any reason, the tattered edges of the words will start to show.
Coming Next: WINDING UP with "Words Words Words"

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Psychology and Japanese Fiction

Kate: Light novels seem to always have a psychological component, discussions of why people behave the way they do. Would you say that capturing inner beliefs is difficult in all writing, easier in Japanese, more difficult . . . ?
Eugene: It's probably easier in Japanese, as the writer is less likely to get bogged down in a morass of first-person pronouns. Japanese literature created the genre known as the "I-novel," and many works of poetry going back to the Heian period are intense first-person explorations of the psyche.

Anime series from Kanon to Madoka Magica can easily be interpreted as journeys through the mind of the protagonist, and Kokoro Connect makes this explicit. The entire last third of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro has "Sensei" explaining at length to the narrator why he is the way he is.

At the end of the day, when it comes to talking about yourself, it's the skill of the writer that makes the biggest difference.
Kate: People are people and relationships are difficult. In the romance light novels as in the American paperbacks I read, the difficulties rest on miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misreading. The ultimate desired outcome is closeness.

So far, so good: people are people. However, one difference seems to be that in Japanese light novels, the closeness is achieved by figuring out exactly how much power to give up while in American paperbacks, closeness is achieved by dismissing or supposedly rising above issues of power. Consequently, Japanese light novels seem closer to Jane Austen/nineteenth century literature with the ongoing negotiation of hierarchy, power, and money. Would you say this is a fair assessment of Japanese literature and society?
Shoko Hidaka explores power between
servants and masters as well as merchants
and aristocracy in Blue Morning.
Eugene: Yes, very much so. The Faulkner quote, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past," is a good way to approach Japanese sociology. The feudal Edo period only ended in 1868 and it didn't really end until 1945 (if even then).

Feudalism arises out of the common denominators of human interaction. There will never be a "classless" society, so the gravity of feudalism will always exert a force. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

No, romantic love doesn't overcome it either. As C.S. Lewis has written at length, it is more likely to royally screw everything up. Candid discussions of power, money, and sex will prove more productive in the long run.
Kate: Regarding psychological trends, are the Japanese more nature or nurture oriented? Some American readers complain/point out that light novels are still (in the 21st century) filled with Freudian (“nurture-centered”) arguments. Is Freud popular in Japanese culture?
Eugene: Japan actually came up with its own sort-of-Freudian theory, that was energized by the Nihonjinron movement, which naturally proclaimed it uniquely Japanese. It was popularized in The Anatomy of Dependence by Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, published in 1971.
"Amae is the nominal form of the verb amaeru, which Doi uses to describe the behavior of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as a parent, spouse, teacher, or supervisor, to take care of him. The behavior of children towards their parents is perhaps the most common example of amae, but Doi argued that child-rearing practices in the Western world seek to stop this kind of dependence, whereas in Japan it persists into adulthood in all kinds of social relationships."
A trope in shojo and yaoi manga/
light novels is when one character
discovers how hard another works.
Amae is seen as arising out of "Japaneseness" rather than genes. Japanese are nurture oriented. Although "IQ" is mentioned all the time--brilliant detectives always have high IQs and attended institutions like Harvard and Cambridge--what matters for everybody else is the ganbaru variable.

A movie like Stand and Deliver belongs to its own genre in Japanese entertainment, epitomized by television series like Dragon Zakura. Almost the entire emphasis is on EFFORT. Shoulder to the wheel and nose to the grindstone, that's what success is made of.
Japanese can be VERY introspective. As my Japanese theory of everything goes, the mysteriousness of Japan is often simply the result of it being a country of introverts who rarely see the need to spill all their mental anguish to a shrink. The stigma of mental illness is pervasive.

That's what books with thinly-veiled fictional protagonists are for.

Again, we get back to the "ganbaru" mentality. People have problems because they're not trying hard enough not to have them.
From Culture Map by Erin Meyer
Kate: Some sociologists argue that Asians see things/people in terms of their relationship to their surroundings while westerners see the person as emphatically an individual. So a portrait of an Asian by an Asian would place that person in context while a portrait of an American by an American would focus on the face.

Almost all light novels I've encountered are heavy on dialog but also go out of their way to provide setting details--where exactly things are spatially in an apartment or business, city or country. Is this specifically Japanese (people/things in context) or a product of the light novel genre?
Eugene: It's a Japanese thing (granted, my sample size here is two).

Japanese television has the usual travel shows about adventurers venturing off the exotic locations along with the more sedate Rick Steves-style tourist guides. But there are a whole lot of shows that focus exclusively on Japan, including the relatively mundane.

NHK has a series on one or two-day mountain hikes (not climbing, hiking to the top of a hikeable mountain). And there are a ton of series about accessible railway travel from point A to point B, with hardly a tourist trap in site.

Granted, with 2000 years of recorded history, you can go anywhere in Japan and find something interesting to say about practically anything.

Fans flocking to an area reminds me of
pilgrimages by young women to visit
"J. Dawson's" grave when Titanic came
out. No, Leonardo DiCaprio's character
wasn't based on him--the real J. Dawson
was a crew-member.
A show called Bura Tamori has a guy named Tamori (famous for hosting a pop music show a la Dick Clark), who walks around a city in Japan with a local historian and cartographer in tow and talks how the city grew to be the way it is. (I find stuff like that fascinating.)

 Asadora are always linked to a specific geographical settings. A five-minute addendum is appended to the end of every Taiga historical drama episode that explores the episode's past and present-day setting, how to get there and what to see.

 Then there's the "holy sites" phenomenon:
"When an anime is set in a certain locale, or even if background scenery strongly resembles a certain locale, that anime's fans will flock to the area to see the sights for themselves and buy local merchandise."
Kate: When you are writing/translating, does geography pose a problem? Do you rely on maps? You've lived in Japan—but of course, construction and new projects do change landscapes. How reliable is Google Maps? Did you go by memory or web images to write Serpent of Time and Fox and Wolf?
Mount Koya: a important location in Serpent of Time.
Eugene: Geography is a big challenge and Google Maps is a massively useful tool. When I was writing Serpent of Time, Google Maps let me drive the same road that Ishibashi-san takes from Kii Kamiya to Kudoyama. I had visited the area in person, but hadn't taken that particular route.

I also made use of Meiji Era maps of Osaka and Wakayama published online by the East Asia Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

In Fox & Wolf, Google Maps let me I drive from Hiraoka shrine to Mt. Ikoma and then to the Ikoma Skyland Amusement Park. And when I was translating Demon City Shinjuku, Google Maps and Google Images helped to clear away the confusion on several occasions.
COMING NEXT: The Act of Translation

Friday, March 24, 2017

Interview with a Translator, Part 2: Translating Story

Kate: As discussed in the prior interview, you have translated a number of the Twelve Kingdom novels. Wikipedia lists 8 novels; you have translated 6. What about the other two? Are they related to the six? Would you translate them if you could?
Eugene: I haven't translated Masho no Ko ("The Demon Child") and Kaze no Umi, Meikyu no Kishi ("A Sea of Wind, Shores of the Labyrinth").

Fuyumi Ono wrote "The Demon Child" before she started the Twelve Kingdoms series and fit the crossover material from the later novels around it, especially in "The Shore in Twilight" and "A Sea of Wind."

All of the above feature Taiki, and were touched upon in the NHK anime series. The hope and expectation is that Ono will finally conclude the Taiki arc in her upcoming novel. I'm sort of waiting on that too.

I'm currently slowly at work on Hisho no Tori ("Hisho's Birds"), a second short story collection.
Kate: What attracted you to the Twelve Kingdoms series?
Eugene: In the late 1990s, I discovered JWPce and online tools like Eijirou. And Honto. Unlike Amazon, Honto offers SAL shipping, which makes ordering books much more affordable. Then Windows 2000 and Window XP debuted with full Unicode support.

I used to peruse the manga section at bookstores to try and pick out titles and authors that I might want to read in Japanese. I started translating manga just for the heck of it and a couple of light novels. A girl at work asked me to do a chapter of Fruits Basket for a scanlation site she contributed to.

And then I saw the NHK anime series, and that turned out to be a deep well to draw from. (At the time, the books hadn't been licensed.) It certainly helped that the books turned out to be even better than the anime.

The entire Microsoft customer support team I was working on was getting transferred to India, so we were getting paid to sit around for hours without anything to do. So that's when I started emailing myself scans of the novels to give myself something to do at work.

And since I was translating them already, and was teaching myself HTML and website hosting, I decided to post them online. And I actually got feedback on the material I was posted. So I kept on going.
Kate: The Wings of Dreams can definitely be critiqued as a hero's journey a la Joseph Campbell. Does awareness of universal tropes help when translating or hinder? That is, can recognition of a familiar trope help the translator or will it prevent the translator from seeing the individual story?
Eugene: Creating expectations for yourself can cause big problems when you anticipate the story going one way and it goes another. This is especially true if you've encountered the story before out of the original "creative order."

The NHK Twelve Kingdoms anime series, for example, invented at least one character out of whole cloth, and borrowed characters and mixed in plot elements from different novels in order to condense the entire series into a single storyline.

So you've got to forget about what you think about the story, take off the critical analysis hat, and rely on the text to guide you through.

Most of the time, you're down there at the sentence level, a rat navigating a maze with little time for the big picture view. It's sort of a postmodern thing--all that exists is the text. You're encountering the story the way the reader will, though at a much slower pace.
Kate: How does Fuyumi Ono's storytelling/tone compare to other authors, Asian and Western?
Eugene: She compares well, proof that good writing is universal. I'd place Fuyumi Ono among the high fantasy greats. World building par excellence. That's medieval Asian world building, not medieval European world building. (She also does contemporary horror.)

She approaches her prose a bit like a fusty 19th century historian, with the occasional old spelling and not dumbing anything down. But the narrative is always leavened by her wry political and social commentary. She is an astute observer of the human condition and the political animal.

One political theme that runs through the Twelve Kingdoms is a critique of legalism and how the paternalistic state succumbs to totalitarianism.

Her dialog, however, is reasonably contemporary and accessible without being so glib that it quickly becomes dated. Over all, she has a straightforward writing style, a disciplined POV that is no more grammatically complex than necessary.

Though, again, one tough aspect about high fantasy or SF technobabble is coming up with translations for words that don't really exist in the source language either, or were adapted from yet another language (Chinese) to start with.
Kate: Although there are elements of story that are universal, some elements seem more translatable than others. Frozen was hugely popular in Japan. Harry Potter apparently made its way across the ocean. What are some popular Hollywood tales that didn't make it to Japan? What about the other way around (the tales that don't make it here because they are too culturally embedded)?
Eugene: Unlike the ubiquitous action movie (from the shoot-'em-up to the space opera), conventional Hollywood comedies don't do well in Japan. They do better when combined with an accessible genre, like romantic comedy or musical comedy.

One consistent observation from long-time western observers is that Japanese don't do the whole "dripping with irony" thing, what with the winks and the nods and the sarcasm. The "American joke" (that's the actual term) is sand in the gears of a culture that depends so much on hints and assumptions.

The usual Hollywood blockbuster films show up in Japan, but also a surprising number of relatively obscure art house human dramas from around the world.

Similarly, Natsume Soseki [writer of realistic fiction circa 1900] can be an easier read than Fuyumi Ono [the Twelve Kingdoms], not because of the language but because of the difficulty of translating a high fantasy culture based on medieval China. The angsty characters in Kokoro from a century ago, for example, remain surprisingly accessible.

To turn Tolstoy's adage upside down, unhappy people are pretty much the same the world around.

A Harry Potter or Frozen will still zoom to the top of the charts, but home-grown films hold most of the top-twenty spots. The irony is, they often do so by fitting into Japanese culture in ways that Hollywood films can't, by exploiting currents and trends that are literally foreign outside Japan.

So while "accessible" family films and more conventional copies of Hollywood actioners from Japan get crowded out by behemoths like Disney (to the extent that most are never released in the U.S.), anime and manga have thrived by being not-Disney, by finding a media niche all to themselves not easily duplicated.

The evolutionary spiral that results has been termed "Galapagos syndrome," referring to products so customized to Japan's isolated island culture that they are incompatible with the rest of the world.

Dante's journey can be enjoyed for the
journey--his contemporaries would have
"got" all the snarkiness, without footnotes.
The recently released Rurouni Kenshin trilogy follows the Hollywood action flick playbook, with slick production values and lots of action paired with a dumbed-down script stocked with cardboard characters (played by actors better than their parts) and head-scratching plotting (that fizzles out in part 3).

And yet the Rurouni Kenshin series [containing Shinsengumi characters] assumes at least a cursory understanding of the Bakumatsu era (during which the various sides negotiated by day and assassinated each other by night), the Boshin War, and the early Meiji leading up to the Satsuma Rebellion.

Even a Japanese kid who slept through every history class in school will have absorbed the rough details along the way. Western audiences would have a much harder time figuring out what the heck is going on.

By contrast, Memoirs of a Geisha didn't do anything that Japanese period melodramas don't do on a regular basis, and without any popular Japanese actresses in the leads. What was exotic to western audiences was ho-hum in Japan.

Consider an equally dumb Jason Statham actioner like The Mechanic: Resurrection or the much better John Wick with Keanu Reeves. Both movies present bankable stars in stories denatured of cultural specificity, hitting plot points instantly recognizable to anyone anywhere in the world.

That's why Hollywood prefers to make Hollywood versions of foreign films, going way back to Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai, with bigger budgets and wider audiences in mind. It looks like they might get the formula right with Ghost in the Shell too.
Kate: One cultural aspect of light novels and much manga are authors' afterwords. Many Western tomes have afterwords and/or "book questions"; the Japanese literary afterwords, however, are cute little "Howdy, I'm the author--I enjoyed working on this novel--let me tell you about what I did today" blurbs. Does the translator handle these? Or are they added in later/translated by someone else?
Eugene: In most cases, I translate everything (aside from the copyright pages and advertising inserts), including those personal notes from the author. Though they can be a pain, what with the inside jokes and the off-off-offhand style that can be like trying to translate half of an overheard conversation.

Makoto Shinkai
They can also be awfully self-deprecating, and that doesn't translate very well. But it's a Japanese thing. It's hard to imagine an Hollywood director saying about his own blockbuster film, as has Makoto Shinkai, that he wasn't entirely happy with all of it and some parts could be improved.

Oh, and maybe everybody should stop making such a big deal about it.

Though I wish that had occurred to George Lucas.
Kate: I have also noticed the self-deprecation! Sometimes, the authors will even admit to health problems, a failure to meet deadlines, personal crises, etc.—the type of stuff that often shows up on American authors' blogs but rarely on their book jackets. What accounts for this incredible willingness to "bare all"? Aren't Americans supposed to be the ones who "let it all hang out"?
Eugene: I fall back on my go-to explanation that introverts living in an introverted culture don't necessarily mind being extroverted about their introversion when they can do so without leaving the house.

An author and media star like Naoki Matayoshi started out doing stand-up (manzai) comedy, yet in public he still maintains a quite reticent demeanor. Being loudmouthed and opinionated is Hikari Ota's fairly unique shtick, and he's also half of a manzai duo.

If you're a Freudian, manzai is the public expression of the Japanese repressed id (I say almost seriously).

Shiro thought he was going to a non-political dinner
with his class of fellow apprentices. Nope, the
canny host ends by hitting them up for favors.
Shiro is thinking, "Dammit. The only way to get out of
this is to pay back the equivalent of tonight's bill."
These authors otherwise aren't going on Oprah and exposing their souls. They might not be J.D. Salinger, but aside from what they write, can be quite reclusive.

I think they have much in common with the original Star Trek convention circuit. The vast majority didn't get where they are [writing a bestseller] out of the block. They slowly built careers out of "1000 true fans," starting with doujinshi back in high school and college.

So there's a large measure of on and giri at work here, the ongoing cycle of favor and obligation that's been a tireless engine of Japanese social relations for two thousand years. An element of this reciprocation inevitably shows up on the inside covers of their books.
COMING NEXT: Light novels and psychology