Conveying the cultural nuances of Japanese: Naila Arksy in conversation with Kim Kono

Kimberly Kono is a Professor in the East Asian languages and literatures department. She teaches courses on modern Japanese language, literature and culture.  Her book Romance, Family and Nation in Japanese Colonial Literature  examines the tropes of romance, family and marriage in Japanese literature produced in colonial Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria during the 1930s and 1940s. She translates short stories that focus on Japan’s colonial period.


What made you decide to translate?

There’s several reasons. The first piece I translated was a short story from Japanese to English. And it is a piece that was written during the Colonial period. There weren’t at the time many translations of fiction (from that period). I felt that if more people had access to it, there would be more people to research it, and more people would get a chance to read the work. So the main reason I started to translate was to increase accessibility (to these texts). I think that oftentimes certain canonical writers get translated, and, sort of minor, lesser known writers, if they don’t get translated people don’t really know about them. So that was another way to get some marginalized voices more attention and more accessibility.

Do you focus on a specific genre?

Most of my translations have been short fiction, although I’ve also done professional translation. Between undergraduate and graduate school, I worked in business translation, getting correspondence in Japanese and then translating it for English speaking companies that my company worked with. But that wasn’t as challenging and exciting as literary translation.

It is my impression that some literary translators use short stories as a jumping off point before getting into more lengthy works. Do you agree?

Well, sometimes literary translation won’t necessarily pay the bills, so you have to do other kinds of translation.

Why specifically short stories?

For a long time in academia, translation didn’t count in the path toward tenure. It takes a lot of commitment and a stable academic status and time to commit to translating a novel. So, short fiction was more feasible in my situation. I think poetry is beautiful, but very hard to translate, and I felt that short fiction was in my wheelhouse.

What are some concerns about getting a translation published?

Especially with longer works, you have to be committed to making that work accessible. [Translators of longer pieces] are people who usually have worked with publishers and have translations published regularly. So, people who translate, for example, Murakami Haruki’s work, they have a relationship with the author and the publisher, and the publisher is confident enough that those works will be popular, and so on. There are different concerns for translators. On the one hand, you want to translate works you think are important and useful or relevant for others. But I think publishers are also going to think about whether this translation is going to sell. And those two aren’t always the same book. (laughs)

Do you tend to tailor your translation to specific audiences? How so?

Hayashi Fumiko (1903-1951)

That’s a good question. I try to be as faithful to the original as possible, but when you ask me this question, I think of Japanese literature from the postwar period. Many of those translators did tailor them to an American audience that had most recently seen Japan as an enemy. And so, there was a short story by a woman writer that mentions the war and the female character’s husband wasn’t back from Siberia. That story in the original Japanese has a certain meaning or significance for the Japanese, but for American readers, that story might evoke Japan as an enemy, so they may not have wanted to read it. And so famous translators of the time erased certain references like that. The story I’m talking about is by Hayashi Fumiko, and there are two translations of it, one being more recent. And the more recent translation includes everything, right? The postwar translator modified the ending. The endings are so different… the closing image in the original is of this woman tea-seller walking into a room with other women sewing and their needles are glistening. I think that’s emphasizing the work of Japanese women in the postwar period – it’s active and shiny. There’s hope in that image. And the post-war translator completely erased that image. He said something like “the woman was welcomed into the house with a feeling of warmth.” And it’s like, where did the needles go?

Sometimes I feel like if you don’t have both a translator from the source language’s country and the target language’s country, then maybe they don’t understand how readers of either country interpret the original and translation, respectively.

[Translation] is a difficult enterprise. I think of some pieces from the late 19th century where writers are making reference to classical Japanese texts. And if the reference to falling cherry blossoms is not something you as a reader know, how can the translator evoke that it’s this particular image that a reader in the source language might very well be aware of? And so, one choice people make is footnotes. But in a trade book, if you’re reading for pleasure, do you want to be flipping back and forth with the footnotes?

Have you developed any strategies for translating elements such as themes, slang, or names?

That’s a big question. Well, for names, I could transliterate the characters, but I can’t convey the deeper meanings of the Kanji characters, right? So for example, the author, Kunikida Doppo.

Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908)

His pen name is just transliterated as ’Doppo’, but if you look at the characters, you see that this means “to walk alone.” But if you just read ‘Doppo’, you don’t know that. Or you footnote it… but I think that is something that’s missing in translations. I haven’t figured out an easy way to convey those kinds of additional nuances yet.

How about slang?

Slang is tough. The two that pop up for me are slang that can be part of a regional dialect, and slang that can show that it is a young or old person. So for example, in English you have ‘y’all’. How would you do that in Japanese? I translate from Japanese to English, and if it’s a regional dialect, I find it hard to somehow make it equivalent to a regional dialect in the U.S. So, if it’s someone from Osaka who’s speaking the Kansai dialect, some people have translated that as a Southern [American] dialect. I try to at least convey the feeling of it, but you have to be careful in the use of place. I have seen people make Kansai-ben ‘y’all’, but there’s so much baggage that comes with being someone from the south, or being someone from the Kansai area that do not match up. So that’s a strategy that doesn’t work.

I’m also translating stories from the 1930’s, so even consulting with a contemporary Japanese speaker would not necessarily help clarify what is happening in the original text. We would probably need a third person with background in that time period. So that requires doing some historical research, and not just reading history books, but also reading accounts of people who were alive during the time. I also found reading memoirs of people who were in the colonies and realizing “Oh, that’s what that reference is.” Especially for fiction set in the domestic sphere, much of those details are not going to be in history books.

What role does translation play in your life?

As for my research, I am working every day with Japanese literary texts, so I’m not necessarily formally translating and publishing them, but I’m translating them and trying to sift through them for whatever project I’m working on. I feel that in addition to literary translation, along with teaching I also do linguistic and cultural translation in the sense that I’ve read these works in the original Japanese and the English, so when a character’s name has significance in the kanji, I explain that to the students. Or for example when there are particular symbols for seaweed lying on the beach or cherry blossoms, some students may not be familiar with these [images] as symbols. And so I’m translating in that way for them.

Naoki Sakai writes about translation. He’s a theorist and he writes in English, not Japanese. He’s a little bit challenging to read but he’s really interesting. One of the ideas that he talks about is that in some ways we are always translating, all the time. [He says] Even when we’re not consciously doing it, there’s a way in which we’re modulating the ways in which we talk to others. I’m being recorded, so I’m probably talking to you more slowly and carefully than if I was talking on the phone to my friend. That kind of mediation is a part of that act of translation. He has a lot of things to say on translation, but this is oftentimes what people take away.

This reminds me of a Western translator we talked about in class. He had the idea that every word is a translation from thought into symbol.

Yeah, and another thing Sakai says is that there is never going to be this one-to-one coherence between languages. So, he questions these notions of “original text”and “source text”, and whether a translation is not a translation and actually a completely new text. I’m sure you’re reading Lawrence Venuti.

Well, we actually seem to be moving from the West to the East now, so we’re starting to look at people like Wang Wei… hopefully we’ll arrive at the question of how Kanji or ideograms work.

Well, if you’re looking at challenges in Japanese translation, you could think about how to translate a piece that is from the occupation period. In one Japanese short story, “American Schoo,” a Japanese person is speaking in English to an American, and it’s written in katakana (one of the two Japanese phonetic writing systems) in the source text. So it says “ハッピーバースデー” (happii baasudee, “Happy Birthday”). How do you translate that?

Or if you think about a Korean-Japanese writer who inserts hangul [alphabetic system for writing the Korean language into a [Japanese] text, but then has furigana (phonetic characters written above characters in other writing systems) in katakana on the side, how do you negotiate that? (laughs) So there are all these specific instances particular to Japanese literature that are going to be different from, you know, other languages. I really love that. (laughs)

Yeah, do you know any other language besides Japanese in the world that has three writing systems?

I don’t know the answer to that, but exactly – so if some things are in katakana instead of hiragana (the other phonetic writing system of Japanese), and this is emphasized, do you just put it in boldface in English to emphasize it? There are all these different choices and it’s great.

Do you have any advice for anyone who aspires to be a translator?

Well, I would say, in addition to really working on developing your language skills, I think you really need to immerse yourself and understand the culture. So, to live there. Let’s say you’re going to be a Japanese translator; go and live in Japan. I think this is really important. I also think reading, lots of reading. Not just in Japanese, but also in the language you’re going to translate into, because there are ways in which reading allows you to become attuned to different particular nuances of language that all enable you to have an easier time when translating from one language to another. I think reading in both languages is super important. Because I think that if you’re reading in Japanese, you’re becoming familiar with all these different expressions and so on. But in English, it’s also giving you a sense of a variety of expression, right? Different voices. And keeping up with the new things writers are doing.

Naila Arsky ’20 is a senior  majoring in Linguistics and a concentrator in the Translation Studies Concentration.  Her focus is Japanese literature, though she dabbles in Brazilian works as well. She spent her junior year at Waseda University in Japan during which she translated excerpts of literary adaptations.  Currently, she is working on a short story translation from Japanese to English, and a translation of environmental poems from Brazilian Portuguese to English.



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