On Translationese
June 24, 2020 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Critics have stamped the works of both Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe with the label "Translationese". What does this mean? Masatsugu Ono, The Paris Review.
posted by Think_Long (12 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Inbetweenness, especially with respect to languages, is a familiar feeling to me, and a source of endless refraction and wonder. As a consciously chosen "zone" for a writer, Jumpa Lahiri's taming of Italian comes to mind, and Arno Schmidt's wrestling with Joyce (and of course Nabokov's English). Thanks for the link.
posted by progosk at 12:58 PM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

This was very interesting, thank you.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:02 PM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

The other is Minae Mizumura. When she was twelve, Mizumura moved with her family from Tokyo to Long Island, New York. After studying fine art in Boston and then living in Paris, she went on to study French literature at Yale. Interestingly, she defines herself as a modern Japanese novelist and writes in Japanese.

This is interesting to me. I've just started reading Mizumura's A True Novel. And I arrived at this book because I had just finished reading Masks by Fumiko Enchi. I love Fumiko Enchi. Masks is brilliant.

But it also struck me that the English was remarkably fluent and vivid much more so than other translated Japanese novels I have read. So I credited the translator Julia Winters Carpenter and that led me into Mizumura.

So I was assuming here that it was the translation that was exceptional but now this article has me wondering whether I got things backward. It is Mizumura and Enchi's erudition and cosmopolitanism shining here. From Enchi's bio:

Fumiko Enchi was born in the Asakusa district of downtown Tokyo, as the daughter of distinguished Tokyo Imperial University philologist and linguist Kazutoshi Ueda...She was taught English, French and Chinese literature through private tutors. .. A precocious child, at age 13, her reading list included the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Kyōka Izumi, Nagai Kafū, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and especially Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, whose sado-masochistic aestheticism particularly fascinated her.

posted by vacapinta at 1:37 PM on June 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

Thanks for sharing this. It makes for an interesting companion piece to The Murakami Effect.
posted by heteronym at 1:38 PM on June 24, 2020

When Haitian author Dany Laferrière brought his novel to David Homel to be translated to English, he told him that it would be easy. The story was in English - only the words were in French.
posted by Jode at 2:09 PM on June 24, 2020 [13 favorites]

This is really fascinating. It reminds me a little of Jhumpa Lahiri's piece on learning to write in Italian.
posted by Mchelly at 2:49 PM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

vacapinta, the case of JWC and Mizumura is an interesting one because they seem to enjoy an unusually close and productive working relationship, each respecting and learning from the other. I was at a “joint lecture” of theirs and it was quite inspiring. So while I don’t think that Mizumura writes “to be translated” or “as if translated” (like Murakami) her interactions with JWC have indeed (apparently) been one influence on how she thinks about her work. And of course her interactions with English itself have too.
posted by No-sword at 4:14 PM on June 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Beckett did this with French, for similar reasons.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:50 PM on June 24, 2020

There are Chinese web fictions specifically written in "Translationese" (翻译体)and they are really fun to read. Most of them are like English novels written with Chinese words. (Some of them are more like translated Japanese novels.) It's not just that the characters would exclaim 'My god' or 'hey buddy' once in a while, the language takes on a distinctive rhythm found normally in translated novels, with non-native syntax structures. The writers are essentially great linguistic cosplayers.

This style naturally suits SF and slash fiction based on European language sources. The one that immediately comes to mind is a slash fiction based on Cumberbatch's Sherlock series called "Duet, Symphony, and Lonely Addiction" (《协奏、交响、与独自沉迷》). More recently I read a work about an interstellar merchant that keeps flipping on the 'surely this came from English' button in my brain.

In the realm of more serious literature, Translationese is viewed more negatively. For instance, Mo Yan's "Sandalwood Death" is criticized for unnatural word ordering/usage that smacks of foreign language influences.
posted by of strange foe at 9:14 AM on June 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

Fascinating. I've often found the search for authenticity to be as questionable in writing as in food. But I've been hearing this critique of Murakami for years and am always interested in learning more. I'm positive his translation work influenced his writing style, as it has with so many other authors writing in a second language.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:30 AM on June 25, 2020

Honestly, “translationese” isn’t even limited to literature. I work for a translation agency and I’ve asked coworkers to pass along to the freelancers that they really shouldn’t try to remain 1:1 consistent with Japanese sentence structure, given how bad and awkward it often ends up sounding
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:47 PM on June 25, 2020

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