Happy Translation Day

Happy Translation

day to those who benefit

i.e almost all


I thought I’d put in a haiku there in the spirit of yesterday’s National Poetry Day.   As I’ve mentioned before, someone somewhere benefits from translation or interpretation virtually every day of the week around the world so every day is really international translation day.  There is of course translation and interpreting of varying quality.   There are often bad translations, sometimes hilariously bad, put on public view (signs in hotels or other such places) or more obscure ones like a translation I have of a famous Natsume Soseki novel, bought from Amazon as the cheapest copy of the book I could find at the time. Unless you’re into Japanese literature you might not come across it.

Botchan is the title of the novel in Japanese which is translated as Master Darling which sounds off to start with.   I would have translated it as Young Sir, or Young Master, even Dear Master.  The translator seems to have dragged it through Google and left it unedited, thus doing a real botch job of it so the title Botchan is significant in more ways than one!!  As if the title was not bad enough, the translation is way too literal in most places and the syntax is all over the place.  If it was a human translator, who did it without machine translation, then sorry but there’s a good reason there’s no translator named anywhere.   My boss at the time, to whom I showed the book, agreed that it was clearly a bad translation, without knowing any Japanese, and agreed that it looked like a google translate effort.  She wasn’t in publishing for nothing!  This is why machine translation will never fully take over the job of a translator as literary translation, at least, always needs a human translator (and a dedicated editor, especially in this case), so anyone who makes such ignorant comments to translators is clearly off the mark.  I know I am not the only translator who hates these comments.

This effort  was apparently part of an Amazon anthology to introduce famous works of literature to a new audience.  Apart from the translation itself, it was obviously a rush job by Amazon. It lacks any information on the author or any mention of his other (brilliant) novels – even if you can find that elsewhere – as you would normally find at the end of a novel*.  The blurb on the back cover of the book says that the anthology is a ‘thorough introduction to classic literature and [….] a must-have addition to any library’. Not if any of the other great works are as poorly translated and as barely edited as this one.   I’d love to see how Oscar Wilde’s wit survives machine translation! No novel, especially one as renowned as this, should suffer at the hands of a translator who would want to put it through machine translation! This spoiled Botchan for me but I hope to find another version elsewhere that’s translated as it should be.

Literary translation, be it prose or poetry, is quite challenging.  I know this myself having translated poetry recently.   Even Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, has come under critical review recently for misunderstanding certain Korean phrases and idiosyncrasies, which apparently went unnoticed earlier.  I must say that I thought it was a work well done and didn’t see anything unnatural or wrong with the writing, which is what a reader of a translated work, whether the know the source language or not (and I don’t know Korean), should experience.  It is one of the strangest novels I have ever read, I must say, but that’s nothing to do with the translation.

Back to Botchan though, this is one example where you would not name the translator (though other authors looking for a translator might want to know who to avoid so that’s a tough one really)

* Even the printing job is lazy.  Marston Gate, where it was printed, is apparently the location of the Amazon Fulfilment centre and imaging studio.  Well, I wasn’t very ‘fulfilled’ reading this novel!