Thursday, July 2, 2009

Learning Japanese, Part 8 - Vagueness

The Japanese consider directness in speech to be rude, so they'll dance around the subject for a while in order to gauge the listener's reactions before getting to the point. To most westerners, this can be very irritating because the speech will come across as meandering or evasive. This is an important point when talking in Japanese, because a westerner is generally going to get the timing wrong and give the impression of being too direct and "in your face".

It's an even more important point when trying to translate manga, because the writer wants to be vague in his dialog or narrations, and the reader is also expecting this vagueness and won't question plot holes that arise as a result. But for me, it becomes very difficult to translate a story that leaves out a lot of things that a western writer considers vital.

A case in point in Frozen Food Agent is the scene where the agent starts telling us about the future and what happened when the food laws were passed. He says that with synthetic foods everything tastes the same, and he dislikes restaurants in general because they all try to compete by changing the appearances of their shops. But, there's one place he likes because of a specific painting that hangs on the wall. The hero asks the owner about his wife, and the owner answers that the wife is losing her memory because of age, so he put up that painting as a reminder of how she looked when she was younger.

Here's the problem: If the painting was put up recently, the hero disliked this restaurant as well up to the point that the painting was hung up a few weeks ago. If the painting was always on the wall, it implies that the wife started losing her memory when she was 20 (she's about 70 now). The thing is that the writer is deliberately vague on this point and doesn't say when the painting was hung, or when the hero started liking this particular restaurant (however, the writer implies that hero has been coming to this shop for a long time and has apparently liked this place all along). So, if I translate the narration as-is, the reader is likely to ask, "well, how long has the hero liked coming to this restaurant?" and Tori Miki never told us that out-right.

This becomes relevant in the following sentences: "Synthetic food all tastes the same and restaurants now compete by doing things like putting up pictures in their shops. I hate those places. But, I've come to like this painting. Hey, Mushu, how's the wife?" Mushu answers "Physically she's fine, but her memory is going, I guess that's just her age." The hero replies, "That's why you put up this painting?" So, did the hero dislike Mushu's place before the painting was put up? - we don't know. We do know that the hero knows Mushu by name, and therefore has probably been coming here for a while, at least.

Keep this in mind when you read translated manga, especially the fan translations. If the story seems choppy and hard to follow, it's because the translator translated literally and missed all kinds of stuff that's just implied. If the story seems really smooth and flows well, the translator probably added a lot of stuff that didn't actually exist in the original (implied or stated outright). This can be even more of an issue if the translator works from a Korean or Chinese version of the story - because then we're getting a translation of a translation, and that's never reliable.

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