Jay Rubin on the difficulties of translating particularly unpleasant passages
Thread poster: Aurora Humarán (X)

Aurora Humarán (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:38
English to Spanish
+ ...
Jan 24, 2005

Saturday January 22, 2005
The Guardian

I hope this turns your stomach a little: "His men held Yamamoto down with their hands and knees while he began skinning Yamamoto with the utmost care. It truly was like skinning a peach. I couldn't bear to watch. I closed my eyes. When I did this, one of the soldiers hit me with his rifle butt. He went on hitting me until I opened my eyes. But it hardly mattered: eyes open or closed, I could still hear Yamamoto's voice. He bore the pain without a whimper - at first. But soon he began to scream."

This is just the beginning of the passage in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in which a Japanese espionage agent is skinned alive by a Mongolian army officer. It gets much worse. I remember living with this chapter day after day as I translated it from Murakami's gruesome Japanese into (I hope) equally gruesome English. Unlike the narrator, Lieutenant Mamiya, I did not have the luxury of closing my eyes - even for an instant - as I worked on it. I am occasionally reminded of the experience when I see people hiding their eyes at a violent film. I once tried to talk to Murakami himself about this passage, but he refused: it was just too sickening, he said.

Of course, he had it easy: he just had to write it. I, on the other hand, had to translate it, which is much slower. I'm not saying that translating a text is more intense than writing it to begin with - after all, the author had to imagine every detail he put into the scene - but it's safe to say that translating is the most intense form of reading you can do. Take the flaying scene. If it really grosses you out as a reader, you can make it go away. You can squint. You can skim. If you're translating, though, and you close your eyes, that soldier starts hitting you with his rifle butt until you open them again.

When you translate, you do not just passively absorb what's on the original page, you get actively involved in imagining every detail the author put in there - every sight, sound, smell, touch and taste - and in finding the right words for them in your own language.

It may be possible to translate technical documents passively and mechanically, but not literature. And the kind of active involvement required in the translation of literature takes time. You stay with the text far longer - probably longer than the author ever did. In the case of a blood-soaked scene, this can mean a lot of excruciating days at the computer.

Erotic scenes can be excruciating in other ways. Translating a humorous paragraph can make your day. I recently translated a samurai story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashomon , and it was thrilling. Because the story was written in such dense language, I got to sit there watching samurai flicks in my head for days at a time instead of the 20 minutes it will take the reader when my translation comes out next year.

I have been translating Japanese fiction into English for 35 years, and spending so much time in this slow, painstaking but exciting process seems to have done odd things to my synapses. Because I squeeze every bit of juice out of a Japanese text when trying to recreate it in English, mere reading in my own language never quite measures up. It's crazy, because I know English far better than I will ever know Japanese, but even though I am a slow reader of English, I can never make myself slow down quite enough to savour the imagery the way I have to when translating Japanese. And merely reading English, I miss the active involvement of the re-creative process.

The search for ways to express the original text in another language is a large part of what makes translation so exciting. When you're dealing with two languages as dramatically different as Japanese and English in terms of vocabulary, sound, idiom and sentence structure, the translator has to do a lot of inventing to convey an approximation of the mood or imagery in the original. This is what makes the whole thing worthwhile. There is nothing quite like the thrill of having the perfect expression pop into your head from some inner space of which you were only vaguely aware.

If that appeal to the unconscious sounds suspiciously Mura-kamiesque, that is all to the good. This is what has made working on Murakami's fiction, which draws so richly from the author's unconscious, so satisfying. While you slowly read and write, you feel as if you're down inside the well with him. There is no better way to enjoy a work of literature.

· Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is published by Vintage



Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:38
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
I have the almost same experience with medical insurance texts Jan 25, 2005

I don't translate literature, but I have had the same problem with medical insurance texts. I was new to translating when I did the first one - a burns case - and I was quite shocked. Mercifully there was a 'happy end' when the patient recovered fairly well and could make a good life for himself. He was a young man in the same business as my husband, and I found it very hard to be 'professional' and detached!

Describing in clinical but correct terms what has happened to accident patients is just as excruciating.
Doctors are 'used to it' but not cold, and it often shows through their short, clinical notes. They try very hard to help in every way they can, and they explain how good or inadequate the results are.

Typically there are long case histories and discussions, and my job is to make the insurers understand what has happened exactly as it is set out, so every word has to be weighed to make sure it is clinical enough, but puts the right shade of meaning across.

After a fortnight of that sort of work I have to do something different, and it takes me some time to 'let go' of the patient again afterwards! I am just so thankful that I can - and that it is not my life that has been smashed by an accident.

But in a way it's inspiring too. I worked for a time in 'real life' with the home-care services, and meeting people who find out how to live with their diseases and disabilities is inspiring, so I cling to my memories of them!


Local time: 21:38
German to English
+ ...
If you don't like it, don't do it Jan 26, 2005

Sorry if you think this sounds rude - but who forces you to do such translations? If you find you cannot stomach the text, don't accept the job. I do quite a lot of translations for the market research industry and I have one rule: I don't get involved whenever they do a project for the tobacco industry because I hate smoking. My decision. I stick to it. They know by now. Haven't gone broke yet ...


Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:38
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
I don't see it as a problem Jan 26, 2005

I see these jobs as important and a challenge. I don't think doctors exactly enjoy operating on patients who have been seriously injured in car crashes or suffered burns. But thank goodness they do it.

The same goes for ambulance drivers, firemen and all the others who 'pick up the pieces' after accidents, and the nurses who care for the sick and the old when they are tired, in pain and not attractive company. Medical people use their skills and I use mine.

I certainly might refuse to translate works of fiction or jobs that are offensive. But if the writer has a message and is not just trying to shock the reader, or if anyone can learn from the text, then I am willing to translate it.

There are many chapters of history that are quite horrifying when we think about them. But we must think about them, or history will repeat itself. As a matter of principle I feel we must face uncomfortable facts. They don't go away just because we close our eyes.

However, for me it is more often a case of insurance companies, manufacturers of wheelchairs and aids for the disabled and people like that who need translations and I am glad to help. No one can translate thirty pages of medical history covering years of suffering and not be affected.

But as I said before, it is also inspiring. Patients keep on fighting, and they pull through surprisingly often. I do what I can, but I'm glad when the job is over too, and I can relax with something more pleasant.

My point is that I learned a lot from real-life contact with people who are disabled, ill or dying - they find a flower, a grandchild or a joke, and enjoy their little pleasures. I remember there is hope too, and that is my strategy for getting through uncomfortable but necessary jobs.


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Jay Rubin on the difficulties of translating particularly unpleasant passages

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