Japan Literature Meta Pop culture Translation United Kingdom

Diary: Cool, sometimes mean.

I am translating This World Isn’t Made Two by Two by Nao-cola Yamazaki. This is my weekly translation diary.


Often being a translator means reading really closely, paying attention to the structure and mechanics of a story, how the author creates effects on a phrasal/sentence/paragraph/etc level. I’ve described the job before as being like a really complex crossword (not quite cryptic, thank God). You find yourself saying to whatever poor schmuck is near you, “Okay, I need a short word that means ‘virginity’ but isn’t too prim, and maybe includes the concept of faithfulness” – an actual problem from earlier today (see below and any answers on a postcard, please).

But I’ve also talked a lot on here about how the translator brings their personal experiences to a text. This can be great, sometimes making the difference between a competent text and one that really feels true to the audience. In a lot of ways, this book takes place in my world. I know these people.

Knowing these people isn’t always nice, though. And reading closely can get too close for comfort.

Today I translated an important passage in the novel, one which made me so angry when I first read it that I had to close the book and sit quietly for a minute before resuming. Sitting at my computer this morning, I reread it, largely unaffected, noticing a few translator-y things I hadn’t seen before when I was simply a reader. Then I started to write it in English, which is when the trouble began.

When you translate a couple’s fight, it must sound like a fight. What’s that sound like? Maybe your brain, like mine, instantly filled with all the crushing things a lover’s ever shouted at you, plus a few comedy options gleaned from films and television. Dismiss the movie bullshit – it’s not real enough. You wouldn’t have shut the book when you first read this part if the original text was full of clichés. So you’re left with your actual traumas.

Kamikawa-san lectures Shiori, about how irresponsible she was to go off traveling on her own, about how the world is dangerous for young women. He says bizarre things; he is angry beyond all reason but believes that he is actually reasonable. Have you been in a relationship like that before? You have. You try to forget about it in general, but this is work, and you need to write another 300 words today to hit your target.

You look up across the kitchen table. Your boyfriend is working away, too. He notices you looking, smiles, returns to work. You look back at your screen. Your cursor blinks, frozen at, “I can’t believe you think it’s fine to make your boyfriend feel that way.”

Okay. What does Shiori have to say? How does she frame the argument? Focus on that. You’re a reader, you over-identify with characters all the time, so put yourself in her shoes. She’s no weakling. She says:

He had a tone that said: I am not wrong here, I am a person who has sense. He’d have furrowed his brows over a young woman walking alone at night, even in Japan. He thought that a woman’s place is in the home.

“I don’t live to protect my virtue,” I spat out.

She dismisses his rants as “stupid,” as being “nonsense” (たわごと). Be as dispassionate as Shiori when you translate this. In the essay after the novel, Kanako Nishi says that Shiori is “set apart from others,” “very intent,” “cool, sometimes mean.” You love her for it.

Translate like you’re cool, sometimes mean.

Turn the page.


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