Friday, February 12, 2016

"The Translator Is Always Wrong": On Dialect and the Dutch Translation of "Men Without Women" from Its Translator

The Dutch translation of Men Without Women is coming out very soon from Atlas Contact: the de luxe limited edition with each story as a separate booklet on February 15, and the regular edition on March 1. You can see large pictures of all the covers on Facebook. The stories were translated by James Westerhoven and Elbrich Fennema.


James, who has contributed to this blog in the past, has been following the Osaka dialect discussion on this page and has kindly sent me his opinion to share with the readers. 

James writes: 

"It is always difficult to deal with dialect in translation. My own policy is to ignore dialect if at all possible. In my translation of Tanizaki’s Manji, which is almost completely in the Kansai dialect, I purposely opted for a garrulous form of Dutch. But Kitaru’s Kansai-ben in ‘Yesterday’ requires special treatment. Kitaru is not from the Kansai, but born and bred in Tokyo. He chooses to speak Kansai-ben for reasons of his own, and each time he opens his mouth, the people around him (and the Japanese readers as well) are reminded how weird he is. His Kansai-ben alienates him from his environment and from the girl who loves him. It also marks him as the inverse image of the narrator, who does hail from the Kansai but rejects his origins and speaks beautiful standard Japanese. That’s why the narrator feels a certain kinship with him.

"If the translator tries to solve this with a sweeping statement that ‘Kitaru spoke Kansai dialect’, his readers will get neither a sense of Kitaru's weirdness nor of his loneliness. In this case, a special effort should be made to convey the pathos of Kitaru’s situation, or the entire point of the story is lost. In other words, his speech should be made to look or sound different. Here the translator has one of three options: a colloquial form of speech, an existing dialect, or an artificial dialect. There may be more, but I can’t think of any. The disadvantage of colloquial speech is that it doesn’t really sound weird enough, at least not in most of the languages that I know, but maybe this is an option that works in some cases. And the disadvantage of an artificial dialect is of course that you run the risk of it sounding unnatural.

"My personal preference was to have Kitaru speak a form of Belgian Netherlandic. What is known as ‘Flemish’ in English is really a group of three distinct dialects of the Netherlandic language, all of which are spoken south of the Dutch border. They are grammatically the same as Dutch Netherlandic, but their pronunciation and vocabulary are distinct enough to be immediately recognizable, and what is more important, the Belgian Netherlandic dialects have a rich cultural history. Flanders, like the Kansai, never was a cultural backwater. It would be closer to the truth to call Belgian Netherlandic a ‘variant’ rather than a dialect, just as American English is a variant, not a dialect, of English.

"However, my editors strongly disagreed and suggested a form of colloquial Dutch (to refer to the language by its more familiar name). So I wrote a draft version with Kitaru’s words translated into colloquial language. Then they gave me Elbrich Fennema, an experienced Murakami translator, as collaborator. Elbrich saw right away that Kitaru’s speech should be set off more distinctly, but she did not agree with my idea of using an existing dialect. Instead, she offered to design an artificial one. I liked the results. Kitaru certainly sounded weird and fantastic enough to raise eyebrows all around, so that was the version we finally submitted to the publisher, but in the proofreading stage our editors decided that they preferred the colloquial after all, though not exactly the version I had submitted at the beginning. So all Elbrich’s hard work had been in vain. Anyway, back I went to my draft and tinkered around a bit until I came up with something that satisfied everyone except myself. Because I still think that another dialect would have been the proper choice.

"For how different is colloquial Dutch from standard Dutch? Not very. Mostly it is a matter of contractions, like writing ‘it’s’ instead of ‘it is’ – in other words, writing the way people actually speak, with a few interjections thrown in to show you’re being colloquial. And that does not make Kitaru sound particularly alienated, now does it? 

"The Polish and Norwegian translators have been criticized for their use of dialect, and the Danish translator as well. But then, the translator is always wrong anyway. Maybe I won’t be criticized, because I did not use dialect. But I was wrong too, because I wanted to and didn’t. And all the reviewers who missed the point because they didn't read the story properly were wrongest of all."

Curious to know what other readers of the blog might have to say on this point!

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