Seung Park: Adrift in a World of So Many Wonders

D'ordinaire nous promenions le désert enchanté de notre amour dans un monde où l'amour n'avait plus de part. Et ces jours-là, il nous semblait que la flamme qui s'élevait en nous quand nos mains étaient liées était la même que celle qui dansait dans les vitrines, dans le cœur des ouvriers tournés vers leurs enfants, et dans la profondeur du ciel pur et glacé de décembre.”

- Albert Camus, “Jeanne”

When I first read this piece, it was the maiden work of an untested development team, running on the overly simplistic scripting system known as Yuuki!Novel. It was also three years ago — during a time before my interest in freeware novel games had developed into what it is now. So I made the mistake of filing it away in my mind as a not particularly interesting piece that I'd probably not read again, and then went on to work on other projects that interested me more at the time.

It was only when I was making preparations to coordinate al|together 2008 that I went back to revisit 「手紙」. Imagine my surprise when I found that not only had P.o.l.c. been very busy in the meantime, they had also put out a remake version of their maiden work using a scripting system that I am all too familiar with — NScripter. So I downloaded the remake, read through it — it's amazing how a couple of years really changes your perspective on things — and found it to be a far better piece than I'd remembered it. I immediately put it on the candidate list for al|together 2008, and that is how this translation project began.

Edward Keyes' literary analysis of this piece gives a detailed synopsis and points out problems with the story's structure and flow, so I will not attempt to duplicate his work here. Instead, I'd like to talk about 「手紙」 as a work of Japanese literature, and about some of the difficulties you can face when you try to translate it — or any piece like it — into English. There are many ways in which my translation of the piece differ from the original, and I suppose there are some (particularly those who worship so ignorantly at the altar of 'literal translation' without knowing anything about the inner workings of Japanese or English literature) who would assert that in some ways, The Letter is not the same piece as 「手紙」.

To that, I say: of course. While I find the old "beautiful but unfaithful / faithful but ugly" dichotomy to be nothing but a contemptible lie perpetuated by those who are unskilled readers of original languages and even more unskilled writers of target languages (read: J. Martin Holman and late-era Vladimir Nabokov), I do not think it is possible for a translation to be 100% identical to its original work. The way is overgrown with difficulties including but not limited to: differences in grammatical sentence structure, idioms that work in one culture but not another, word play that is valid in one language but incomprehensible in another, references to people and events that would be impossible for citizens of one country not to know about and yet similarly impossible for citizens of any other country to know about ...

... and those are the merely technical (and comparatively easily-surmounted) issues.

Much more thorny are the baked-in cultural and spiritual issues: the biases the writer holds and the assumptions he makes about what his audience does and does not know shine through so clearly to me when I read a piece in any of the languages I speak. How can I tell you, for instance, about the lonely soujourn of Albert Camus from hope to anger to despair to, at last, hope again without relating to you how the lovely, delicate evocation of young love found in the fragment simply entitled "Jeanne" (written when Camus was younger) turned into the desperate, choked confession that Joseph Grand delivers in La Peste? How, I wonder, can anybody truly appreciate the abyss of alienation and pain that lies at the heart of Narcissu without having walked among the terminally ill, held their hands, had to look them in the eye and tell them yes, you are going to die, and soon? How do you really read 「동의보감」 by 이은성 without having some basic understanding of Korean history and Chinese traditional medicine?

How do you turn 「手紙」 into The Letter without first understanding where Wataru is coming from?

On a superficial level, the translational problem that the translator encounters is the fact that in Japanese literature (and in Korean literature to a lesser degree), it's perfectly acceptable to have pages upon pages filled only with dialog lines, with nary an indication as to who is speaking. That is because there are multiple hints embedded in the dialog themselves: politeness level of language, words and particles that only women traditionally use, and the list goes on and on. These things are available only to a muted extent in English literature, which is why it's considered good form to give the reader at least an occasional indicator as to who is speaking. On the other hand, take a relatively simple English sentence like "'Well,' he said as he stood with a sigh, 'I guess that avenue is not available to us'"; if you were to try to translate that directly into Japanese, you'd end up with a clunky run-on monstrosity that doesn't really work. The generally accepted approach would be to divide a sentence like that into two or even three different short sentences instead.

As I translated this piece, I thus found myself having to insert indicators of who was speaking. However, in these indicators I incorporated short sentences indicating what the speaker was doing that had originally been placed directly before or after the spoken dialogue lines in question. This kills two birds with one stone: not only is this approach translationally correct, it is also stylistically correct in English. The fact that it gives the English reader a hint as to who is speaking comes naturally, almost as a side effect of the above.

Another interesting thing about this piece is that the two main characters of the piece share the same name; one is named 貴宏, and the other is named たかひろ. The problem is — in English, both of these are "Takahiro". So what is the translator to do? Write one in all lower-case, and the other in all upper-case? Clearly that simplistic approach isn't right; it doesn't read as the 貴宏/たかひろ dichotomy does to the Japanese reader. That's one problem. Another problem that occurs in conjunction to this is that there are several screenfuls of text in this piece that consist solely of lines like 貴宏:「…」 and たかひろ:「…」. Finally, at some point in the story たかひろ starts calling 貴宏 by a Japanese honorific, お兄ちゃん. So what are you supposed to do with this?

Part of this problem is solved with the dialogue hinting that I spoke of earlier. The 貴宏/たかひろ issue and the お兄ちゃん issue, on the other hand, are knocked out at the same time by casting 貴宏 as "Big Guy" and たかひろ as "Little Guy". How did I know this kind of arrangement would work? Because I only ever decide to start translating a piece after I've read it at least five or six times, deeply. If I find that I'm still interested at that point in time — and if I find that there are still nuances that are yielding themselves to me at that point — then I know that I've found a worthy piece to translate (in this sense, I find the works of 奈須きのこ to be remarkably shallow). I knew exactly what would and would not work, technically and spiritually, in my translation of this piece before I ever began translating.

I don't see how truly good translation can be done any other way.

In closing, I hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as I enjoyed translating it. I would like to thank the members of P.o.l.c., Wataru especially, for their creation, and I would like to thank the other participants of al|together 2008 for their care in peer reviewing my translation. Finally, I would like to leave you with something Wataru says in his postscript for this piece: that I hope we meet again someday in the future, on other pages, with other stories to tell each other.

29 November 2008
Seung Park
Festival Coordinator, al|together 2008