Project “Concertmaster”

People translate fiction for many reasons. Some might do it out of a desire to share the heart of a piece with a larger audience. Others might do it out of the appreciation of the craft of translation. Still others might do it because it's assigned (say, in foreign language classes). But Irene's got the strangest reason of all: apparently she does it because she likes loves food.

May Sky is the longest piece that we've ever presented at any al|together; it also happens to be Irene's third novel game localization ever (first I, Too Saw Dreams Through Air during al|together 2005, then Adagio during al|together 2006). I have seen her improve steadily throughout this timeframe, and I'm glad to say that her localization of May Sky only continues that upward trend. This is not to say, however, that this project has not been a long, difficult haul — it left both of us drained and often frustrated. Let us therefore recount the lessons it taught us — and perhaps we will be fortunate enough to nip some problems in the bud the next time around.

Text Formatting

When Irene first started working on May Sky in earnest, she was using a mishmash of different technologies — an Apple laptop running TextWrangler served as her primary translation workstation, and she also did work on a custom-built Windows PC running TextPad. This isn't a bad setup at all — indeed, it mirrors my own. Where Irene ran into problems, however, was in leaving multiple copies of script files in multiple places, often in different encodings (everything ranging from UTF-16LE to UTF-8 to SHIFT_JIS to EUC-JP). So when she brought me a reasonably complete script file to look at, not only had large swaths of her script file been turned into utter gibberish, it caused ONScripter to immediately topcrash. Clearly, this was not an auspicious sign.

It took a substantial amount of time to fix this issue, but after a day or so (which can be a substantial amount of time if you're operating under a time limit!) we had a script file that the scripting engine could parse without crashing. Lessons learned:

  • Always operate on one script file at a time, always making sure that it is the latest revision. Concurrency versioning systems can help, but tend not to be necessary when it's just one or two people.
  • Text encoding matters! Many editors will have some encoding that they default to: UTF-8, for instance. In the case of NScripter, you always need to make sure your files are being saved as SHIFT_JIS or SHIFT_JISX0213.
  • Irene likes food.

Commenting Style

Okay, so now we had a working script file. Loading it on the al|together 2008 ONScripter-EN reference build resulted in great rejoicing — for all of five minutes. The title menu looked fine, the transitions acted as they should ... and how come there were Japanese lines freely admixed with their English translations all over the text window? And how come we were getting these hysterically random topcrashes every so often? I dug into the script file again, only to find that she'd chosen to comment out the original Japanese lines sometimes in this fashion ...

;【溝口 春樹】
`[ Haruki Mizoguchi ]
`"... ... ..."\

... other times in this fashion ...

;【溝口 春樹】
; って思うのは、日本人の悪い癖って言ってたよなぁ…」\
`"Idle hands are the Devil's playthings." The tenet by which all of Japan ran, apparently. And I HATED it ...\

... and still other times she kind of mixed-and-matched at will. There were also, perhaps as a natural consequence of this inconsistency, many commenting errors: there were Japanese lines that ought to have been commented out but weren't; there were just as many English lines that ought to have had a ` in front of them, but instead were accidentally commented out. There were also English lines that ought to have had a ` in front of them, but had nothing at all instead, causing the engine to randomly topcrash when the spirit moved it.

General hilarity ensued. Lessons learned:

  • Have a consistent commenting style. For readability purposes, it's probably best to comment out all the Japanese — including the nameplate in this case — in one block and write your translated text underneath, as opposed to commenting out alternating lines in a text block.
  • Before sending it in, it's a nice courtesy to always check your script file to make sure it doesn't actually cause the scripting engine to catch fire.
  • Irene likes food.

Irene Likes Food

When all of that was taken care of, we finally moved on to the matter of the translation itself. May Sky is an interesting piece on several different levels, the most obvious of which is, well, the recurring usage of the string 五月. On a superficial level, you might comment: but what's the problem with that? It's just "May", isn't it? And you'd be right — but not really. Let's examine the different uses of 五月 that we see throughout the piece.

  • 五月 → literally "May"; easy enough.
  • 五月病 → literally "May Sickness", but actually "Freshman Blues". It is in the month of May, after winter vacation is done, that college students begin their studies and recent graduates begin their new jobs — thus the term. Problem #1: "May Sickness" makes no sense in English. Problem #2: "Freshman Blues" doesn't have "May" in it anywhere.
  • 五月晴れ → literally "May Fine Weather"; refers to the occasional clear day during the rainy season. A near-neighbor can be found in the Western adage, "April showers bring May flowers" — imagine a bright sunny day in April, and that's more or less the kind of happy irony that 五月晴れ describes.
  • 五月雨 → literally "May Rain"; refers to the early summer rain — rain that falls in early to mid-June, not in May. Not quite analogous, but similar enough, to the Western usage of the phrase "Indian summer" to describe an unseasonably warm day in late autumn, not a day in summer. Amusingly enough, the author uses 五月雨 in this piece to consistently describe rain that falls in May — something that several reviewers comment on because that's not the accepted usage of the term.
  • 五月祭り → literally "May Festival" or "May Fair"; easy enough.
  • 五月躑躅 → literally "May Azalea"; refers to Rhododendron indicum ... an azalea that happens to bloom in June, not May.

Our basic problem here is that the original author specifically used these strings because they each had the string 五月 in them, in order to create a very specific literary effect. In translation, therefore, this effect needs to be modeled. But how the heck are we going to do this? Clearly there's an easy way out -- simply leave those "literal" translations above as is. But this is unsatisfying — your average reader will not know what "May Sickness" is, and will not understand the irony in the usages of 五月雨 (as that's supposed to happen in June, not May) and 五月躑躅 (as that's supposed to bloom in June, not May). The basic effect is that in this piece, the entire world comes crashing down around this month — and the protagonists, struggle as they might, cannot seem to escape its grasp. Only after they've joined forces with each other does the globe start spinning again — and as May passes into June, our story ends.

So what's a translator to do? It depends on what your style is, to a certain extent. But something has to give, one way or another. You might utilize the literal meanings — or even simply transliterate the words and leave them at that — and provide copious translator's notes; people like Edward Seidensticker have certainly been known to do that, but this is an inelegant solution at best, and a misleading one at worst. You might substitute in English language analogs of the phrases, but in doing so you lose the central reason why those phrases were used in the first place, since "May" is going to disappear in your translation that way. Or you can try to find some kind of middle ground, which is what we did. And maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. I'm of the opinion that it does, of course — and I'm very proud of Irene for having helped come up with our solution. If you haven't already, please download and read through May Sky to see exactly what it was we did.

Another interesting thing worth mentioning is that Minori consistently calls our protagonist 溝口さん — at the beginning of the piece, in the middle of the piece, and even by the end of August Snow, it's all 溝口さん all the time. Yes, there are rare occasions — you can count them on the fingers of one hand — where she angrily calls him 溝口 with no honorific, but otherwise there's no variation. One could argue, then, that outside of the times where Minori's so angry that she rudely calls him without the さん honorific, one should translate the name the same way. However, to do this would be to disregard that the way Minori uses this string "溝口さん" at the beginning of the piece is substantially different from the way she uses it at the end. As the piece itself says — at the beginning, these two souls are strangers. Thus it is not surprising that the young shrine maiden would choose to call her strange visitor "Mr. Mizoguchi" — and indeed that's what she's doing in the original Japanese. And as the piece itself says again — by the end, these two souls are more than strangers, less than friends — yet lovers all the same. To wit: 溝口さん has gone from being the impersonal "Mr. Mizoguchi" to an all-pervasive, all-important "You". And that is how we have chosen to model this change-that-is-not-a-change (as an aside, most pop culture productions will ham-handedly indicate this by actually having one person change the way he calls his new lover; as you can see, this is not always necessary ... or even always realistic).

There were many other issues with the translation, of course — nobody's perfect, and Irene's a relatively inexperienced literary translator. I'm therefore not going to do a comprehensive postmortem of those, as I'd be sitting here writing this peer review for months if that were the case. Irene addresses some of the issues that impressed her most in her translator's note anyhow; give it a read if you wish. Suffice it to say, then, that this script was in some places a very incorrect translation, in other places a merely incorrect translation, in still other places a competent but clumsy translation, and in certain places a totally brilliant translation. What were those certain places, you ask?

They, uh, all revolved around food.

Don't ask me why. I don't know. Apparently Irene is just as mystified as I am.

Therefore, the most important lesson we learned in this translation is and shall always remain:

  • Irene likes food.


I would like to thank Scrubbing for graciously giving us permission to translate and distribute this piece — without them this project would never have even developed. I would also like to thank Irene for her many hours of hard, hard work, and her dedication to the difficult craft of literary translation. I would like to thank all participants of al|together 2008 — but especially Lee Massi and Edward Keyes — for their care in peer reviewing this piece. Finally, I would like to wish Jeff King a happy birthday.


1 December 2008
Seung Park
Festival Coordinator, al|together 2008