Jan 21, 2016

ATA 2015: Translating Racially Sensitive Passages and Other Minefields

ATA 56th Annual Conference Session J1
Thursday, Nov 05, 11:15 AM - 12:15 PM
Session Summary by
Sarah Lindholm

In this session, the Japanese Language Division’s 2015 Distinguished Speaker, Juliet Winters Carpenter, used various excerpts from an as-yet-unpublished thirty-page section of her translation of Minae Mizumura’s novel 『私小説 from left to rightto discuss the different ways that she worked with the author to tackle racially sensitive and/or culture-specific content for English publication.

The novel is about the author’s experience growing up Japanese in the United States, and race is a central component. In the selected passage, Ms. Mizumura frankly discusses what it meant for her to realize she was perceived as “Asian” rather than Japanese—an aspect of the discussion of race not often considered, and one that the author presents with sensitivity and nuance from multiple angles. Prof. Carpenter highlighted passages whose content, without appropriate background information or handling, would sound different in English for a North American audience than in Japanese for a Japanese audience. For each instance of potentially sensitive content, she asked herself what she called the most important questions to ask: “Is this necessary? How does this function in the text? Why is it here?” To me, this sounded similar to the standard question I ask myself: “What is this doing for the story?”

After Prof. Carpenter marked problematic passages, she went through each one with the author. As she described it, her challenge was to make the complexity of the racial issues in the Japanese text come across in English. Her fear was that any discussion of race runs the risk of having the author labeled “racist.” For Ms. Mizumura’s part, she was open to discussing all these issues but was clear that she didn’t want to fundamentally change her message or be “PC.” A key point was to answer that “Is this necessary?” question and illuminate the background components of the lines for non-Japanese readers; to make the author’s point in English to the same degree the author made it in Japanese, and no more.

As an example, Prof. Carpenter read a passage where the author describes herself and her sister as 母に似て色黒, alluding to their complexions. A literal translation of 色黒 would be “black,” but in English, that translation would make readers think she’s identifying them with African or African-American peers, because that’s how we interpret the word “black” in conversations about skin color. However, translated that way, it would be making a different point. In the Japanese source text 色黒 is really about their being not so much non-white as non-pink, the color Minae and her sister thought appropriate for their girlish bedrooms. Prof. Carpenter avoided using the word “black” to avoid inappropriate allusions to race while making sure the point about skin color in this context was still clear: “Like our mother, neither Nanae nor I had peaches-and-cream complexions.” Translating non-literally in this way, the English makes the same point that the source text does without falsely emphasizing or transforming the point like a literal translation would.

Of course, not all situations are easy to resolve. Prof. Carpenter also addressed the distinction between sensitive handling and censorship by bringing up a thornier passage in a different book by Ms. Mizumura. There, a description of some men the author noticed and found attractive reads that they looked “as if they had stepped out of a Nazi propaganda film.” To American ears, of course, this sounds shocking, and many of us would view it as both racially and politically problematic. A Japanese audience probably would not see it as political, so it does become more troubling in the English translation, but the basic content of the line is the same in either language. So while it was the right call to avoid allusions to race in the skin-color example above, the same thing doesn’t work here, because the source text also alludes to race. To remove that allusion would be censorship—and the author clearly used this phrasing for a reason, since it calls evokes a specific image of what these men looked like that we can all envision clearly. That led Prof. Carpenter back to the questions: “Is this necessary?” “Why is it here?” Rather than letting it stand as-is without question, or censoring the author by deleting the line, she asked Ms. Mizumura about it, and they worked through the issues together. What they ended up doing was softening it by adding “though they might not have liked the comparison,” thus acknowledging that there is something problematic about the comparison to Nazi propaganda without “sanitizing” the translation by removing it.

This was fascinating to me, since as translators, sometimes we have access to the original author and sometimes we don’t. Prof. Carpenter is able to explore Ms. Mizumura’s thoughts about these issues, which is a tremendous advantage. It immediately struck me that the solution she reached would only have been possible with an author who is both living and available for questions.

It was an interesting and useful discussion that I honestly would have liked even more time to explore, but one of the things that sticks with me the most as I write this isn’t about race in translation at all, but is instead a comment by Prof. Carpenter about the way people read. Do we read stories as if they’re about the characters, or as if they’re about us? When an attendee at this session questioned Prof. Carpenter about a racial concept and suggested a character motivation behind it that was at odds with both the grammar of the passage and the theme of the larger story, she addressed this issue very eloquently. She said that people often come to literature with their own preconceived notions, assigning their own motivations to characters instead of seeing the characters’ motivations for what they are—rewriting the characters’ logic.

As a film/TV translation quality control editor, I’ve found for years that one of the most frequent causes for both mistranslations and inappropriate changes by the post-translation subtitling or dub team is that they impose their own motivations on characters, and “translate” or “fix” lines according to what they would mean if they were those characters, rather than translating according to the characters’ own motivations and intentions. Without even realizing it, they’ve read/viewed the text as if it’s about them. It’s a common problem to have, and one that even the best readers probably struggle with occasionally, but it’s particularly dangerous in a translator because that personal misreading becomes the official reading for the entire target-language audience. Explicitly challenging ourselves to read (or watch) literature with a mind completely open to motivations and emotions alien from our own is hard work, but both as translators and as readers, it may be the most valuable and rewarding work we ever do.

I was personally thrilled that this topic came up, and I will be sharing Prof. Carpenter’s comments about it with the translators I oversee in addition to her practical advice about race-related issues in translation.

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