Home > Bellos David, Japanese Literature, Non Fiction, Personal Posts, Translations > January in Japan and a Victorian Lit coincidence

January in Japan and a Victorian Lit coincidence

January in JapanWe’re in January now and January in Japan has started. This event is organized by Tony, from Tony’s Reading List and he created a dedicated blog for the event. Check it out here. So it’s all about reading Japanese literature this month and I’m in. And a few days ago, I started reading Is That a Fish in You Ear? by David Bellos. It’s an essay about translation. In a chapter where he tries to define what translation is, Bellos lists the different words that are available to the Japanese speaker to say translation:

Here, for example, are the main words that you have to talk about them in Japanese: If the translation we are discussing is complete, we might call it a zen’yaku or a kan’yaku A first translation is a shoyaku. A retranslation is a kaiyaku, and the new translation is a shin’yaku that replaces the old translation, or ky yaku. A translation of a translation is a j yaku. A standard translation that seems unlikely to be replaced is a teiyaku; equally unlikely to be replaced is a mei-yaku, or “celebrated translation.” When a celebrated translator speaks of her own work, she may disparage it as setsuyaku, “clumsy translation,” i.e., “my own translation,” which is not to be confused with a genuinely bad translation, disparaged as a dayaku or an akuyaku. A co-translation is a ky yaku or g yaku; a draft translation, or shitayaku, may be polished through a process of “supervising translation” or kan’yaku, without it becoming a ky yaku or g yaku. Translations are given different names depending on the approach they take to the original: they can be chokuyaku (literally, “direct translation”), chikugoyaku (“word-for-word translation”), iyaku (“sense translation”), taiyaku (“translation presented with the original text on facing pages”), or, in the case of translations of works by Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and other popular American writers, chyaku (“translations that are even better than the originals,” an invention and registered trademark of the Academy Press)

 Amazing isn’t it? When I read it, I thought about Tony who mostly reads in translation, loves Japanese and Victorian literatures. The coincidence of me reading a non-fiction book, in January and stumbling upon a quote about the word translation in Japanese is so incredible that in matter of coincidences, Thomas Hardy seems like an amateur. Life surpasses fiction, that’s for sure.

And then I wondered about translating Japanese into English or into French. How do they do it? The way of thinking, of expressing thoughts, of putting reality into words is so different from ours that it must be awfully difficult to give back the substance and the music of the original. It’s probably impossible.

I’m also thinking about using the word akuyaku at the end of the quotes I translate from the French when I don’t have a professional translation available. If I continue like this, I’m going to have my own blogging language full of billets, copinautes and enthusiastic akuyakus. But what do you say for a genuinely bad translation of a translation? I do that when I read a Japanese book in French and then write a billet in English about it. A j akuyaku? Seems like Japanese lacks one more word to say translation! Let’s start this with my upcoming review of N*P by Banana Yoshimoto.

PS: More about Is That a Fish in You Ear? pretty soon; I want to play a game with you.

  1. January 2, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    I broke down and read a book for this event.


    • January 2, 2013 at 11:28 pm

      You make it sound like a catastrophe 🙂 Was it a good book?


  2. January 2, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Obviously the Japanese think a lot more about translations than English speakers do!

    I think it’s a little deceptive though as Japanese is an agglutinative language which forms words by adding bits together, unlike English. By using the Chinese pronunciation of the Kanji, you can make short, neat-sounding neologisms (although it can then seem a bit clichéd.) It’s a bit like that myth of the Eskimos having all these words for snow…


    • January 2, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      I think that English readers think more about translations than French readers. But that’s only my opinion.

      Funny that you mention the Eskimos and snow, that’s exactly what a friend told me when I mentioned this passage to her.
      I don’t know how Japanese works so I can’t comment on what you say. It just seems more natural (I’m not saying easy) to translate from German to English than from Japanese to English.


  3. January 3, 2013 at 2:40 am

    Which one Guy? Do tell!

    There is some excellent (I’m told) Japanese crime fiction you know…


  4. January 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    My goodness, makes you appreciate the work that must go into “translation”. Fascinating! I am also taking part in J-Lit month, so will savour every translated word much more having read this! Sarah


    • January 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm


      Thanks for visiting my blog.
      I’m glad that someone is as fascinated as I am. The other commenters started to make me feel a bit weird. 🙂
      I was impressed when I read about all these words.


  5. January 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Wonderful post, Emma! Loved that passage on translations 🙂 It made me think of the different Russian words which stand for ‘to go’ (for example, when one leaves the house by foot it is a different word when compared to leaving by car; just stepping out of the door is different from getting out onto the street; making intermediate stops after leaving is different from going directly to the destination; going out one way is different from going out and returning). It makes me think whether Russian and Japanese have things in common. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on Bellos’s book. Happy reading!


    • January 4, 2013 at 10:42 pm

      Thanks Vishy.
      As a French, I already have enough trouble using the proper English word when there’s only one in French. (like house/home ; jump/leap…) It’s one of the difficulties for us with English. So I can’t even imagine what it is like to have so many nuances.
      But I guess I see what Tony meant before. Perhaps you need as much vocabulary in Japanese and French since in French you need to know lots of adjectives and adverbs to express yourself precisely.


      • January 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm

        I remember when I was in school, the teacher asking us to explain what is the difference between a ‘house’ and a ‘home’ 🙂 Interesting to know that one needs to know a lot of adjectives and adverbs to express oneself precisely. Each language is unique in its own way which makes the translator’s job exciting and impossible 🙂


  6. January 4, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    I’m really a purist… reading words like billet and what not in an English text make me shudder. I’ll have to get used to stumble upon akuyaku now too… Do you realize it’s a very un-French thing to do? What would the Académie say? 🙂 – I’m teasing you – a bit – I really don’t like code switch.


    • January 4, 2013 at 10:58 pm

      If we were all purists, we wouldn’t use pizza, zucchini, rendezvous or café. I like colourful and billet covers something that review doesn’t. I asked for another English word than review, remember? Nobody found one. As for akuyaku, won’t it be nice to have a simple “my akuyaku” at the end of a quote instead of “sorry-this-is-my-poor-attempt-at-translating-this-quote”?

      And haven’t we stated that I’m very un-French in many ways? 🙂 The Académie would shudder and try to invent another smart word based on highbrow Latin or Greek origins. Want to know where to find French official words? check here http://franceterme.culture.fr. (My billet about this: Citizen, speak French please)


  7. January 5, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Caught! I knew you would mention words like pizza and zucchini BUT – they are original words which are used in other languages. Like computer which is used in most languages – apart from French. Now billett is another story, that’s integrating a non-original word in another language.
    I’m far less a purist than a linguist.
    I do remember you asked for the word – I still have the e-mail. I also remeber what you wrote when you found it. 🙂


    • January 5, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      Pizza came back to France from the US, I believe. And for zucchini, you know we have a French word for this.

      How is it different to use “billet” in English from using “computer” in German or “maketing” in French? Just because I decided to use “billet” after agreeing with myself only and the others have become regular words? How is it different from “cliché” in English?


      • January 5, 2013 at 9:10 pm

        It is different because it’s not the original word. Computer, marketing and cliché are foreign words adopted by other languages as they are concepts borrowed from those languages. They existed first in those languages. Not every language tries to find a new word for everything. However billet is French and you substitute an existing English word with it although the English is the original. French is one of the rare languages trying to find a new word for everything, hostile to foreign words.
        That’s why it is different, I guess. Etymologie. Anyhow it’s really a matter of personal taste and has a lot to do with my being bilingual.


        • January 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm

          Billet is not the translation of review, “critique” is. “Billet” is used in that sense by bloggers and it comes from journalism. I think the English equivalent is “column” but English bloggers don’t seem to use it.

          We mostly try to protect French from becoming Frenglish, which is a good thing, in my opinion. I’m not sure we’re that eager to find a French word when the word comes from another language than English. It’s less threatening. The Académie just has to find the new word quick enough for it to pass in common language before we get used to the English one. That way, it works, provided that the new word isn’t too long or too complicated. Internaute and “ordinateur” worked very well; courriel struggles to impose itself and balado-diffusion is a lost battle no matter how hard journalists from France Inter try to use it.


          • January 6, 2013 at 10:21 am

            I never said billet was the translation of review. At the time we were looking for an equivalent of “post” and you found “billet”-
            Never mind.


            • January 7, 2013 at 10:57 pm

              Sorry to contradict, I was looking for another word for review. It was at the time there was an issue whether bloggers wrote proper reviews on not.


  8. January 7, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    Wow. The passage reminds me of parts of Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed, and his unrestrained anger at the various “mistranslations” of Kafka!


    • January 7, 2013 at 11:25 pm

      I don’t remember this passage of Kundera. I had a huge Kundera time in highschool. (Not sure I understood everything, btw)


  9. January 8, 2013 at 12:10 am

    Oh, there’s this hilarious bit where Kundera takes four different translations of one scene from Kafka’s The Castle, and proceeds to savagely tear them all apart, before providing his own “correct” translation. He had a very, very… firm view about maintaining fidelity to the author’s intentions. Testaments Betrayed is certainly worth a read, if you’re interested in issues of translation – and Kundera is a brilliant writer.


    • January 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm

      I should re-read Kundera I have several books by him at home.


  1. January 21, 2013 at 1:16 am

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