What does it mean to be an editor? In the world of film, you can imagine someone stretching out a reel of film and cut out portions of the film before sticking them together. In the world of literature, an editor looks at a manuscript and helps to clean up and polish the drafts with the writer to make the best kind of book. And in the world of translation, translators have to take the role of an editor and figure out how to make the translation be faithful to the source and yet understandable in the target culture.
The nature of editing however lends to the paranoia that editors might be “censoring” artistic intent. They may be pushing some sort of agenda or adding unnecessary trinkets they think might be appealing to a mainstream audience. It is worse in the realm of translations because the readers are at the mercy of the translator. This ominous figure can twist the words around to mean something sinister and few people can verify this. It is why in some English-speaking fans in Japanese subcultures prefer what they call “literal translations”. The fact it reads like Japanese makes them feel calm that nothing from the translators’ fingertips have touched the text.
But translations have to be readable. “The baseline for any translation is this,” Connor Krammer writes on their critique of Persona 5’s translation, “readers of the translation should receive the same experience as readers of the original, as if the original creators had written it natively in both languages.“ And failing that rather basic benchmark should be deemed worthy of a discussion.
Of course, that discussion is going nowhere and that is an understatement…
But Krammer is indeed right: “Readers should receive the same experience as readers of the original.” That’s what translation is all about. If you aren’t getting the same experience, then you’re just getting either an inferior work or something else. It isn’t a reflection of the original.
And that’s what I would like to talk about in this post. Understandably, most people can’t crossreference texts, but this problem is more visible to the naked eye. It has little to do with languages or cultural nuances. Instead, it’s all about how much content you’re getting. Sometimes, it’s pages — the physical thing: a piece of paper where you can flip for more text. Sometimes, it’s the running time of a film.
A good number of Asian media is getting abridged for no reason and no one seems to know or care about this.
Abridgments are both a good and a bad thing and everyone does this all the time. Writers like to go all over the place with their first drafts, but editors nudge them and ask, “Is this necessary? Do we need this? Can we cut it out?”
All works undergo some kind of abridgment. No one can watch unedited raw footage of Shia LeBeouf watching all his movies in reverse chronology for 10 hours in #ALLMYMOVIES. Long stretches of time are not a great way to engage the audience and make your message concise and understandable. Brevity is the soul of wit.
But that’s not the kind of abridgment we think about when we talk about this term. We think of those abridgments of really long classic books like Les Miserables, War and Peace, Great Expectations, and even The Holy Bible. These books are a massive undertaking for writers, editors, translators, and most importantly the readers themselves. It is comfier to feel like you’ve understood the scale of Les Miserables through one dingy 200 paged book than to chug the giant book into your backpack and carry it around on the subway to school. Even popular bestselling English books like The Martian gets “condensed” versions as if people can’t read more than ten pages anymore.
Video games used to get this treatment. Games like Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere were bowdlerized in English because it was too expensive and risky to release a long game with fleshed out stories and settings in America. A whole scenario in Persona 1 was cut because it was too hard for American gamers as well.
While that practice is long gone, Asian films do come to American shores cut and torn apart. John Woo’s Red Cliff has two versions: the normal/Asian version which spans four hours split into two films and the cut-down version for two and a half hours. The reason?
“I wanted to keep everything,” says the director in the Wall Street Journal, “but that would have been impossible. So the main thing I tried to do was preserve the story but eliminate anything that might cause confusion.” He cuts down exposition from Part One which plays on the “nuances” found in these famous historical characters. A potential American viewer might find it confusing.
In an interview by Terry Keefe, he goes further:
Yes, the Asian people are so familiar with this part of history, and the characters, that we have much more time for developing the characters. In the Asian version, there are two love stories. However, the American audience, they aren’t as familiar with the history and characters…we decided to focus on the main story. We took out the love story with the Princess and the young soldier, and also trimmed down the side characters, and focused on one story. But it’s still the same story, the same excitement. Some people even feel that the American version is more exciting, and tighter. So, I’m very enthused with both versions.
It is quite patronizing to see American audiences as too dumb to get the relationships of the most famous Chinese characters in history. But this is a running theme in these kind of abridgments. The target audience is apparently too idiotic to understand the full scale of a work, so let’s try dumbing it down.
At the very least, you are told beforehand you are seeing or reading an abridged version of the work at hand. You also have the option to check the unabridged, complete versions as well. Besides the obnoxious behavior displayed by creators and producers, this isn’t exactly an issue if people have choices. It is the audience’s choice to choose between the versions. Whether abridgments constitutes reading/watching it or not is up to debate, but it is in the right of the audience to choose what they will like to see. The issue is more of an aesthetic taste in my eyes. There is nothing inherently wrong about this at all if the consumer knows what they’re going into.
Unless the work never tells them it is an abridgment at all.
I remember picking up a Puffin copy of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. The translation had some of the most cringeworthy prose ever and I wondered if it was the fault of the translator or the writer. I stumbled upon a Tumblr post which not only confirmed my suspicion it was the translator’s but found out I was reading something worse as a result of shitty practices. In F. de l Opera’s page about the current Phantom translations, they write:
This [first] English edition was translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. Likely because de Mattos was under time constraints, he took a slash-and-burn approach to rendering Leroux’s work. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, he removed nearly 100 pages of content from Leroux’s novel. De Mattos also introduced numerous mistranslations that further obfuscated Leroux’s text.
Unfortunately, because his translation was the first, and because it is now in the public domain (i.e. publishers don’t have to pay royalties to print it), it is the most widely available English text of Phantom.
You will know that you are reading de Mattos’ edition if you do NOT see a translator’s name mentioned anywhere in your book (or if the translator is listed as anonymous). This is again because de Mattos’ text is in out of copyright (i.e. was printed before 1923); publishers are not obligated to credit de Mattos for his work, and so they don’t.
Surprise, surprise: my book had no translator credited. It was de Mattos and there was no mention it was even abridged. Most people don’t either from a cursory skimming on Goodreads. They found the plot totally fine and the writing okay.
But if you compare it to David Coward’s translation for Oxford World Classics, you can see a huge leap in quality and pages. Coward’s translation is, according to this blogger, the one of the only two translations that are unabridged and the “lesser of two evils”.
Whatever you may feel about translation practices and what good prose is, knowing something is an abridgment is a goddamn important thing. No one wants to be surprised that the book they bought with their money turned out to be the version of the product they did not want. It’s a betrayal in trust. And it makes me mad that I got duped into buying one book. I now have two versions of the same damn book thanks to this bullshit practice.
It is important to tell the audience that some stuff is abridged and explain why. John Woo did a pretty awful job at explaining it, but at least he did it. Meanwhile, Martin Palmer explains why he and the other translators have to cut some content and made some changes in their Penguin translation of The Book of Zhuangzi:
Translating an author as rich, diverse and as intense as Chuang Tzu is an immense undertaking. There are a few full translations of Chuang Tzu, so I felt there was space for another, especially one aimed for a popular market.
Firstly, I have adopted a simplified form of romanization of Chinese names … I hope purists will forgive me this in the interests of greater ease for readers.
Secondly, I have dropped some of the more obscure names which are given and only make a great deal of sense if one is able to see the puns in Chinese. For example, the last paragraph of Chapter 18 in the Chinese contains detailed names for every bug and insect. I have dropped all but the most necessary because they get very confusing!
Thirdly, in the first seven chapters, we have marked out the text to show that it does not flow sequentially. The first seven chapters in particular contain self-contained stories and discussions. Trying to read Chuang Tzu sequentially is a mistake. The text is a collection, not a developing argument. In the first seven chapters, we have indicated this with clear breaks.
Unlike the tone Woo uses, Palmer explains why they aren’t simplifying the book for the sake of simplifying. They do it because they find it will be too obfuscating and unnecessary for the Western audience. Whether you agree with this decision or not, it is admirable they blatantly tell the readers early on about it. That’s what “Translator’s Note” in many translated books are for. It’s a little warning that also gives insight to the conscious decisions of the translators and readers have to bear that in mind. There is respect to the audience, something many abridged works that hide the fact they are abridged don’t have.
There are cases where it is better to abridge a book for many reasons and there are cases where the people in charge just think the readers are plain stupid. Abridgment may also have the nasty effect of possibly changing the whole story altogether. This is where Japanese fiction suffers.
Because of how kanji works, the Japanese language is more concise with how much information it can pack in one sentence. But Japanese writers do not have to use a varied vocabulary like English writers. They can spam the same word a couple of times in the same page. They also are rarely tempted to use adverbs. This makes literally translating Japanese into English difficult.
Take this example in Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Kawabata Yasunari’s The Sound of the Mountain:
The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain.
It was as if a demon had passed, making the mountain sound out.
In a Japanese website dedicated to comparing translations, the article writer notes that the first two sentences in the original version are combined into one sentence through the conjunction “and”. Pronouns are added in the English version because English requires that; Japanese do not. Adverbs like “suddenly” (はじめて) and “calmly and deliberately” (for 冷静に) are added with care. The lack of paragraphs in Japanese — Japanese writers use danraku (段落) — is not apparent in the English translation. Unavoidably, the English translation will always be longer than Japanese.
That’s why so few long works come to the American shores. There’s too much time and effort to make a translation work in the mind of the publisher.
It doesn’t help that Japanese fiction is often very long. These novels are often serialized, so they can get very short (火花 is only 180 pages) or extremely long (Disco Wednesdayyy is 1,457 pages). America used to be very big onto serialized fiction during the pulp fiction era and we still see this in comics; however, they’ve gradually gone straight to full-length novels.
This causes problems for the American readership because in the early 2000s, they aren’t into big books overall. Most people aren’t after all. The idea of reading War and Peace is seen as a tantamount task when it ranks low in the longest books ever. Today, long books like Garth Risk Hallberg’s City of Fire (911 pages) are normal and worth an investment by both publishers and readers. Unfortunately, the bulk of translated Japanese fiction is published before a boom of long novels made it trendy to read huge books.
One famous example is Jay Rubin’s translation of Murakami Haruki’s Windup Bird Chronicle. In a series of candid emails about Murakami’s work and translations, Rubin talks about the difficulty of translating the book. The publisher Alfred A. Knopf wanted the translation to be around 25,000 words, far shorter from the original work. Rubin who translated the whole book after being approached by Murakami realizes he is
Afraid that they would hire some freelancer who could wreak havoc on the novel, and filled with a megalomaniac certainty that I knew every word in the book–maybe better than the author himself–after having translated all three hefty volumes, I decided to forestall the horror by submitting my manuscript in two versions: complete, and cut. Knopf took my cut version pretty much as is (which no doubt saved them a lot of work and expense; like Phil, I was not recognized as an editor in anything other than the notice in the front of the book).
Rubin is thankfully quite close to Murakami — they were once neighbors and recommended each other jazz records according to Rubin’s Music of Words — and gets advice on how to approach the translation. Both worked out how to cut the novel for the English translation:
Having recently completed Book 3, Haruki felt incapable of cutting that, but he had enough distance from Books 1 and 2 to mark many passages for elimination–many SHORT passages that didn’t add up to much in terms of word count. I included most–BUT NOT ALL–of his cuts as part of my cut version (in some, I thought he had taken out important passages), and of course sent the entire cut version to him.
It is amusing to note that Murakami will also take into consideration what Rubin has cut for the Japanese paperback versions. References to Tony Takitani, a character from an early Murakami story, was excised in both translation and paperback. But the massive cuts Rubin did were not present in the Japanese paperback.
Rubin jokes that if the book “outlives its time and becomes part of the canon fifty years from now, a re-translation will be needed, and scholars can have a fine time screaming about how Jay Rubin utterly butchered the text.” He does justify the cutting like this:
The cutting done on WIND-UP is a complex matter. The more you look into it and into the question of revision, the more you realize there is no single authoritative version of ANY Murakami work: he tinkers with everything long after it first finds its way into print.
Abridgment is indeed a complex matter and so is translation. It is not always a matter of censorship or lower word count. With Murakami, his works are always changing in versions and there’s no actual definitive versions. Translations are never perfect and will require constant scrutiny by translators and readers. So there needs to be several alternatives as well as analysis on translations.
Kieran Robert Maynard of Fudan University has done a fascinating analysis of Windup Bird Chronicle‘s translation and I recommend people to take a look at it if they want more analysis of the book. But I like to steal one of Maynard’s Murakami quotes. Talking about translating classics like Catcher in the Rye, Murakami says:
My basic stance is that for superb classics, there ought to be several different translations. Translation is not an act of creation, but only one form of technical response, so various different approaches should exist in tandem as a matter of course. People often use the word meiyaku [great translation/名訳], but that’s only another way of saying “one superb response.” In principle, a peerless, perfect translation cannot exist, and even supposing one existed, in the long run it might have a detrimental effect on the original work. At least for works that are called “classics,” there need to be several alternatives. Isn’t the most desired form of translation one in which several high-quality choices exist and through the accumulation of multiple aspects the true form of the original text arises naturally?
He wants readers to have a choice in translation selection. This is why he translates books like The Long Goodbye and wants to promote a discussion on translations. Translating should not be seen as censorship nor accepting what is already there for us without criticism. It needs to be inspected and looked upon in the wider context of translation, the publishing industry, and how we read. That is how we become better readers and critics.
There is of course pushback from people who aren’t privy to these matters. They don’t want to learn nor care. Tara Cheeseman in Book Riot asks, “If you love the book, do you really care what gets lost in translation?” In talking about cuts and mistranslations by Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, her reasoning boils down to this simple idea:
Because there’s really no point in caring. I (and I imagine most of you ) will never read a book written in Korean, Chinese, Arabic, French, Persian, German, Spanish, or any of the thousands of languages spoken around the world unless it’s been through the hands of a translator. In case I’m not making myself clear – I can only read English. So I do not have the luxury of quibbling.
That kind of defeatism is why people just don’t care and publishers can ask translators like Rubin to cut the book. The way Cheeseman writes the article makes the translation sound like an isolated incident.
Here is a table of Japanese novels I know that have been cut. It’s easy to tell because there is a bizarre number of pages dropped from the book altogether. I have read some of these Japanese books and looked up English reviews that make no sense. They are reading completely different books from me. These are usually not the faults of the translators but the lack of time and budget given to translators and respect to readers. Some abridgment may be necessary for the translation to work, but most of them are unnecessary except that the publisher said so. It is important to care about translations.
|虐殺器官 (432 pages)||Genocidal Organ (297 pages)|
|逃がれの街 (370 pages)||City of Refuge (240 pages)|
|魔術はささやく (446 pages)||Devil’s Whisper (256 pages)|
|十角館の殺人 (512 pages)||The Decagon House Murders (228 pages)|
|ハーモニー (382 pages)||Harmony (252 pages)|
|新宿鮫1 (412 pages)||Shinjuku Shark (258 pages)|
|親指Pの修業時代 (368 pages 上 + 368 pages 下)||The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P (447 pages)|
|占星術殺人事件 (470 pages)||Tokyo Zodiac Murders (252 pages)|
|ブレイブ・ストーリー (468 pages 上 + 478 pages 中 + 500 pages 下)||Brave Story (816 pages)|
|女子高生、リフトオフ! (352 pages)||Rocket Girls (200 pages)|
|ゴールデンスランバー (649 pages)||Remote Control (343 pages)|
|OUT (456 pages 上 + 352 pages 下)||Out (400 pages)|
|宮本武蔵 (8 novels/3961 pages)||Musashi Complete(970 pages)|
|細雪 (284 pages 上 + 中 343 pages + 下 420 pages)||The Makioka Sisters (544 pages)|
|第六大陸 (249 pages + 350 pages)||The Next Continent (424 pages)|
|空色勾玉 (541 pages)||Dragon Sword and the Wind Child (286 pages)|
|マルドゥック・スクランブル (3 novels/949 pages)||Mardock Scramble (775 pages)|
|とはずがたり (434 pages 上 + 下 526 pages)||The Confessions of Lady Nijo (288 pages)|
|グッドラック 戦闘妖精・雪風 (638 pages)||Good Luck, Yukikaze (430 pages)|
|マシアス・ギリの失脚 (632 pages)||The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matias Guili (350 pages)|
|砂の器 (397 pages 上 + 431 pages 下)||Inspector Imanishi Investigates (313 pages)|
|グロテスク (397 pages 上 + 453 pages 下)||Grotesque (480 pages)|
The amount of pages cut from this small selection of books is staggering, but we also need to understand that Japanese books are just plain long. No one is going to be able to translate all of Miyamoto Musashi’s saga; 3,961 pages are just way too much for anyone.
This is why abridgments happen. Japanese editors don’t tend to edit the novels for pacing or whatever. Japanese readers don’t mind reading 600 page novels at all while American readers might think twice. Japanese and American readers have completely different reading cultures and editors and translators need to adjust the work to that.
But that’s why we should care more. What are the compromises made for something more readable and culturally relevant to the target audience? Are they good or bad? Is it understandable where they are coming from? And how should we react to that?
Criticizing a translation is seen as political nowadays. If someone wonders loudly about a wonky line, they might have an agenda. If a line feels too “different”, the translator must have an agenda too. Everyone has an agenda and that’s why it is risky to talk about translations in any form.
This “agenda” idea stems from the mistrust in translations years ago. In “Coats and Turncoats”, Robert Chandler admits having difficulties with Alexander Pushkin’s use of alliteration and syllables when he and Elizabeth translated The Captain’s Daughter. Not all translations will be great or perfect. But they reject the idea that translations are “turncoats”:
This scornful view of translations, this feeling that they are ‘turncoated things at best’, has persisted over the centuries – and not only in the English-speaking world. About half of the articles I read about translation in non-academic publications mention either the Italian pun on ‘traduttore’ and ‘traditore’ (translator and traitor), the French idea of ‘les belles infidèles’ (i.e. that translations are like women – either beautiful or faithful, but never both) or Robert Frost’s irritating dictum that ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation’. My hunch is that this hostility towards translators and their work arises not from the entirely justified view that most translations are imperfect but from a suspicion of translators per se. Translators are, by definition, at least relatively at home in two or more cultures and their loyalty to any single culture is therefore questionable.
It is disturbing that the perception of translators is akin to a traitor or a double agent. You can only trust them as much as you trust enemies.
But Robert Chandler notes that it is interesting the protagonist, Pyotr Grinyov, is a translator himself and finds himself in the middle of a political war of alliances and rivalries. Chandler identifies himself with the protagonist because of how important the translation process is even if you are seen as a wolf in sheep’s clothing:
Translators are always vulnerable to criticism. If they do not make full use of their creative imagination, they will betray not only themselves but also the life and spirit of the original. If they do let their imaginations play, they are likely to be accused of presumption. Fidelity, however, is never simply a mechanical matter; to be faithful to a person, a belief, a cause or a work of literature, we must do more than simply obey a set of rules. There will always be times when we need to think more deeply, to ask ourselves questions about what it is we want to be faithful to and why … Like Pyotr Grinyov, we may sometimes need to be tricksters; perhaps, rather than worrying about being called turncoats, we should simply try to be more accomplished tricksters.
Chandler comes out saying that translators need to have an agenda in order to translate. I would go further: Readers of translations need to think as deeply as they are when they read books written in their native languages. Readers need an agenda too. This is why everyone should be under the same kind of critical scrutiny we give to artists who definitely have an agenda.
After all, translators are artists too. Simon Leys in his essays about translating Confucius’s Analects in The Hall of Uselessness describes translation as a “substitute of creation”. While artists create from the new, the translators “create” from the old. Creative imagination does not always require an original product; it can derive from something old and thus bring out something more beautiful than new.
Abridgments are one tool of that creative process in translations and as readers of translations, it is important to know that is being done. This is not a post on criticizing abridgments but to raise awareness on it as a tool. Some translators abridge terribly and don’t tell you anything; some don’t abridge at all because they think it is better that way; some abridge so well they should be seen as the definitive edition. There are many conscious decisions translators, editors, and publishers do when it comes to getting a translation out.
You don’t have to learn the language to be aware of translation practices nor do you need to learn how to translate. You need to be savvy the same way one learns about how people make films or create expressive animations on paper. Complaining and criticizing translations for censorship is not productive when you don’t want to understand why publishers and translators might do this.
We need to care. If we don’t care about what’s happening in translated media, we lose and let the higher-ups do whatever they want. Readers should receive the same experience as readers of the original. We thus have to ask ourselves, “How? How should we make it happen?”
We need to talk about those missing pages in abridged books if there are no translators’ notes. We need to ask translators about their practices and read them up too. And we certainly need more critics who talk about the translation besides the prose and whatnot.
Talking about the discrepancies in page count is the first step to constructive criticism. Hopefully, there will be more translators and readers who engage in discussions for a better world of translations.