Sunday, February 28, 2010


I mentioned earlier in the week that I love the library. My local branch has a great foreign language section, and recently I was browsing through the Japanese paperbacks. I'm not sure if it's because I'm in America, but from what I can tell that a large percentage of the collection was books in English that were translated into Japanese, and a large percentage of those books are (amusingly and tellingly about who goes to the library) romance novels.

However, I found, just by chance, a Japanese translation of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, 老人と海 (roujin to umi). Guess what that means? BACK TRANSLATION TIME!!

I'm lazy, and not all that much interested in the novella I read once for school in 8th grade, much less that novella in a foreign language, so I only tackled the first paragraph. My translation isn't the most cleaned up it could be, but I just wanted to share with y'all some of the things I noticed.

First, the Japanese:

Next, my translation:
"He was old. Floating in a small boat on the Gulf Stream, he spent his days alone catching fish but for 84 days he couldn't catch a single one. For the first 40 days a young boy accompanied him. However, when it came to be 40 days without a single fish, the boys' parents said that old man was thoroughly salao. Salao was the Spanish word for the worst kind of situation. In accordance with his parents orders, the boy boarded another boat to go fishing, which in it's first week caught three beautiful fish. Seeing the old man going back and forth in his empty little boat day after day was the most heart-breaking sight for the boy. Every day he would go and meet the old man, and helped him stow away the coiled rope, fishing hooks and harpoon, and curled up the sail around the mast. The sail was patched up here and there with a flour sack, but the shape of the curled up mast looked only like the banner of eternal defeat."

Finally, Hemingway's original:
"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unluck, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks, and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat."

My summary of observations:
  • The Japanese translator clearly decided not to keep Hemingway's very long sentences. The Japanese is cut up into nine sentences; Hemingway's is a sparse five. The most obvious example of this chopping is the Japanese's very first sentence. "He was old." although "年をとっている”, taking years, is decidedly more euphemistic. 
  • Maybe my translation is wrong (I mean, all signs point to yes, I am [EDIT: see comments section]) in the last sentence which I read as saying the exact opposite of what Hemingway said: "it looked like the flag of permanent defeat" vs. "the shape of the curled mast did NOT seem like a banner of an eternity of defeat." Those of you Japanese-reading types tell me where I went wrong in the comments. It would be an extremely odd choice by the Japanese translator to say the exact opposite thing that Hemingway said.
  • Overall the translation is pretty faithful; my back-translation is mostly different in very superficial things, like banner vs flag or "beautiful" fish vs. "good" fish. However there is definitely a certain loss, and it comes from the sort of flavor that Hemingway has to his writing. Not being a native speaker it's hard for me to judge whether the Japanese has a similar quality of tone/style/that je ne sais quoi; it seems to me though, that in a lot of ways, that flavor does not come out in my English reflection of the Japanese. "worst form of unluck" ≠ "worst kind of situation".
  • That said, there were some cool things about the J translation that seemed like an attempt to emulate the original. I personally like the phrase: "もう老人がすっかりサラオになってしまったのだといった", especially the use of て-しまう, not only to imply the negative result, but also it's secondary meaning of "thoroughly and completely" to match Hemingway's "thoroughly and finally." It also sounds very much like what the parents would actually say (in Japanese) in real-life. 
  • Words not in my Japanese dictionaries:  巻綱, 枌袋[EDIT: should be 粉袋], 家徴する. Did the best I could with these words, mostly through googling and kanji research; let me know if you know anything about these mysterious words.
All in all, it's pretty interesting what can and can't cross the language/cultural divide. Further evidence that there's nothing quite like the original text.

[EDIT 3/1/10 2:00pm: Various transcribing errors are fixed, including one that fixes the translation question posed above which is now crossed out. Credit to g dawg and Chewy.


  1. If that last sentence was just としか instead of とした I think it would be alright. Cool post.

  2. I`m wondering if there`s some function of とした besides what we`ve learned so far, because from all that I can tell, too, it seems like that sentence is the exact opposite of Hemingway`s; wouldn`t something like that be recognized before it`s published?

    I can understand what you say about not understanding the tone/style of a story written in Japanese. I wonder if that`s something that will come with growing fluency, or if it`s something that takes longer to develop...

    Lately here I`ve been tempted by the translation of Catcher in the Rye, which seems infinitely thicker in Japanese than I remember it being in English.

  3. g dawg, you are two for two. It indeed should be としか instead of とした and it should be 粉袋 instead of 枌袋. Good eyes! I'll try to incorporate that into some sort of edit.

    TE: I don't remember if we talked about it in our class, but I remember talking about it in my internship, that the English version of a text is on average roughly 2/3 the size of the same Japaense text. Japanese tends to be "wordier" I guess.

  4. Long reply ahoy!
    I agree with g dawg. Also, 少年には何よるも辛かった should probably be 何よりも, so be careful with transcribing. :)
    So for that last part, 永遠の敗北を家徴する旗印とした見えなかった。should probably be 永遠の敗北を家徴する旗印としか見えなかった。
    Not sure if you get that grammar point, but *just* in case:
    Take out しか and you get:
    It didn't look like a flag of permanent defeat.
    But しか always goes with ない (nothing but ~), so we need that 見えなかった negative form now.
    It could only look like a flag of permanent defeat.
    Hope that makes sense. And that it was actually しか. :P

    While I'm on that section, 永遠の敗北 is closer to "eternal defeat" than "an eternity of defeat". There, the の isn't an "of" kinda thing as much as it is just serving its purpose of turning that noun into an adjective.

    It's really interesting to see your back-translation, and I've had thoughts myself, in passing, about trying it sometime. It does seem to provide a good opportunity to dissect translations and study the process, but at the same time, I wonder what we can really get out of it. Maybe our lack of nuance in the Japanese yet would make the back translation an inaccurate representation of that translation? Or maybe it would help us come to be able to feel subtle nuances in Japanese?

    I agree that changing the worst form of luck into the worst kind of situation seemed a little uncalled for, and what surprises me is how huge the Japanese are on luck. It seems much more a part of their culture than many Western countries. But maybe that's why the translation didn't have to go out and say unluck--maybe it was implied. Maybe not.

    Banner and flag, though, I can understand. Flags don't seem to be as much of a thing in Japanese culture as they are in America. Flags are everywhere in America. They hold a lot of symbolism. In Japanese, 'banner' seems to have a lot stronger sense of symbolism to it than a flag does. (But banner is different in English, more generic.) A flag might be a mark, but the word 旗印 seems better because of the 印 kanji. It is used in many words and has a nuance of permanence and official status. (Imprint, seal (stamp), pledge, etc.) The context of defeat is especially important. 旗印 were used in battles. (Google hit number one told me so.)

    Changing good to beautiful might just be unavoidable. I don't see Japanese throw around いい like we throw around good, so the translator may have thought that いい魚 just had a terrible ring to it. That's all I can think of. I'm sure there are some instances where "good" might sound good as なかなかいい in Japanese, though. I'm a fan of the なかなか having this sense of unexpected pleasure when coupled with a positive adjective, just like the opposite is true when something is worse than someone thought.

    I mean I'm still trying to grasp the feeling of Japanese myself. I can understand it fine but it's here on out that I'm going to try to grasp the language on a deeper literature level.

    A word of advice: The Japanese-Japanese dictionary will prove invaluable. Much more useful than English dictionaries when stuck with a word that's either not listed in English or listed with several English possibilities. I usually use nothing more than ALC for ideas for natural-sounding English equivalents, or goo ( Honestly, if a word doesn't show up in goo's JPN-JPN, you might have the kanji wrong. If it really doesn't show up, than he's making up his own word so all you need to know is each individual kanji and blend em together yourself.

    Alright, sorry I came out of nowhere but we appeared to have started blogs around the same time and I'm interested in yours. :)

  5. Lindsay (Chewy) - Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    (In my defense,) I do understand the grammatical use of しか but g dawg was correct in that I transcribed it wrong onto my computer and didn't double check the original. It should be とした and thankfully that really does fix the intent/meaning of the sentence.

    And your comment on the の is also accurate; I went through this pretty fast so I didn't think about it very much. But yeah, eternal defeat is much more accurate than an eternity of defeat.

    Now that I'm done covering my ass for my silly mistakes (笑), you raise some interesting points about the effectiveness of back-translation, at least from the position of a non-native speaker. But it seemed like fun, and I do this blog because I get bored. I just woke up half an hour ago, so I can't form the most coherent thoughts for a nice discussion on translation, so I'll just leave it at that.

    But at any rate, I'm glad you like my blog and I'll be sure to check out yours!

  6. Yeah, I wasn't sure if it was a matter of simple transcription error or not, sorry I blabbed too much then.

    I guess this is something we couldn't go and post online, heh, but one thing I recommend would be translating a paragraph of Norwegian Wood if you can get the original. Specifically this one:
    Seems like a great chance and a lot of fun to give it a shot and then compare it to not one but two pros.

    And yeah, back-translation does seem wildly interesting :) Looking forward to reading more stuff.