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.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


It was fun while it lasted, but it's time to put an end to the Kumozaru Project. Sorry to those who started enjoying it, I know I really was, but I've been informed that some people are frowning upon my activities.

I'm certainly not here to cause trouble. I didn't realize that Yoru no Kumozaru had English-language rights (by which someone merely owns them somewhere, not that there are any plans for it to be actually released, unfortunately), and I do believe that a translation is one's own intellectual property (that I simply wanted to share with some people on the internet! I'm innocent, I tell 'ya!), but again, I did this without looking into any of the rules of the game. It was just a fun project for me to help practice my Japanese and translation skills. Like I said, it was fun while it lasted, and my blog is going to look pretty empty from now on, but them's the breaks. I had just been going over some new content ideas for the site anyway, so Wednesday Afternoon Picnic will still go on, in one way or another. I hope those of you who started coming here will continue to do so. I do suggest that anyone studying Japanese and with an interest in Murakami should consider buying a copy of Yoru No Kumozaru for themselves so they can enjoy the stories that I've come to really love.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Japanese Movie Round-up

I love the library. I love the library because you can get a hold of just about anything, if you know where and how to look. Lately, I love the local public library for their DVD collection (it doesn't hurt that I'm going to the main branch of a pretty large city). These are some of the Japan-related movies I've had the enjoyment of viewing in the last week or two.
  • Big Man Japan (大日本人
Released in Japan in 2007, Big Man Japan is the directorial debut of the comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, who seems to be most famous as part of the television comedy duo Downtown. The film also stars Matsumoto as the eponymous hero.

The film is a mockumentary following Masaru Daisato, a man who inherited his job of protecting Japan from giant monsters from his father, grandfather and so on. When zapped with electricity, he can transform into the giant 大日本人 (Dainipponjin) to fight said monsters off. However, the pay sucks; his wife left him with their daughter, who he only gets to see a few times a year; his television show tanks in the ratings at 2am; and overall, he just isn't very good at his job. He's overshadowed by his grandfather, once hugely famous in the '60s, but is now senile in a nursing home. 

For those who love the inherent sillyness of the giant monster genre, there's a lot to enjoy about Big Man Japan. Personally, I'm a big sucker for any sort of comedy that derives it's humor by taking something crazy and fantastic, and then presents it as if it was just part of someone's mundane, everyday existence. So the fact that Daisato is forced to do his job as part of the family legacy, and therefore hates it and doesn't try very hard at it, brings out a lot of laughs. There's also a lot of great in-jokes for those familiar with the tropes of the genre, and the movie is great at putting real-world logic on a pretty illogical premise. It's a pretty dark comedy, though it drags a bit in the middle, mostly because there aren't as many monster fight scenes (complete with pretty hilariously bad CGI) as one would have hoped. However, the whole movie needs to be watched, if only for the out of nowhere climax and then credits sequence that just has to be seen to believed. Trust me, it's worth it for that alone.

(Incidentally, I waited months to see this movie. I reserved it at the local library last summer as soon as it was released and available. I was number 3 in the queue, and didn't get a hold of it until about three weeks ago. I think someone lost it somewhere down the line.)

  • Prince of Space (遊星王子)

This may be sort of cheating, because I was actually watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. But, here we go.

Prince of Space is the Americanized splicing of two separate movies, 遊星王子 (Wikipedia says its translated "Planet Prince") and 星王子 - 恐怖の宇宙船 (Planet Prince - The Terrifying Spaceship), which were both released in 1959 within a week of each other. Originally it was a TV show that got popular and made into a movie (a reboot, essentially). Basically, a Japanese scientist develops an amazing new rocket fuel that would allow for long-term space travel, and then somehow evil aliens with beaks made of silly putty learn about it and show up to steal the formula (because they need it so they can travel in space? How did they get to Earth in the first place??) Luckily, Prince of Space shows up to protect the scientist and his colleagues, as well as two nosy, annoying kids who get in everyone's way.

This movie was pretty terrible. Horribly dubbed, badly acted, really cheesy effects (Ok, those made it kind of awesome). Luckily, the MST3K team makes it all better, pointing out all the glaring plot holes, cheap-ass dubbing and bizarre translation/localizations. It's on the Vol. 7 DVD.

  • Big Dreams, Little Tokyo

Again, maybe this is cheating a little; this is an American indie film, but the film was actually mostly in Japanese. So deal with it, haters.

Made in 2006 but not relased on DVD 'til 2008, Big Dreams, Little Tokyo was written, directed, and starred David Boyle. It's about an American "businessman" who lives in the "Japantown" district of an unknown city, where he goes around trying to sell his learn English book to the various Japanese citizens. He lives with a half-Japanese half-American who's training to become a Sumo, even though he can't gain enough weight to be accepted to the sumo academy. The film basically follows the two trying to fit into Japanese society with their half-baked business ventures.

The film is charming, in it's low-budget indie-way, and explores with some success some various ideas about cultural identity (even ones beyond Japanese vs American). It's got some really funny moments dealing with culture shock, and the characters are quirky without being unbelievable (even the main character, whose crazy-strict devotion to Japanese culture/language/identity reminds me of someone who might be afflicted with a touch of Aspergers). Jayson Watanabe, the half Japanese friend, steals almost every scene he's in. And hey look, it's got James Kyson Lee (Ando from Heroes) as a mean bookstore owner!

I might have liked this film more than a regular film-goer would because I do see something of myself in the main character, who loves a culture he'll always be an outsider too. So it resonated with me, and I imagine it would to any other Westerner with a passion for Japanese culture, so if you fall under those circumstances, I would certainly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Review: Kenzaburo Oe's The Changeling

Occasionally I contribute to the really awesome blog Three Percent, which is devoted to literature in translation (the name coming from the fact that only 3% of books published in America are things in translation). They're a great source for news about literary matters as well as reviews for new books. In fact, you should most definitely check out their Best Translated Book Award, of which you can see the longlist here.

Anyway, you can see a review of Kenzaburo Oe's The Changeling that I wrote here. The book doesn't come out until March, but it was a great read and I highly recommend you read it when it comes out.

If you're interested, I also have a review of Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor and a commentary on the handling of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 in English. (Hurray for shameless self-promotion!)

Monday, February 8, 2010


The JLPP website is finally back up! Albeit, in a slightly more truncated form. They used to have lots of cool information, like not only who was winning all the big Japanese literary awards, but also the notable runner-ups (who sound more interesting to me than the winners sometimes). Right now, they only have a home page and some pdfs of their publications. Better than nothing though!

For those of you who don't know, the JLPP, or the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, is an organization that promotes Japanese literature to the rest of the world; they hire translators and give incentives (grants and the like) to promote publishers to actually publish Japanese books. For instance, on my to read list is The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, which sounds kind of disturbing but also hilarious (not a spoiler alert: P stands for penis. Yeah, now you're clicking on the link). I'm not sure how the books are chose to be translated, but a lot of what they put out (see Big Toe P) are things that might not have had a chance in American big publishing, who make almost no money on translated books of any kind (with the exception of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami types). So they do good work. For instance, when they get a publishing house to buy the rights, the JLPP buys a certain number of copies from them to give out to libraries, so even more people have access to it. Nice!

The JLPP is run by the J-Lit Center, who I've actually had some correspondence with while I was interning for a publishing house. Very friendly people!

Monday, February 1, 2010

"Bands You Should be Listening To" Volume 1: Ogre You Asshole

It's time to start the aspect of this blog that isn't entirely about literature and/or translation, but about Japan and Japanese culture in general. Therefore, I'm starting my hopefully somewhat regular column I'm calling: "Bands You Should Be Listening To!"

Although maybe I should call the column "Music I Would Suggest You Listen To If Your Taste Might Be Similar To Mine But Have Never Ventured Into The World of J-Rock!" But that's a little wordy. All (pitiful) joking aside, music is an entirely subjective experience. There's so much out there that caters to a lot of different tastes. So the bands that I'll be profiling is going to be really only stuff that I, personally, like. So I guess some of you are going to love this column and some of you will hate it, and I guess for some others it'll be hit and miss. (And it's my blog, I'll do what I want!) But in general, this column is going to be featuring Japanese bands that could typically be categorized under the huge blanket of "rock", specifically, "indie". I'll try to keep from being pretentious, but I make no promises. You've been warned!

Today's Subject: Ogre You Asshole


Ogre You Asshole got their (very strange) name when one of their members attended a Modest Mouse concert, and got his arm signed with the phrase "Ogre You Asshole" by MM's bassist. (The phrase "Ogre, you asshole!" being a notable quote from the movie "Revenge of the Nerds".) Well, Ogre You Asshole is very much a band influenced by Modest Mouse (well, their older stuff more than their newer stuff), but they definitely have developed their own style and come out with consistently great albums and EPs. Overall, I think of them as a pretty chill band, but they can really get into that nice post-punk groove when they want to.


Where to Start: My personal favorite of their releases is 平均は逆の期待 (and honestly, I have no idea how I would translate it. "The average is the expectation of the opposite of left and right"? Nope, that is not even close to understandable English). It's an EP, so it's only five songs, but they are five of their best songs, and they wouldn't be as great as they are if they weren't all together to create that perfect distillation of what they are all about musically. 

However, I don't know how easy it is to get a hold of that EP, whereas their latest album "Foglamp" is in the iTunes music store, for a quick and easy download for those in the States (I swear some of Ogre You Asshole's older albums used to be in the iTunes store, including the EP recommended above, but it's nowhere to be found anymore. Too bad). This is also a really great album; the first and last tracks ("Cracker" and "Wiper", respectively) are two of my other all-time favorites.