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Wherein lies the translator?

Written By: daveski on September 10, 2007 No Comment

I’ve been working on a few pretty sizable Japanese–>English translation projects recently…one a product assembly manual for factory workers for a medical supplier, and the other a series of summaries of manga episodes. As I open my laptop in yet another cafe or library, or at home (even in bed—the merger of ‘work’ and home in the age of electronic communication is complete!) and submerge myself in the imagined world of the text’s audience, I frequently wonder at the position of the translator in texts like these…what remains in the final text of this obscure figure, the factory worker of sorts in an industry where factories have been turned inside-out and distributed across 1000 dictionary pages and reference links? In an age when even the words of the anonymous authors of the wiki resource guides we rely on remain in previously saved versions and find homes on servers and in our browsers, with their very own URLs! Isn’t it amazing, for example, that no other claim has been made on the 4-letter combination “N-E-J-I” in Wikipedia’s real estate, other than that for a relatively minor character in the Japanese manga Naruto?

Perhaps it’s not right to say that I’ve “submerged” myself in the worlds of these products, mechanical and fictional. I’ve never soldered a capacitor to the printed circuit board of a blood oxygen spot check meter, and it’s hard to know what register is used by the rising star of Kanto’s most prestigious middle school tennis team. The discursive trajectories that underlie these ‘stories’ — conceiving of plots, decades of product development, documentation, and use, the growth of online fan clubs and movie releases and poster collectors on multiple continents — stretch far into the past, and the investment of lots (but not that much!) of money for translation in greater and greater depth and scope indicates a possibly long future…

Translation of this kind, in one week and out the next, a new story each day, may be spoken of by some as an art, but has a certain criminal aspect to it as well. To feign the voice of the maker, the narrator, the hero, and yes, even the villain, while not truly submerging oneself into their worlds but just cobbling together pieces of googled texts and names, is in some sense to lie.

That’s how it feels anyway. I want to speak to those who wrote these texts, to enter the world of those who will read them, to touch the products that join them with my own hands. I want to convene a gathering of the bodies behind the voices, where those who read can also see those who speak. Several years ago the translator Jonathan Nathan was here on the Berkeley campus speaking about the decades-long commitment to the life and to dialog with Nobel-winning author Oe Kenzaburo that he felt was needed to venture to translate Oe’s works. How could it be otherwise?

Of course, a series of novels of and a series of Material Safety Data Sheets are of a very different nature. Yet in both cases it is the responsibility of the translator to speak with a voice located in the genre, and with an easy familiarity with the intricate details, names, and lives that make the text worth reading in the first place. This, it seems to me, is where the part-time translator, unseen but for the rough spots in the translated text, lies.

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