Part One: English Do Be Like That Sometimes
“I swear to God, I didn’t do it!”
“She has an ace up her sleeve.”
“They want to maintain the status quo.”
Consider the above examples for a moment. I don’t expect that any native speaker would have any difficulty comprehending these simple sentences, but perhaps a brand new learner of the language might scratch their head at them – as you can see, each of them tells an interesting little story about English linguistics.
- “Swearing to God” in English has become a highly colloquial expression to assert that one is emphatically telling the truth, which naturally comes from the highly privileged role that Christianity has had upon Western, Anglo historical development.
- “Having an ace up one’s sleeve” is, like almost all English idiomatic expressions, rooted in Anglophone cultural traditions and social facts; in this case, originating from the commonplace pastime of card games and gambling.
- “Status quo”, while originally a Latin phrase, is now very much a ubiquitous English expression to mean “the present state of affairs”, joining a long list of many other such words and phrases, particularly ones of Latin/Greek/French origin.
My point with this little illustration is that English, like all other languages, self-evidently doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is instead inextricably bound up within what we might call an “Anglophone cultural framework”, and the historical, cultural, and social traces of this particular framework can be found absolutely everywhere within this language of ours.
Going about our daily lives, I think it’s easy for this aspect of our language to remain largely invisible to us, being something we take completely for granted as a sort of “shared cultural knowledge.” It does not strike us as strange, for example, that even non-religious people regularly exclaim “oh my God” and “speak of the devil”, or that idiomatic allusions to bygone historical institutions like the Age of Sail are commonplace (eg. “all hands on deck”, “running a tight ship”, etc.), or that little bits of foreign languages invariably make their debut in English writing without caveat. English just do be like that sometimes.
Note: The rest of this post contains select samples of text from Senmomo and features extremely general discussion of its themes. It is very much non-spoilery in nature, but you may still consider not reading on if you wish to read Senmomo with as little foreknowledge as possible.
Part Two: Senmomo is a Really Japanese Game
Senmomo is a really, really Japanese game. That is to say, unlike lots of other eroge where the “Japaneseness” of the setting is not especially foregrounded or important, Senmomo’s “definitely-not-Japan” setting is an ineliminably core conceit of the game.
Incidentally, Senmomo doesn’t technically take place in Japan, but instead, an archipelagic island nation named “The Empire”.in an unnamed fantasy world that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from modern Earth. The political capital of The Empire is “Tenkyo”, its religious center is “Iseya”, and the text even makes a one-off reference to a sparsely-populated northern region called “Hokkaishu”. The Imperials of the story eat traditional Japanese cuisine, dress in traditional Japanese clothing, practice an animistic religion named “Tento”, engage in traditional Japanese martial arts–yeah, yeah, we get it, it’s basically just “fantasy Japan” in literally everything but name.
What foregrounds the Japaneseness of the setting even more so, is the presence of the nation that exists as the Empire’s principal antagonist and direct counterpart – the Republic, whose parallels to the West and more specifically, America, are no less obvious. The Republic is ostensibly a champion of democracy and liberal values, and their biggest cultural exports are consumption goods like canned coffee and WcDonalds. Republicans wear European-inspired fashion, wage wars with modern firearms, and in a rather on-the-nose historical allegory, start off the story following a conquest and subsequent military occupation of the Empire. A very large part of Senmomo’s story centers around the civilizational struggle between the Empire and the Republic, and a major theme of the text revolves around the profound cultural differences that exist between these two very different cultures.
Indeed, these cultural differences are something that the original text went to considerable lengths to highlight, and are directly reflected in manifold ways throughout the text, often through the use of language itself.
For example, “Western” technologies like tablet computers and televisions are always described circumlocutiously with kanji (携帯端末, 映像筐体, etc.) with their more conventional Japanese names (taburetto, terebi, etc.) displayed only as ruby glosses. Moreover, native residents of the Empire use very little gairaigo, foreign loanwords, in their speech and narration, and many of these katakana-ized loanwords which are commonplace in modern Japanese are explicitly introduced or remarked upon as words that these characters do not understand, often to wonderful comedic effect. Here are some examples of this from the text:
I looked it up later, and apparently ≪sword≫ is how they say “blade” in Republican.
「Republicans love having these banquets they call ≪parties≫, and they’ll order a whole bunch of flowers for them.」
「Huh? You passed by the shop…」
「Let’s stay out a little longer.」
「In the Republic, I hear they call this kind of outing a ≪drive.≫」
Conversely, characters from the Republic are coded as “foreign” in their speech and narration through their conspicuous usage of an above-average amount of katakana loanwords, an avoidance of yojijukugo four-character-idioms, and occasional misunderstandings and ignorance of Japanese language folkways (for example, the way that the expression 結構 can be used to either affirm or decline something based on context).
All this is to illustrate that Senmomo is a game that places great importance on language and the cultural context that surrounds it. The conspicuous differences in how “native” Imperial and “foreign” Republican characters use language is a major, foregrounded element of the text, serving as not just a source of comedy, but also as an important site of characterization and a diegetic means to elucidate the sharp differences in values and worldview between the traditional, “Oriental” Empire and the modern, “Occidental” Republic.
Part Three: Intercultural Translational Challenges
You probably see where this is going, right? The task of translating this extremely Japanese setting into English for a Western audience clearly poses some very particular challenges. As discussed previously, a great deal of English words and expressions and idioms don’t merely convey semantic information in a neutral way, but necessarily also embed an Western, Anglophone “cultural framework” that can very easily seem incongruous and out of place in a setting like Senmomo’s. A very non-exhaustive list of potentially problematic language usages include:
- Allusions to specifically Western institutions. E.g. “Pleading the Fifth”, the crime of “lese-majesty”, terms of art originating from Western philosophy like “the divine right of kings” or “a monopoly on violence”
- Idiomatic expressions that evoke particularly Western cultural practices. E.g. Idioms relating to The Age of Sail (“all hands on deck”, “taking a different tack”), gambling (“hitting the jackpot”, “doubling down”), sports (“a false start”, “moving the goalposts”, etc.)
- Allusions and references to Western religious beliefs and practices. E.g. “to bear one’s cross”, “to say one’s prayers”, “to be a Good Samaritan”, mentions of uniquely Christian theological concepts such as God, the devil, angels, heaven, etc.
- Expressions that have unique historical, political, or social currency. E.g. “Winter of Discontent”, “War on Terror”, “she’s no Einstein”, genericized Western brand names (Kleenex for facial tissues, Band-Aid for adhesive bandages, Thermos for insulated beverage containers, Sellotape for clear adhesive tape, etc.)
- Word choices that strongly evoke English’s Greco-Roman influences (septentrional, ecclesiastic, etc.) or direct loan words that have become accepted as commonplace English words (raison d’etre, fait accompli, vis a vis, ex ante, de facto, etc.)
- Turns of phrase that are distinctly cultural and/or regional. E.g. the metaphorical use of Western units of measurement (to inch closer, to be miles away), expressions that are very recognizably American or British in origin, or just feel very Anglophone in character (“good enough for government work”, “give it the old college try”, etc.)
In some respects, this is an issue ubiquitous to all Japanese to English translations! Most Japanese media is set in Japan and features Japanese characters, so any translation of such a work into English absolutely needs to be mindful about the unintentional imposition of a Western cultural framework with respect to its choice of language. Honestly, I feel like most translations, at least in the otaku sphere, tend to not be especially cognizant of this consideration, although of course, it’s always a delicate balancing act between many other tradeoffs. Here are a few interesting examples of this from a few games I’ve read recently:
Naturally, Amatsutsumi, a game centered around the Japanese concept of kotodama, the mysticism of words and their power, would contain a number of fascinating lexical and cultural challenges when translated into English. Here, the scene features Kokoro using a large number of “modern Japanese” gairaigo loanwords in her speech like ソファ (sofa), プライバシー (privacy), and シェアハウス (share-house) which are words that are not in the protagonist Makoto’s lexicon due to his extremely traditional and isolated upbringing. Though I felt like the translation of this game was generally very competent and pleasurable to read, I don’t think it does especially effective job solving this particular puzzle and capturing the sense of the Japanese. It doesn’t seem at all credible that any English speaker, even if they had an extremely outdated and archaic lexicon, would fail to understand any of Kokoro’s words. Even though words like “privacy” and “shared-space apartment” effectively capture the semantic meaning of プライバシー and シェアハウス, they fail to reflect the unique cultural fact that these words are modern, postwar introductions to the Japanese lexicon, something crucial to the sense of this scene.
This line from Golden Time is such a fascinating little piece of cultural domestication with super interesting implications! The original line contains the term 簀巻き, an archaic term referencing a traditional form of execution involving rolling a victim into a bamboo mat and throwing them into a body of water. Not unreasonably, the translation opts to eschew a literal translation (likely for word economy reasons) and instead opts to render this as “concrete shoes”, a remarkably serendipitous parallel to a strikingly similar execution method in English – the sort of resourceful, lateral-thinking-required take that one should usually be proud of! However, this act of cultural domestication ends up having some really fascinating and likely unintended consequences. In my mind at least, the concept of “concrete/cement shoes”, despite its obvious parallels with 簀巻き, carries with it a tremendous amount of unique cultural associations, being an expression that feels (1) distinctly and uniquely American and (2) inextricably linked to organized crime and the underworld. Naturally, the original phrase of 簀巻き had none of these specific associations, but rather carries the sense of a collective, community-based lynching for moral transgressions. Hence, it strikes me as slightly (but not excessively) incongruous that a character like Mina, a high-class and sheltered European princess, would have a word like this in her lexicon (is she the type to watch many American gangster flicks?) or that she would so flippantly analogize the actions of her bodyguards to that of the Mafia. I doubt that I would have ultimately opted for a different rendering of this line, cement shoes really does just line up too well, but I do think that it’s important to be mindful of the implications of cultural domestication such as this.
Admittedly though, for most works, the Japaneseness of its setting tends to not be as foregrounded as strongly as a historical fantasy like Senmomo, and so, a reader is probably much more willing to suspend their disbelief when a particularly “Western-cultural” expression or idiom shows up in a translation – it doesn’t strike me as incongruous, for example, to translate a modern Japanese speaker’s (secular!) expression of surprise as “Oh my God!” in English. In Senmomo’s case however, the cultural differences between the Empire (Japan) and the Republic (the West) are brought into sharp relief by the source text itself, so we felt like it would be especially jarring for avowedly Imperial characters to be using noticeably incongruous language; whether its invoking the (Judeo-Christian) God in epithets, using idioms that are commonplace in English but would be out of character given the Japanese setting, or opting for word choices that challenge this delicate suspension of disbelief.
Of course, the specifics of the text in Senmomo itself further complicates this issue even further. Besides the “obvious” examples of problematic language use outlined above, Senmomo also introduces lots of its own, largely arbitrary issues and constraints! As shown in the above example, the protagonist Soujin presents the (completely unremarkable in English) word and concept of going for a ≪drive≫ as a strange, foreign curiosity. If we were to suspend our disbelief and inhibit the interiority of a character for whom this is true, doesn’t it follow that they would also be unlikely to use the word “drive” in non-literal, metaphorical contexts as well (i.e. “having a drive for success”)? Presumably this also extends towards a broader indifference for and ignorance of the highly Western “cultural framework” of an automotive-centric society; and so doesn’t that mean all motor vehicle-related metaphors like “spinning one’s wheels” or “in the driver’s seat” or “an engine for growth” are also off the table? Similarly, if the word ≪party≫ (to refer to a social gathering) is a foreign word that isn’t in the character’s vocabularies, then wouldn’t it be strange for them to use the word “party” in all its other meanings (“toeing the party line”, “gathering the party”, “a party to the negotiations”, etc.)? These are just two examples of many, by the way, there’s plenty more of these sort of issues where that came from!
At this point, an apparently reasonable objection might be something like “why does any of this even matter; surely the source text didn’t have these sort of incongruities that contradict the setting like nautical or gambling or automotive idioms, so why can’t you just literally translate what it says and avoid any of these issues?”
Obviously this is a fairly naïve objection, one that anyone with a meaningful understanding of how translation works can see through, but I do want to spend some time unpacking it all the same – there’s first the “obvious” response, but also the much more “interesting” one.
I think this should be fairly obvious, but correspondences and equivalencies between languages are rarely so simple or straightforward. Consider the Japanese phrase 朝飯前, for example, which literally translates to “[to be done] before breakfast” but actually means “[to be] extremely easy.” Obviously, a word-for-word rendition of this phrase is usually intolerable, because the output would be complete nonsense in English, and so, an equivalency that captures the “sense” is required. The common English expressions that come to mind as very close equivalencies might be something like “[to be] easy as pie” or “[a] piece of cake”, right? But! Notice how both of these expressions reference extremely Western-cultural foods! For an extremely Japanese setting like Senmomo, where the characters are only accustomed to eating wagashi, and would view “Western” desserts like cake or pie as, at best, exotic foreign curiosities, it seems somewhat strange for them to suddenly start using expressions like “that was a piece of cake”, right? There are just lots and lots of Japanese words and phrases for which the best equivalencies runs into issues like this; as another example, the best equivalency for 存在意義 is certainly the phrase “raison d’etre”, but this phrase, despite having long been assimilated as an “English” word that is universally understood by English speakers, still looks and sounds conspicuously French, and therefore in my mind, would likewise seem extremely out of place for the characters in Senmomo to use!
An even bigger problem, though, is that even if it were possible, omitting any sort of language use that carries the baggage of a “Western cultural framework” unavoidably impoverishes one’s English writing to an intolerable degree. I hope at the very least, that all the above examples have shown just how commonplace and “invisible” the cultural framework of language really is. Even to avoid merely the most obvious and extreme instances of this still precludes a very considerable range of English expression. A group of synonyms like “class”, “standard”, “quality”, “distinction”, and “caliber” each have unique and subtle differences in sense, and each of them might prove to be le mot juste for a particular situation where other words might not suffice.
However… the word “caliber” derives its figurative meaning from the measurement of a bore of a firearm, and so, wouldn’t it be rather out of place for an extremely traditional, sword-wielding warrior like Soujin to be using this word? As you can see, this very quickly ends up being a considerable restriction on the amount of tools available in your toolbox as a translator! This is especially true for idioms, turns of phrase, and set expressions, for which there are rarely adequate alternatives – “doubling down”, for example, is an immensely useful expression, capturing all the nuance of “a stubborn re-commitment to a current, likely dubious or risky, course of action” and it happens to be a wonderful equivalency for a phrase like 漱石枕流. But, it likewise inextricably embeds this “cultural framework” of the particularly Western institution of casino gambling, which again, perhaps feels somewhat out of place in a setting like Senmomo?
Now of course, it is by no means impossible to “take the easy route”, to exclusively opt for the most straightforward and literal renderings possible, and to always reach for simplistic paraphrases instead of compelling equivalencies. But to always simply render 朝飯前 as “extremely easy”, 存在意義 as “the meaning of one’s existence”, and to apply such a philosophy across an entire text would clearly result in an extremely flattened script that erases all of the richness of the source text. It would necessarily entail extensive erasure of all the idiomatic language of the original text, generic paraphrase of otherwise colourful turns of phrase, and so on, all without any compensation in your English script! The output might be accurate and readable, but it would be a pale shadow of the original text, and a very poor translation indeed.
Ronald Knox, in his book Trials of a Translator makes this extremely insightful argument that “It is relatively easy to notice when to avoid a foreignism but harder to notice the ‘negative effect’ produced by the absence of English mannerisms.” But I think this “negative effect”, though hard to explicitly notice, is still very subtly impactful when applied across the totality of a text. It results in a very lifeless and translationese output, one that is notionally accurate, but doesn’t sound like quality, natural English at all – because obviously, good, natural English writing and dialogue make copious and artful use of the aforementioned “English mannerisms”! A target text that is wholly absent these mannerisms, while still nominally readable, lacks the dynamism and smoothness that genuinely good English writing commands, and invariably ends up reading like something that is obviously a (mediocre) translation. We should be striving to do better than that.
Thus, this is the real challenge; the fine balance that needs to be struck. On one hand, we need to preserve the integrity of the setting, to uphold the worldbuilding and cultural distinctions that the source text takes great pride in establishing, and to maintain the suspension of disbelief that these characters really are authentic inhabitants of the world of Senmomo; characters who are highly “culturally Japanese” and insulated from Western cultural folkways. On the other hand, however, we also need to preserve the integrity of the writing, to deliver not merely readable, but compelling and pleasurable English narration and dialogue that is naturalistic and actually sounds like believable English, and to uphold the suspension of disbelief that this could have even been a text written originally in English! …A piece of cake, right~?
Part Four: What Is To Be Done?
By the way, if you’re wondering how this works the other way around in English to Japanese translation, I’m at least pleased to report that it’s every bit as much of a problem for them as well! This is a passage from Nohara’s Translating Popular Fiction: Embracing Otherness in Japanese Translations that showcases similar such challenges, with an example from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Squire Toby’s Will and a corresponding Japanese translation:
“It’s not a great deal, Cooper, but it troubles me, and I would not tell it to the parson nor the doctor.”
“He was a good man, sir, in his way,” repeated old Cooper, returning his gaze with awe. “He was a good master to me, and a good father to you, and I hope he’s happy. May God rest him!”
「たいしたことではないのだが、そ れが気がかりになっているのに、 牧師にも医者にも話す気になれな い。」
「ご先代もあの方なりに良い方でご ざいました。わたしには良いご主人 でしたし、旦那さまにも良いお父さ までしたよ。きっとご成仏なさって 居られましょう。ご冥福を」
Charles is terrified that his brother and father, who are both dead, have placed a curse on him because of their past rows. In the TT, there are two religious modifications: gojōbutsunasatte [entering Nirvana] and gomēfuku o [wishing for the repose of his soul]. Both of the ST expressions, “I hope he’s happy (in heaven)” and “May God rest him”, obviously have Christian beliefs as their background, so the translator has substituted Buddhist expressions for them. It should be noted that the word “parson” is used a few lines earlier in the ST and has been allocated the semantically and culturally straightforward translation bokushi [clergyman] – not an ambiguous, neutralising term like bōzu [priest]. It is absolutely impossible to interpret the term bokushi as meaning anything other than a Christian clergyman. Thus, items of both Christian and Buddhist language are embedded in a single literary setting. This imparts a peculiar sense of incongruity and of cultural mixture to the discourse.
Ehehee~ Isn’t it at least comforting to know that we aren’t the only ones struggling with this stuff? As Nohara remarks very eloquently though, the effect of this intermixing of cultural atmospheres really does contribute to a “peculiar sense of incongruity”, one that is certainly unavoidable to some extent, and likely overlooked or tolerated by almost all readers, but still, something that is probably best to minimize, especially when the integrity of the story’s setting is very important.
So then, what did we do about this issue throughout Senmomo? First and foremost, as can be seen in the examples in Part Two, we elected to mark “words that are explicitly introduced as foreign” in angle brackets, as with ≪sword≫ or ≪party≫ or ≪drive≫. If we were translating into any other language, this wouldn’t even be an issue, since all of these words are explicitly English loanwords and we could simply render them as such. However, because our target language is also English, it would obviously introduce incongruities if, say, Soujin inexplicably didn’t understand what the word ≪sword≫ means only when framed in angle brackets, but then went on to casually narrate cutting down enemies with his sword a couple of lines later.
The solution that Dubs first decided to opt for and I elected to preserve is the rather radical option of never using any of these “canonically foreign” words in all of the Imperial characters’ dialogue and narration. Hence, the only occasions where words like sword, and party, and drive, but also words like surprise and hurry appear are (1) in the narration of Republican characters, and (2) when spoken aloud and recognized specifically as unfamiliar, foreign words. This was, er… really not easy! Having a side-constraint of two-dozen-plus “banned words” that we have to categorically avoid using, (including one extremely common and completely irreplaceable English word that appears in a stupid-ass gag in Chapter 5!) ended up being a considerable challenge to write around, but I do think the effect ends up being quite nice and flavourful! In particular, the conspicuous omission of the word sword and use of alternatives like blade instead ended up being a device I felt really contributes to the flavour of the setting.
This conceit even enabled some nice bits of compensation not present in the original text – as mentioned before, it perhaps seems out of place for Soujin to use “driving-related metaphors” like “being in the driver’s seat” if the word ≪drive≫ is not a regular part of his vocabulary, and so, we refrained from using any form of figurative language that references modern, Western technology like firearms or cars in his narration. However, for Republican characters, this would clearly not be the case; they likely would freely make use of these “banned words” and all the metaphorical language associated with them, which we made sure to make liberal use of in their narration. I think the cumulative effect of this is to hopefully capture a distinctness in the narration of Imperial and Republican characters, one that reflects their civilizational and worldview differences. A few examples of this in action:
|And thus the trigger for chaos is pulled.
|And thus the arrow of pandemonium is loosed.
This is Soujin’s narration, and hence, I felt that it much more flavourful and in-line with the setting for him to be using a metaphorical expression that references a traditional martial arts weapon of a bow rather than a firearm.
|Trust isn’t part of the equation.
|Trust never needed to be part of the equation in the first place.
|All I need to do is control Empress Hisui so she doesn’t turn against me.
|I just need to stay in the driver’s seat and make sure she doesn’t turn against me.
|「I’d love nothing more than to trust you, but I can’t help but hesitate.」
|「I’d love nothing more than to trust you again, but you can probably understand why I’m rather hesitant…」
Here, we instead see Elsa, a native of the Republic’s narration. Note the conspicuous use of the “foreign” katakana verb コントロール, which I opted to compensate for with “in the driver’s seat”, a piece of vocabulary that as mentioned above, is notably absent from all the Imperial characters’ diction.
|「Heh heh heh. Panic all you want, but it’s already too late.」
|「Heheheh. Panic all you want, but it’s already too late.」
|「Cower in fear at the thoroughness of my preparations. Ta-da!」
|「Cower in fear at the extent of my mighty preparations! Ta-da!」
|Kotone takes a scrap of paper out of her bag.
|Kotone withdraws a scrap of paper from her bag.
|「What’s this? “Rooftop seating ticket (front row), 1500 yen?”」
|「What’s this? “Rooftop Viewing Ticket (Front Row), 1500 Yen?”」
|「With this bad boy, you can admire Empress Hisui from the rooftop at your leisure!」
|「With this bad boy, one may admire Empress Hisui from the rooftop at one’s leisure!」
|Hotori’s arm flies.
|Hotori’s arm flashes through the air.
|The rooftop seating ticket (front row) is reduced to tiny pieces floating on the breeze.
|The Rooftop Viewing Ticket (Front Row) is reduced to tiny scraps drifting on the breeze.
One of many interesting pieces of cultural translation to negotiate in Senmomo, which I thought my translator absolutely nails! Here, the original Japanese features 松竹梅, a three-tiered system used to sort substitutable goods (like seating tickets) in terms of quality. It is an interesting little piece of cultural trivia, but not something that we felt was at all essential to the scene in question, and we think that the rendering of “(Front Row)” captures the sense in an unobtrusive and elegant way.
On the topic of lexical challenges however, another very common issue we encounter is the role that non-English loanwords play in our language. Our shared intuition is that words with Old English roots almost universally have a neutral, unnoticeable effect on the text, but recognizably French, Latin, or Greek words and expressions have a subtly damaging effect on the integrity of Senmomo’s setting. That is to say, would it not come across as fairly strange for a very “traditionally Japanese” character like Soujin in a very “traditionally Japanese” setting like Senmomo’s to make use of expressions like “raison d’etre” or “ad hominem” in his speech or narration?
The problem, however, is that many of these words are extremely irreplaceable and useful for English expression, with few if any reasonable alternatives! Unfortunately, I don’t feel like there is any one definitive “solution” to this, and as with almost everything else in translation, it ends up being a matter of evaluating competing tradeoffs. Obviously it’s completely untenable to avoid using any words that have even a whiff of foreignness to them, but likewise, some words are so intolerably immersion-breaking that no matter how much it captures the sense of the original text, they can’t be justified. What is the value of using this particular word or phrase in terms of “aptness” in capturing the sense of the source text? How much unique “literary value” does it contribute compared to lesser alternatives? How much would the presence of this word or phrase genuinely damage the “integrity” of the setting? None of these questions have very obvious answers, and negotiating the tradeoffs between them is very much an intuitive, feelings-based sort of endeavor.
An observation I’d make, though, is that in my experience, “how foreign a word feels” is somewhat distinct from its objective etymological origins. For example, words like surrender or genre or chauffeur are notionally foreign words of French origin, but they’ve been so thoroughly domesticated into becoming “English” words that I don’t feel like there’s any issue with using them, even in a text like Senmomo. Conversely, however, words like laissez-faire or avant-garde likely come across as too incongruously French to ever justify their inclusion in Senmomo. Very conspicuously Greco-Roman words like septentrional or hyperborean are probably out of bounds, but something like brumal or gelid seems safe enough? At the end of the day, it very much is just a matter of subjective intuitions and sensibilities, and unsurprisingly, Dubs and I occasionally disagree about how “foreign” and thereby, permissible, certain words are. For example, I personally thought that the phrase “I bid you adieu” was sufficiently domesticated into English that it would be suitable as a posh, slightly pretentious farewell for high-class members of the Republic’s gentry to use with each other, but to Dubsy’s ears, this phrase seemed still too “French” and out of character for the (ostensibly American) Republicans to use, and so after much deliberation, we ended up omitting it. Generally speaking, I feel like we were fairly judicious with excluding any sort of language that sticks out as being at odds with the traditional Japanese setting of Senmomo, but there are certainly instances where we felt that the improvement to fidelity to the source text or literary value contributed by certain words justified their “tax” on the integrity of the setting.
One area that was particularly challenging in terms of this lexical negotiation ended up being specifically words relating to religion. Unfortunately, almost the entire lexical inventory available in English for describing religious institutions are heavily influenced by Christianity and rely on manifestly Greco-Roman vocabulary. Themes of religiosity are very prominent in Senmomo, and words like 巫女 or 神殿 or 神職 appear extremely often. These terms are not notionally difficult to translate per se; priestess, temple, and priesthood are very close equivalencies, but the problem comes from the fact that these words in English unavoidably carry with them implicit associations with Christianity, whereas the original terms are likewise inextricably bound up in the Japanese cultural framework of Shinto and Buddhism. We considered many different alternatives; rendering 巫女 as “shrine maiden” or simply “miko”, for example, but found that these solutions carried with them much bigger issues. Ultimately, after much consideration, we felt that even though titles like “Your Eminence”, descriptors like “the hieratic order”, and verbs like “to ordain” embed rather unfortunate associations with Christianity that perhaps feel slightly out of place in a notably Japanese setting, they still capture the particularly solemn and stately “cultural atmosphere” associated with religiosity that best reflects the sense of phrases like 神殿組織 or 要職に任命. I’ll leave off with one final sample passage from our translation; as you’ll notice, there are indeed many words that contribute to the “instability” of the setting like “anoint”, “priesthood”, and “quietus”, and much like Nohara’s E>J example, there is an inescapable sense of incongruity with the intermixing of Christian and Shinto (or rather, Tento) atmospherics, but I believe that our rendering still ultimately does a very fine job of capturing the “sense” and “feel” of the original Japanese all the same.
|A mysterious and profound aroma wafts from between the vermillion-painted pillars.
|An airy and ethereal aroma gently wafts betwixt the grove of vermilion-lacquered pillars.
|The shadows excised by the outside light whisper abstrusely of the time accumulated in this place.
|The long shadows cast by the outside light whisper of accumulated eons of yore.
|Feeling like she’s made eye contact with a transom phoenix, the summoned priestess stiffens her cowering body even further.
|Having come face-to-face with this majestic phoenix perched in her parapet, the summoned priestess cowers even further into herself.
|Empress Hisui is on the throne.
|Empress Hisui sits on her throne.
|Her lovely figure, evocative of daffodils, leaves a deep impression on the priestess, even though they are of the same generation.
|Her regal figure, lovely as a daffodil, leaves a deep impression on the priestess, even though they are of a similar age.
|─This individual truly bears the blood of Oomikami, the god to whom she prays every day.
|─This personage truly bears the blood of Oomikami, the deity to whom she dedicates her every prayer.
|「<R しいのはことね>椎葉古杜音</R>、あなたを第百九十二代・<R いつきのみこ>斎巫女</R>に任じます」
|「Shiinoha Kotone, I hereby appoint you 192nd Exalt-Priestess.」
|「Shiinoha Kotone, I hereby anoint you as this Empire’s 192nd Exalt-Priestess.」
|「The station of Exalt-Priestess is of great national importance, for she must govern the root of magic.」
|「The station of Exalt-Priestess is of paramount national importance, for she holds dominion over the very essence of magicks.」
|「The pressure will surely be great, but I pray that you will remain in good health and offer faithful service.」
|「You shall surely be met with many adversities to come, but I pray that you might remain in good health and render most faithful service.」
|Prime Minister Okonogi Tokihiko steps forward from the line of cabinet ministers.
|Chancellor Okonogi Tokihiko steps forward from the long line of ministers.
|Without a word, he faces Kotone and holds out her letter of appointment.
|He faces towards Kotone and wordlessly holds out a letter of appointment.
|「I humbly accept my position.」
|「I humbly accept this station.」
|Kotone bows deeply.
|Kotone bows deeply.
|The Exalt-Priestess commands the approximately five thousand-strong clergy consisting of male and female practitioners alike.
|The Exalt-Priestess is the head of the priesthood, chiefest among all five thousand of its priests and priestesses.
|In the first place, the clergy are ministers of Tentou, which sees Oomikami and His progenitor gods as objects of worship.
|In the first place, the priesthood are practitioners of the Tento faith, which exalts Oomikami and His progenitor gods as objects of worship.
|They learn magic through strict training, and they have worked closely with the warriors in the Empire’s defense since ancient times.
|They learn magicks through rigorous training, and they have worked closely with warriors in service of the Empire’s defense since ancient times.
|Furthermore, to the average citizen, the clergy command human life and death.
|Moreover, to the general public, they hold powers over life and death itself.
|Birth, growth, disease, death─
|Be it childbirth, coming-of-age, malady, or quietus─
|On various occasions throughout their lives, the people visit temples and seek prayers from the clergy there.
|On all occasions of great import, the common people flock to the temple in search of prayers.
If you’ve read all this way, then you have my great appreciation for indulging my rambling about some of the unique translational challenges associated with Senmomo! I certainly look forward to hearing any thoughts you might have about this topic I personally find extremely fascinating, and I look forward to continuing what Dub’s started in posting more chats about translation, with more of an emphasis on praxis rather than theory. Until next time then~