29 July 08 | Chad W. Post

The other day, we posted a short piece about an exchange between Michael Emmerich and Daniela Hurezanu that took place on the Calque website and centered around a recent interview with Emmerich the striking differences between his unedited version of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P and the version edited by Elmer Luke.

Thanks to the general awesomeness of St. Mark’s Bookshop I was able to pick up the most recent issue of Calque last night. And thanks to the boring, depersonalized nature of airports, I just had a chance to read this entire interview and versions of Emmerich’s translation of Matsuura Rieko’s novel.

First off, the edited version of the translation reads much better than the unedited one. The concerns Hurezanu expressed in her letter to Calque are completely valid—there are occasions when editors mutilate a translation to fit certain preconceived notions about the reader—but in this case, my personal feeling, and no offense to Emmerich, who is clearly one of the top Japanese translators working today, is that the edited version simply reads better. (For instance, “Roused from my slumbers by a barrage of knocks on the front door, it gradually dawned on me that an hour earlier I had agreed to have a talk with Kazumi, and I made a mad dash for the hall,” doesn’t read as well as “I was roused by a barrage of knocks on the door, and suddenly remembering Kazumi was coming over, I made a mad dash to the door.”)

And Emmerich’s description of this book makes it sound wonderfully perverse:

The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is an unusual sort of masterpiece. Riveting, provocative, funny, disturbing, touching, verbose, explicit, and absurd, it was also a bestseller. I doubt anyone in the United States who can’t read Japanese even suspects that Japanese literature contains novels like this, or authors like Matsuura. A novel, that is to say, whose heroine has a penis on her foot and spends much of the book on the road with what amounts to a sexual freak show.

Aside from the excerpts though, the interview with Emmerich is simply amazing and totally worth the cover price. The opening section about Ukigumo—which is considered the “first modern Japanese novel”—is fascinating, since its author, Futabatei Shimei (which is a pseudonym and pun that reflects a Japanese phrase that translates as “drop dead”) translated Ivan Turgenev and was heavily influenced by Russian writers.

Futabatei also cites Dostoevsky and Goncharov as the stylistic models that helped him break out of the distinctly “early modern” written style and prose rhythms that dominate Part 1 of Ukigumo, and we know that when he was struggling with Parts 2 and 3, he sometimes wrote in Russian first, then translated his Russian into Japanese [. . .]

There’s a ton of things to quote from this interview, but my plane is boarding, so I’ll leave off with Michael’s response to a question of “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”

The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.

To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]

Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s somethign only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]

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