Translation and cultural context

Sometimes my daughter allows me to watch anime programs with her. She is very careful with what she’ll share because I often “ruin it” for her. I don’t blame her– sometimes (often) I’m insufferable in my deconstruction, especially if the material is sexist, racist or homophobic. Yesterday she asked an interesting question: Why do the voice actors in English sound so terrible, but they don’t in Japanese? I hadn’t thought about this directly before, tho had noticed that it’s rather unbearable to watch anime that’s dubbed into English. We always watch it is Japanese. Maybe, I said, it’s because it’s more than just the words. There’s cultural context. There’s body language. There’s historical context. Even if you translate one word from that language to another, you can’t translate everything else. You just have the word. And often the word doesn’t mean exactly the same thing anyway. So, because we understand the words in Japanese, and then hear them in English, we can see that there’s a enormous gap between them. And it sounds wrong. Also, what one culture finds important might not have the same impact in another culture. If something is considered beautiful in Japanese, it might not be of note in English. These things can’t be translated. There’s also the language of emotions….

Thinking about our conversation has brought me back to my own writing. I suspect that there are aspects of the culturally translative at work in my texts, even if I’m not writing from one language to another. Curiouser and curiouser…. For instance, I know that I have a particular writing (for lack of better word) ‘style’. I am prone to dropping subject pronouns, for instance, and also very fond of sentence fragments. I’ve come to this ‘style’ as a natural extension of spoken Japanese. In Japanese, it’s not necessary to include a subject reference all the time, because after it’s used once, it is inferred that it’s still there. To bring up the subject repeatedly just sounds crazy. When I first began submitting my work for publication I had to fight to keep my sentence fragments and dropped pronoun references. Even now, if I come to a new editor, I have to argue for it all over again.

Culturally, this is very important to me. Because it’s not only about proper grammar– what might be at work are different forms of culturally constructed/situated units of thought. These differences casts the worldview through an alternate facet. And that’s a wonderful thing.

I’m not saying it’s a free-for-all. Ditch grammar, do anything you want. Clearly that would result in a lot of unshapely fiction. But if you find you’re repeatedly being critiqued about an identifiable aspect of your writing, that crops up across a range of stories, etc. maybe it has a specific cultural source. Don’t purge it right away. Pick it up. Hold it in your palms. Raise it to the light and see if it shines.