A while back I translated a short literary piece for a competition. My entry came second last.
But I’m secretly proud of my effort. I spent more time on that translation than I have on anything other ever. My work was a literary masterpiece.
I’m less certain, however, about the Japanese original. In fact, no one was. I showed the obscure and mysterious piece to a number of native speakers, but no one was really sure WTF if was about. Literature these days.
In my post-grad translation studies, we dabbled in deconstruction. I suspect my classmates all thought it was nonsense. Or perhaps they feared the great unknown. The idea of revealing “alternate meanings” in a text seems perverse to some. We think the translator’s role is to accurately and faithfully convey the author’s intention.
Have you ever re-read something you wrote and worried it might be misunderstood by the reader? Or feared that no one will understand your message correctly? Or wondered yourself what on earth you meant? Many of my own old diary entries are now shrouded in mystery even to myself. Simple denial? Perhaps…
Have you ever been fascinated to read about the “hidden meanings” (usually sex or drug references) in rock group names or song lyrics? Double entendre is a hellava drag.
When I was in high school I imagined I was somehow cleverer than most around me. Deeper. By all appearances, it seemed many around me led a terribly shallow existence. My mind was running at full speed, seeking hidden meaning and burying my own truths in places that only those who sought would find. It wasn’t deliberate dishonesty. I was setting tests.
In Japan, there is the concept of ‘ura‘ versus ‘omote‘, inner versus surface.
We don’t share all our inner thoughts with everyone. That is insanity?
But sometimes they are bursting to be heard. Different folks strokes these in different ways. I feel release sometimes just putting it out there. Whether or not someone takes up the offer, so to speak, is secondary. Yes, it’s literally literary masturbation.
Meanwhile, when studying literature, endless footnotes are provided, giving “insight” to references showing where the author derived this or that. But the author is not the one providing the footnotes. Did the author leave these hidden references deliberately for others to find, or were they merely inspired and effectively engaging in plagiarism? Perhaps some references are unconscious, or actually imagined by those who study literature. Everyone loves a conspiracy theory.
Much Japanese art and literature is reworking of earlier material by other creators. It can be considered flattery. While the less informed viewer/reader remains ignorant of the references, it is still possible to enjoy the work on a “shallower” level.
I’m vainly hoping that someday my collected writings will be anal-ised and academics will decipher all the references to 70s disco and 80s synthpop lyrics. Finally they’d realise I didn’t have such a simple mind.
Meanwhile, other urges are at work.
I mentioned to two friends the other day about the rumours that one of their favourite anime contains hidden references to a well-known Japanese murder case. They had never heard that theory. But whether the apparent references are genuine or not might never be known. Perhaps the author felt so strongly about the case but had nowhere else he felt able to express his feelings?
Bottling things up is only of value if the bottles are later opened to enjoy.
So to tie all these loose thoughts in a bow, if we can never be certain that we understand what people really mean, if we sometimes confound ourselves, and not infrequently con ourselves and others deliberately, how can translation possibly ever be an honest representation of the original author’s intention. Particularly if the original contains multiple “intentions.” Faithful? “Ne me fait pas rire.
If you consider a psychoanalytic perspective, perhaps the author doesn’t even realise their own true intention.
Then, perhaps, the deconstruction of a text through translution can set repressed meanings free and hopefully provide therapeutic release to all and sundry along the way.
Free your mind. Rest will follow.