On Rewriting While Translating

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 3-4:

In translating I have striven to remain faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of Nishiyama’s prose. Some therefore may wish to label this book an adaptation rather than a translation. Nishiyama writing style is stiff and often thrives more on a general tone of enthusiasm for the subject than on logical connections between sentences or paragraphs. Such a style, informed by the conviction that a good point bears repetition and that the relevance of an example need not be clarified until the very end of a section, entirely rules out literal translation. I have thus pruned judiciously, rewritten, rethought sentence and paragraph order, but refrained from adding anything substantially new to Nishiyama’s writing. The only exceptions to this rule are a few brief definitions of terms unlikely to be known to a nonspecialist Anglophone readership and, moreover, the endings of Chapters 7, 8, and 9. In the original, these chapters simply stop when Nishiyama has run out of things to say. Such a writing style, common enough in Japanese academic prose, often irritates Western readers, who tend to prefer more synthetic conclusions. In these chapters, therefore, I have added summaries of Nishiyama’s major points, thereby bringing the chapter to a smoother close while not adding anything new.

Since the studies translated here were not conceived by Nishiyama as forming one volume, much material is repeated. In some cases I have simply excised such duplication. The largest cut occurs in Chapter 6. Here I have eliminated or moved to other chapters most of the information that is presented in the first half of the original study, which repeats much of what has already been translated as Chapters 1 through 5. All major changes have been discussed with Professor Nishiyama, who himself occasionally suggested alterations and corrections.

Documentation in the original studies is often lacking and sometimes erroneous. In an effort to complete as many references as possible, I have started from scratch. Unless otherwise indicated, therefore, all notes are by the translator. Rechecking sources has allowed me to uncover several errors and misprints, which have been silently corrected after confirmation by the author.

The selection of illustrations and maps, the transcription of musical examples, and the production of the glossary are also my responsibility. Other editorial additions include dates and footnoted biographical information on individuals, details of geographical location of small towns and villages, variant names and performance dates of kabuki plays or musical works, and dates of publication of books. Names of individuals have presented a special problem, since Nishiyama endows the use of pseudonyms (geimei) with a special significance. Edo-period writers, actors, musicians, and artists often assumed a large variety of pseudonyms, forcing the translator to select one of several names for the sake of consistency. I have generally selected the name most likely to appear in biographical dictionaries.

Translating the titles of books or kabuki plays presents yet other obstacles. Titles of novels, plays, or collections of poetry are often the source of cryptic puns—and in cases where a work no longer exists, the exact reading and meaning of the title are anybody’s guess. For extant books I have usually followed the reading of titles found in the Kokusho sōmokuroku. Kabuki titles are given in the version most likely to appear in kabuki dictionaries; alternative titles are given in the notes. A rough translation of a title’s most obvious meaning follows the original in parentheses; when such a translation appears in italics, this indicates that the book has been published under this title in English. The reader should note that the names of Buddhist temples end with the syllables ji, in, tera, or dera; Shinto shrines often end with sha, gu, or miya.

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1 Comment

Filed under Japan, language, publishing, scholarship

One response to “On Rewriting While Translating

  1. I was getting irritated until I got to “All major changes have been discussed with Professor Nishiyama, who himself occasionally suggested alterations and corrections.” I guess if it’s jake with him, it’s jake with me.

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