When my mother-in-law died last August, she left me a
wonderful gift—the opportunity to finish translating my father-in-law Yoshi’s
novel from Japanese to English.
My mother-in-law did
not speak a word of Japanese, and neither do I. The rough draft I inherited had
been massaged from Yoshi’s broken English into her literate but turgid prose.
My job was to tease a novel out of this mess that remained respectful to its
Japanese roots, but would also excite an American audience. Though Yoshi and I
are both published novelists with a mutual understanding of fiction, making the
plot’s cultural nuances and characters’ thought processes understandable to an
American provided a number of challenges I’d never encountered before.
First was that I had to constantly remind myself that this
wasn’t my story. As a compulsive self-editor, and active critic of all I read
(from published work to works in progress from fellow writers) I had to remain
true to the vision that Yoshi had for the story. He is far better at crafting
suspenseful plots than I’ll ever be, but his characters think outside the
limited box of my American brain. Through a lot of internal dialogue they consider
possibilities that I would prefer left unsaid, but Yoshi insists are necessary.
We both understand “show, not tell,” but
it means something different to a Japanese audience. In fact, Yoshi tries to
use it to increase the level of suspense by having the reader consider the
possibilities, while I prefer the spare surprise.
Second, it has been hard for me to wrap my brain around
some of the things these characters
think. They consistently talk of things like “dark auras” when describing
people and “fulfilling their dreams” which to my American mind sounds cheesy.
Yet, I hear this same sentiment expressed when talking informally to Yoshi’s
friends. Also, the characters are far
more humble and easily embarrassed than their American counterparts. I know this
is a facet of Japanese culture, but it’s hard to figure out how to get an
American reader not just to understand, but to fuse with the characters and
feel these things.
We’re currently on the third draft—a process where I tend to
eliminate words and Yoshi tends to put them back in. He tells me he’s learned a
lot from me, particularly my use of “if-clauses” leading the reader to form
their own suppositions. From him, I’ve learned about pacing, and how to make
sure each small detail matters. But neither of us is totally satisfied. I still
think the book is stilted, and Yoshi thinks it’s too breezy. But perhaps this
is also part of the cross-cultural blues. How can we Americans put ourselves in
enough of a “Japanese mind” to fully appreciate the depth of this narrative,
which is more than a simple mystery/thriller. It is about the dilemma of trying
to free oneself from the constraints of thousands of years of tradition. That
alone is a concept that is totally foreign to an American mind. Meanwhile,
Yoshi and I continue to argue (politely, of course) about how much needs to be
explained, and how much the reader can figure out on their own.
Yoshi is 82 years old and finishing this book is his dream.
He wants it to be his final tribute to his wife, Gloria, the love of his life
for more than 40 years. This is what I need to remember on the days when we’re
both gnashing our teeth and spending over an hour on a single paragraph. Yes, I
may have given up a lot of time when I could be focusing on my own writing, but
I’ve also gained the ability to be even more persnickety about language. It’s
different when you have to find the right word for someone else’s thought, and
I’ve begun to gain a small glimpse of understanding into what it means to think
like a Japanese. Yoshi’s been in my life for 32 years, but it’s only been in
the past nine months that I feel I really know him.
We just came back from having dinner together. Yoshi says
he's hoping that this will finally be the best seller with movie potential. He
says he always feels that way about a book when he's in the process of writing
it, and then he's always disappointed. Here's the place where culture doesn't
matter. As a fellow writer, I totally
get this. But I tell him that whatever happens, it doesn't matter. The fact
that we managed to pull this off should be reward enough. Ultimately, it has to
be the process of "translating" what matters to you in a way that
someone else from whatever culture can get it.