Having recently completed one lengthy critical, pseudo-academic book project, I had thought that I’d be well on my way to something new and different, more creative, less taxing of my thought processes, but then I casually started reading Andrew Cunningham’s translation of Anno Moyoko’s (or Moyoco, if we must) Bikachō shinshi kaikoroku as Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen. Almost immediately, I was seduced back into pontification, because what I saw there, relative to my own understanding of the text in Japanese, brought into stark relief a number of thoughts concerning translation and how those thoughts play into another critical project that I had hoped would be far off but more and more occupies my mind in the present.
Now, I used to be one of those people who would nitpick a translation solely for the purposes of scoring high fives with other knowing readers and for underscoring how superior my own approach to translation was. Over time, I have dialed back the polemical instincts somewhat—though not entirely—because oftentimes the challenge translation poses is not one of good and bad choices but rather, assuming a degree of competence in the translator, a range of choices that are all bad in different ways. While it is fair to point out where a translation simply cannot mean what it says, due to an obvious misunderstanding, it is less fair to qualify a clear choice between terrible alternatives as somehow fundamentally wrong.
I say this, because I am about to take Cunningham’s translation to task, oddly, for its precision, and so its criticisms should be understood in the light of my pointing out what the alternatives were rather than what the translated text ought to have been. Moreover, there are pressures beyond the control of most [manga] translators which cause these texts to manifest in the way they do. So, two parts: first, a consideration of what those external forces are and how they constrain what a [manga] translator can and cannot easily get away with, then a close reading of the first episode of Anno’s Bikachō in Japanese and its sanctioned English in order to see how this kind of translation also constrains how the relationships between characters might be understood.
Mass Market Literature
The primary difference between, say, a translation of a contemporary novel by a contemporary author and a translation of a contemporary [manga] lies in the institutional structure into which each must enter in order to see the light of day. The typical practice with a work of literary fiction is for the translator first to prepare a manuscript of the translation—or a goodly chunk of it—perhaps acquire rights herself, then submit it to a publisher, sometimes through an agent and sometimes not, who may do the work of acquiring rights for the publisher. With works in the public domain—for Japan, this is anything from 1922 and earlier as well as anything by an author dead for more than 50 years—you can skip the whole rights process and proceed directly to submission. Even if the publisher is willing to handle rights negotiations, it is generally best to do some of the legwork yourself in advance, so you do not end up producing a manuscript for a work whose author will later pooh pooh it.
[Manga] are generally assigned to translators by editors who never have to disclose why a particular text was chosen for translation. Which is to say [manga] translation is, with few exceptions, work-for-hire of the sort where the translator may have great or little familiarity with the [comic] artist’s work before being assigned to it. To put it another way, with literary translation, the translator quite often comes to the source text of her own volition, where with [manga] translation, the text comes to her as if from out of the aether. Additionally, [manga] translators work with much stricter deadlines, while the literary translator often has much more freedom not only to choose when a translation is ready to submit but also to break deadlines even after they have been set.
The pressure, then, with [manga] texts that have been assigned under tight deadlines, is to produce a translation that is serviceable, fluent, that never seeks to reinvent the wheel. A [manga] translator rarely has the time to produce clever solutions to complex problems, even if she wanted to, and, at any rate, the kind of translation editors want is one which is likely to appeal as broadly as possible, not one which shows off the translator’s craft. She is to remain as invisible as possible in the process, much to Venuti’s chagrin, because [manga] are in the main treated more as mass market media commodities and less as works of literary art, even where the latter designation may seem more apt in individual cases.
Language [re]Structuring Desire
So, arriving at my second point, when I say that Cunningham’s translation of Anno’s text is too precise, I do not mean to solicit high fives and pat myself on the back but rather to demonstrate something far more egregious and worrying, how the very structure of the industry through which [manga] become more readily available to an Anglophone audience causes these texts to be read, quite often, whether with the willing complicity of the translator or without, in overly simplistic terms. I do not mean to pick overly much on Cunningham, but the ambiguities of Anno’s text and the lack of much reflection of those ambiguities in the English translation create an ideal site in which to suss these issues out.
Begin with the title. “Memoirs,” given the French setting of the narrative, is quite apt for kaikoroku, and shinshi cannot really mean anything but “gentleman,” made plural here for certain obvious reasons. The problems lie more in bikachō, which can mean “amorous,” and in the indeterminate syntactical relationship between the three words that make up the title. Bikachō also, quite commonly, refers to one who is, to use the vulgar expression, “pussy whipped” or, to preserve modicum of decorum, a man in thrall to a woman, typically to his wife. So, in that sense, the gentlemen who come to the Night Egg [sic] brothel to indulge their fantasies are, perhaps more literally, “pussy whipped,” but there are others as well who are revealed in the narrative to be enthralled by their desires and who extend well beyond the narrow category of the gentleman who patronize the brothel. Moreover, it is the very looseness of the “enthralled” subject positions that drives the text’s multiple, simultaneous narrative threads.
As for the memoirs, they are of amorous/enthralled gentlemen in at least a doubled sense, in that we see these men recollected through Colette’s experiences as well as see them recount their own histories of how they came to acquire the “perversions” identified in the first episode as a central theme. The kaikoroku of the title are not just “memories,” though, but also the kind of text typically designated as memoirs in English. These work in Anno’s text on at least three levels: the narrative diegesis of her text (re: Colette’s experiences), the dramatic expression of motivating memories (re: Edgar recounting his childhood), and the cataloging of her clients fantasies and tastes in Colette’s ledger—rather, what she claims to her fellow prostitutes to be a simple diary (nikki) but which may, in fact, given what she says in her own “voice over” narration, be her own memoirs as interpretive reconsideration of her life in the brothel.
Certain bad choices in Cunningham’s translation are perfectly forgivable, even if I would have insisted on changing them. For instance, he renders Anno’s koko wa… mezon kurōzu as “[t]his… is Maison Close,” which, to my mind gives the sense that this is the name of the brothel rather than simply the French word for brothel, a reading which could be cleared up simply by inserting the indefinite article. However, this “error” is not much to worry over, given how it becomes clear, even in the same episode, that the name of the place is Yoru no tamago or “Night Egg.”
Far more worrying is the consistent translation of himo as “gigolo” and the way in which it structures the relationship between Colette and Leon as patroness and kept man in a manner analogous to the way in which she herself is kept by the brothel’s madame to service the house’s clientele, an ironic reversal of fortunes, if you will. Now, I am not trying to say this is strictly wrong, but it is only one of the at least two ways in which Anno quite clearly seems to understand Leon as Collette’s himo. The most basic sense of the word in Japanese is “string,” and so the metaphorical connection in play here is one which seems to say that Leon is tied to Colette. In the context of prostitution, though, himo almost more often means “pimp,” one who shakes down women under his thrall for money. Leon could be a pimp or kept man, and it is not entirely clear whether his begging Colette for money is meant to play upon her sensibilities as an ersatz sugar mama or coyly hit her up for cash the way a pimp would.
Colette herself is not entirely clear as to which might be the case, but in Japanese she does not have to decide, since himo covers both grounds. I harp on this particular aspect of the relationship, because Anno’s language clearly reflects the peculiar triangulations of desire with which her text is larded, so it is incumbent on the translation, I feel, to reflect those ways in which language structures desire, in this case, quite ambivalently.
What is more, this structuring plays directly into what I had to say in last week’s post about how Anno’s text relies upon the language of theater and staging to depict what Colette and the other denizens of the brothel do for their clients. Cunningham’s final “I think this… / …is the role I’ve chosen to play” gets at that somewhat, but again it strikes me as far too precise for Anno’s sore wa tabun / watashi no eranda sō iu purei na no da, which I would render as “that is perhaps / the play I have chosen.” Purei here could refer to its common limited sense in Japanese as “roleplay” (c.f. cosplay), but there’s more to the drama of Anno’s text than what might lie in fixed roles or parts. There is the reality of Colette’s complicated love life, the reality of her work in the brothel, and the reality of how she composes it in her mind and in her day book, all of which overlap one another and all of which might be understood to stage themselves in dramatic terms.
The ambiguity of “play I have chosen” as opposed to the sanctioned translation’s “role I’ve chosen to play” is key because Colette is both an observer of the narrative’s drama as well as a participant within it, both audience and actor—sometimes, as with her vacant, outward focused gaze while fellating Edgar, spectating even as she performs. This pinning down of roles, which serves to constrain what the text might potentially say, likely emanates only in part from the translator, since it plays [sic] nicely into preconceptions of [comic] characters as types or tropes and of [manga] texts as emblematic of demographic and genre categories well suited to a world where media commodities are sold and resold based on presumed affinities. If you liked [this romantic fiction], then you might also like [yet another romantic fiction].
To be sure, carefully nuanced and subtle translations are not a world apart from those produced under constraints of time, but even as I nitpick here, you should bear in mind that the pressures to produce something merely good enough to pass, when you know another project with a quick turnaround time will likely come your way after you hand this manuscript in, are enough to make one simply give up on nuance. Nevertheless, when it comes to reading [manga] in translation, “buyer beware” is the order of the day.