What Translation Conceals, or How to Make Bad Choices Well

It is, perhaps, a bit unfair, even if useful and necessary sometimes, to pick apart someone else’s translation, to linger creepily over its supposed faults, and generally slap it about with the sloppy phallus of your smug superiority.  I myself only started to eschew these bouts of accusatory dick-waving once I had spent a considerable amount of time in translation workshops and seen how the sausage doesn’t quite get made.  Eventually, I realized that quite literally every single translator I know personally is abundantly generous and deeply thoughtful.  Not a single one went into translation work–oftentimes laborious work–thinking she had something to prove, that the world was bound to recognize her own particular genius.  The reason for this, I think, is that a translator, unlike your ordinary writer of literary fictions, is persistently confronted with her own inadequacies, with everything that gets left behind, with the problems for which she could only find an imperfect solution.  This is why calls for “abusive” or “penetrating” brands of translation practice always struck me as an unneeded form of overcompensation for, shall we say, a certain dictive inadequacy.  The desire to adopt this translative machismo seems to be more a defense mechanism meant to stave off the overwhelming melancholy that might otherwise result, when confronted with the fundamental realities of an imperfect art.

For as much as I know and for as much as I try to keep my scholarly brain turned on as I work on these kindai texts, I am fully aware of all the things I don’t know or, as is more often the case, have only an imperfect understanding of.  There are many holes in my knowledge of Rakuten’s career, and I have had to make arguments and choices about what I was seeing without the benefit of an absolute or totalizing comprehension.  Yet, imperfection never rendered those choices impossible, only unwieldy.  Thankfully for me, I enjoy a challenge.  For I’ve mostly found that being shown up in one’s faulty thinking (or, more typically, the expression of that thinking) to be an opportunity to move past even those who rightly criticized you, for submitting to the rigors of imperfection, rather than setting them to the side, can quite often be a boon.

Some time ago, an ersatz colleague–or, at least, I consider him a colleague; he likely thinks I’m a twit–whose knowledge of Rakuten’s particulars is vastly superior to my own, pointed out to me my mischaracterization of The Weekly Box of Curios as a humor magazine, when it was, in fact, a trade publication.  This I had to concede, though I pushed back against his other assertions regarding the relationship between [comics], advertising, and the total illustration landscape of a newspaper or magazine, because, as I argued in my book, the premises upon which to make hard and fast distinctions between graphic elements in a periodical are shaky at best.  Nevertheless, Stewart’s provocation forced me to express my thinking in more precise terms rather than simply take for granted that readers would catch my drift.


The Weekly Box of Curios, 30 January 1897, p. 2, courtesy of the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Rakuten, then still going by his given name, Kitazawa Yasuji, began working for E.V. Thorn’s Boxie, as the editors call it, in 1895, but in 1897 we see the start of something rather curious.  As the supporting article notes (leftmost column):

Kitazawa, our leading artist, has a vein of humour in his nature that is not common among Japanese [really?], and when, the other day, he came into our office smiling and said: “I see very funny things on the street sometimes,” we asked him to sketch them and let us see if they were suitable for publication. […] [W]e have instructed him to give us each week, under the heading of “The funny things our artist sees in Yokohama,” illustrations of such scenes, whether they be foreign or native.  We expect this to be a leading feature of Boxie in the future.

The article makes quite clear, when read in full, that the sketch the editors are referring to appears on page 11 (and just below here), but the central placement of the beer wagon between the two halves of the OUR ILLUSTRATIONS column, the context of funny street scenes, and the caption “A YOKOHAMA STREET SCENE OF TO-DAY,” points to the potential reading of this beer wagon with humanimal motor as one such illustration.


ibid., p. 11

Of course, there’s more to that beer cart than meets the eye.  What it conceals is how Schlitz-Emanuel had been purchasing front page advertisements in Boxie for some time and that the “human” component of the caricature is clearly derived from the cartoonish and eerily imperialist figure that appeared in advertisements on the periodical’s own pages.


ibid., 4 April 1896, p. 1

As some of Rakuten’s earliest work in Boxie shows, this slippage between types of illustration is, well, rather self-evident, and far from having distinct categories, The Weekly Box of Curios could be accused of creating what in modern parlance is often derisively referred to as an advertorial.  Moreover, in furtherance of another related argument Stewart sought to deny, Rakuten seems to have learned this mode of [comic] promiscuity in the context of the treaty port culture in which Boxie clearly circulated.  You only have to read a few references to Formosa (i.e. Taiwan), Hong Kong, or Aden in its pages to get the sense that a ethos of extraterritoriality is being cultivated here, one which Rakuten would later use in a joke about an artist’s rather casual relationship to his wife, where foreign and native collide and collude to deduce a world that is neither expressly one thing nor another.

While it is nice to be vindicated in one’s assertions, that is not the point of all this.  One underlying motive I do have to draw your attention to the excellent digital collections at the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, without which this more detailed reading of Rakuten’s work would not have been possible, but also to demonstrate how imperfect knowledge has no necessary relationship to an imperfect or, at least, less workable understanding.  When I wrote my original posts on Rakuten and the later, more lengthy exegesis in the second chapter of [Comics] as Reading, I had access to none of this.  In fact, it was that very imperfect first sally that drew Fabian Bayer’s attention to my work in order to suggest examining their collections, which led to my promoting their work here.  Of course, my spouse is a librarian, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the work they do.  That said, I wanted to begin with this digression into my haphazard research process to show how the scholarly impulse and the assumptions that undergird it can get one stuck in a certain way of thinking, a rut that can make translation a tedious chore rather than a gloriously invigorating challenge.

A Tale of Floundering Fortunes

Unlike “Modern Mirrored Words” and “Film Without End,” last week’s “The Burglaress, a Film Tale” was quite the pain in the ass, due in no small part to how, after much struggle, I had to conform to the ordinary way of doing manga translation: translate the text, clear out the Japanese, and put English in its place.  “Words” and “End” felt like an opportunity to reveal things rather than conceal them, to point toward Rakuten’s own translation mode in Tokyo Puck, to leave the Japanese intact, to cause English and Japanese to collide with one another, rather than yield, and thereby be more faithful to Rakuten’s way of doing manga.  Having finally liberated myself from the typical way of doing things, it felt like a betrayal both to Rakuten and to my own translation ethic to return to the wonderland of resignation and concealment.

Not like I didn’t try, though.  My first pass at “Burglaress” had text running all along the margins, since, unlike “Words” and “End,” space was at a premium.  However, it looked awful, and even using numbering for each block of text, it was rather hard to tell what was meant to correspond with what.  Eventually, the desire to get at least something out there overrode any desire I may have had to wow readers with my virtuosity.  I was rather depressed, when I posted the [comic] last week, but now that I have some distance from my disappointment and had time to think, it occurs to me that in overvaluing my “liberation” in innovation (i.e. having found a new phallus to whip around), I had not, in fact, rendered the ordinary way of doing things defunct but rather no longer primary.  It was now one among many perfectly acceptable modes of translative expression.

For even the most peculiar or innovative of doing things likely conceals something.  You can even “hide” a by text larding it with far too much, by pointing into so many directions that a reader might just give up on it as too unwieldy to be bothered with reading.  Text-as-cacophony may “have everything,” every possibility, every allusion, but in such a smorgasbord of readings, the simple thread of the narrative, which is clearly there in the original, will get lost among the forefronted footnotes of interpretive potential.

The subtitle to “Burglaress,” for instance, “Film Tale,” is likely a pun.  The kanji for eiga monogatari 映画物語 makes quite clear that what we are dealing with is a cinematized narrative, yet it is also a homophone with one of the most famous prose romances of the Heian era, the 栄華物語 or, as Helen Craig McCullough puts it, The Tale of Flowering Fortunes.  For some time, I carefully pondered how I would render the subtitle as itself an allusive pun, beginning with “a Tale of Flowering Misfortunes” and ultimately settling on “a Tale of Floundering Fortunes.”  How clever I was!  How happy to know–that in my supposed brilliance, I had rendered the most basic and necessary meaning of eiga monogatari invisible.  I simply was not crafty enough to work both these senses into one crisp expression, and so the melancholy of loss began to set in, and once again I was confronted with having to resign myself in that way translators so often do.

Yet, it occurred to me that this obsession with revelation, with, in a sense, explaining the joke, for any given reader only might be as interesting as it was to my own scholarly predilections, that in the end it may not matter much at all.  Sure, I could go on at great length about how Rakuten saw this piece in the context of the ero guro nansensu that characterized modern Japanese literature, how the story itself plays on a common trope of the “fallen girl” by turning the poor maiden buffeted about by fate into a maniacal avatar of vengeance–but it would mostly be beside the point, another conspicuous footnote like one sees in critical editions of classical works in most languages, where you can barely discern the original text from the massive walls of scholarly paraphernalia that surround it.  Sure, by simply mentioning these factoids here, I may do some of that work of interpretive [mis]direction, but for the [comic] itself, I decided that it was more important to give you all a reading experience not unlike that of the Japanese text, a goofy comedy of errors that ends… tragically?

All of which is a rather long winded way of saying that what translation conceals, even as it seeks to be a revelation, is not meaning but an effect–or maybe the presumption of a particular effect, one that refuses to put on airs and remembers that there are readers and readings of texts that feel no compulsion toward intellectual or historical comprehensiveness.  The first time I read Huck Finn I wasn’t old enough to see it as anything but a boy’s adventure tale.  Sure, I had gotten the completely uninsightful pass over slavery that my elementary education provided, but that only factored into my reading insofar as I recognized the basic immorality of enslavement that was already apparent in the text itself.  Only later, after reading Twain’s own account of his boyhood feelings toward slavery, could I recognize how Huck Finn depicts a darkly profound ambivalence, one that both countenances evil (running away with Jim) while simultaneously never quite grasping why it is evil in the first place (Jim is freed incidentally, not heroically).  Yet, without that first, enjoyable read, I might never have bothered to look any deeper later on.

So that’s the “effect” I chose for “Burglaress,” to be a fun read.  Feel free to rake me over the coals for my terrible choices.


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