Today I was thinking about a conference I attended as an undergrad, Performing Aristophanes. I really miss going to conferences and lectures and talking to visiting professors, but that’s not really the point. What I was thinking about was how difficult it is to translate humor. How can I make a joke that was relevant nearly 2500 years ago funny now while still leaving it in some way intact? What’s cultural-specific and what’s universal? This is something I think about a lot when reading manga, and I wish more manga translators/adapters kept blogs themselves, because I’d love to hear about the process.
I have a few examples, though I’m not going to be a good enough blogger to look up the page numbers or anything like that. In the first volume of Genshiken, the club welcomes a new otaku member with the chant, “One of us, one of us, one of us.” Is this because there’s a big Japanese market for Freaks or was there something else there originally? Since Japanese isn’t even on my list of languages to learn, I don’t think I’ll be finding out. Then there was, I think, the first volume of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, in which the main character, Shugo, was told he wasn’t even qualified to be an “assistant pig-keeper” in the online roleplaying game he was entering. Is this a Japanese Lloyd Alexander shout out or is the translator remembering his (the Tokyopop site doesn’t list any names, but I remember blaming Jake Forbes, perhaps unfairly) own childhood favorites?
There’s more than this, though. When the character called Osaka, after the town where she most recently lived, talks like she should be on The Sopranos in Azumanga Daioh, is this to denote class and ethnicity or could it be any funny accent? When the Chinese student in Negima uses pidgin English (presumably originally Japanese) I do feel kind of awkward about it because I can’t evaluate the extent to which she’s playing on ugly stereotypes. (And in that case I’m tending to believe that’s what’s going on, given that apparently Ken Akamatsu’s more famous book, Love Hina, features some sort of fictionalized Polynesian girl who is also a sort of ingenue/airhead figure.)
So how do you translate culture and context and depth? I was left wondering about this when we saw Syriana last weekend. I didn’t find the plot confusing, but was fascinated by some of the language choices. As far as I can tell, the considerable foreign language portions were under-translated (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, French that I recall), perhaps because American audiences can’t keep up with long subtitles. You can tell that when a long string of text doesn’t lead to correspondingly long translations, something may be up, but I noticed something even more striking. At one point as Wasim, a young Pakistani man who has been working as a day laborer in the fictitious Persian Gulf state where much of the action takes place, is being pulled on a radical Islamic path in the madrasa he attends, the man instructing him and his friends goes on a tirade about how, basically, globalization is not solving the problems of modern life. I’m trying to phrase this so that I’m not paraphrasing the Islamist slogan “Islam is the answer,” but I do think that’s left implicit in the teacher’s repetition of “Qur’an” as a counterpoint to everything that isn’t making the students’ lives easier. And then he says something that is rendered as (more or less, because I know I don’t remember the predicate of the sentence, though I do know the subject), “The Christian world doesn’t help you.” But he didn’t say “the Christian world,” or at least didn’t exactly say it. He said “al-Harb,” meaning “Dar al-Harb, the house of war. He’s saying in much stronger terms than just breaking the world into Muslim and Christian spheres of influence that there’s a war going on and there are sides to be chosen, that the dichotomy is real and comprehensible. It was strong enough that it grabbed me in the theater and I elbowed Steven and told him to bother me later for details, but I wonder whether the language was strong enough for other viewers who didn’t know even enough Arabic to notice this. Obviously they still knew that Wasim was being wooed into a system where he was still a pawn, but well-fed and literate, Arabic-speaking. They understood that this was a lecture about the state of the world and the imperative the teacher felt for his brand of Islam, but is it only because they knew what kind of movie this was and because of the America we live in that they could tell what brand that was, know that there was a war on?
I don’t know how to answer questions like that. You can call this a hypertext movie, but in hypertext there are more links, you can keep another tab in your browser open to google what you don’t understand. It doesn’t really work like that if what you don’t understand is in Farsi, because where do you start? How do you know?
Maybe Syriana is more interesting to people like me who already ask questions like that, who appreciate the necessity of incompleteness in communication. Certainly it may resonate better with others like me who will recognize that its corporatespeak is awfully close to the real thing, or those who pick up on more religious references than I do, or people who know more about the flow of oil and LNG. For me, though, it worked as a movie and as a parable of sorts about corruption and complicity. I was able to tell the characters apart even though they were virtually all men (an ongoing problem) and I think the complexity of the plot was overrated by a lot of the critics I read. However, as I’ve commented, the complexity in the story was perhaps more than I can know.