Sodomizing Flies: The Importance of Good Translation

I recently came across an interesting translation service,, and looking through their site made me think about translation in literature. I contemplated writing a quick post about it, but it proved to be tougher than I first thought. Translation’s no easy task, and I love coming across places and people that can do it well. I love languages. I have for a long time. But I can’t say I’m any sort of expert on translation due to a couple of stumbling blocks in my way.

The first is that I don’t actually fluently speak any languages other than English. I stress fluently, because for a while I did hold a bilingual certificate in French, and my comprehension isn’t what it once was though I’m able to understand a fair bit of text and a decent amount of audio. I may be a bit slower than I was, but the skill hasn’t gone away completely. Thanks to that, plus Latin classes, I can muddle my way through the gist of a few Romance languages. I’m currently studying Japanese, and have enough skill in that to often catch nuances in videos that there’s not always an easy way of expressing in subtitles. But for all my drips and drabs of skill, for all that I’d love, some day, to have enough fluency to be able to translate works on my own, I can’t say I’m there yet.

The second stumbling block is that I’ve actually been exposed to relatively few translated works of fiction. My focus on this blog is, as you know, fantasy and science fiction, and I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read that were originally written in a language other than English and translated for the benefit of English language speakers. So while I can make some educated guesses, my exposure is actually pretty limited, and this isn’t the first time I’m realising just how sad that is. There’s a wealth of amazing novels written in other languages that I want to read. There’s a wealth of great novels in English that I’d love for other people to read. There needs to be more cross-border exchange going on.

But though my experience is limited, what I have seen, a mix of the good and the bad, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what separates good translation from bad. I think it boils down to 3 things: accuracy, context, and culture.

It’s hard to pull them apart from each other, since they’re all connected. You get one, you get the other, and the third should follow. However, it’s entirely possible to have a translation that is 100% accurate, word for word meaning exactly what it did in the original, and yet in the language you’re translating it too, it’s… well… It’s the reason sites like exist. Getting the word-for-word meaning doesn’t mean that what you’re saying is correct in the translated language. I could say, “Je m’appelle Ria,” and technically the very literal translation is “I call myself Ria,” but it’s far more accurate in English to say, “My name is Ria.”

I once took an introductory Mandarin class with 2 teachers. 1 tended to give us the general meaning of phrases we were learning. The other, especially to those who were interested, said he found it more helpful to also give the literal translation, so that we learned greater vocabulary and had more flexibility with the language. Context is great. It tells us when a certain phrase is appropriate, and in what situations we should use it. But the literal approach alongside the contextual is what tells me that “m’appelle” doesn’t actually mean “name” in French, for instance.

But this is all fine and good when I’m talking about conversational stuff. How does it apply in literature?

I’ve read some good translated novels, and I’ve read some less-than-good ones. The one that comes to mind first when I’m thinking of good ones is Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu. Ken’s translation was amazing, flawless, and what I loved best about it was the footnotes. Whenever there were certain plays on words, or context that couldn’t necessarily be rendered in the main text itself, there’d be a little footnote at the end of the chapter, giving a little more of an in-depth look into what translation was like and where those little nuances were. That’s the funny thing about languages. We can have different words to describe the same thing, but there may well be cultural subtext that just gets lost in the switch from one language to another.

I think maybe this is where some translators get stuck. The assumption that unless you can translate something exactly, with no footnotes needed, you’re doing it wrong. And I think that’s not necessarily correct. It may just be personal taste, since I love knowing the cultural context for things and all those subtle distinctions in the original language, but I’d rather have a footnote or two than an awkward translation. If there’s no good term in the language you’re translating to, then a footnote of explanation is not a bad thing.

Now, speaking of awkward translations and context, I also have another example to use for that. Volume 1 of Ayatsuji Yukito’s Another. Whoever translated that into English did a decent job for the most part, but there were some things that were pretty bad, too. Character development involving a crime that happened in the 90s in Japan, with no notes about it at all. Mentions of this popped up a couple of times as the story went on, and it took me checking on Wikipedia to find out what was being referenced. A single passing mention could have been overlooked, but in this case, there was no context provided, and so part of the story that was being told was not told well. The words may have matched what was in the original text, but the intent did not come across at all.

Also, there was the awkward case of designating a character “Mizuno/Little Brother.” That’s how it actually appeared in the text. As I’d mentioned in my review of that, I’m fairly certain the original term was Mizuno-onii-chan, which literally means Mizuno Younger Brother, but in English, that doesn’t read half as well. We don’t use honourifics like that. More accurate to say “Mizuno’s little brother” if you want to get it across properly, and for the life of me, I don’t know why the translator didn’t do that. (Or just, you know, use the character’s actual name, given that by that point in the novel, it had been established…)

Things like this are why it’s important to be fluent in both languages. I could probably, given enough time and a dictionary, translate a Japanese novel into English. That doesn’t mean I’d be good at it. I’m not fluent. There are things I’d miss. I had this brought to my attention sharply not that long ago when I friend of mine said something on Facebook, using the French term “enculer les mouches.” Google Translate told me that literally, it meant, erm, “sodomizing flies.” Basically, being nitpicky about something, making a big deal over tiny details. Splitting hairs, we might say in English. This is what I mean when I talk about culture, really. In the example I gave before, about Mizuno/Little Brother, you can understand what the translator was getting at even if the translation was awkward. With sodomizing flies… Yeah, have fun with that one.

We have all sorts of phrases in English that are like that. “Kick the bucket,” doesn’t actually mean literally kicking an actual bucket. “Biting the bullet” doesn’t mean you’re chomping down on ammunition. These are things we say without thinking most of the time. We know what the meaning is. We know what we’re saying. And a poor translator is going to translate that literally, perhaps not knowing that the language they’re translating into has a different way of saying the same thing. You might be able to get the gist of it, working backwards to figure out what the meaning might be and then applying it to your own idiom, but that’s making the reader work far harder than they should have to. A translated novel should not be an exercise in translation for the reader themselves.

So if my favourite novel was to be translated into another language, or I were to read a novel translated into English, I would want things like this to be given due attention. Word-for-word isn’t enough. I’ve seen a lot of people say they want to learn a language so they can translate as a career, and then assume that they can do so by learning a few key phrases and buying a good dictionary. You can’t do that. Not and be good at what you’re trying to do. Translation is hard work, it takes working knowledge of multiple languages, often you need solid familiarity with cultural context, and there’ll never be an easy word-for-word translation for everything. A lot of this stuff goes unappreciated until you encounter it done badly. The good stuff flies on by you, unnoticed because it’s seamless, so good that you expect that’s just how it’s supposed to be. The bad stuff is what makes you aware of all the time and effort that goes into to taking an entire story and transplanting it like that.

Now me, I’d love to be a translator some day. That’s partly why I’m studying. So I can attain the proficiency needed to bridge that gap between countries, between languages, so that the good stuff can cross over and maybe a few more people can enjoy some of the things I’ve come to love. The world is an amazing place filled with amazing stories, and so many of them never get told outside our own borders because of the difficulty involved. Maybe that’s just a little too pie-in-the-sky (another idiom that doesn’t translate well literally), a little too naive and short-sighted, but it’s a dream of mine, and I admire the people who can do it well.

5 comments on “Sodomizing Flies: The Importance of Good Translation

  1. I’ve never thought about translation to much other then knowing there can be so much lost in it that I generally never feel excited to pick up a translated fiction book. That is awesome that it’s what you want to someday do!

  2. Yeah, really interesting – I’d never really given it much thought either to be honest but I guess we use so many little oddities that it would be easy to lose the gist in translation.
    Impressive that this is something you would like to do.
    Lynn :D

  3. In 3-Body Problem Ken also had some really great thoughts in his notes on how he feels in some cases a translation SHOULD feel foreign, because it is. I’ve never seen anybody else talk about that topic in that way and I really agree with him.

  4. The only translations I’ve dealt with to any extent are manga. For the last several years, translators have been putting the Japanese honorifics in, with a page explaining what each of them means for new readers. I’ve learned most of them by osmosis, so it’s kind of cool to see “sempai” and know exactly what sort of basic social relationship the characters have with each other without a bunch of English pretzel bending in the speech bubbles. Novels, though, have the potential of attracting a more general audience, one that might not have a lot of patience with footnotes in their entertainment. The tack the Another translator took does seem really clunky, and in my opinion you’re on the right track as to how they could have handled it differently.

  5. Pingback: May in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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