Alexander O. Smith: LibraryThing Author Interview

Alexander O. Smith is a professional Japanese/English translator. His most recent translation is Keigo Higashino's novel The Devotion of Suspect X, a recent Early Reviewers selection. Smith has translated several other novels, as well as manga and video games.

How does one become a translator? How did you first get involved with the translation process?

There are several routes, though one thing all professional translators have in common is expertise in a field outside of their advanced language skills. After all, you have to be a competent writer in your target language in order to translate well, and different kinds of writing require different skill sets. Someone with a strong business background will do the best business translations, and professors of literature are often approached to translate novels. Generally speaking, if you can write convincingly in a particular genre, be it legal, medical, or fantasy, you'd probably make a good translator in that genre. It is possible to gain this kind of field-specific experience translating for an agency who works with a rewriter, but anyone serious about doing translation full-time will greatly benefit from gaining a field or fields of mastery first, then looking for translation work.

In my case, I gained experience in creative writing and translation in undergrad and a PhD program in Classical Japanese Literature which I left after getting my masters to join a game company in Tokyo (Squaresoft, now Square-Enix) as a staff translator. There, I was able to leverage my academic experience and experience gained from a lifetime of gaming as a hobby to establish myself as a lead translator on several projects before going freelance in 2002. My first novel translation was a fantasy adventure series called the Guin Saga, for which I enlisted the help of Elye Alexander, a friend who is a fantasy writer and poet, as a 'collaborator.' Elye gives my finished translations a pre-edit pass, tweaks wordings, and eradicates any remnants of translationese. We've continued this collaboration through several other series, and now with The Devotion of Suspect X.

Many of the reviews of The Devotion of Suspect X focus on the formality of the language, and question whether that's a result of the translation or whether the novel would be as formal in the original language. Can you describe the process or methods you use to maintain a similar tone and style to what the author intended?

Since many elements of style are often language-specific, the decision about how much of the original style to honor vs. how much to 'localize' is never an easy one. On a line-by-line basis, for most prose, this comes down to decisions about switching up sentence structure, combining short sentences, or unpacking longer ones. Where there is a distinct feel to a text, I will try to duplicate that effect in the English. If the text takes a backseat to the story, I'll preserve the ordering of elements within a paragraph or the length of various sentences where possible, but always adjust for the smoothest read possible in English.

With Devotion, given the status of its author in Japan, I decided to err on the side of preserving the sparse, methodical tone of Japanese, and I think it does justice to both the nature of the central character in the story and the central irony of a book about "devotion" where nearly every character is separated by figurative (and sometimes literal) walls.

Building on this, loafhunter asks: Do you interview the authors to get a strong feeling of their style? Do you read as large a body of their work for the same purpose? Lastly, what new challenges have you come across when dealing with the changes and growing injection of pop culture lexicon/katakana based words in more traditional literature?

While I would welcome the opportunity to communicate with every author whose work I translate, that's often not possible given that translation rights are often managed by the author's publisher, and sold to a US publisher who contacts me—so there are several layers between the translator and the author.

Failing a direct interview, reading as much of an author's work, and as much in a genre as possible can definitely help the translator understand what is an author's style, and what is specific to a certain book, and so inform decisions about what to emphasize in the translation. While I haven't read all of Higashino's work, I read through one of his other novels featuring some of the same characters, Salvation for a Saint, and definitely felt a difference in the style. There's a greater 'slice of life' feel to the dialogue as opposed to the guarded sparring in Devotion, and less of the 'A, then B, then C' feel we get from being inside the mathematician Ishigami's head.

Regarding newer pop-culture terms, the challenge to the translator remains more-or-less the same: understand the original in its context, and reproduce the effect of that text on the reader for an English-speaking audience. This means that, except in the rare instances where pop-culture Japanese words gain currency in English (like otaku, manga, and anime), you're forced to find English cognates for Japanese pop-culture terms, or translate around it. Introducing new terms to your readers, like a book about street fashion that used the word yamamba to describe girls who tan themselves and dye their hair silver, might be more informative than one which tried to translate around it. However, especially in fiction, one has to be aware that the effect of hearing a novel word will be different than the effect that word had on the original Japanese readers.

Several members asked whether you'll be translating more works by Keigo Higashino, and what project(s) are you currently working on?

I certainly hope to translate more by Keigo Higashino. I'm currently working on two novels for VIZ media: a classic theologically flavored sci-fi epic by Ryu Mitsuse, Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights and a fantasy by Miyuki Miyabe, ICO, based on the eponymous video game. This will be my third Miyuki Miyabe translation. The rest of my time I spend on various game-related writing and translation projects, though these are typically under non-disclosure agreements until the game is released. My most recently released video game translation, done together with translation partner Joseph Reeder, is "Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together," a title for Sony's PSP.

Other questions from LibraryThing members:

From JolleyG: One thing I like about some books that take place in Japan is that they leave certain words in Japanese. I really appreciate this as a Japanophile. I learn something new and get a feel for Japanese. Why don't more translators feel free to leave some words in Japanese?

I think you have to be wary of using too many foreign words in a translation for fear of losing readers who aren't savvy to the language. The Devotion of Suspect X was challenging enough for people unfamiliar with Japanese names like "Ishigami" and "Kishitani." Too much of this, and the reading experience suffers. Unless you're going for a total immersion feel, such as with the use of Russian words in A Clockwork Orange, it's important to introduce necessary foreign words (like kotatsu in Devotion—the heated table with an electrical cord used as the murder weapon) carefully so as not to jar the reader out of the story. Nothing kills the flow of a text more than a long-winded explanation of something which would have come second nature to a reader of the original.

From PhoenixTerran: You've worked with a wide range of publishers and translated in many different genres and media. How do these different factors affect your translations? Is translating for a novel a different experience than translating for a manga? Or does your process differ for mysteries as compared to science fiction?

Content and format both affect the translation process. Game translations often require working around macros, or writing in line directions for a voice script, which can disrupt the flow of work. Manga scripts require extensive formatting as well, a process which sometimes takes as much as a third of the time it takes to do the actual translation! Novels are by far the most forgiving, format-wise, allowing me to do a complete pass of the work using voice recognition to dictate a rough translation, which I then edit over several passes.

Content-wise, a book that makes many real-world references, or features real-world people (for example, a science fiction book that features a time-traveling Plato, talking philosophy, as a character) will require extensive research and reading beyond the text of the book to get the tone and terminology correct, while an entirely fictional work requires less research. This might mean that, on average, a mystery will require less work beyond the text than science fiction, but it's less a factor of genre than of a particular book.

I do like to read other works in genres which I'm translating. This meant I had to do a little more extra reading for Devotion than I would have to do for a fantasy or science fiction work, where I'm already fairly well-read, but this is more for my comfort level than a necessity.

From tottman: I recently read that in some of the original english translations of The Count of Monte Cristo that certain passages were changed for fear they would offend Victorian sensibilities and other passages may have been left out due to the translator's decision that they were unnecessary. I'm curious: when you translate a book, how important is a literal translation and what is the decision-making process on changes either to provide clarity or to take into consideration the audience for whom the translation is intended?

Every translation is a product of its time, just as original novels are products of theirs. This is why Dante's Divine Comedy has been translated so many times in so many different styles. What feels right to a translator and their audience in one century may not feel right in the next.

My stance on literal translation when working with novels is to only tweak a text when I think preserving some element, such as the sentence order, of the Japanese would introduce confusion that didn't exist in the original for a native reader. I'm less bound to a literal translation the further a work gets from 'literature,' which is to say that if something like a manga or game is intended as pure entertainment, then I try to do service to that by making the finished product entertaining, even if that means straying from a word-for-word equivalency in the text.

One issue that affects all translation is its inherently lossy nature. A translator of a poem—possibly the most challenging variety of translation—can seek to achieve similarity in meaning, meter, or sound, but never all three throughout a piece, and rarely 100% of any. This is the single greatest reason for non-literal translation. What you lose in one place, you need to make up in another in order to present a finished work, especially in the case of entertainment translation.

Ultimately, the final judge of whether a translation accomplishes its task is often the editor/publisher, not the translator. I've seen translations shortened by as much as a hundred pages when the publisher felt a slimmer volume would be more marketable, though I'm usually consulted on big changes like this (and I usually agree.)

From PhoenixTerran: Which translation are you currently most proud of or most nostalgic for? Which one do you wish you could change or do over?

I remember best the translations where I was blessed with a great editor and plenty of schedule leeway—a game for the Sony Playstation called "Vagrant Story" would be a standout. Another game, "Final Fantasy XII", holds a special place in my memory as a project with a great team and talent that made the voice script work incredibly well against picture. As far as changing old translations, it's hard for me to look at anything I've written either for a game or the printed page and not want to change some things and I would certainly approach most of my translations differently now than I did when they were made, but for the most part I'm satisfied.

From carly.laminack: As a linguist and also some one who is fascinated by translation, not just between languages but cultures, what types of issues have you had in translating between American Culture and American English and Japanese Culture and language. Which ideas more more difficult to convey and why?

One of the most difficult things to translate, though the element with which I've had the most practice, is dialogue. Frequently Japanese characters will say things in certain situations that American characters simply wouldn't say. An obvious example is the often-heard exclamation natsukashii! which means 'nostalgic!.' It's just not something American people say in the same circumstances as Japanese. In some cases, it's okay to replace it with a statement like "this reminds me of that time when..." but in a voice script, there's often no time for a circumlocution like this, or the memory being referenced is unclear.

A more subtle problem is the Japanese tendency, both on the page and in actual spoken exchanges, to state the obvious. Where we are taught in 10th grade English class to "show, don't tell," there is no stigma whatsoever attached to "telling" in Japanese—it's an important part of how Japanese communicate with each other, a sort of verbal affirmation that everyone's on the same page. Translated directly, it sounds like needless exposition or worse, a sort of Captain Obvious statement. Devotion certainly had its share of this kind of cut, where a character's agitation, clearly stated as such in the Japanese, could be conveyed instead through word choice in the dialogue, for example.

Deciding which of these passages to retain and which to fold into the rest of the text can be tricky, which is one reason I enjoy working with editors who speak no Japanese at all, as it can be easier for them to pick out the culturally inappropriate statements than it is for me once I've been wallowing in a text for a while.

From keristars: What types of things do you prefer to translate? Do you prefer translating genres or media that he enjoys outside of a work context? (I've heard from a few people that they actually like better to translate things that they wouldn't read on their own, for various reasons.)

The genres in which I translate match my personal tastes fairly closely, as I have the highest comfort level in those genres. When I used to test applicants for a game translation position, I would ask them to write a short piece of genre fiction, as writing ability is perhaps the best gauge of the finished quality one can expect from an otherwise qualified translator. That said, one of the things I love most about my job is the variety of material I get to work with. Devotion was a step slightly outside my usual diet of fantasy and science fiction, but felt fresh and exciting because of it. Certainly a plus in terms of job satisfaction!

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell and LTers loafhunter, JolleyG, PhoenixTerran, tottman, carly.laminack, and keristars)