When translating Yokohama Yankee into Japanese, should it be adapted to the sensibilities of the Japanese reader?

August 4, 2013

I’m reading the first few chapters of my book in Japanese translation. It’s an odd experience. Sometimes it feels so on target, I find tears welling up in my eyes as they did when I first wrote many of the passages. Yet other times it feels disconnected. I think this is going to be a long and very challenging process. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to help my Japanese, and my understanding of Japanese.culture.

Many people have asked, for example, whether it was difficult to be so honest in my book. What I think they mean is: “How can you make yourself look so insensitive. My Japanese translator really doesn’t like this. She is sometimes horrified by what I write. In the book, I describe going to a city orientation about how adopted parents should behave, for example, I admit to feeling competitive with the Japanese parents. Although I say that I am embarrassed by these feelings, I nevertheless confess to feeling pleased when the Japanese parents seem so shocked by the idea that they will have to tell their adopted children that they are not the birth parents. Of course, in Japanese they still say “real” parents. So adoptive parents are told they will have to reveal to their children that they are not the  “real” parents. The translator wonders if I should soften the language so as not to put off my readers.

Hmmm. Certainly, the way a Japanese reader looks at my book is going to be very different from the way an American reader looks at it. And sometimes the translator has a point. There is one place, for example, where I say: “I assumed there were so few children available for adoption because of the widespread use of abortion as a means of birth control, a result of policies discouraging the use of birth-control pills.” In retrospect, I realize that I was taking a dig at Japan for discouraging the use of the pill for so long even as there were so many abortions. If you think about it, there is no logical reason why using abortion rather than the pill would result in fewer children put up for adoption. The real issue, as the translator points out, is that the Japanese have a strong aversion to having children they don’t think they can take care out. Isn’t it better to abort a child the “throw them away” as so many parents in China do? If you take that argument to the extreme, you might use it to explains why there was a fair amount of infanticide in early Japan.

So some readers will be offended by my comment. And perhaps I was a little off base in my commentary. An the translator has even found one or two factual inaccuracies.   (It turns out the government did approve a dozen marriages between Japanese and foreigners. The imperials adviser who wrote in his diary that he had helped arrange the first wedding between a Japanese and a foreigner was wrong.)  I will certainly change.all factual inaccuracies.

But how far do you go in making changes to please the local readers. At what point do you start to change the nature of the book–the arc of the narrative.. Some people say a translation isn’t the same book anyway, but that doesn’t feel right. Lots of tough decisions. What do you think?. .   

Leslie Helm

About the Author

Leslie Helm

Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. It was during his years abroad that he adopted two Japanese children and began the research that would result in Yokohama Yankee. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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