Thursday, October 4, 2012
Guest Post by Hildred Billings, author of DAISUKI
Hildred is back!! She's got such fun guest posts that she's here to join us again today, this time talking about DAISUKI, her novel (set in Japan, which is awesome). I hope you enjoy this awesome post, and a bit about her book!
That Awkward Moment When Your Characters Aren’t Speaking English
My debut novella, “DAISUKI.”, not only takes place in Japan, but it almost exclusively features Japanese characters. A few speak English, (one minor character speaks it natively), but for the most part, they’re all speaking Japanese to each other and thinking to themselves in Japanese. This created a sort of “...” moment for me when I was writing dialogue and internal thoughts, knowing full well that in “real life” everyone was speaking Japanese instead of English, as I presented it. There were a lot of points I had to consider, including but not limited to:
· How would I approach it? Do I do literal translations of what I imagine they’re actually saying in the dialogue? Or do I do a liberal translation, where I convey the same meaning using English (American) slang, which may result in perceived cultural flummoxes?
· Would I include any Japanese at all? Or would it be English all the way, as if the entire thing had been dubbed?
· If I did use Japanese, how would I go about validating it? How many validators? How much Japanese?
In the end I think I came up with the best balance and compromises possible. I had to sit down and consider my audience, while also thinking about what was best for the actual story.
I decided to include some Japanese. Now, here’s the thing: I did it while assuming that a majority of my readers will not know a lick of Japanese language or culture outside of loan words in English. (Ex: Kimono, Tatami, Typhoon, etc.) This meant that context and quick, embedded explanations were key. If I introduced a new stock Japanese phrase, I tried to make sure the reader would know what it would mean from context, or even a (gasp) “said”ism. Here’s a quick, two-second whip-up example:
(A and B meet at a train station to go out for breakfast.
“Ohayou gozaimasu,” A said.
“Good morning to you, too.” B said.)
No, not the best writing in that example, but I hope you see what I did. By echoing what A said in English, B is conveying the meaning of the phrase while keeping the culture involved.
Of course, it could be done in a different way. Looking at it again:
(“Ohayou gozaimasu,” A greeted.
B waved back. “Where do you want to get breakfast?”)
I usually mixed and matched depending on the scene. However, this is a very basic example, and you have to be careful not to completely throw the reader out of the story with a language/culture lesson.
It also depends on the language you’re using. I’m pretty much only used to working with Japanese, so here’s another way things can get hairy, but still offer great cultural connections: in Japanese, style of speech means everything. How formal one speaks reflects both on their personal character and on their relationship with others. In the example above, “Ohayou gozaimasu,” is a formal way to say good morning. You would say it to coworkers, strangers, or anyone else you’re not overly friendly with. On the other hand, just saying “Ohayou” is much more informal. You’d say it to close family members and friends. So, in that respect, I have to be careful with what Japanese actually comes out of my characters’ mouths. Even if many readers may not know what it means, I still want to make sure it’s true to the characters. (Because somebody will always know what it means, and make sure they tell you!)
Another facet of Japanese is titles. In English, we call people by “Miss,” “Mr.” and even things like “Professor” and “Dr.” In Japanese, the titles go after the name and are denoted by a hyphen in English Romanization. For example, Mr. Tanaka becomes Tanaka-san. I decided to keep the naming conventions for an extra layer of authenticity, and because they’re very easy to pick up via context. This is another area, however, where you want to make sure you use the right titles. “Sensei” is associated with teaching and education, but it’s also the common title for doctors. “Kun” is reserved almost exclusively for underage boys, or as a joke to tomboy girls. “Chan” is often associated with girls and young women, but be careful, because sometimes not even the closest of friends will call each other such informal things. Formality is a huge part of Japanese society, so it’s key to make sure it fits the characters and that they face the appropriate consequences for verbally stepping out of line.
The last linguistic hurdle was the translation feeling. My Japanese is advanced enough that I could more or less guess what my characters were saying (and how they said it) in their native language. But since I was writing it in English, I had to “guess” how it would translate. This usually requires using Westernisms, including slang and idioms. For the most part, idioms do not translate directly between cultures. What we say as “somebody has a big mouth” is said in Japanese as “somebody has a light mouth.” Now, that’s pretty similar, right? How about a completely different idiom: while we say “slow and steady wins the race,” the Japanese might say, “sit three years on a big rock before it becomes warm.” So, what to do? In this case I just substituted with the English idiom/proverb. Literally translating the Japanese ones would create a bigger mess of confusion for most readers.
As for the validation aspect, I am fortunate enough to have enough Japanese friends to ask questions regarding how natural phrases I wanted to use were. Not everyone is this lucky. There are a lot of places on the internet to seek help from native speakers and those who have been studying for years: forums, blogs...my only warning is to avoid things such as Google Translate or Babelfish. The odds of getting a natural translation for something are slim to none, and while most readers may not notice, many would and probably comment on it.
Anyone wanting to write a story with characters predominately speaking another language have got a lot to keep in mind, especially since concerns may change from language to language. What makes sense in German may not work in Mandarin. There are also other layers to consider, such as cultural factors, gendering, and levels of formality. But in the end, only you the author knows what works best for your work. For me, it was trying to incorporate as much as the language as possible without confusing the reader. Language can bring in extra layers of culture and characterization that may not even exist in English.
Have you ever written a story that included characters not speaking in the language you’re writing in? How did you decide to handle it?
How about a little bit about the book:
But Reina doesn't understand complex concepts like "love" or other heavy emotions. She's spent years supporting her girlfriend via a soul-sucking salary job and tending to their mutual needs in the bedroom. Isn’t that sufficient? In a culture demanding Reina choose between the "feminine" and the "masculine" worlds, it's bad enough she's trying to find her role without Aiko adding extra pressure.
Some words need not saying, but "I love you" is about to destroy a relationship already surviving strange side-lovers and even stranger exploits.