Translators

May 18,2016
English texts translated into Japanese seem to invariably appear with the translator's name clearly emblazoned on the front cover. Texts in Japanese, or any other language, translated into English almost always bear only the name of the original author; to ascertain who did the translation, it is often necessary to look at the fine print inside the book itself, near the publisher information.

I'm still not quite sure why this is. There are translators in Japan who have made big names for themselves by doing, and publish collections of their own essays as works of literature in their own right. One could hardly imagine a mere translator of literature publishing essays in the English-bloc countries. Just because you've translated some stuff from one language to another, why would anyone be interested in reading your thoughts or opinions on anything? Like, ever?

And yet this is precisely the situation for translators in Japan. The only explanation I can hazard is that so few people in Japan have acquired the necessary skill in any foreign language to translate entire works in it.

The Japanese translator of the Harry Potter series apparently became quite famous simply by doing that. The reverse situation would be unimaginable in the US, UK, or any other English-bloc country. The only way to make a living as a translator in the English-speaking world is by perfecting a specialty field--generally law, medicine, electronics, and such--and even by making a decent living one can hardly expect to achieve anything resembling fame. If, however, one had made a name for oneself withint the publishing industry in one's specialty field, one might be commissioned by a publisher to translate a work of fiction. In that case, the translator's name might appear on the book's cover. But no one could conceivably embark on translating fiction straight off with any kind of expectation, because so many people are already willing to do it for free.

There is an old joke the punchline of which is someone who can speak only one language is called 'American', but in fact Americans often have a choice of foreign languages to study and often choose on in which they're actually interested. Japanese schools, universally as far as I can tell, offer only one foreign language, English, and everyone is forced to take it. Then it is taught in such a way that even students who might have been naturally interested generally end up hating it, kind of like they do with math in the US. Then private enterprise drums up a whole bunch of grand schemes to make English 'fun' again, with language schools sprouting up like fungi in the detritus of crushed curiosity, combining a smidgin of education in with a whole lot of entertaining and ego-stroking.

The public library here in rural Tottori is stocked filled, not only with instruction books in the most obscure languages, but in actual works of literature in those languages. In my experience, even in cosmopolitan areas the most exotic anyone ever gets is French, Spanish, or Portuguese. Who on earth is reading these books?

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