Mamet in Japanese

February 27, 2009

There was a very interesting article in The Daily Yomiuri yesterday about actor and first-time translator Toru Emori, who tackled David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, apparently with some success. There are some interesting discussions of translation choices:

“When you translate the word ‘I,’ beyond the gender difference, you must choose between words such as ‘boku,’ ‘ore,’ ‘uchi’ and ‘washi,’ for example,” he said.

“And the other interesting thing about Japanese is [even in the same character], the way they use pronouns changes. For example in English, ‘you’ will be still ‘you,’ but the tone of voice used when saying ‘you’ may differ based on the character’s emotional state. In Japanese, on the other hand, the words can be switched from ‘anata’ to ‘anta’ as the speaker becomes enraged. These subtle changes can completely influence the feeling of a conversation,” he said.

The interviewer, Ikuko Kitagawa, says he “found Emori’s 135-page Glengarry script elegant and old-fashioned,” and it apparently evokes “stylish, aggressive men from a period drama.” That’s not how I remember Glengarry Glen Ross on stage or on screen, but if that’s what it takes to make the translation seem like “it was written in Japanese, not diligently converted from English,” so be it.

The article brings up the interesting question of who is best qualified to translate a piece of literature. Emori says he was frustrated by translations where his “lines sounded like they had been translated,” and decided to translate “based on [his] experience as an actor.” It is certainly often said that good translators of poetry must be poets themselves, whether they’ve actually written poetry or not — although I’ve always thought that was splitting hairs. How is it any different from saying the person must be a good translator of poetry, which is tautological? Or maybe I’m doing the hair-splitting here?

Anyway, putting aside my irritation with that tendency to position poetry as an otherworldly, mystical craft, the idea of an actor as translator is intriguing to me. Could the demands of theater be different enough that something entirely else might be required? Actors study dialogue and human speech in a way that I, as a translator, do not. This is not to say there aren’t translators-who-are-just-translators who have a knack for spoken dialogue — of course there are, as well as playwrights, who we can assume probably have a pretty good handle on the field. But theater is anomalous is so many ways; the closest equivalent to this issue you could get with prose is to wonder whether a books-on-tape reader might have special insight into the wily ways of a written text.

I don’t really have any amazing conclusions here. Just something to think about.



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