Michael Emmerich has been endlessly criticized by reviewers and readers alike for “Americanizing” in his translations, something he pays very close attention to. I know, because this is how he introduced himself at a recent translation masterclass I attended: he read out snippets of reviews, both from Amazon and national newspapers like the Guardian, from people who cannot read the original but dislike having it rewritten in American vernacular. They suspect Emmerich is cheating them of something, or rubbing their noses in their monolingualism, or guilty of the translator’s original sin, being a translator. And these reviews come not only from British, Canadian and Australian readers, but also from American readers who prefer their translators not to put so much of themselves into their work.
I’ve also had a taste of this sort of criticism. Some readers of my first translation, The Back I Want to Kick (Keritai senaka) by WATAYA Risa, have told me they feel the tone is too “youthful” and “Americanized.” The author herself was seventeen when she won the Akutagawa for that work, and here I must admit that I was also that age when I undertook the translation. It’s youthful because the author and I were youthful, but it’s American because I am American.
This is the classic conflict between domestication and foreignization, between bringing the text closer to the target language while potentially losing some features of the source text and, on the other hand, translating in a way that “signals the differences of that text” but which may alienate target-language readers. I feel professionally obliged to name-check Lawrence Venuti here, but I don’t want to get too into theory in this essay, precisely because it is a very theoretical topic that I want to make personal.
Because this is personal, in the way that all language choices are personal. Something Emmerich said at the masterclass stuck with me: “You only have choices.” And these choices are always meaningful, because words mean something to us – not just to anyone engaged in creative writing, but to all people who use language. The words we use with our families, the words we use with our lovers, to describe our dreams, or the meal we ate last night, or how bad our day at work was – they all mean something deeply personal, imbued as they are with all the experiences we’ve ever associated with those words. Every book we’ve read, every conversation we’ve had, and every time we’ve struggled to express ourselves to others helps form our personal language, our idiolect. The way we use language is inseparable from our lives.
This means language use is also political, particularly when it comes to a language with as many global varieties as English. And especially in the case of translation into English, language use is also about economics. David Bellos notes in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? that the “target audience of most English-language publishing houses, for most of the books they put out, is indeterminately large, and includes American, Australian, Indian, Canadian and South African readers – each large grouping feeling most at home in significantly different varieties of the spoken and written tongue.” The economic pressure of needing to produce a text which can be read – and sold – in as many countries as possible leads to eschewing the usage of regional differences in translations. Bellos describes how this makes many translations, in their attempt to be natural to as many speakers as possible, subtly unnatural in a way that the original works and works originally written in English aren’t:
The language of translations-in-English is therefore not a representation of a language spoken or written anywhere at all. Because its principal feature is to be without regional features it’s hard to see from outside – and that’s precisely the point of this sophisticated stylistic trick. ‘Tranglish’ is [...] smooth and invisible, and it has some important advantages. Detached with skill and craft by professional language doctors from any regional variety of the tongue, it is easier to translate than anything actually written in ‘English’ by a novelist from, say, Queensland, Ireland, Wessex or Wales. But as it is already translated [...], any remaining strangeness in the prose, in the ears of a speaker of any of the myriad varieties of English the world over, is automatically construed as a trace of the foreign tongue, not of the translator’s identity. The ‘translator’s invisibility’, eloquently denounced by Lawrence Venuti as a symptom of the anti-intellectual, anti-foreign bias of Britain and America, is also the unintended result of the unbounded nature of the English language itself. (196-7)
It is because English is used in so many places that we are criticized for using regional features in translations; it is because we are sensitive users of language with command of multiple languages and registers that we become translators, but it is because we are translating that we cannot use some of those resources. Well, I say fuck that.
It may be difficult to tell from my writing, but I am not actually a native speaker of standard American English.
My mother tongue is Appalachian English – to my ears, the sweetest and most painful sounds on earth. It is sweet, of course, because it means home, the people and the landscape that I love, the food I grew up with, the music that reflects my ancestry; it is painful because it means years of suppressing the way I speak and think, the prejudice that leads me and others to hide it, exile of a kind, and the history of poverty and neglect that are wrapped up, inseparably, with that concept of home. And because they are made up of idiolects, this is what dialects are: not simply a catalog of the grammatical features and words that set it apart from the standard variety, but also all of the experiences of the people who speak them: our shared history, politics, culture (traditional, popular, whatever), etc.
I learned standard American English in school and college, sometimes happily and sometimes painfully. Anyone who loves language can identify with the joy of learning a beautiful word or one that helps you better communicate your intentions. But I think speakers of denigrated dialects, as mine is, experience a unique pain, because this learning often comes about due to overwhelming cultural and economic pressure to conform linguistically and requires a tacit acknowledgment that we are, in some way, lacking. The linguistic choices we make can symbolize rejection of our origins, for social or economic advancement. And with all that dialect represents in our hearts, this is a rejection of ourselves.
I learned these lessons a second time when I moved to England four years ago. I never thought I’d adjust to my new linguistic environment, but as I’ve been writing this essay I’ve had to catch myself: “catalogue,” “symbolise,” etc. It’s been many months now since I received an email at work reminding me not to use American English in my writing, and the American-British style guide next to my desk has grown dusty from disuse. I take some grim pride in the fact that I can try on someone else’s dialect convincingly enough to “pass.” But I take no pleasure when people “compliment” me by saying, “Really, you’re American? Well, you’re very good – you can hardly tell, you know.” Because I’ve heard that before, only it was: “Really, you’re from Kentucky? Well, you can hardly tell, you know.” And every time it reminds me that once again, the words I use, even those learned painfully, are not good enough. So I find myself, in daily speech, making an active choice to eschew any “difference,” whether American or British. I have become a fluent speaker of Globish, that self-effacing, artificial language which has no country and boasts no native speakers.
And like Globish, some days I hear myself and I think, I’m from nowhere.
But I’m not. Nobody is. Not authors, not readers, and not translators.
To embrace our linguistic backgrounds fully would mean creating our own radical practice of translation, rejecting invisibility in favor of difference and creating a world in which all of our words can potentially be used. In order to give people without access to the original my own very subjective reading of a text, I have to accept all the linguistic (and non-linguistic) experiences that have brought me to that reading. The very act of translation places translators in the text, indelibly. What do translators have to lose from putting even more of ourselves and our experiences into our translations?
Well, we might get more bad reviews like Emmerich has. But what do we have to gain from putting ourselves higher in the mix? We’ll be able to use the full range of our linguistic talents, our experiences, and our keen observation skills – in short, all the things that make us translators. We’ll be able to be more honest with ourselves and the world about the process of translation, how we filter a text through ourselves. This makes us vulnerable, yes, but it also can be used as a tactic to transform readers’ conceptions of translators and what we do. Because it’s not just about the text, or the author’s intention. It’s also about us, our hearts, and the real world.