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On Translating a Superstar Rampo’s Japanese YA Crime Series

“A good translation unpacks the product, examines it, and decides how best to rearrange and display things for the target audience.”

By Dennis Abrams

Japanese author Edogawa Rampo (1894–1965) is perhaps best known for such classic stories as “Case of the Murder on D Slope,” about a woman killed in the midst of a sadomasochistic love affair, and “The Human Chair,” about a man who hides himself inside a chair in order to feel the bodies on top of him.

Cover design by Tim Smith 3

At the same time though, generations of Japanese readers have grown up reading the famous opening lines from The Fiend With Twenty Faces (1936), the first novel in the Boy Detectives children’s mystery series, released this year in a brilliant translation by Kurdohan Press: “You could walk into any Tokyo neighborhood and witness the same peculiar occurrence: whenever people started to talk together, they would begin with rumors about the fiend known as ‘Twenty Faces.’”

The series, which numbered more than two dozen volumes, chronicles the confrontations between master detective Akechi Kogoro (who also appears in many of Rampo’s adult books) along with his assistants the Boy Detectives and an array of dastardly criminals — most notably Twenty Faces. Said to have been read by more than one hundred million readers, the long-lasting popularity of the series can still be seen today in animated series such as Case Closed and The Daughter of Twenty Faces. As translator Dan Luffey says, “The Boy Detectives series and the character of Twenty Faces himself are truly elements of Japanese literature that continue to be recalled and reinvented in popular culture.”

I recently read The Fiend With Twenty Faces, which I thoroughly enjoyed, both as a glimpse into a different culture and time, as well as a still-exciting read — if you like the Hardy Boys, you’ll love the Boy Detectives. So, I was very pleased to have an opportunity to interview Luffey and discuss the reasons for the translation now more than seventy five years after its initial publication, as well as the challenge of translating the book into English.

PP: Why was it decided to translate the series into English?

Luffey: A number of Edogawa Rampo’s more mature works have been translated and introduced to the West, so I felt that it would be worth translating some of his juvenile fiction as well. Personally, I’m quite interested in introducing yet-unknown types of Japanese fiction to the West, and classic juvenile fiction certainly fits in that category.

Interior art by Tim Smith 3

Additionally, this book can be read and enjoyed by all ages, and it’s filled with fun campy elements that I hoped would be welcomed and enjoyed by mystery fans in the West. It also helps that Edogawa Rampo’s son is enthusiastic about having his father’s works translated into English.

Are there inherent difficulties or problems in translating Japanese into English? Was the style that Rampo wrote in similar to contemporary Japanese?

If I had a penny for every translation problem I’ve run into when translating Japanese into English, I’d be a very rich man. Generally, the languages are nothing alike in terms of expression, grammar and sentence structure, but thinking positively, this allows for lots of creativity when it comes to digesting the words into English. There’s one quote about translation I’ve always tried to keep in my mind. I can’t remember who first told it to me, but it goes something like this: “The goal of any good translation is to give the reader in the target language a similar experience to that of a reader in the source language.” In other words, translation isn’t merely re-stacking items from one shelf to another. A good translation unpacks the product, examines it, and decides how best to rearrange and display things for the target audience.

As for Rampo’s writing style, there are a few word choices and instances of grammar that may be considered a bit archaic compared to today’s writing. However, all the stories in the Boy Detectives series were serial stories that were published in youth magazines, so the prose is rather simple for Japanese standards, and there is a sense of brevity to the narration that can be appreciated. Since the structure of the novel isn’t terribly complex, it proved to be a good candidate for translation.

Could you give a specific example how the translation process worked for a particular piece of text, and what the difficulties were?

The story is written in polite Japanese with many lines directed to the reader, as if the narrator is a character who’s actually speaking. The Japanese language has many levels of how ‘polite’ one can be when they speak which really can’t be carried over to English. What this Japanese word choice really signifies, though, is a sense of care for the reader and ‘storyteller’s glee’ that pours from the narrator’s words. I took special care with the voice of the narrator in my translation to make sure that this atmosphere could still be enjoyed by English readers.

One important phrase that comes up many times in the book is ‘Intrepid Reader,’ when the narrator is speaking directly to the reader. I’ve been questioned already by a few people who were curious as to what the strange phrase was in Japanese. It was originally ‘Dokusha Shokun,’ which could be directly expressed as ‘ladies and gentlemen who are reading.’ Now, obviously this doesn’t sound as smooth in English as it does in Japanese. But I couldn’t just strip it down to a simple ‘reader’ either. The truth is, though, that neither the long nor short ‘direct translations’ strike all the points that the four kanji characters do in Japanese. The word ‘shokun’ is a rather tricky one, because it expresses not only respect toward the reader, but also signifies sort of a brotherhood or connection between the narration and the reader. It’s often used by speakers when talking to members of an organization, to comrades, and so on and so forth. Therefore, in a way, it’s commending the reader and welcoming them into this special world not as an outsider, but an active member, part of the adventure. Just in these two words! Now, with a concept this complex, there are many different ways you could go about condensing it into some sort of English phrase. In the end, I went with ‘Intrepid Reader,’ because I felt it was succinct enough not to get in the way of the prose, and still encompassed the overall intention behind the source words. The narration is both welcoming the reader into the adventure, and commending them for having the courage to take part in the sleuthing.

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