Sunday, May 18, 2008

Transliteration Troubles

Anyone who's ever experienced translating a document has probably encountered this before (unless the document was written in a xenophobic era), where they're forced to make a double transliteration from some (sommetimes unknown) first original language. For example, when I was translating a Japanese literary criticism on the Confucian Analects, it became more appropriate to look up the official English translations of the Analects than to try my own hand at translating the Japanese translation of Medieval Chinese into English.

But entire passages and famous quotes are a bit more bearable. When the issue is a single name, problems can arise. In order to evoke a sense of exoticism, I find that a lot of online aliases are constructed from quasi-Japanese phonetics. Even Raymond E. Feist, a successful fantasy author, uses Japanesque names for some of his aliens/other worlders. (Apparently, one of the ppl he consults for coming up with these names is in fact a person of Japanese ancestry.)

And that in itself is fine. English, being phonetically richer than Japanese, is able to easily transliterate Japanese words without losing too much phonetic information. (The notable exception being the /r/ debate, but since only one such sound exists in Japanese, there is no fear of overlap.) The problem, however, is going the other way around, where a phonetically richer language is forced to be pigeon-holed into a phonetically smaller language. Japanese, in fact, often does the same thing that fantasy writers will on this side of the world: they'll use European-sounding names to add a sense of exoticism for their [native] Japanese audiences.

And so, we come to the cause of this post, the movie The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し). In it, there is an interesting character by the name of Humbert "Baron" von Gikkengen. The weird thing about this phonetic transliteration of the last name is that an accurate transliteration would be "Jikkengen," but in either case, the name looks too Japanese.

Naturally, the first question we should ask is whether a European name exists that might be transliterated into Japanese as ジッケンゲン. Google being the wonderful search engine that it is, quickly turns up Franz von Sickingen, an apparently not-so-nice German Knight in the service of Maximillian I, and Charles V in the Holy Roman Empire (a particularly poorly named nation, as it was none of those things -- holy, roman, or an empire). It also seems to be part of several hyphenated place names in Germany. So a logical (and perhaps more accurate) English version of the Baron's name should be "Humbert von Sickingen, Bn."

But I suppose the producer people felt that the "sick-" in "Sickingen" wasn't particularly pleasant, and rightfully so (nevermind the relatively obscure historical figure that comes attached to it). But what about "Zichingen"? It's apparent from the transliteration that the original Japanese were trying to preserve the voiced quality of that first sound in the German name (ie, the /z/ sound in 「ジッケン」). and the "ch" instead of the "ck" obscures the name even more. But does it then run the risk of sounding too German? (Such a question seems a bit moot, given that the character already has the 'von' part.) And I'd dare venture to say that Zickingen or Sichingen look more naturally Germanic than the Japanesque "Gikkengen". (Incidentally, a google search for "Gikkingen" or "Gikkengen" both only return hits regarding the character from the movie. Which, from a marketing point of view, is pretty advantageous, unlike the title of some shows... *coughHOUSEcough*) And since it's a name of a fictional character, it doesn't seem entirely disadvantageous to stray slightly from the original (and limiting) transliterated Japanese name.

In Summary:
When translating (or as is often the case, back-transliterating) places and names, always first check for historical presidence. Why waste the effort of your [professional] predecessors?

Another fun fact in translation and transliteration: when Pearl S. Buck did her translation of 水滸伝 ("Water Margin" in wikipedia), she translated 花和尚 as "priest Hwa" instead of the more accurate "flowery monk". Despite her extraodinary fluency in the language, I suppose even she had things to learn about Chinese appellations.


Summer Breeze said...

Starting with a language that has more allophones will always cause challenges, at least phonologically. But I like what I think is your main point: that it is more important to preserve the feeling of the first instance, even at the expense of whatever phonetic rigor might have been possible. In aside, Japanese early childhood education on English-type languages has, mercifully, moved toward IPA symbols altogether. If that approach has any traction, and if the children learn IPA smybols, which should be relatively easy among the scads of shapes to learn, the problems would basically end, and children would grow up having made a fuller range of tongue and jaw positions during the critical language learning period. I've endorsed and have been advocating this approach in my own ESL lessons. But that's very specific to Japan. A friend of mine who often transliterates from Russian and Danish into English says it is just a nightmare. Another who works with Arabic source material is extremely rigorous, though his results are a language of themselves awash with diacritical markings. Not an easy task. Finally, some wise person said, in translation work, it is more important to be faithful to the intent of the text than to the fidelity of the words.

Joseph said...

Who are you, Summer Breeze? :(
Do I know you from my personal life, or are you a friendly commenter?

The idea of teaching children IPA is brilliant, no matter which country you're in. But I wonder how effectively the Japanese children will be able to retain those phonemes that don't naturally occur in Japanese. Unless the IPA is reiterated throughout the entire school system (say, through 'til gr. 12), and that there are audio files (or native speakers) to demonstrate the sounds, I think the IPA would become part of the extended font set in their minds of latin text without truly grasping the sounds represented by them.

Diacritical marks certainly have their advantages, but I personally feel that if more than 30% of your text is affected by diacritics, you've probably gone too far. Having said that, modern Vietnamese seems (to the native English speaker/reader) to contain an unhealthy amount of diacritics.