Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Uniquely cultural novels

Ok, so this is sort of a weird post, but bear with me.

One of the things I do to relieve stress is I watch Japanese dramas. Most of these dramas are pretty similar to what you'd get in the US: high school kid stories, romances, police shows, even one about Japanese politics that I am absolutely loving right now (CHANGE is the title of that one, btw). Pretty run of the mill, right?

Now what you have to understand is that unlike the US, a lot of the TV shows in Japan are based on historical material, manga, or novels. There are excellent ones that are written uniquely for television, but previously based material tends to make up the bulk of the shows.

And so there's this one show I'm watching right now which is called "Shika Otoko Aoniyoshi", which roughly translates to "The Fantastic Deer-Man". You can find the Japanese drama wiki for it here, but I'll give you the brief rundown.

It stars this nervous nebbish of a teacher, think a very young, Japanese Woody Allen, with the most horrible luck in the world. He gets kicked out of his university research lab, and since he has a valid teacher's license, is asked to go down to Nara (more on that in a bit) and fill in at a girls' high school for a teacher on maternity leave. So he goes down to Nara, which is a city in semi-Southern Japan, for lack of a better description.

Now Nara is famous for its deer. Its TAME DEER. They roam among the city streets, happy as can be, and I've been told by past Japanese teachers that the deer will attack you for treats, as soon as you get there. They are very, very tame deer, all in service to some sort of tradition that honors one of the many Japanese gods. I'm not doing the myth its proper justice, but if you're really interested, you can Google it. Anyway, so there's a lot of deer, and the main character goes to teach in essentially the city of the deer.

At the same time, a mysterious priestess is looking for a successor for some sort of power that she needs to pass on. And Mt. Fuji is experiencing very strange occurrences of earthquakes, and they think it will have a volcanic eruption. ALL IN THE SAME SHOW STILL.

Because it turns out that somehow, the priestess, strange seismic activity, and the poor nebbish teacher in Nara are all linked together. Which you discover when the deer start talking to the poor teacher and he thinks that's he having a genuine nervous breakdown, except he isn't. And at some point, he's supposed to have a deer's head replace his own, except I think that's in the second episode and I've only watched the first episode.

My whole point in trying to explain this is that the entire drama series, which has to be the most bizarre show I've seen in awhile (the talking deer is CREEPY), is rooted solidly in Japanese tradition and culture. It's based on a novel of the same title by Manabu Makime, which I'm pretty sure has never been translated into English. (I may be wrong.) And this novel is so intertwined with Japanese history, mythology, culture, and just general strange talking deer that I don't see a United States publishing house picking it up for foreign translation. Purely, I might add, because there would be so much explanation required in the translated edition that the vast majority of American readers still wouldn't get it. Remember that publishers cater to the bottom line and the lowest common denominator.

So my question to you, dear blog readers, is what sorts of American novels would you consider completely unsuitable for foreign translation? What books has this country published that would present the same problems to a translator as SHIKA OTOKO AONIYOSHI would? Give me titles, people. I'm genuinely curious. =)


Elissa M said...

Based on living abroad a good many years, I think American culture has spread so far and wide (thanks to Hollywood mostly) few people in industrialized countries would have difficulty "getting it", though many might not care for it. People in other countries don't really understand American culture and Americans as well as they think they do, but I can't think of a novel that wouldn't translate well. At least not one that most Americans themselves understand.

My riding instructor in Germany once asked me to explain what Halloween was about. She was sure it must be based in some kind of ancient mythology. While it draws on Christian and Celtic themes, a little research will show our particular celebration is fairly modern. Even though I had a hard time explaining it all to her, she would not have needed any special translation to understand a book with a Halloween theme.

It's not that America has no distinct culture, it's just that most of it (even regional cultures) are not as foreign to other countries as those countries are to us.

Just_Me said...

I guess it would depend on where the novel was going... A book about inner-city life probably wouldn't work in rural South America. I don't think the Tall Tales (Paul Bunyan et al) would translate as well to a culture if you didn't know the geography involved. And I guess some chick lit or pop-lit with slews of contemporary references would be difficult to sell in some places.

But, honestly, off the top of my head I have no idea which titles wouldn't sell overseas.

beth said...

*snort* deer blog readers!

Unsuitable American novels...well, I'd think that some of the novels that particularly deal with the South would be difficult. I'm thinking of HUckleberry Finn, actually, although I believe that might have been translated. But there's issues there that would make it impossible for a non-American reader to fully understand. For one, you'd lose the dialect, and that's really a big part of the story. But also, the feeling of race and slave issues is ingrained in people, especially the South. The impact of certain phrases, like the infamous n* word, might be lost in another culture. The importance of the relationship--how very odd it was for Jim and Huck to have that kind of relationship, the developing respect that Huck gets, as well as reliance...that, I think would be lost in translation.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that fantasy is all about taking in new cultures and translating something strange and wonderful into a story that people in this world will enjoy. I would put forward that the novel *could* be translated into English and sold, even though it would require a bit of extra explaining. I mean, fantasy readers accept weird things all the time.

Perhaps I'm not fully appreciating the utter weirdness of the story you're talking about, but still, think about some of the fantasy that's being published. There's the one guy who writes about people with bug heads, isn't there?

But in answer to your actual question, I don't think there's much about the American culture that no one else would be able to understand. Not if they were willing to stretch their imaginations, anyway, because the US is such a baby country compared to others. I mean, what do we have that's actually *ours*? Well, there's the Native Americans, but that's not everyone's culture. And there's the history of our government and so on -- colonization, the revolution, and a few wars here and there including the Civil War -- but that doesn't really make up our culture, either, and it's pretty well known to the rest of the world. There's nothing mysterious or weird about it. Nothing that couldn't be quickly explained.

Aside from that, we have...things we stole from other countries and cultures. Which is what it means to be the melting pot. (Thinking of Schoolhouse Rock here...heh.) We have language-- No, we just took that with us. We have fairy tales-- No, we took that too...

Nevertheless, it's an interesting question. :)

Kristin Laughtin said...

Haha, I need to check this show out. I haven't had time for j-dramas since... Hana Kimi, I think.

As for American novels that wouldn't be suitable for translation, I honestly can't think of any off the top of my head. (I'm sure as soon as I post this comment, I'll think of one.) American culture is such a mix of other cultures, and so comparatively young compared to cultures like Japan's. My initial thought is that the great majority of American books could be translated and still be understandable enough *somewhere*.

Jana Lubina said...

I think a lot of the novels published in the Southern Gothic tradition would throw people right off. I mean Faulkner? I'm sure he's been translated into a trillion languages, but I have no idea if anyone understands it.

By the way I love Japanesed ramas too; I find them...relaxing? Is that the right word for it? Well whatever, it's close enough.

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything to say in answer to your question, but I visited Nara just last month. It's true the deer will surround you and nibble on you the second they smell deer cookies on you. It's great fun and anyone going to Japan should swing by and play with the deer a little.

Taymalin said...

I'm not American, but I think that American culture is such a large export through various entertainment media that it would be difficult to find anything too hard to translate.

Rachel said...

How about Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. I could barely make it through the book myself. Didn't even touch the movie.

Emily said...

Anything written by Dave Barry is pretty much unsuitable for translation. The humor is entirely dependent on American culture and history. I seriously doubt if any Japanese person would understand why comparing Nixon to a robot controlled by aliens that only watched Boris Karloff movies would be funny. (Although to me, that's absolutely hilarious.)

Jenny Rappaport said...

jmeadows, I think the novel could be translated but the translation would be CLUNKY. Which is part a factor of translated novels being done relatively cheaply, I would think.

And I've thought of a title to throw out that might not work--ELLA MINNOW PEA. Although that may have been translated already.

Rachel said...

How about the Xanth series by Piers Anthony-it's all pun-based. Do Japanese people have the same puns we do, or do they have to find the Japanese equivalent, which would probably mean re-writing the whole story.

Julie Carter said...

My first thought was something like "The Color Purple." But I bet that's translatable just fine. "Ella Minnow Pea" might be a good one.

How about David Sedaris?

Sarah said...

^ I don't know. David Sedaris's suffering is pretty universal. Like, the story about his boyfriend getting a tapeworm as child living in Africa? That horrifying, in any language. The translator's challenge would be to keep the humor in the text.

I've come across a couple of Japanese anime that were completely cultural and almost unintelligible without outside explanation, but I wonder if American culture is just easier to understand. Japanese society is a strict hierarchy and rigid gender roles. (Of course, that doesn't mean Japanese people always conform to those roles, but it's there.) They also have a longer history than America does as we know it today. We've been around, officially, for about 200 years. They've been around for about 5000. (Native American have been in America for about the same length of time, but the majority of Americans don't know the first thing about Native American history or culture.)

My family hosted a Japanese exchange student when I was younger, and the only things she seemed to have a hard time understanding were Bible stories from the Old Testament and SpongeBob, whereas I can barely understand an anime like Ouran High Host Club.

Nevertheless, I wonder how 'A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court' would translate. Fiction might be easier, because a lot of themes are universal, but I don't know if anyone could translate a Jon Stewart book.