Promising Translators 2018 Entry Feedback: Weining Yu’s translation of “Magic”

By | April 18, 2018

As a bonus to those who have participated in STJ’s first translation contest, Promising Translators 2018, I have offered to give feedback on the entries. This is the first post where I will give such feedback. Please be aware that much of what I will say in these posts has a subjective element, and of course there is no such thing as a “best” translation. Rather than giving the “right” way, I am just trying to give suggestions for things to consider, different options, or ways to approach the translation of a word or passage. Some of the feedback will also be about the English text itself, like ideas for more natural phrasing or potentially grammar/punctuation issues.

(Note: I have gotten advance permission from the translator to publicly post their translation as well as comments regarding it.)

In this post, I will be discussing the entry translated by Weining Yu, who won 3rd prize in the contest. He submitted a translation of a portion of the short story “Magic” (魔法) by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介), a very famous author known as “The Father of the Japanese short story.” You can see the original Japanese text for this story here on Aozora Bunko, which was first published in 1920, nearly 100 years ago.

Overall, while there was some unnatural phrasing, errors, and incongruence between the source text, Weining’s translation was a solid, readable piece of work. I was most impressed by the way he managed to sculpt the tone of the work, not just in the descriptive passages but especially in the dialogue lines, which make up a significant part of the submission text. A good example of tone in dialog is the following line, where he uses little additions like “why” to great effect.

“To be able to see your magic at work, why, a little drizzle is no trouble at all.”

I’ll start my analysis by showing a translation of the first translated paragraph followed by the associated OT (original text). Then I’ll comment on a few aspects of it:


This is a story from an evening drenched by autumn’s downpour. The rickshaw I rode see-sawed along the precipitous slopes on the outskirts of Oomori before it finally found rest in front of a small European-style building nestled within a bamboo grove. The rickshaw puller casted his lamp light over a cramped porch covered in peeling grey paint, sat atop of which was a brand new ceramic name plate handwritten in Japanese, ‘Indian man Matiram Mithra’.



This paragraph does a superb job setting the tone and uses strong descriptive words to help paint a picture. In particular, I liked these terms: drenched, see-sawed, cramped, and nestled. I also liked how Weining has maintained the sentence boundaries in this paragraph. While surely there are circumstances where these can be shifted to improve flow or for some other reason, I generally recommend doing that as a last resort.

>This is a story from an evening drenched by autumn’s downpour.

When I first read this line I really liked the tone it created, but then when I examined it again later I felt there were some things that could be refined, both in terms of the English itself, as well as when compared against the OT. Nevertheless, I still think “This is a story from…” is a creative way to translate the 〜のこと phrase.

From an English standpoint, my biggest issue here is the omission of an article before “autumn”, since as-is it almost sounds like autumn has only one downpour. But looked at from another viewpoint, the unusual phrasing here makes this first sentence stand out, so perhaps it was intentional. The bigger issue, in my opinion, is that the word 時雨 is not accurately rendered. Checking two dictionaries seems to indicate pretty clearly that words like “drizzle” or “sprinkle” are more appropriate. The ET (English text/translation) here uses the words “drenched” and “downpour”, both which denote a much heavier degree of rainfall. In rare cases it might be OK to twist the meaning if the translator had a really good reason, but I would generally recommend against it.

I thought about how I would translate this first sentence if I were to start fresh, and this is what I came up with:

A light autumn rain permeated the gentle evening air.

I am taking liberties here by adding the words “permeated”, “gentle”, and even “air” that are not explicitly in the OT. But I think this rendering has a nice ring to it, and it can be argued that this is consistent with the essence of the OT. One possible tweak is to remove the word “gentle,” but that removes some of the (almost) parallel structure (light-autumn-rain / gentle-evening-air).

> The rickshaw I rode see-sawed…

I feel that adding “in” after the word “rode” here is more natural. With a rickshaw I think perhaps our sense of what is natural is a little distorted, but what sounds more natural between these two options: “I rode in a car” or “I rode a car”? I guess the key point here is whether the passenger is “on” or “in” the rickshaw. The pictures I have seen of rickshaws typically have an enclosed area to sit in, so “in” may be more appropriate.

>…before it finally found rest…

This is another phrase that seemed nice when I first came across it; indeed, there is a poetic ring to it. But after some consideration, I began to feel it gave the (subtle) impression that the rickshaw has somehow died (Ex: “The boat sank, and the passengers found rest at the bottom of the sea”). To avoid this undesirable connotation, I recommend rewording as “…before it finally came to rest…”

Having said that, if we take a step back and check the OT, we’ll find “梶棒を下しました”, which literally means “let down the shaft (of the rickshaw)”. While I think it would be great to keep this detail about the rickshaw, honestly I can’t think of a way to make it sound natural. I guess a translator’s note could be added here for discerning readers, but that would probably be overkill. A compromise that sounds more natural while maintaining some of the literal meaning would be to use the phrase “set down”, but in the end I think “came to rest” is a fine way to translate this part.

Another picky comment about the second sentence is it doesn’t capture the “何度も” in the OT. This is pretty minor, but phrases like “many times” or “for some time” could be used to capture this.

> The rickshaw puller casted his lamp light

While I think “rickshaw puller” is a valid (even politically correct) word for 車夫, it sounds a little awkward to me. Other options to consider are “rickshaw boy”, “rickshaw man”, “rickshaw runner”, or “rickshaw driver”. Ultimately, even if “puller” sounds a little awkward, it may be the best compromise.

A little research shows the word ‘casted’ is a much older form of the past tense of ‘cast’, so technically speaking it is not wrong. This term might have even been used intentionally to adjust the tone. However, I would argue that for modern readers this is a bit clumsy and would prefer the simple and safe ‘cast’ in this situation.

The word 提灯 (chouchin) is more accurately rendered as “paper lantern,” like the kind you see at festivals. While in modern times I believe light bulbs can be used, traditionally these were (almost?) always made with paper. In the ET the word “lamp” is used, which while being close to “lantern,” looses some of the nuance, not to mention how the “paper” part is completely missing.

>…paint, sat atop of which was a brand new ceramic name plate…

Though perhaps a subtle issue, I feel that the alternate wording “…atop which sat a…” flows much better and cuts away two words.

While some people might be OK with “name plate,” I think using the compound word “nameplate” is more common and correct.

As a final comment about this paragraph, the OT fragment “これだけは” was not explicitly captured in the ET. This is a little tricky to express in English, but I think the important nuance is that the only new thing in this scene is the ceramic name tag. It might take some rewording to capture this, but phrases like “the only new thing was”, “in (stark) contrast with” or “at odds with” are potential options.

>…handwritten in Japanese, ‘Indian man Matiram Mithra’.

While it may be true that the Indian name “Matiram” is generally a male name, and in the story we soon see the person is in fact a man, the sign does not literally express this (OT: “印度人マティラム・ミスラ“). However, saying the literal “Indian Matiram Mithra” doesn’t sound that great to me, so I would consider “Matiram Mithra The Indian”. While this may have a slight nuance indicating that Indians were a rare thing, I think during that period of time that was in fact the case. Also, using the article “the” in this way subtly invokes a stage name like “Houdini The Great” that fits well with the story.

Finally, I have three comments about punctuation for this fragment. First, I think before the plate name a colon would be more appropriate than a comma. Second, I feel the plate name would be more appropriately enclosed by double quotes, not single quotes. Finally, the period at the end should be inside of the quotes.

As a counterpoint, one could argue that these latter two items are standards for British English. However, the rest of this submission uses double quotes and final punctuation inside the quotes, so I think these should be consistent, regardless of which style is being used.

While I was originally planning on doing a few paragraphs, because I was able to generate many comments from a single one I will stop for now. But I may come back to this entry in a future article and discuss more details.

Here is Weining’s submission in full (repeating the first paragraph for convenience):


[Initial portion of “Magic” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, translation by Weining Wu]

This is a story from an evening drenched by autumn’s downpour. The rickshaw I rode see-sawed along the precipitous slopes on the outskirts of Oomori before it finally found rest in front of a small European-style building nestled within a bamboo grove. The rickshaw puller casted his lamp light over a cramped porch covered in peeling grey paint, sat atop of which was a brand new ceramic name plate handwritten in Japanese, ‘Indian man Matiram Mithra’.

There are probably few who would recognise the name Matiram Mithra. A Calcutta-born patriot who has for many years been a part of the Indian Independence Movement, this young man is also a renowned magician, a student of Brahmin mystic arts under the famed Hassan Khan. I became acquainted with him just about a month ago through the introduction of a mutual friend, even though we have already debated politics, economics, and the like; not once have I been able to see his magic in action. Thus I took to the pen and sent a letter asking if he would be so kind as to show me his magic. Mr Mithra’s subsequent agreement was why I found myself stood before his house, having hurried the rickshaw to these backwoods beyond the boundaries of Oomori town.

Soaked by the rain and reliant on the rickshaw puller’s flickering lamp, I fumbled to press the doorbell below the name plate. When the door opened soon after, the wizened face of a small Japanese woman greeted me though the doorway: Mr Mithra’s housekeeper.

“Is Mr Mithra present?”

“Welcome. Your arrival has been eagerly awaited for some time now.”

As those courtesies left her mouth, she was already at the end of the hallway beckoning me towards Mr Mithra’s room.

“I do appreciate you taking the trouble to visit on such a rain-sodden evening.”

With his rich brown complexion, large black eyes, and delicate moustache, Mr Mithra greeted me energetically whilst he twiddled with the wick of a kerosene lamp on the table.

“To be able to see your magic at work, why, a little drizzle is no trouble at all.”

I sat down on and ran my eyes over the bleak surroundings now dimly lit by the kerosene glow.

Mr Mithra’s room was furnished in a frugal European style. A table in the middle, a medium-sized bookshelf by the wall, and a desk under the window; besides which were the chairs we sat upon and no more. Everything was battered by age; the desk, the chairs, even the once gaudy tablecloth embroidered with fanciful gradated red flowers was tattered, all the exposed thread ends makes one wonder not if but when it will tear completely.

After exchanging pleasantries, we sat and allowed the sound of the rain battering against the bamboo grove to wash away the silence. When the elderly housekeeper returned with tea sets and black tea, Mr Mithra opened his cigar case.

“Care for one?” he offered.

“Thank you.” I took one without reservation.

“Am I correct in thinking the spirit you will be using is called something like a Djinn? Will the magic I am about to see feature powers borrowed from this Djinn?” I asked as I struck a match.

Mr Mithra had likewise put a flame to his cigar, fragrant smoke poured out of his mouth as he grinned.

“The existence of Djinns is but a whim from centuries gone by. One could say it is something out of the world of Arabian Nights. The magic I learnt from Hassan Khan is something that even you would be able to use if you so desired, since at most it is no more than advanced hypnotism.

“Observe, using only one’s hand, do this like so…” Mr Mithra raised his hand and drew a few triangular shapes in front of me. No sooner had he made the same motions over the table than he pinched those gradated red flowers right out of the tablecloth. My chair slid back from the force of my shock. No matter how much I gaped, sure as day, those were the flower from the tablecloth. Furthermore, as Mr Mithra brought these flowers up to my nose, the heady scent of something akin to sweet musk wafted in with them. I was thoroughly overwhelmed and could not contain the noises of awe that escaped from my lips. However, undeterred by my wonder, Mr Mithra simply smiled and nonchalantly dropped the flowers back into the tablecloth whereupon they became the immobile embroideries they were prior to his interventions.

“How was that; quite absurd no? Now, please look at this lamp.” Mr Mithra leant in to adjust the kerosene lamp on the table. I had no idea what happened in that instant, but like a spinning top the lamp began to turn. The lamp chimney was spinning furiously on the spot, as if it were on an axle. At first I was truly terrified; if by some chance the fire caught and spread it would be a catastrophe, but no matter how obviously I displayed my unease, Mr Mithra simply sipped at his tea, his cool demeanour showing no signs of wavering. Thus I eventually followed suit and gathered my courage, then focused my eyes and attention back onto the lamp which only spun faster and faster.

During this the lamp lid was blown open by the wind, yet the single yellow flame within burnt on without even a blink; it was a curious sight for which I do not have the words to describe the beauty of. Eventually the lamp was spinning so fast one could no longer make out any movement at all; just when I thought it looked almost translucent and before I knew what happened everything was back to the way it was. The lamp sat stationary on the table, not even a little out of place.

“Were you surprised? These are but parlour tricks for entertaining children; should you so desire I still have one more to show you.”

Mr Mithra glanced back and forth before his gaze settled on the bookshelf by the wall. When he stretched his hand towards it and moved his fingers in a beckoning motion, the books that lined the shelf came alive and flew smoothly one by one towards the table. The books flew like bats on a summer’s twilight; both covers outspread, fluttering as they danced through the air. I held my cigar in my mouth just as the sight before me held me dumbfounded: volumes upon volumes of books flew freely under the lamp’s dusky glow and stacked themselves considerately into a pyramid atop the table. Just when I thought they were all here to stay, what do you know? The first book to arrive started off again back to the bookshelf and the others followed suit in an orderly fashion.

During this the most amusing instance was when a certain thin paperback softy lifted itself up on those wing-like covers and circled above the table a few times before noisily flapping its pages and suddenly falling out of the air onto my knee. Confused, I reached for the volume and on retrieving it realised it was the newly published French novel that I had lent to Mr Mithra only the week before.

“Thank you ever so much for book,” Mr Mithra said with a smile in his voice, the other books finished off their waltz back onto the bookshelf with those words of gratitude. And as if I had just woken from a dream, I was at a loss for words. During the silence I recalled Mr Mithra’s words from earlier along the lines of, “The likes of my magic are something even you would be able to use if you so desired.”

“Well, your reputation certainly precedes you but to think your magic is as miraculous as this is quite simply unimaginable. Incidentally, you mentioned that even persons such as I have the ability to wield this power? Surely you jest.”

“You can most certainly wield it. It can be used by anyone with no trouble at all. However —” Mr Mithra started to say before breaking off suddenly and fixing his eyes onto my face with an unusually serious expression.

“However, it cannot be used by those who harbour cravings. If one wishes to learn the magic of Hassan Khan, one must first cast aside all wants and desires. Will you be able to do that?”

“I am confident I can.” Or so I answered, but feeling a vague uneasiness, I quickly added, “If you should be willing to teach me.”

Even so, Mr Mithra regarded me with doubtful eyes; this came as no surprise to me, for he must have thought of my pushiness as quite unrefined. Eventually he gave a hearty nod of approval.

“Then, instruct you I shall. Although, regardless of how easy it is, in order to learn one must be well rested.  Please, stay the night here.”

“I am so very grateful for your troubles.”

Overcome by the joy of being granted lesson in magic, I thanked Mr Mithra over and over. But Mr Mithra seemed entirely unconcerned as he calmly rose from his chair, “Maid, maid! Our guest will be stopping here tonight so prepare the sleeping arrangements.”

My heart was leaping as I bathed in the light of that kerosene lamp, the ash from my cigar long forgotten. I reflexively beamed up at Mr Mithra’s good-natured face.

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