Promising Translators 2018 Entry Feedback: Jennifer O’Donnell’s translation of “The Professor of Magic”

By | April 20, 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 second post where I will give such feedback (here is the first). 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.

(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 Jennifer O’Donnell who won 2nd prize in the contest. She submitted a translation of a portion of the short story “The Professor of Magic” (魔法博士) by Edogawa Ranpo (江戸川 乱歩), a famous author known for his contribution to mystery fiction. You can see the original Japanese text for this story here on Aozora Bunko, which was first published in 1956. It’s important to note that this work was written for children/young adults, and you can see that reflected in the simple, comma-heavy sentence structure.

The English translation submitted was pretty good, with natural, easy-to-read prose. It was also one of the more finely edited entries in the contest, with only a handful of clear-cut mistakes or inconsistencies.  However there were a few places that I felt could use a little polishing up, as well as some places which were not quite in line with the OT (original text).

 

Two boys were walking through a residential district in Shibuya one evening; Ichiro Inoue, whose dad was an ex-boxer, and Ippei Noro, a charming but slightly timid child. They were both members of a boys detective club led by another boy, Yoshio Kobayashi.

ある夕がた、渋谷しぶや区のやしき町を、ふたりの少年が歩いていました。もとボクサーのおとうさんをもつ井上一郎いのうえいちろう君と、すこしおくびょうだけれども、あいきょうものの野呂一平のろいっぺい君です。ふたりとも、小林芳雄こばやしよしお少年を団長とする少年探偵団の団員なのです。

 

The ET (English translation) here has a matter-of-fact tone, faithfully reproducing the OT. My main comments here are regarding punctuation. First, I would consider replacing the semicolon with a colon because of the type of sentence that follows it (a list). Also, the phrase “boys detective club” arguably should have an apostrophe somewhere either after or inside the word “boys”. This phrase on its own could probably be OK, but later in the work we see the appearance of the phrase “boy’s detective club” which is inconsistent.

 

Both boys were in sixth grade and Inoue was the largest and strongest boy in class. He would sometimes learn boxing techniques from his dad which meant he couldn’t lose to anyone. Noro was tiny in comparison to Inoue and quite mischievous. Everyone called him Little Noro. Their physiques and personalities were vastly different yet they got along swimmingly.

ふたりは小学校の六年生ですが、井上君はクラスでも、いちばんからだが大きく力も強いうえに、ときどき、おとうさんにボクシングをならっているので、だれにも負けません。野呂君は井上君にくらべると、ぐっとからだが小さく、なかなかチャメスケです。ノロちゃんというあだなでとおっています。そういうふうに、からだのかっこうも、性質もちがっていますけれども、ふたりは大のなかよしでした。

 

I don’t have any major issues with this paragraph, however it could probably use some flow tweaking; there are also some subtle differences between the OT that could be adjusted. (I did, however, like the perfect rendering of ノロちゃん as “Little Noro”)

In terms of the flow, in the OT we see one longish sentence broken up by commas, whereas this is rendered as two medium sentences with no commas in the ET. In fact, in the entire paragraph in the ET there is not even a single comma, and the succession of sentences with relatively simple structure like that feels a little simplistic/monotonous to me.

I’ll try to refactor the first long sentence in the ET to maintain the form/flow a little better:

The two boys were six-graders, with Inoue the largest and strongest boy of his class––not to mention how he, at times, learned Boxing from his dad––so he never lost a fight.

I think this is a little more faithful to the OT, especially in terms of its comma-heavy pacing.

Semantically, “learn boxing techniques” is a little different from “ボクシングを習ってる”, and I feel that ”誰にも負けません” is better rendered as “he wouldn’t lose to anyone,” though I admit the latter is subjective.

Finally, the “そういうふうに” part is omitted from the ET, though one could argue this is implied. But even if it serves no semantic purpose, it definitely affects flow. One way to try and integrate it would be as follows:

> そういうふうに、からだのかっこうも、性質もちがっていますけれども、ふたりは大のなかよしでした。

In this way, both their physiques and personalities were different, but despite all that they were still great friends.

In this variation, I also added a comma at the end to improve the flow and removed “vastly” because I feel it is an unnecessary addition not in the OT. Finally, though I have no problem with “got along swimmingly,” I employed “great friends” to show another option. The second part could be reduced to “…yet they were (still) great friends” to tighten it up a bit, but I long my longer variant better.

Jumping ahead to a paragraph a little ways ahead:

 

It was a three-wheel car that looked like it had been remodeled from a smaller vehicle. The back was covered in a square box that stuck out slightly and inside that was a white screen about the size of a twenty-inch television with something hazy moving around on it.

それはオート三輪を、小型自動車のように作りかえたもので、その自動車のうしろの上のところに、板で四角にかこったものが出っぱっていて、そのおくに、二十インチのテレビぐらいの大きさの白いスクリーンに、何かモヤモヤと動いているのです。

 

In terms of flow, we see the same transformation being made from OT to ET: breaking one long sentence into two shorter ones with (once again) not even a single comma. While I am not advocating having the exact same number of commas as the OT in all situations, in this case especially the 2nd sentence here feels too long without any pauses. I’ll leave the refactoring of this into something with better flow as an exercise to the reader/translator.

While flow considerations are important, when comparing against the OT I found a more serious issue with this paragraph. It’s the translation of the following Japanese phrase:

それはオート三輪、小型自動車のよう作りかえたもので、

Notice the particles I have bolded. The pattern here is:

「object」「something else」作りかえる

When looked at this way, you may notice that the phrase “three-wheeled car… remodeled from a smaller vehicle” is backward. In my opinion, a more proper translation of that phrase would be:

“It was a three-wheeled car transformed into something like a subcompact car…”

The に is tricky because it has many uses, and in some cases can be translated using the word “from”. For example: “先生教えてもらった” => “(I) learned (it) from (the) teacher”

While a search for images of 小型自動車 shows many of them have 4 wheels, I think rather than adding an extra wheel this phrase is indicating that the car seems to have been upgraded to a larger size vehicle (so it can carry the TV, perhaps). If so, the word “smaller” in the ET doesn’t fit too well. (Note: if I was planning on publishing this piece, I would research these two terms a little more to make sure I had it right.)

I’ll skip ahead to another paragraph where I had a concern:

 

The jester made a strange gesture as he bowed. Then, still bowing, climbed into the driver’s seat and slowly drove away in the tiny car.

道化師は、みょうな身ぶりで、ひとつおじぎをすると、そのまま、運転席にはいり、小型自動車は、ノロノロと出発しました。

 

When I first read the ET, the “still bowing” part made a little red flag go off so I immediately checked the OT to find the phrase “そのまま” which has a more general meaning. I believe this is being incorrectly interpreted in the ET (and verified this with two native speakers just to be sure). The reason is that そのまま can also mean to do something “from there” or “immediately” in the sense that no other action is done in between. The image of the jester bowing his head forward and then trying awkwardly to get in the car while maintaining that posture seems comical, but I feel it was not intended by the author. So a better interpretation is that the そのまま describes a continual flow of events, as opposed to literally staying in the physical posture of bowing. If the author really meant to say that, I think “頭を下げたまま” or”お辞儀をした姿勢のままで…” would be less ambiguous.

Another issue it took me a few reads through to realize is the second sentence here is missing a subject.

Now onto a dialogue line:

 

“Yeah, me neither. And this old jester is pretty good at describing the story, don’t ya think?”

「うん、ぼくも。それに、あの道化師のおじさん、説明がうまいじゃないか。」

 

The word おじさん is a pretty generic way to describe a mature man. It doesn’t particularly have the connotation of being “old” like おじいさん would. While the man’s voice is described as しわがれ声 (a hoarse voice) earlier in the story, that could be due to him narrating all day, not from old age.

There is also the matter of the word あの that can have a psychological distance to it. Sometimes “that” (italics important) can be used to convey this, but that phrasing doesn’t fit the context here. Here is my attempt to refine this dialogue:

“Yeah, me neither. And that weird jester guy is pretty good at describing the story, don’t you think?”

The other main change I did here was replacing “ya” with “you”. While surely “ya” can be used to give a conversational/slangy feel, I felt like it was overkill here and stood out.

Next, let’s look at a punctuation issue in another dialog line:

 

They asked the man, “What kind of candy is that?”, to which he replied, “They’re called Honest Johns.” The candy was filled with something that looked like sweet rice crackers and the outside was coated in chocolate.

 

While there are different schools of thought on punctuation, I believe that generally punctuation should be either in or out of double quotes. Here it is both (see the comma shortly after the question mark in the first sentence). I’m pretty sure this comma should be omitted. (However, I admit to being less familiar with British English punctuation standards, if I am wrong on this please let me know)

 

Finally, the second sentence in the above paragraph might benefit from a little polishing, as it feels a little wordy. Here is the OT and one suggested refinement to tighten up the prose:

 

中は、あまいせんべいのようなもので、その外がわに、チョコレートがぬってあるのです。

ET: The candy was filled with something that looked like sweet rice crackers and the outside was coated in chocolate.

My suggestion: The candy looked like a sweet rice cracker, surrounded by a chocolate coating.

 

The comma here could probably be removed, but I kept it to maintain the style of the OT.

I think I’ll stop here, but may write some more feedback on this entry again in the future, once I give initial feedback to all those who requested it.

Here is the submission in full (without omitting the above-quoted paragraphs):

 

[Initial portion of “The Professor of Magic” by Edogawa Ranpo, translation by Jennifer O’Donnell]

 

The Travelling Theater

Two boys were walking through a residential district in Shibuya one evening; Ichiro Inoue, whose dad was an ex-boxer, and Ippei Noro, a charming but slightly timid child. They were both members of a boys detective club led by another boy, Yoshio Kobayashi.

Both boys were in sixth grade and Inoue was the largest and strongest boy in class. He would sometimes learn boxing techniques from his dad which meant he couldn’t lose to anyone. Noro was tiny in comparison to Inoue and quite mischievous. Everyone called him Little Noro. Their physiques and personalities were vastly different yet they got along swimmingly.

“Huh? What’s that? What a strange picture show.”

Noro was pointing across the street to where a large group of children had gathered.

“Yeah, that’s weird. That’s not a picture show. There’s no bike, just a car. Let’s check it out.”

As they got closer they began to get a better idea of what it was.

It was a three-wheel car that looked like it had been remodeled from a smaller vehicle. The back was covered in a square box that stuck out slightly and inside that was a white screen about the size of a twenty-inch television with something hazy moving around on it.

“Oh, I’ve heard of these. It’s a movie. They’re projecting it from inside the car.”

“Oh yeah. It’s a Western. I can see cowboys riding on horses.”

The two boys rushed into the crowd of spectating children.

“Well you see now, Tony was definitely killed just now. He was shot with a pistol until all the bullets ran out.”

A man described the film in a husky voice to the crowd. He was wearing a pointed hat with broad red and white stripes and a matching jester costume; his face was painted white with red circles on his cheeks. This jester must drive from town to town in his little three-wheeled vehicle like a travelling paper theater.

In that case he should have also been selling candy, and sure enough when they glanced around they saw the other children were holding missile shaped chocolate-colored candy, each about twenty-centimeters long. Some of the children were licking it.

They asked the man, “What kind of candy is that?”, to which he replied, “They’re called Honest Johns.” The candy was filled with something that looked like sweet rice crackers and the outside was coated in chocolate.

When they looked at the side of the tiny car they could see a number of framed movie stills lined across the top. Below them “The Travelling Theater” was written in large letters.

“How much for the candy?” they asked the man again.

“Ten yen each.” He replied.

They figured ten yen was pretty cheap if they got to see a movie like this with it.

“This Travelling Theater is a pretty good idea. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“Yeah, me neither. And this old jester is pretty good at describing the story, don’t ya think?”

When the cowboy movie finished the jester clacked some wooden clappers together. “That’s all for today folks! But I’ll be back same time tomorrow. Don’t forget your pocket money. Later kids!”

The jester made a strange gesture as he bowed. Then, still bowing, climbed into the driver’s seat and slowly drove away in the tiny car.

The two boys, Inoue and Noro, didn’t feel like going home so they followed, jogging after the slowly moving vehicle. It was moving so slowly that they could easily keep up.

Then, while the car was plodding along, the jester popped his head out of the driver’s window and looked behind him. He saw the two boys following and flashed them a grin. It was a strange, slightly terrifying, indescribable smile.

The boys thought “That was a little weird. This jester might be bad news.”

They continued to follow the car for a while before it stopped at the corner of another neighborhood. The jester didn’t get out, but after a while the car door opened and out stepped a completely different strange man.

He wore a Western style suit so black it looked like he was in mourning. On his head sat a black piece of cloth from which jutted two black horns, and on his face he wore a mask that only covered his eyes. Below the mask a pointed beard protruded out from under his large nose. He looked like a Western demon.

He clacked some wooden clappers together and in a loud voice shouted “Come one, come all, gather around, a fantastic movie is about to start! An action filled film is about to start, come now!”

It was already evening however so not many children gathered. About four or five kids finally approached the car. The man, now transformed into a Western demon, started by selling the Honest Johns before beginning the movie and explaining it with gusto.

“That’s so weird. What happened to that jester?” Inoue whispered.

Noro replied in a manner-of-fact way, “That’s not it. The jester changed into this strange man. There was only one person in the car after all. He must be a master of disguise. But he still seems kinda fishy. Let’s follow him some more later.”

“Yeah, alright.”

As members of a boy’s detective club the two of them felt that they had to follow any suspicious people when they saw them.

When the movie concluded the Western demon got back into the driver’s seat and drove off. Once again slow enough for them to run after it. The Western demon stuck his head out of the car window every now and then to peek behind him, checking to see if the two boys were still following him.

Oh, it was a little worrying. Perhaps this mysterious man was driving his car slowly on purpose, leading the two boys somewhere?

It wasn’t quite nighttime, but the area was gradually getting darker and darker. Dark enough that they were finding it difficult to see very far ahead.

The vehicle kept going for a while before stopping once more. Then it sat there for a while. It seemed as though the man was going to disguise himself as something else once more.

The two boys began to sense that something wasn’t right so kept their distance. They held back at about ten meters, keeping an eye on the vehicle the entire time.

They were in a quiet residential area lined with fences as far as the eye could see. Enough that they figured no children would come out to watch the film.

After a little while a giant yellow thing squeezed out of the driver’s seat of the car. It was utterly shocking, like nothing they’d ever seen before.

Its whole body was yellow with fat black stripes. It didn’t stand and walk, but moved around on all fours, slowly lumbering towards them.

“Woah, it’s a tiger, a tiger coming right for us…!” Noro cried out wildly before running away.

Inoue was about to turn to run after him, it was without a doubt a tiger, but he thought it was very odd when the tiger popped up on its hind legs.

The moment he thought “huh?” the tiger held out its two front paws with the wooden clappers that were around its neck and clap, clap clapped them together. It was as good as a human with those clappers.

“Hey, Little Noro! It’s a human. There’s a person in that thing. You don’t need to run away.”

Inoue had remained calm and saw through the fake tiger disguise the person was wearing.

“You sure?” Noro called back, his breath ragged from running as fast as he could.

“Look. Can a real tiger use clappers like that? It’s a human. Just take a look. He’s starting up the movie.”

The boys slowly approached the tiger.

That was when two or three children who had heard the clappers came running over. The moment they saw the tiger they stopped, standing stock still in shock, but when the tiger began to speak with a human voice, they unfroze and approached the car.

The tiger stayed standing on its hind legs as it waved its two paws around in a strange gesture and began to speak.

“Well aren’t you all good children. You thought I was a real tiger and ran away, but you came back. You’re all so brave. That’s very admirable. Here’s a reward. On the house.”

As the tiger spoke he pulled out Honest Johns from the car and gave everyone one each. The children were tempted to run away because of the creeping feeling in their gut, but the tiger spoke with such a kind voice that they relaxed and took the candy. He even gave one to Inoue and Noro.

Noro calmed down as soon as he realized the tiger was actually a human. He went up next to the tiger and began to stroke its fur as he spoke.

“Hey mister, why do you have so many different costumes? Isn’t it hard changing every single time you stop your car?”

The tiger looked down at him and opened its crimson mouth.

“Ei-hehehehe… Well you see I want everyone to think of me as a master of disguise. Children will think it’s rare and want to come and have a look, which means I can sell lots of candy. But you and your friend over there have been following me for a while now. You must have realized I can transform into anything in the blink of an eye. What do you think, care to follow me a little longer? I’ll show you both something quite spectacular, you won’t believe your eyes.”

Inoue and Noro looked at each other. It was already getting dark, should they continue following such a creepy person?

But they were members of the boy’s detective club, disciples of Yoshio Kobayashi. They had a duty, they felt the worse someone was the more reason they had to keep on tailing them.

The brave Inoue decided that they had to continue following this man until the found out who he really was.

“Alright. We’ll follow you just a bit more. But where are you going?”

“Just over there. It’s only ten minutes away.”

The tiger pointed with his forepaw as he spoke in a soft coaxing manner.

That was when Inoue took the hesitant Noro’s hand and they followed after the vehicle.

They were getting more and more worried. What in the world was in store for them next?

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3 thoughts on “Promising Translators 2018 Entry Feedback: Jennifer O’Donnell’s translation of “The Professor of Magic”

  1. Jennifer O'Donnell

    Thank you very much for the feedback Jeff!

    I admit I’m actually not well versed on the correct usage of English punctuation in parts. This is certainly an area I feel I need to read up on more.

    I’ve also heard mixed opinions about breaking up the OT sentences when they’re too long. Or maintaining the original sentence structure. I’ve hear some people say it’s flexible as long as it sounds good and nothing is omitted. But others, like yourself, who prefer to maintain the original sentence structure.
    I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Also, what do you suggest a translator does to better self-edit their work? How can we tell if the language flows right in our language? I find that often I’m so close to the original Japanese that I can’t see the wood through the trees. Even after leaving the translation alone for a day.

    Thank you so much again!

    Reply

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