“Convenience Store Woman” and the intriguing translation of a simple phrase

By | July 24, 2020

“Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata (村田沙耶香) was a great novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, to the extent that right after finishing it I even tried translating the first few paragraphs as an exercise. While I felt the book was a relatively easy read, even for a non-native Japanese speaker like me, that experiment helped me get a taste of how challenging a good translation this work would be.

That’s why when I recently saw a tweet from someone (@japanesepearl) saying the phrase “ありがとうございました” had been translated as “Thank you for your custom!” I was somewhat surprised––and intrigued.

At the surface, this seemed suspicious because the Japanese phrase in question was as simple and everyday as they come, and yet the English translation of it was a phrase I had never heard before. So I decided to do a little research to try and understand what was going on here.

The English phrase actually seems to be a British phrase, but when I asked a British friend he told me it sounded very old fashioned, and even mentioned that it had the nuance of being something that might appear in a book from around 1840 (I think he was exaggerating a bit, but still). On the other hand, according to someone on an online forum this phrase was standard usage in British English. 

As it turns out, there’s an interview from the translator Ginny Tapley Takemori with the website Books on Asia. (By the way, Takemori is a pretty experienced translator with at least 20 books under her belt, including a few other works from Sayaka Murata and a few from Miyuki Miyabe, another popular author). In the interview Takemori speaks briefly about the phrase in question––and the real topic of this article, which I’ll get to in just a minute––here: [part bolded by me]


BOA: Being British, did you translate into British English or American English? Personally, I wish American publishers wouldn’t change British English spelling and references because I feel that part of the fun of reading is discovering differences in language. I am curious if Grove Press changed any of the English to account for the American version?

Takemori: I aim for a literary language that is neither particularly British nor American, although of course there will be some influence depending on who I’m translating for. I translated this for Grove Press, an American publisher, and so it is nominally in American English. They changed very little of my translation beyond normal editing. There are peculiarities of phrase such as “Thank you for your custom” but my intention here and elsewhere was to create a formulaic-sounding language to roughly approximate the manual-dictated customer service language (baito keigo as it’s known in Japanese) in which there is really no equivalent for in English. It shouldn’t sound too natural! That said, yes, I do find it a bit sad that American publishers generally change British English to cater to their readers. British publishers rarely do this, and UK readers are quite accustomed to handling all types of English from around the world, which I feel adds to the richness of the reading experience.


First of all, it’s clear that Takemori put into a lot of thought into her various word choices during the translation process, which I think is great. Furthermore, she specifically says some parts of the translation (including the phrase in question) are not supposed to sound natural. This highlights an important point about translation, because I’m fairly certain the phrase “ありがとうございました” itself is not “baito keigo” (customer service language). But if we assume that some of the other phrases in the book are more squarely in that category it makes sense to adjust the English choice of wording here and there to give an overall atmosphere of the characters’ speech patterns. Put simply, she is translating not at the sentence level, but more at a higher semantic level. This too is definitely one sign of a skillful translation, in my opinion.

But this led me to another concern, which is how unnatural the (British) English phrase in question would feel to different readers. While I won’t try to make any authoritative claims, I feel that some American readers (like myself) will be a little surprised to see this phrase––though undoubtedly they will understand what it means in context. British readers, on the other hand, will likely have some level of familiarity, and some (like my friend) may feel this expression is a bit old fashioned. Yes, in both cases it is “unnatural”, but unnatural in two very different senses.

Takemori talks about her translation as being “nominally in American English”, but perhaps “nominally” here mans that in fact there may be English from other countries here and there, and it turns out that (as mentioned in the interview) Takemori herself is British. This brings up the question about whether she thought how the aforementioned phrase would be interpreted by other English-speaking cultures, but I think the ultimate responsibility here should fall to the publisher/editor. One reason is that, frankly, I think it’s not reasonable for translators to be expected to have a complete grasp of how certain phrases and words would be felt by readers of a variety of cultures/countries (and this counts for more than just Americans).

It also turns out that Grove Press is an American publisher, and surely would have known that “Thank you for your custom” was not something American readers would be too familiar with, and therefore made the explicit choice to leave it in.

In fact, in the above interview quote, the editor of Books on Asia specifically talks about how publishers shouldn’t change British English spelling and references because “part of the fun of reading is discovering differences in language”. With respect to non-translated texts, I completely agree and personally enjoy the culture and linguistic differences when reading books by British Authors, as well as those from other cultures/countries.

But what about translated texts? The reason I initially felt a certain iwakan (a Japanese word for a sense of incongruity, like something is somehow not right) about this because it seems that translators should act as a mirror to reflect back whatever they get onto a different (linguistic) spectrum, but without letting their individuality show. Part of me feels that I shouldn’t have to stop in the middle of reading a book and think “Oh, this expression was used because the translator was from so-and-so country” because, ultimately, I want to focus on what the original author wrote (or implied as per the interpretation of the translator). It seems that Takemori’s choice might be perfect for a British audience, but I am still debating with myself on whether it is best for an American audience.

Now, let’s assume for a moment that I claim publisher should convert the translator’s result into the dialect of their primary demographic, or make it neutral (such that it can’t quite be directly associated with any specific country). The latter to me is clearly distasteful, since it involves removing culture references and other things in the process of cultural normalization. 

And the former…well, this is exactly what BOA’s editor (and Takemori herself, and the end of her answer above) is arguing against. As I write this, I am starting to agree with them because it seems that converting the translator’s text is essentially another form of translation, and I think most people would agree that translations-of-translations are not the best way to really capture the original text. The other options here don’t seem appropriate either: force the translator to use a dialect of English they are not as familiar with, or only hire translators who are from the same country as the publisher (this would surely exclude many excellent translators, like Takemori herself).

So where does this leave us readers? Well, any reader who consumes a diverse set of authors and genres is bound to come in contact with a dialect that differs from their own. For non-translated literature this certainly adds more depth, and now I am starting to feel it has similar benefits for translated works as well. While some people can look at the act of translation as simply a “conversion” of sorts, I’ve done enough translation myself to know that it requires a great deal of thought, creativity, and I really have to put my heart and soul into it to get a good result. I can’t just ignore my role in the process, and I don’t think readers should ignore the role of translators in general. Even if many different translators could theoretically make a sufficient translation of a certain piece, if you find yourself reading what looks like a good translation you should acknowledge the translator’s individuality and creativity (as opposed to thinking they are “just some random person translated this book”).

Also, in this increasingly connected world (especially now that E-books are becoming more and more popular), publishers need to think more globally. Catering to a “local” audience is starting to make less and less sense because people from all over the world can buy (and will) buy their books. And those readers are becoming more and more aware of authors, publishers, and translators’ individuality in a global context.

I realize this article was a bit less structured and more meandering than many of my other ones, but it was my intention from the start to think things through as I write and hopefully reach some conclusion by the end. Part of the fun of being a translator (or just being interested in translation) is being able to think about topics like what makes a proper translation, and these discourses can enrich our understanding and appreciation of translation and literature in general.

By the way, I haven’t actually read the entire English translation of “Convenience Store Woman”, but just from reading the first few pages it’s evident that Takemori produced a smooth, natural translation. You can see the English version on Amazon here; I’d recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.

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2 thoughts on ““Convenience Store Woman” and the intriguing translation of a simple phrase

  1. JB

    Fantastic post! There are two perspectives you’ve brought up here that I find super fascinating in terms of one’s “responsibility” in producing and consuming art.

    First: As a producer of art, I find I do my best writing if I envision a specific audience, an “ideal reader” if you will. My responsibility is to write a story that speaks to that ideal. And if done well, it will actually be at the expense of those who don’t fit that specific audience (for example, when two people read the same book but come away with two very different experiences). My thought is that translation has the same responsibility: though translation expands the possible audience, there is only some among them for whom the story is meant. In other words, I feel as if the hard work that a producer of art must put in for both writing and translation is not the avoidance of excluding readers, but finding a balance of inclusion and exclusion that helps carry the truth of the story.

    Second: I believe that part of the power of art, especially translation, is being able to give consumers that experience of the unfamiliar, of being adrift and unsettled – for it is in the act of knocking our sense of the world slightly askew that art can help us see the world in a new way. Thus as a consumer or reader of translation, my responsibility is to accept that unfamiliarity, confront it even, and question not the work – meaning neither the author nor the translator – but my reaction to said work. I must take responsibility for the assumptions, personal history, etc. I am bringing into the experience. As a consumer, I must accept that I am an active participant in the experience of the work – it does not lie soley on the shoulders of the author or translator. (I think this also comes from my belief that reading provides a unique opportunity to observe and learn about one’s self through the reactions, memories, and emotions one has while reading…)

    I hope you’ll excuse the long comment – your post explored such wonderful points that I couldn’t help but join in!

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comments!

      I especially liked your mention of how the reader is part of the experience, that is an angle I haven’t really thought about in terms of translation.

      Also, to your point about an “ideal reader”, I think translators must at least have some idea of the ‘ideal reader’ in the back of their mind, or perhaps ‘average reader’ is a better term for it. For example, readers with some idea of Japanese culture might understand words like “mangaka”, whereas others wouldn’t get it and giving a translation note would be better.

      This reminds me of another article I wrote on that topic:

      http://selftaughtjapanese.com/2020/03/09/translation-tips-dealing-with-culturally-unique-terms/

      Reply

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