Tackling Translation Troubles (Vol. 2): parallel structure

By | May 4, 2022

This is the second post of my Tackling Translation Troubles (TTT) series where I go over common challenges faced in Japanese to English translation, leveraging my own experience. In each episode I will try to use at least one example from Japanese literature to illustrate the topic at hand. (You can see the full list of episodes here.)

In this episode I would like to talk about using parallel structure in translations. Parallel structure––repeating some word or other element two or more times across a sentence, paragraph, or even larger span of text––is a very powerful technique in English and can help make the difference between a mediocre text and a great one. In fact, parallel structure can be said to be the basis for other mechanisms such as alliteration and even plays a major role in other areas such as music.

Let’s take a simple expression in English to see the power of this literary mechanism: “What comes up, must go down”. In this phrase we have a few types of parallel structure. The first involves the number of syllables in each phrase, which is three. Also, the second and third words of each phrase are the opposite (comes<->go, up<->down). Finally, the first word of each phrase ends with a hard ‘t’ sound. These things give a sing-songy feel to the phrase and makes it memorable. Now look at a similar phrase that lacks this parallel structure: “What comes up, down it goes”. While technically this means basically the same thing, not only does it not sound as poetic, but it is a bit hard to understand.

When you are translating, sometimes parallel structure can be carried over from the source text. Alternatively, sometimes you can add parallel structure in the target language even if it wasn’t there to begin with. First I want to focus on an example of the former and then one of the latter.

The text I will use is from the story “The Foundry” (工場) contained in the book “Kaimu: A Collection of Disturbing Dreams” by Yumeno Kyusaku (夢野久作), which was translated by me. In general the stories in this collection are somewhat surreal with an unusual style, and I wanted to make sure that this carried through sufficiently to the English translation. Let’s take a look at the first few lines of this story: 

(Note: I will leave the furigana reading hints are they are present in the original text, though they will be rendered in parenthesis instead.)

厳(おごそ)かに明るくなって行く鉄工場の霜朝(しもあさ)である。

二三日前からコークスを焚(た)き続けた大坩堝(おおるつ)が、鋳物(いもの)工場の薄暗がりの中で、夕日のように熟し切っている時刻である。

黄色い電燈の下で、汽鑵(ボイラー)の圧力計指針(はり)が、二百封度(ポンド)を突破すべく、無言の戦慄(せんりつ)を続けている数分間である。

真黒く煤(すす)けた工場の全体に、地下千尺(しゃく)の静けさが感じられる一刹那(せつな)である。

Even with the reading hints, this passage is somewhat difficult, so don’t worry if you aren’t following completely. Before I talk about the parallel structure, I wanted to show what one of my early translation drafts looked like.

At the steel factory, the morning frost brightened solemnly, by degrees. 

Right around this time the massive crucible, inside which had continually burned coke for the last few days, glowed bright red like a rising sun in the darkness of the foundry.

For several minutes the needle of the boiler’s pressure gauge shuddered silently beneath the yellow lights, exceeding two-hundred pounds.

For the briefest of moments I detect a terrible stillness, like that felt thousands of meters underground, permeating throughout the soot-caked foundry.

Looking back at this now, even though there are some awkward parts, overall I think the general gist of the original text is conveyed, making it a reasonable first draft.

So now I would like you to look back at the Japanese text and see if you can figure out what parallel structure I missed. Even without understanding every word, you may be able to catch it. 

Each of the four sentences in the intro end with the pattern [noun] + “dearu”, where “dearu” is the literary form of the copula (meaning “is”/”are”, similar to “da” or “desu”). While this is correct grammar, it is a bit atypical since the majority of sentences in Japanese end with some other verb that is more active. So it is clear that this parallel structure was purposefully used by the author for effect. But if you go back and look at my draft above, I totally ignored this structure and used sentences where regular (non is/are) verbs are the primary acting verbs. 

So after over ten iterations and roughly a week of tweaking things, I ended up with a version of the passage that I was finally happy with. (Although I actually didn’t end up incorporating the parallel structure until near the end of the revision process.)

It is a frost-covered morning when light begins to accumulate solemnly at the steel factory.

It is the time when the massive crucible, where coke has burned continually for the last few days, glows bright red like a setting sun in the darkness of the foundry.

It is a period of several minutes when the needle of the boiler’s pressure gauge shudders silently beneath the yellow lights, exceeding two hundred pounds.

For the briefest of moments a terrible stillness can be felt permeating throughout the soot-caked building, the kind of stillness found thousands of meters underground.

Now the parallel structure in the first three sentences is clearly visible, and if you read it out loud I think you’ll see how different it feels. Normally I would be uncomfortable with starting three sentences in a row in English with “it is…”, but in this case I think it was warranted to match the source text’s parallel structure.

You might have noticed that the fourth sentence breaks the form, and this was a compromise I decided to make. However, I did add another type of parallel structure to this sentence which was not in the original text: the repetition of “stillness” in two places. This not only makes the sentence easier to understand but simply sounds better to me, and it doesn’t add any meaning not present the original text.

By the way, another compromise I made is using “it is the time” instead of “it is a time” in the second sentence. While the latter adds more parallel structure, I felt the former sounded better somehow, perhaps because of how it creates a little variation in the pattern. But to be honest, I’m still divided; if I was going to edit this piece again I might change it to “a” after all.

If you compare the first draft and the final version, you’ll see there were a bunch of other tradeoffs and adjustments I ended up making, such as consistently using present tense.

If you are interested to see how this story turned out, you can find the book here. The stories are listed in both English-only and parallel English/Japanese, the latter as an aide for those studying Japanese, and I have also included over 60 translation notes that talk about more of my translation choices or related information about the story. (You can also pick up the book as part of a 3-book series here).

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