Sunday, October 09, 2005


Recently, in my local library, I was paging through their copy of the English-language Fruits Basket vol. 7, and as I did so I remembered that some of the scenes had puzzled me when I originally read them in Japanese. So I checked it out of the library, hoping that rereading it in light of the revelations of later volumes, especially in translation, would make things clearer. This did happen to some extent. But I also found instances where the translation introduced obscurities that weren't there in the original, or was simply misleading. (Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley are credited with "translation," and Jake Forbes with "English adaptation"; for convenience I'll refer to them collectively as the translators. Note that I'm not making any judgement on the translation as a whole. Mistakes are inevitable in any translation, and I have no reason to believe that the translation of Fruits Basket is less accurate than that of the average licensed manga, despite the several posts I've devoted to the topic. I'm simply presenting information for those who are reading the series in English.)

Because I had found the conversation between Shigure and Hatori on pp. 51-55 of the English volume obscure, I checked it against the Japanese text. (If you happen to own the Japanese volume and want to follow this discussion in it, you'll need to subtract two from the English page numbers to get the Japanese page numbers.) In panel four of p. 53 in the English version, Shigure says: "Whatever we choose to do, mistakes we make... Akito will be the one to pay for it in the end." The Japanese reads: "Suki ni sureba ii. Doose saigo ni omoishiru no wa Akito nanda." "Suki ni suru" is a phrase meaning "do as one pleases" or "act as one's fancy dictates" (according to my big Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary, 1954 edition), so the first sentence should be translated: "We can do as we please." "Omoishiru" is one of those annoying Japanese words with multiple meanings: among other things, it can mean "feel one's vengeance," "know to one's cost," or "repent of." In this context, "feel one's vengeance" is probably the way to go. So an accurate translation of the second sentence would be something like "In the end, the one who feels another's vengeance will be Akito" (which may seem obscure now, but will make more sense after you've read later volumes); except I can't think of any non-awkward way to say this in English. So I guess I'd go with something like "We can do as we please. In the end, the one who suffers will be Akito," despite losing the idea of vengeance. But the main problem with the translation here is the first sentence. As a response to "We can do as we please," Hatori's answer "You're so childish" makes sense, but in the English translation it comes off as a non sequitur. (My guess as to where the "mistakes" in the translation, which have no counterpart in the Japanese, came from: the translators interpreted "omoishiru" as meaning "know to one's cost" or "repent of," and stuck "mistakes" into the first sentence to make sense of this.)

My next problem spot is on panel two of the next page. Hatori's response here is given as "Such trivial labels": an inexplicable abridgement of the Japanese, which is "Aitsu wa mou sou iu reberu no yatsu ja nai darou," which translates roughly as "He's already beyond a label like that." This makes sense of Ayame's aside "Because I'm the king!" which again comes off as a non sequitur in the translation.

My third example is from the second balloon in the next panel on this page, where the translation is not so much wrong as incomplete. To those unfamiliar with the Japanese writing system, I'll have to provide a little background to make sense of what's going on here. Japanese is written in a combination of two kinds of characters: kana, which stand for syllables, and of which there are over a little more than 100; and kanji, which stand for words or part of words, and of which there are around 2000 in regular use, and many more that are occasionally used. Learning all the kana isn't much more difficult than learning the alphabet, but learning kanji is much more difficult and time-consuming. In fact, by the end of sixth grade Japanese schoolchildren are only expected to know about 1000 of the approximately 2000 regularly used kanji. Hence manga aimed at children and adolescents typically place next to each kanji, kana in tiny type indicating how that kanji is to be pronounced. These tiny kana are called furigana. (Manga or regular prose for adults may use furigana occasionally, too.)

What I've just described is the usual use of furigana. But occasionally you will see tiny kana which do not indicate the pronunciation of the kanji they're next to. This is something that Takaya likes to do, and it happens in the balloon I'm talking about. The English translation is "I'm worried about whether she'll have to face it." In the Japanese text, corresponding to "she" in the English text we have the kanji for "Honda-kun," with the Japanese word for "she" (kanojo) given as furigana. The interpretation I've read of this sort of thing, when it occurs in dialogue, is that the furigana represent what is actually said, while the kanji make clear to the reader what is meant. In Japanese, third-person pronouns are rarely used, so Hatori's using one to refer to Tohru would have a significance that the use of "she" in English can't convey. (The use of bold type in the English translation presumably is meant to convey something of such significance.) But whatever is gained by mimicking the Japanese text's use of "she" isn't worth the confusion created by not indicating who "she" refers to. (It's not indicated anywhere else in the conversation, either.) When I read the English version I couldn't tell whether Hatori was talking about Tohru, Kisa, or someone not yet introduced.

My final example is not a case where something was left out, but where something was added that shouldn't have been. In the second panel on page 52, the fourth balloon (the one placed between Shigure and Hatori) reads "And who could blame the poor boy? If I were in his shoes, I would have done just the same." This is pure invention on the translators' part. What the Japanese says is "Soba ni chikazuku no o saketeta nja. Shikata nai," which I would translate as "He kept his distance from her. It was inevitable." While the facts are unaltered, the overt sympathy the translators inject into Shigure's speech is absent from what Takaya wrote.

To be sure, none of these translation problems affect the plot. But Fruits Basket is less about the plot than about character. And the English translation does alter Shigure's character, as seen in this dialogue, significantly. In addition, it makes Takaya's writing seem more obscure than it really is.

[Update, 10/10: I revised the final paragraph, and also fixed a couple of embarrassing typos.]

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