Shelly Bryant

The Text is More Important than the Process

I’m very happy to have Alluvium editor Susie Gordon back for another conversation at A Polite Lie this month, where we will once again cover a wide range of topics. This month, we are joined by poet and translator Miho Kinnas.
Susie’s course with Tender Leaves, entitled Editing Literary Translations, includes 6 video modules (audio and written transcripts available), a suggested reading list, and 1-month paid access to all content at A Polite Lie. Miho’s course, Fiction and Translation: a case study of Translations of Murakami, includes 4 videos, 3 ebooks, and 1-month access to A Polite Lie.


Hi, Susie and Miho! It’s great to have both of you with me here for a discussion at A Polite Lie. Miho, a special welcome to you, as this is your first time to join us for a chat.

Last month we (Susie and I) talked a lot about footnotes / end notes, and how they can become intrusive – even insulting – if they over-explain the text to the reader, in that they run the risk of eliminating all of the space the reader is meant to occupy, effectively putting unnecessary limits on the reading experience by cutting off other possibilities that were otherwise open to the reader. Just as we were finishing up that conversation, we (Miho and I) exchanged thoughts about the review of Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs (edited by Maghiel van Crevel and Lucas Klein),  that appeared in the Cha blog.

The review is wonderfully detailed, and it prompted me to get my hands on the book – so a big thank you to reviewer Cyril Camus for that! – and it discusses the first item in the collection, which includes a series of three translations by Jenn Marie Nunes of Yu Xiuhua's poem “我养的狗,叫小巫.” Miho, you and I were both quite taken with the idea of publishing three translations of a poem together (all of these being produced by the same translator), as we agreed it was a more effective way to represent what a translated poem is – one possibility among many. Alongside the multiple translations of the poem, Camus describes "the flow of Yu’s translated description/narrative being frequently interrupted by short or sometimes longer interpolations of Nunes’s own thoughts, be they mere translator’s notes or more personal departures from the substance of the text, like personal memories about her experience of womanhood, and family.” There is here and in other parts of the review a good argument to go against what I said in our discussion last month (basically, that such notes are intrusive and controlling). In this instance, the notes are meant to do the opposite – a deferment of giving a translation that would be read in any sense as “final,” which thus serves to remind that any translation is always going to be just one possible version, never the version in the new language. I like this very much, and appreciate this approach in this context.

That said, I have to say that I find that this is a more reasonable approach to translating poetry than to translating prose – even the most lyrical of prose. I’ve often said that I wish there were enough resources for each novel to have multiple translations into the target language, put together by different translators with different styles. I think that would give the readers of the translated text a better picture of the work in the original than reading just one translation could do. But sadly, it’s hard enough to get a single translation of a good novel out, much less to source for the financial backing to create multiple translations at the same time.

Here’s what I’m trying to sort through – how could this practice of creating multiple texts be most closely mimicked in prose, while also keeping up the pace of reading that is so important to the reader’s experience of the story?


One way to do this is by the translator's note. 

The Penguin Book of Haiku is a poetry translation; however, the translator/editor Adam Kern's Introduction, Note on the Translation and Chronology of Japanese history from the point of view of Japanese literature alone is worth the book's price. 

Betsy Wing translated philosopher Édouard Glissant's "Poetics of Relation." Her "Translator's Introduction" pushes the point the author wants to make through her problems with the translation process. 

The author also provided a Glossary: for readers from elsewhere, who don't deal very well with unknown words or who want to understand everything.

Now, this is an interesting quote to think about. 

The Tale of Genji shows an ideal situation.  

The Tale of Genji is often called the first novel. It was written in the early 11th century (1003/1008) by Murasaki Shikibu. It is a love story about Prince Genji and his numerous women involving ghosts, politics, love and jealousy. Several "copied" versions exist.  Various illustrated scrolls have existed since the 12th century.  Four English translations are well known. (Suematsu Kencho (1882), Arthur Waley (1025 - 1933), Edward Seidensticker(1976) and Royall Tyler (2001.)

(I should compare them, too.)

In the last 50 years, at least ten into-contemporary Japanese language translations were published. 

1) Most of the translators are popular female novelists. 

2) Some translations follow the structure of the original.  Others added some changes such as:

• Eliminated some chapters (there are 54 chapters)

• Rewrote it from a different point of view

• Added the translators' opinions

3) Grammatically, what makes the reading of original difficult is the extensive use of honorific. 

The narrator speaks of the characters of higher places.  THe language of Humility by the speaker adds extra layers.  (in contemporary Japanese, it is tricky and difficult but it was a lot worse 1,000 years ago.)

4) Most of them eliminated the notes + footnotes.  However, some added a chapter summary or gave extra attention and explanations for waka poetry.  The story is written in the combination of prose and poetry.)

5) Wrotomgs styles are described as: classy, elegant, to easy to digest, as if reading a contemporary novel, to too erotic. 

There also are various manga Genji stories.

There are several highly regarded ones.  The strength of manga is to be able to show the objects the contemporary readers are no longer familiar with.  

In the first half of the 20th century - Yosano Akiko and Tanizaki Jyunichiro produced the modern Genji versions.

Yosano Akiko is a tanka poet and Tanizaki Jyunichiro a novelist. They were both considered as the best in their genre at that time. 

Yosano's version is more gender neutral in her writing style. 

Tanizaki emphasized the Kyoto (the wester Japan) female voice.  


Hi Shelly and Miho! Great to be chatting with both of you here. Miho, it's interesting that you mention Arthur Waley's translation of 
The Tale of Genji. He also produced one of the multiple English translations of the Chinese classic Journey to the West. I came across his work when I was looking at English translations of Chinese literature as part of my Phd research. I think with canonical texts like Genji and Journey, a body of translation often accumulates over time, with each translator bringing their own perspective, coloured by the cultural zeitgeist of their era. 

Shelly, what you said about creating multiple texts reminds me of the way publishers sometimes hire translators - asking for samples of, say, the opening chapter or pages. As you say, it's just not financially possible to produce whole bodies of texts this way, but it would be such an interesting way of publishing translations. It also reminds me of translation classes when I was an undergraduate, five or six of us producing our own modern English translations of Old English poetry and prose fragments. Hearing everyone else's efforts was very helpful in forming a broader understanding of the texts.