Love, the moon, and translation

Natsume Soseki once taught his students that the correct Japanese translation for “I love you” is “Tsuki ga tottemo aoi naa” (The moon is so blue tonight); what he meant was that to express within the Japanese cultural framework the same emotion expressed in English by “I love you,” one must choose words like “The moon is so blue tonight.”

(From Satō Kenji, “More Animated than Life: A Critical Overview of Japanese Animated Films,” Japan Echo, December 1997.)

I included that quote in a post here some time ago. The other day, it came back to mind during some searching through the Honyaku Archive, when I spotted:

Anyway, in a book titled 「あなたもSF作家になれる…わけではない」by SF writer 豊田有恒 (Toyota Aritsune) (徳間文庫)there is a passage on page 230 that goes:

夏目漱石が、英語の授業のとき、学生たちに、 I love you. を訳させた話は有名です。学生たちは、「我、汝を愛す」とか、「僕は、そなたを、愛しう思う」とかいう訳を、ひねりだしました。

「おまえら、それでも、日本人か?」漱石は、一喝してから、つけくわえたということです。「日本人は、そんな、いけ図々しいことは口にしない。これは、月がとっても青いなあーと訳すものだ」

なるほど、明治時代の男女が、人目をしのんで、ランデブーをしているときなら、「月がとっても青いなあ」と言えば、 I love you. の意味になったのでしょう。もっとも、現在では、ここまで凝らなくても、直訳でも通じるはずです。ただし、文化的な発想の違いにぶるかって、面くらうことは、まだまだ、たくさんあります。

Very belated thanks to Kevin Kirton for tracking this down in 2001. In another post in that same thread, Emily Shibata-Sato offers:

A similar example is by 二葉亭四迷 (Futabatei Shimei) who, in his translation of ツルゲーネフ, used 死んでもいいわ for “I love you.”

All interesting stuff. Persuasive arguments against computers managing to translate literature effectively anytime soon, too. (Once again, if you’d like to read that Japan Echo article, let me know and I will see if I can get a scan of it into a PDF for you.)

6 thoughts on “Love, the moon, and translation

  1. I remember you (somebody?) mentioning this before. With a couple of years basic translation experience under my belt now, I’m very much more aware of the skill being about reading the emotions in a given context. ‘What would we normally say in English in this situation..?’

    Of course, the translator must decide how appropriate it is to substitute completely different phrases that have a similar feeling in the target language or to translate the text more faithfully, word-to-word. I’ve never done any novel translations, but I imagine it demands a lot more of this emotion interpretation than the sort of stuff I deal with. 細菌性髄膜炎 is always ‘bacterial meningitis’, after all :p.

    P.S. Would like to read that article – could you send me a copy?

  2. Actually more of the time it’s up to the client, not the translator, to make those decisions. If the company/agency/ministry wants chokuyaku you’re obliged to provide something closer to that end of the scale. You can of course provide guidance to the client in the process—”you know, this sort of text won’t be as effective as you want it to be”—but the decisions often get made on the money side, not the translator’s side.

    I’ll see about producing a PDF at some point today.

  3. Hi,
    I just read the article today. Its quite interesting.There is a small chance but if you still have that pdf copy of Japan Echo could you send it to me please? I would appreciate that 🙂

  4. 田山花袋は、布団 で、結構変態ぽいこといったような… うる覚えるですが、先生のヘラヘラ顏で覚えます… 面白いことを教えてくださり感謝…

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