Saraiya Goyou/House of Five Leaves: Natsume Ono

Bilingualling it up! Nothing like a good comparative read. Ten pages in English, ten pages in Japanese, flip back and forth between the two to see how the translator did what, compare that to the English that floated up in your head as you were reading, think about how you would do things differently. I admit it, I am a total translation nerd. I love puzzling over words like this, and as I learned up close and crazy at a translation workshop last summer, every translator will translate the same sentence in a different way.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is wrong (although it does sometimes). Just that language is not quite the mathematical process I sometimes like to pretend it is. At least half of a translation (and maybe more) is the translator’s interpretation as a reader, especially with fiction. Not so much with the business reports. Those are much closer to the maths view of language. So reading someone else’s translation alongside the original is a good way to get some new insight into a text and learn some new ways to translate standard phrases. (I am always collecting different ways to say しようがない (shiyou ga nai) in English.)

Although with House of Five Leaves, I wasn’t so much looking for new insight as studying up for a job. I’m interpreting for Natsume Ono at TCAF in May (you should totally come if you are in Toronto! It is always a glorious haven for the comics-minded! Just be careful about how much money you bring. It will run through your fingers like water) and so I’m reading and re-reading her work to get ready. The tricky part about interpreting for manga artists is the names. At least for me it is. I’m already pretty good at speaking English and Japanese, and I have the vocabulary in both languages to handle the kinds of things that come up interpreting for manga artists. Except! The titles of works, characters, places, all the things fans are likely to talk to the artist about. So a fan at a signing will gush about House of Five Leaves and I have to tell Ono that the fan loves Saraiya Goyou. It makes interpreting so much easier if I have the vocab sitting in my head waiting for me to use it.

It’s also easier when I love the work of the person I’m interpreting for. And I love Natsume Ono. I love her style. I love the big dark eyes of her characters, so insanely expressive. I love the way she can capture some awkward emotion without resorting to manga tropes like beads or sweat and frantic panic star bursts. And it helps that she is also a great storyteller.

House of Five Leaves is the tale of a possibly noble band of kidnappers. Which is a small spoiler in English since it doesn’t come up the end of Chapter 1. Here is where the translation could be more. I’m not sure who decided on the title in English, but it must have been a tough one to figure out. In Japanese, saraiya is basically kidnappers, or if you want, house of kidnappers, and goyou is five leaves. So there’s a clue in the title for the Japanese reader that the English reader doesn’t have. But House of Five Leaves is a great title and totally fits the mood of the book. “House of Kidnappers, Five Leaves” is terrible. I can’t fault them for picking a beautiful English title, even if something was lost in the process.

I do question the decision of editor Leyla Aker (or maybe it was translator Joe Yamazaki?) to use Japanese honorifics like -san, -chan, and -dono. I kind of hate this kind of thing. I’m guessing that fans don’t, though? My thinking on translation is very much focused on giving the English reader an experience as close as possible to that of the Japanese reader. So for me, sticking in -sans and all that is akin to slapping Misters all over something translated into Japanese. It’s just so out of place. Honorifics are totally normal things in Japanese and certainly not something you generally have to think about. But in English, they’re weird and exotic, and they are a bit of a stumble for the reader. And they change the experience from what the Japanese reader might have had.

But this would be a tough book to translate. It’s a period piece, set way back in the glory days of Edo, and the main character Masanosuke Akitsu is a ronin, one of those lordless samurai. He attaches the archaic-sounding でござる (degozaru) to every sentence he speaks, instantly giving a little period piece flavour to everything he says. And formality. Everyone else speaks in varying levels of formality but without this stiff little phrase, and so it gives the reader an insight into Masanosuke’s character. One word and we learn so much! But rendering this into English? Sigh and sad head shake. We just don’t have this kind of flexible language marker in English.

If you write his speech in a Shakespeare-type way, fans will grump about how awkward and distancing it is (see also: Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga). If you don’t do anything to his speech, you lose all this information. The translator here chose to make him avoid contractions. This does give his speech a stiffness and it’s probably what I would’ve done too. My only issue is that it’s not consistent. Sometimes, Masanosuke sounds like everyone else, so it seems like he is jumping back and forth between formal and casual, like his character is switching back and forth, and I just can’t get behind his character even though it’s clear I’m supposed to be sympathizing with him. And I had no such problem in Japanese. Ono mixes contemporary Japanese with Edo-style talk in a way that both sets the piece firmly in the past and allows the reader to slip into the characters, without slamming up against old/new language barriers.

This was my problem overall with the translation. There’s inconsistencies in how each character’s speech is rendered so that I didn’t feel like I knew them as well in English as I did in Japanese. But I work in manga translation too, and I completely understand the pressures that were happening behind the scenes on this book. Deadlines are often short, budgets are almost always tight and you don’t always get to be as thorough with a book as you’d like. Although in my experience, this only applies to the volume publishers. A boutique publisher like Drawn & Quarterly (full disclosure: I do work for them) gives each book the time it needs, which is so much happiness if you are doing the translation.

All that said, I wouldn’t let my translation objections keep you away from House of Five Leaves. The translation’s still good, despite my objections, the book is pretty compelling and Ono’s voice shines through. They’ve made it into an anime now, but it’s not arrived on our Western shores yet. So if you read the manga now, you can be all hipster detached when the anime shows up. (Oh no, wait, it’s too late. So um, just read the books and tell people you don’t watch TV in a really snotty voice?)


  1. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely thought the translation was a good one, especially since I know this would have been a difficult book to translate. There were occasional inconsistencies in the characters’ voices, but probably nothing the casual reader would object too. I was reading this with a pretty critical eye for work, which I’m sure changed my experience of the English text.

    And thanks for pointing me towards your write-up. I hadn’t seen that before. Good thoughts on kidnapping in there and it gives me a new perspective toward the manga. .

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