Thursday, 17 November 2011

Lost in Translation/Translating Culture

About a year ago I received my first translation contract (Japanese to English, computer software GUI and 600 page manual). While I have never formally trained as a translator nor studied Japanese language in any official capacity, I have however lived, worked and loved in Japan for close to eight years. When I had free time at work, I studied kanji (Chinese characters), when I had a day off, I would do grammar drills, endlessly writing out example sentences and my own variations. Although my mother was bilingual (English, Slovenian), home-life was all English. I grew up monolingual and made myself bilingual.

Recently, I came across Mattie Brice’s story on Popmatters about English language voice acting in games originating from Japan. Brice’s article in many ways mirrors and clearly articulates a few thoughts I have had rumbling about in my mind over the last few years. Several years ago, I came across a news story (which, despite searching around has failed to reappear) about translation of Toni Morrison into Japanese. I cannot comment on neither the veracity of the argument nor the accuracy of my memory, but I distinctly remember mention of the use of Japanese regional dialects (particularly the well known/stigmatised Aomori and Tohoku dialects) as substitutes for regional and African American dialects. However, I was able to find reference to this phenomenon in Mie Hiramoto’s essay on the Japanese translation of Margaret Mitchell’s well known 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind (Hiramoto, 2009):

While it is certain that the minority characters’ use of non-Standard Japanese – which

strongly resembles the stigmatized Toohoku dialect, or Toohoku-ben (TB) – is a

translation of the original non-Standard English (SE), the assignment to them of

something resembling a particular regional Japanese dialect reinforces linguistic

inferiorization of the slaves and poor whites, as well as TB speakers. The use of

this pseudo-dialect is an important element in the linguistic representation of

marginal characters and likewise underscores the salient marginality of TB in

Japanese language ideology.

Dialect is notoriously hard to translate, with feeling. That is, while the basic meaning of a regional non-standard utterance can be easily translated, translating the context of that dialect is much more difficult. For example, when at home with my family, I often use Owari-ben (a north-west variation on Nagoya-ben). In Owari-ben the existence verb –iru (English: is/am/are) is substituted with oru (a humble form of -iru). This usage most frequently appears when talking about the location of people and animals as well as in the present continuous verb conjugations.

Is 6810 around?

Yeah he is.



6810, oru?

Un, oru yo.

That was easy enough, right? Well, yes and no. You see, what is absent from this translation is the reasoning behind usage of non-standard Japanese. In other words, when I use oru instead of iru, what else am I trying to say?

I refer you back to my earlier posts on where I am from, my “people” so to speak. I spent my childhood in a poverty prison known as a housing commission estate. As a result, there are certain forms of intonation, word choice and word order which resonate with me almost twenty years later. To use my own English dialect in Japan would make me quite difficult to understand. This is because the cultural gap between Australia and Japan in terms of public housing, wealth distribution and poverty is more like a chasm. If I choose to speak such English, I choose to foreground an aspect of my identity which if I am brutally honest has little to do with the life I currently lead (even if does, as I said earlier, still resonate). However, when I reminisce with my brother, the poor, rural dialect peppered with Bundjalung (Northern NSW Aboriginal cultural/linguistic group) feels much closer to and more capable of accurately representing our experience. So when I choose oru over iru, again I am making a decision to foreground my sense of belonging to the area I have called home for the past eight years. I stand up and say, “Hey, I’m from Owari, by the Kiso river. I might be a foreigner, but I’m kind of local now”.

Similarly, Japanese television, cinema, literature and music often (though not often enough, there is still in many cases a stigma attached to non-standard Japanese dialect) makes use of dialect in order to place people. People placed in a geography and a history are given an identity, most likely foreign to that of the reader (the opposite situation, where literary dialect speaks directly to the same regional identity of the reader is worthy of further thought, another day perhaps?). The result is infers difference and otherness.

If this is too difficult to grasp (especially for the mono-lingual reader), then let me try to briefly explain it in reverse. Take Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The difference in dialects of black characters, poor white and wealthy southerners, young and old is obvious even to a reader unfamiliar with them. Each dialect depicts a different identity based on race, age, location and wealth. So how do we then translate these subtle and not-so-subtle linguistic differences, replete with idioms and other expressions contemporary to the period setting? Do we go for the “meaning” approach in which we render the basic meaning of the various expressions? Do we make the language less temporally foreign and find equivalent contemporary, more now expressions in order to connect with a reader unfamiliar with the original cultural context of the novel? But in doing so, we run the risk of erasing the specific historical and cultural identities of characters and prevent their language play from ringing out clearly. Yet again, do we attempt to match the languages or literary conventions of the period and emulate them (the American south in the 1880s with Meiji era Japan)? It would appear then that dialect, however imperfect, is the way to go. Since dialects are living (though as a result of specifically targeted Meiji Era policies, many are rapidly disappearing) and effortlessly convey a sense of place, time and culture they have a function which modernisation and emulation cannot approximate. That said, we ought to take note of Hiramoto’s warning against implicit discrimination when matching dialects of different languages to convey specific meaning.

But what does all of this have to do with video games? As you may know, Japan is video game Mecca. With a few notable exceptions, global gaming culture has been undeniably shaped by Japanese language, culture, and identity. Almost every charismatic video game character is of Japanese invention. During the heyday of the original video game boom, the regional North American branch of Nintendo was responsible for both the language and cultural translation of Japanese games for the American (and in fact European and Pacific) market. Both Lvls and Legends of Localization have thoroughly dug into the peril and humor of translating games across language and culture. Nintendo of America is infamous for substituting or otherwise editing out themes and characters, especially those concerned with sexuality or the occult. Whole stories have even been retrofitted to English language versions of games, erasing their cultural specificity and updating language to what was perceived as hip at the time. Meanwhile, in the current age, voice acting has taken on a much greater role in modern games. What struck Popmatter’s Brice as odd, also rubs me the wrong way. While understandable (after all the primary market is the US) the translation from Japanese to (American) English, recalling Gone With the Wind sees a similar use of dialect and accent to represent (and marginalise) difference and otherness. In this scenario, a supposedly generic standard American accent is used to represent the American consumer and others, whether human or otherwise are spoken with different accents and dialects. This is a problem of awareness.

For a multilingual consumer, it is possible to read with nuance and affection the contours and limits of linguistic variation. Meanwhile, for the (majority) monolingual player, dialect choice runs a serious and likely risk of compounding stereotypes via unreconstructed repetition. Translation is rarely perfect, indeed there are good and bad translations. How we judge the merits of translation, like anything else is directly related to our expectations, experience and intent. For instance, as a metal head I have seen both “literal” and poetic translations of death metal lyrics. Perhaps it reveals my age in saying so, however, I prefer the poetic to the literal. If you asked me five years ago, my answer would have been the opposite, for at that time “literal” was about all I could handle and it helped consolidate my Japanese language knowledge and skills. And here we arrive at the very simple thing I wanted to say from the beginning: when we translate language and culture, how do we decide, calculate just how much complexity and difference the end user can “handle”?

Hiramoto’s 2009 article, “Slaves Speak Pseudo Toohoku-ben: The Representation of Minorities in the Japanese Translation of Gone With the Wind”, originally published in the Journal of Sociolinguistics (13/2, 249-263) can be found here.

Hang on... was that Lars Ulrich?

When I got my first internet connection at home, I was overjoyed. Can you imagine how it felt to be able to finally download that song? At a capped download rate and 56k, things took a while. I gazed with wonder at the DSL and cable connections my American friends were using on Napster, WinMX and later DC+. During that period, hundreds of individuals were singled out and faced litigation and fines. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich stood up for mega-corporate interests and aided in prosecuting illegal downloads.

These days it is possible to argue that the entire landscape of the internet has been shaped by file-sharing and illegal downloading. File-sharing, once arcane and somewhat tantalising in a naughty way is now mainstream. When reading a topic on an internet forum relating to “best” download sites, my only reply was “google”. Certainly, P2P (peer to peer) file sharing software still exists. The bit torrent method of downloading simply built on the scaffolding of earlier sharing software. However, currently, the potential pirate needs little more than browser software and a little knowledge of commonly shared file types and search parameters. File storage sites such as Mediafire, Megaupload, Fileserve, Filesonic and Rapidshare emulate the good old days of Usenet, only now with short, month long contracts and incredible download speeds.

Just today I read an article in the Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald. The article proudly trumpeted the death of the torrent search site What made Diwana special was its focus on Australian and New Zealand television content. From Neighbours to A Current Affair to Funniest Home Videos, from the banal to the innovative, it was all available at Diwana. If a criticism can be made of the site, it is that Diwana used and enforced a rather outdated seed/peer sharing ratio system. In some contexts, such a system works well, especially where there is a large user base and constant data traffic. However, the potential audience for Australian and New Zealand TV outside of these areas is obviously small. After all, even in Australia, many programs are available to download or stream free of charge: provided the viewer accesses these services from an Australian IP address. What this means is that potential downloaders are mostly Australians, outside of Australia and those in Australia without access to HDD/Blu-Ray recording devices. In other words a very small number. So once an uploader (seed) has lost interest in a particular file, said file becomes impossible to download.

In a move reminiscent of a late nineties, short haired Metallica, producers of ABC1’s well received drama The Slap (due for DVD release in December 2011), recently targeted and instigated a shutdown of Diwana for having Slap torrent files available for download. Naturally, one cannot help but to feel sympathy for the plight of the producers. After all, they are responsible for fronting the money required to produce a drama for TV. If their product fails to break even, let alone make a profit they will at best receive far less money for future productions and be unable to produce either follow up or new series. So congratulations and shame upon the producers for stymieing illegal downloads...

That is right. I said shame. More than anything, what there actions demonstrate is that the producers (or those in legal acting on their behalf) have a very narrow, limited concept of what the internet is and the extent of file-sharing. As the article notes, while Diwana has been shut down, the series remains widely available on any number of torrent sites. A single completed download, the creation of a torrent file and uploading that file to multiple torrent search sites can take anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours. Hey, ABC1? The cat is out of the bag. Not only is the series available on multiple torrent sites, it is also available via file storage sites. Furthermore, when the DVD is released in a few weeks (if not before as a result of employee sleight of hand thievery), it will be ripped, encoded and uploaded within minutes.

The Slap’s producers have effectively shut down one of the most important, specifically Australian oriented content sites. Although imperfect, Diwana offered humour and critique through a number of TV shows to a small number of Australians across the world. They may have prevented a single torrent file from eating into their profits but they have also gained a greater number of pirates who now not only want to see the show because of the publicity as well as those pirates who will copy and distribute out of spite. Did they adjust for these losses as well? Who can know? Lars Ulrich has entered the building.

Vegetarian Me – Part 1

I have been vegetarian (meaning I eat eggs and dairy) for about fifteen years. In that time I have probably heard just about every criticism of vegetarianism that can be made. In the past I have assuaged such negativity by retreating into the world of knowledge and counter-arguments accumulated over the years. But the 60s, the 70s? They are no more. The zeal of that time, the zeitgeist has well and truly subsided. An inspired, environmental curiosity relegated to Woodstock documentaries and middle aged regret. The current age is one dominated by information, regardless of whether or not it is “true”. Indeed, much more important than truth is truth’s analog: the rhythm and distribution of repetition. If the same thing is said, over and over and in so many places then it cannot be anything other than truth. Such agglomerations of contemporary neurosis do not merely litter the internet, rather, they define it.

One particular issue I find confounding is that of soy. It has been for quite a number of years now, quite fashionable to not only question the so-called health benefits of soy but also to outright deny the little beans. I am reminded of 9/11 deniers, climate change sceptics and Obama birthplace doubters. The lines, as if read from a script have been repeated enough times that their veracity is irrelevant. What is most frightening is that these themes have become tangible enough in the minds of people as to have become truth ipso facto. Meanwhile, what seems to elude the staunchest critics of soy (fermented or otherwise) is that hundreds of millions of people in North East Asia (especially China, Korea and Japan) have been eating soy for thousands of years with no problems. Because the reality of this apparently cut-and-dry historical, cultural, geographical, biological and culinary fact, is well outside the experience of most Americans (and indeed their proxies in Australia, Canada etc), it simply cannot be comprehended. Let us turn toward what I believe to be the two key arguments against soy: industrial production and oestrogen.

Industrial production of soy, is led mostly by US farmers being crushed under the cruel boot of debt, soil salination, erosion and fluctuating (if only downward) commodity prices. Soy beans along with corn were the golden crop of American agriculture, used to make everything from food manufacturing ingredients such as lecithin, oil, MSG and protein powder to plastics, and nutritional supplements. Such widespread farming of soy has seen biotech companies invest massive amounts of money in unwanted plant and animal control, fertilizers, breeding and genetic engineering. The result being that along with corn, soy has entered the American (and international) food chain so thoroughly as to be inextricable. The opposition to this over-supply and over-consumption of soy is understandable. After all, if beans grown on dead soil, fertilised and protected with chemicals originating from crude oil and then harvested and processed using a wide variety of chemical technological practices, they are hardly food anymore, instead, just another substance in an agro-industrial money making system. To this degree, criticisms relating to toxicity and over-consumption are wholly understandable. This soy scoffing vegetarian pretty much agrees with them. Let us take a look at the second argument.

Soy isoflavons have been variously defined/defamed as being oestrogen analogs. But what does this actually mean? Apparently, soy isoflavons found in “unfermented” soy products send signals to the body to produce oestrogen. The criticism here is that producing too much oestrogen can have negative effects on health. This is a malady perfectly suited to the uber-Christian, homophobic American mainstream. “My son’s a fucking faggot because we gave him too much soy as a child”. Amid all the hollering about the evils of soy, the feminisation of boys seems to attract the loudest, most vociferous voices. If the result of so-called feminisation via soy is the social and economic stability evident in Japan, then I say: “Bring it on!”. In fact, why don’t we revisit the second paragraph: hundreds of millions of people have been eating unfermented soy for thousands of years with few, if any, ill-effects.

If there is anything actually “wrong” with soy, then I would attribute it to mass agro-industrial production more so than anything in the beans themselves. So soy deniers, go back to rejecting night-shades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chillies and bell peppers), hating on carbohydrates and blaming obesity on genetics rather than lifestyle and leave that little bean alone.

Astomatous – The Beauty of Reason (Review)

Fear Factory changed my life. As a teen, I had heard Soul of a New Machine and loved the attempts the band made at juxtaposing and cross breeding stylistic elements (new wave, techno, death metal). When Demanufacture dropped, the band’s sound had been streamlined and improved significantly. By the time Obsolete was released, much of the ferocity of the first album was lost. Obsolete is an excellent album but leans towards accessibility far more than its predecessors. Finally, with Digimortal the band demonstrated their ability to pick up and interpret the nu-metal zeitgeist and infuse elements of hip hop and groove. Fear Factories sound stayed fairly consistent (if somewhat anemic) over their next two Dino-less albums. Then with Mechanize, the ferocity had returned.

Over at Invisible Oranges, there was a feature on the role of disgust in death metal. Bands like Autopsy and much of the first wave of Swedish death metal possessed an ability to create dangerous, nasty sounding riffs that sounded equally vomited as roared. Continuing in this vein, I would argue that ferocity has a significant role to play, particularly in the more extreme metal genres. By ferocity, I do not mean “brutal”. But like the term brutal, ferocity is to a large degree a phenomenon defined by the individual listener. For me, ferocity can be both exciting as well as exhausting. When tempered by melody, groove or original/inspired song writing, ferocity becomes another musical emotional palette to draw from. However, untempered ferocity, for this listener requires too great of an emotional investment to appreciate. I can acknowledge the ferocity of hardcore and metal straddling groups such as Converge and The Dillinger Escape Plan. The problem is that I can only listen for a short time before the ferocity exceeds itself and becomes a repetition of a metal meme. This holds true for black metal as well, the cutting guitar tones, white noise, fast tempos and reverb eventually blur together to create a constant swelling and retreat of white noise.

Astomatous’ new album, The Beauty of Reason, has ferocity. Think death metal via the dissonance and goosestepping rhythmic lurch of Gorguts, the instrumental chops of Hate Eternal and the on the edge of the precipice of madness advocated by Australia’s psychedelic, death metal by way of black metal (and vice versa) of Stargazer all played by the rhythm section of one of the key proponents of American black metal, New York’s Krallice and you have The Beauty of Reason. This is a ferocious album. While it constituent parts may appear to resonate with my argument against excess ferocity above, the reality is the songs, while unquestionably death metal are well crafted, interesting, familiar without being predictable and exciting. There are different shades of ferocity squeezed into what is essentially a twenty first century update of the Florida tech-death sounds of the early and mid nineties. Ferocious and original. Now if only I had enough money to finance a vinyl release for these New Yorkians, then all would be well in the world! Alas, digital and compact disc versions are available on the band’s bandcamp page.

Black Metal – Old World vs New World

I came very late to the world of black metal. In my mind the scene was dominated by Scandinavian, pseudo-pagan misanthropists (on re-reading, I have to wonder why that prevented me from listening). In fact, more than anything, it was the anti-Christian aspect of the genre which did not sit well with me. I am not Christian but neither am I necessarily “against” Christianity. Back in university I got neurologically rearranged by Derrida and Spivak. Poststructuralism and feminism exploded the concept of binary opposition. Put simply one is always defined by the other and therefore the non-other one can never be a pure, monolithic position. Basically, by opposing Christianity, one continues to utter its name and invoke its ghosts. Much like internet “haters” who vehemently criticise whatever it is that displeases them, oppositional positions simply reinforce existing hegemonies. If you hate the new Lou Reed and Metallica album Lulu, why spend your precious, limited energy on writing a treatise against it? Just like your mother always said, and truer even more so in this internet age: if you ignore it, it will go away. By contributing to the zeitgeist, even as negative output all we achieve is an ensuring of the hated object’s position at the top of a list of search results.

The same goes for black metal. For me, the greatest irony is that in supposedly post-Christian Europe, a certain type of European anti-Christian left over from the early 90s still predominates. Corpse paint and grainy monochrome photography, unreadable scribbly logos, the occasional appropriation of grotesque true crime photographs or otherwise staged scenes of shock, hand drawn sharpie artwork or else unreflexlive tributes to a bygone age are a persistent aesthetic.

Meanwhile in the hyper-Christian US, much black metal dispenses with anti-Christian sentiment and instead turns the focus to urban depression (Nachtmystium, Leviathan, Xasthur) and psychosis (Black Anvil), environmentalism (Wolves in the Throne Room), mysticism and the occult (Unearthly Trance, while perhaps more doom than black metal definitely share the strange/uncanny vibe of the latter) and contemporary wars (Cobalt).

Once black metal is dragged biting and shrieking out of the Old World and into the New World(s), it loses its preoccupation with nostalgia for an ancient, non-existent, impossible past and instead adapts to the environmental and cultural contours of its new place. A perfect example of this is Australia. The development of black metal in places such as Australia (Mournful Congregation, Striborg, Stargazer, Portal) shows how new conceptual vistas, incorporating local feeling and concerns into the music can draw both on the tightly defined historical origins of the genre and adapt it to place in order to create something original and exciting.

Thus if we look to Europe for orthodox black metal authenticity, it is in the non-Euro world that we find innovation, originality and risk.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Cops: “Watcha gonna do?”

Not long after starting high school, my family moved to a not so new, rather familiar, indeed depressing town. But in those first six months of school before the move I made an excellent friend, his name is Wayne. Wayne and his family were the essence of modern multicultural Australia, one of six (seven?) kids he lived with his Aboriginal father and Jehova’s Witness mother. They had left the suburbs and gone bush. As the family home was being built, they lived in a rustic and equally awesome improvised dwelling made up of two caravans, corrugated iron, wood and nails. The whole thing was powered by generator and the time we spent playing video games at night was limited and therefore precious. I stayed at Wayne’s house many times over the next few years, taking the slow, XPT down through the no-man’s land between Casino and Grafton. One of my strongest memories (aside from the chicken we had to kill one day) is of watching TV in his older brother’s caravan: American football, David Letterman and Cops.

About a year ago, I jumped back on Cops to discover that while brand names and car models had changed, the desperation, fear, humour and duty remained constant. What can be learned about life from Cops cannot be underestimated. Aside from repeatedly showing the viewer how not to act in an encounter with police, it also humanises police, allowing them very brief and admittedly tightly limited opportunities to speak of the how, why, when and where of police work. Further, the featured police officers often express deep affection for the places, communities in which they work.

However, what I love most about Cops is the frequent subtle and overt ruptures of the fourth wall. The shadow of the boom microphone on a late afternoon concrete wall, the reflection of the camera light and camera operator in the window of the patrol car and the rare but exciting instances when a scene of arrest and pursuit scales out of control of the individual officer and results in intervention by the production crew.

Cops is not an easy program to watch, nor is it perfect. It frequently crosses the very fine line between documentary and exploitation. The same kinds of people (poor, mostly black, frequently white drug addicts and prostitutes) feature regularly and combined with the stereotypes surrounding them provide a certain kind of voyeuristic entertainment. What it does well, though, is showing in a not so flattering light the reality of poor, high crime neighbourhoods and the horror unleashed on communities that is crystal meth.

Now in its twenty-fourth season, Cops is going strong. Twenty-four seasons later though, and one would think that the perps would know enough to shut their mouths when placed under arrest!

Housos – “I Shouldn’t but I can’t not!”

Paul Fenech’s new comedy centered around a housing commission block in fictional Sunnyvale started on SBS Australia a couple of weeks ago. Much like his other comedies, Fat Pizza and Swift and Shift, the emphasis is on slapstick and offensive humour. What makes this new program so appealing to me, even as a fan of his previous works is its location. Like the characters in the show, I too grew up on a commission estate. I am escapee houso. While a lot of the criticism in regard to the show focuses on the strong language and crude humour, this former Houso wonders if said critics have ever been to, let alone lived on a commission estate. Had they such experience they might not be so quick to attack.

Growing up as a houso I have seen first hand ethnic based violence, welfare scams, domestic violence, neighbourhood violence, robberies, beatings, vandalism and hopelessness. The world of housos is not uniform, there are decent enough areas, even if I have never had the experience in living in them. Fenech’s portrayal of this reality, if anything is far kinder and more affectionate than it should be. I believe may viewers/critics out there would find this the most disturbing.

While my own Sunnyvale was a hard lot to cop, just like Housos, there were moments of real joy and possibility. It is a world to which I do not desire to return, nor do I feel particularly nostalgic about it. Nevertheless, it rings true to me and although exaggerated in many respects it is great to see a self-reflexive, humorous depiction of a world I thought would never be seen outside of A Current Affair and Today Tonight.

Thanks Pauly!

Death – Sound of Perseverance (Review)

I came quite late to the progressive death metal of the 1990s. In fact, were it not for the internet I may have come later still. The early to mid-90s gave birth to some wonderfully new re-imaginings of death metal. Incorporating the recklessness of thrash, the rhythmic complexity of jazz and demonstrating a penchant to experiment melodically and harmony, progressive metal of this time has been as much maligned and ignored as it has been praised. Atheist stormed onto the metal stage in 1989 with twisted rhythms, harmonized leads and swinging bass. Cynic changed all the rules in 1993 as they emphasized fluid, tribal rhythms, burbling fretless bass, alien sounding vocoded vocals and lead work that gave more than a nod to traditional jazz guitar filtered through a death metal aesthetic.

Death meanwhile, started out in the vein of early thrash flavoured death metal and grew to into something else entirely. Schuldiner’s leads and riffs became increasingly melodic and his solos adventurous. On the savage yet melancholy Sound of Perseverance, it is possible to hear Schuldiner’s frustration with the limits of metal as he explores new ideas. Indeed on first listen Perseverance’s compositions seem a bit jerky and incohesive. Multiple listens, however, reveal the purpose of these stop-start tendencies. What makes repeat listens enjoyable is that these fragments are held together by an unfailing commitment to melody and narrative. Songs twist, turn and surprise, as was no doubt, Schuldiner’s purpose. Equally challenging and enjoyable, the Sound of Perseverance was the perfect swan song for Death. Who knows where Schuldiner would have gone next? What would he have made of groups such as Dysrhythmia and Obscura who have taken his explorations to new heights.

Perseverance is reasonably widely available on vinyl (unlike Symbolic…).

I been tryin’ to get to New Orleans (Can’t you help me?) Part 2

Blood, bones and wood.

Steel, stones and rope.

Flowed across the world and into the river’s mouth.

Cut, burnt, buried, built.

Fields sweat, bleed and weep.

And so crops rose.

Out of these fluids, these lives

A bittersweet melody rose.

A longing for home with no chance of arrival.

First, flat third, fourth, flat fifth and back to first.

Different soils, different bloods, different times.

Knitted to past, present and future.