TNB Night Owl – Lost In Translation

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Translation errors are so common as to have their own myths, such as the diminished sales of the Chevy Nova in Central America because the locals misunderstood “no va” to mean “does not move”. (Reality check: people in Central America aren’t generally that stupid, just as most people in America didn’t reject the AMC Pacer because they believed it could only move at the speed of a brisk walk. They rejected it because it was a Pacer.)

There’s even a popular Youtube channel featuring translation issues. I believe I’ve featured it before, but as the young woman running it has recently hired on some other young stage stars while Broadway is effectively down, I’ll send it some love:

Still, when projects have enough love and respect, the translation efforts are expected to produce something as close to identical as the original as is possible.


Let me introduce you to Haruki Murakami and Hayao Miyazaki. Murakami is one of the most respected authors in the world, with a devoted following that extends far beyond his native Japan. Miyazaki is an award-winning filmmaker whose works like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away have been distributed in the United States by Disney despite Disney not being allowed any licensing money.

If you have any doubt of how influential Miyazaki is, the ability to refuse Disney licensing and still have them as a distributor should say everything.

In theory, the prominence and awards of the creators should have kept their work safe during translation, and eventually it was. If you pick up a copy of a Murakami novel today, the English edition will provide a similar experience to reading the original Japanese version. It might not provide you the experience of reading the original English edition, though.

Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, published in Japan in 1985, won one of the nation’s most prominent awards , the Tanizaki Prize. It vaulted him into popular stardom in his home country in the fashion that Stephen King was enjoying in the United States. In the first English version of that book, about a hundred pages – a quarter of the book – was shaved from the final product, with one character completely eliminated. His fans were horrified.

Murakami still fared better than Miyazaki.

While Murakami’s earliest U.S. translators were concerned that American audiences would be bored with some of his descriptions, offended by suggestions of sexuality from a seventeen year old character and confused by his analysis of consciousness, Miyazaki’s first translator decided that the movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was too complex for children. As the movie was animated, and all animated films were meant to be viewed by kids, translator Carl Macek took the movie and completely re-edited it, eliminating the storyline and writing a new one using some of the existing scenes. Then he contracted voice actors to enunciate stiffly and clearly in the style of Saturday morning cartoons instead of the nuanced performances typically found in feature films.

The result was Warriors of the Wind… and an immediate legend in the annals of movie travesties.

Question of the night: Have there been any highly acclaimed books or movies that left you wondering why they’d garnered praise?

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.