Example 1: The Setting Sun, by DAZAI Osamu

So I mentioned in my last post that it's much easier to decode cold, standoffish conversations in the original Japanese. Here's where I try to explain what I mean. I don't have a copy of Snow Country handy, but I think there are a good few examples in the first few pages of Donald KEENE's translation of The Setting Sun.

Take the opening lines. In English:

Mother uttered a faint cry. She was eating soup in the dining-room.
I thought perhaps something disagreeable had got into the soup. "A hair?" I asked.
"No." Mother poured another spoonful of soup into her mouth as if nothing had happened.

Now the original Japanese, with hyper-faithful Englishification to show differences:

[One] morning, in the dining room, as she sipped a spoonful of soup, Mother --
-- uttered a faint cry.
"A hair?"
Had something unpleasant gotten into the soup? I wondered.
Mother, as if nothing had happened, lightly poured another spoonful of soup into her mouth ...

I think that a is something that every Japanese speaker is familiar with. It's the "I just realized/remembered something" noise, and I don't think it has an equivalent in English. A sudden intake of breath and opening of the mouth? "Oh!" maybe, a few decades ago? Whatever, I think "uttered a faint cry" alone gives the wrong impression -- to me, that sounds more like Mother's arthritis started playing up or someone kicked her under the table.

A bit lower, we have iie translated as no. "Iie is not the same as no" is one of those mystical, poorly-explained crumbs Japanese learners are generally tossed quite early on, and this is probably a good example. Maybe it's just me, but I think that no in the English, with its full stop and everything, feels extremely cold. A decisive conversation-ender. In Japanese, though, it's not punctuated -- it doesn't need to be -- and just sort of floats there in the air as Mother keeps eating her soup. Mother comes off as more absent-minded or distracted than anything else.

In general, Japanese is also much more accepting of direct embedding. Rather than saying "I wondered if something unpleasant had gotten into the soup," you say, "Had something unpleasant gotten into the soup? I wondered." Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that the way Japanese relative clauses work makes this kind of distinction less meaningful to begin with, even impossible to make in some cases... but either way, you get what feels like a direct line to the thoughts of the characters.

Put simply, Japanese lets you use direct quotes and dangling, unpunctuated fragments where traditional literary English style requires strict punctuation and encourages a "tell, don't show" approach to what people are thinking. Translators who stick to this style have no choice but to wrap their texts in a thin layer of gauze, and this is a big part of why translations of Japanese stories often seem so dry and detached. (Of course, lots of Japanese books, especially from the 20th century, are dry and detached, but not in the same way or to the same extent.)

By the way, I don't mean to pick on Keene specifically here. It's possible that my aesthetics are not shared by the majority of the people who would read a book like this, and in any case, I have no idea what he or his editor were aiming at with this translation, or what kind of time limits or restrictions they were under -- not to mention the fact that this was published almost forty years ago and even the best translations age.

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Great example. For what it's worth, I know that Donald Keene is about as authoritative as you get, but in this case I had no idea what this was about when I read his translation. With the "uttered a faint cry" and then "as if nothing had happened," it sounds like the mother is going insane or something. The hyperfaithful English gave a clearer picture.

While I'm at it, though, why not actually translate the 「あ」 into an English equivalent? "Ita~" would be translated as "Ouch!" so why not "Huh!" or "Hmm!" or something for the "A"? The "thin gauze" is suffocating the action here.

(Though, as I said, I am not picking on Keene either.)


This was an excellent post! Lately I've become really curious about styles of writing in Japan, and comparison to the style we're more "used" to, and the affects that has in translations and reading foreign authors. This was a helpful example and hope to see more :D


I agree, an excellent example, and "uttered a faint cry" is indeed misleading given your explanation. Translation is hard...


Glad it was helpful! Translation is REAL hard...

Amida, I would love to translate the 「あ」 into an English equivalent, but I'm not convinced there is one. "Huh!" and "Hmm!" don't really do it for me... it's hard to explain why. Neither of them seem to have the force that 「あ」 does, for one thing... Maybe my understanding is just skewed, or maybe I'm being unreasonably picky... Anyway, that's one reason why I have to go easy on Keene, since I can't recommend any alternatives to leaving it out like he did.


I'd be tempted to translate it as "Ah!", but that exclamation point makes it seem a tad too emphatic. And leaving out the exclamation point doesn't seem to be an option.

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