Discussion, OwnVoices

Discussion: Languages, Storytelling, and the Need for More Translated Books

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Bookstore in China

The topic of translated books and storytelling in different languages and cultures has been on my mind a lot recently. There were two particular things which combined to prompt this:

  1. This Twitter thread regarding the upcoming Death Note Netflix adaptation, the issues with it and why it’s so quintessentially a Japanese story.
  2. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, about the way language makes a difference to how stories are told; especially from reading (listening on audiobook) to a children’s book in Chinese by myself for the first time, and it happens to be one translated from Japanese.

So today, I’m sharing some of my thoughts on this topic, and I’d especially love to hear the thoughts of readers from non-English-speaking/non-Western countries; I’m well aware of how limited my perspective is as an Australian and would welcome your insights.

Why we need more translated books in English

Reading translated books allows us to gain insight into different countries, cultures, and their worldviews. It’s so meaningful to read these insider perspectives that such writers share on their respective cultures. Even the simplest things regarding differences in school and home life are a delight to discover, especially in learning about the details, but it also helps me to expand my worldview.

There is also so much we can learn from the storytelling of different countries that is inherent in the way they are told, regardless of whether they’re rooted in their respective cultures, or are more speculative. This post discusses the significance of plot without conflict by explaining Kishōtenketsu, a centuries-old Chinese and Japanese plot structure where conflict is not intrinsic to the story. This is a clear contrast to the Western idea that the former is necessary to create the latter, and shows how books from cultures outside our own can push us to look past certain ingrained ideas regarding storytelling.

Learning from an insider’s point of view on Asia, in particular, is important in helping me to connect to my culture and others related to it, as a diasporic person. It’s also important in resisting the Other-ing, consumerist gaze of the West towards these cultures. Mainstream media chooses to appropriate non-Western cultures, if they’re recognised at all. If reading translated books from different countries was more normalised and prevalent, it would help overcome this perspective. Hopefully it would also encourage ownvoices stories of culturally diverse writers, who are marginalised in Western countries, by valuing different cultures, ideas and points of view.

Languages and Storytelling

Of course, there will always be nuances and meanings that are lost when translating stories from one language to another. I wish I could read more books in Chinese, but I’m far from proficient at it. However, I’ve been able to listen to one audiobook (which was actually also a translated one – from Japanese) so far and there was one other book I read together with family. Even from these small samples, I’ve noticed differences in Chinese writing from English that make a huge difference to the story:

  • Language makes such a difference to humour. There were so many times when reading the Chinese book that I thought, wow, the humour here clicks with me in a way that jokes in English-language books usually don’t. It was so clear that these lines would be almost impossible to translate in a way that carried across the same meaning.
  • Points of view – in English, I usually stick to reading and writing deep, usually first-person, POV; omniscient points of view feel detached and head-hopping is irritating and jarring. In Chinese however, there’s something about the language that makes point of view shifts completely smooth and normal.
  • Grammatical differences – in Chinese, there aren’t really past/present/future tenses in the same way as there is in English; instead, the language is heavily context-dependent. So whilst the choice of tense may be very important in telling a story in English, it isn’t so in Chinese.
  • Voice – when listening to the audiobook for the Chinese translation of Totto-Chan, the Little Girl by the Window, I was intrigued by the voice of the narrator, which doesn’t clearly fit into the categories of voice in English-language children’s books. It’s an omniscient narrator who head-hops, who comments on the actions of children in a more reflective point of view, yet somehow feels like it’s being told in a child’s voice.

All of this reflects the importance of knowing more than one language and how much I wish I was better at Chinese (at least I’m working on it now!). Unfortunately the environment in Australia and similar countries is not catered towards encouraging, and lacks tolerance of, linguistic diversity. When we think about the value of reading in other languages, it becomes so clear why it is important to change that.

Translated/non-English Language Books I Recommend

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

You’ve probably heard of this one, but yes – I also loved this imaginative, timeless childlike fantasy.

玫瑰之翼 (Rose Wings) by 月星汐

The humour in  Yuè Xīngxī’s(月星汐) books is incredible and engaging — appealing to me in a way English-language humour often doesn’t, as I said above. I loved this story about the way the relationship developed between Yin Shichen (originally on a nefarious mission for a student secret society) and Armaiti, martial arts girl; it was an incredibly fun read. Sadly I think it’s only available in Chinese, and as I said I can imagine much of the nuances in the language would be difficult to translate into English.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

After suffering a stroke that left him almost completely paralysed, Bauby used the code of blinking his left eye to tell this story. A beautiful and moving tribute to the value of life and living fully in one’s mind.

Totto-Chan: the Little Girl by the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

The author is a famous Japanese actress, talkshow host and a UNICEF ambassador. Based on her childhood, it’s a carefree story of the delightfully unconventional school (e.g. using train carriages as classrooms) where she was so valued.

Translated/non-English Language Books on my TBR

The Smell of Watermelons by Kaori Ekuni (Japanese Edition; Chinese Edition)

Liu Cixin‘s books

Haruki Murakami‘s books

To anyone who has thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them, especially if you’re from a non-English speaking country!

Have you read many translated/non-English language books? Are you multilingual? What are some translated books you recommend?