Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

My current friend and former nemesis, Hiroo Yamagata and I were on a panel with Larry Lessig last week. He casually mentioned that he had decided to translate Das Kapital into Japanese. He is one of the best translators in Japan and has translated Lessig, Leary, Krugman and many others. Anyway, he said that all of the existing translations were related to the Japanese communist party in some way and were edited and filtered. For instance, violence and other things were omitted. He remembered someone in college who argued Marx with him based on a faulty translation and in retrospect, this pissed him off. He decided to make a more accurate translation. Hiroo is kind of a weirdo, but it's because of people like him that some things that are lost in translation actually get fixed. Blatant censorship is pretty scary, but this reminded me how dangerous intentional mistranslations can be as well.


Wow, that's a big, complex book to translate! Is someone paying him to do this? Does he translate patents or technical documentation on the side to support projects like this?

He's doing it on his free time. ;-)

He works for a think tank and translates books for money, but I'm not sure anyone is going to pay him for Das Kapital.

No one's paying me yet, although with some other stuff (like my "Cathedral and Bazaar" translations and "Alice/Looking Glass" translations, people decide to publish the stuff after they see it on the web, and despite the free commercial use clause, they seem more comfortable to pay me in one way or another (which gladly I accept, as long as they do not alter the free text status). I imagine somebody would do something similar for Das Kapital. And "Das Kapital" IS my "side", along with "Wealth of Nations." Very far side, since on the near side, I'm working on "Free Culture" (which someone IS paying me).

Very true. Another important mistranslated text, The New Testiment of the Bible, was originally translated several hundred years ago. I've met several people over the years who have examined that translation and found that many things were, in subtle ways, mistranslated. Usually to the detriment of women.

Translation of great works are best done by people with great talent yet ultimate subservience to the original idea. Anything less is tantamount to the theft or desecration of priceless art and ancient antiquities. Good to know that guys like your friend Hiroo are keeping others honest.

Hate to disagree (not really; actually I love to), but I'm all for desecration, and I think subservience has no place. Strongest distortion occurs when some things are made into sacred objects without any criticism (and with too much nit-picky reading into the details). IMHO, best translations are made by people who are larger than the work, and the second best is a friendly critic. A lot of Japanese translations become totally unreadable because the translator had too much respect for the original text, and tryed to LITERALLY translate every single word (I'm not saying you can omit stuff, just that you can't do it literally word by word). 2 much respect / humbleness / subservience can be harmful.

I have always considered literary translation to be an art in itself. The balance of respect to the original and dexterity with the "target" language. A good translator must be knowledgable and gifted, like any artist.

Hm. Is not art a form of translation anyways? From the language of nature and life to whichever medium one crafts in?

On a separate note, not 100% sure of the veracity of this, but it is one heck of an example the devastating effects mistranslation can have:

"In diplomacy, the nuanced meaning of words can have major political significance, and misunderstanding due to mistranslation can be catastrophic. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 may well have been the most extreme example of this. Toward the end of World War II, Japan's prime minister responded to the American ultimatum for unconditional surrender by announcing that his government would mokusatsu the demand. The word has two meanings: "to consider" and "to take no notice." Japan's own English-language translators chose the latter usage; the world heard that the Japanese had rejected the American ultimatum, rather than that it was being considered. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed."

Oh my. I read your link and was amazed. Thanks for letting me know.

Now, that's a case of an incompetent Prime Minister blaming the translator (happens very often). The word "mokusatu", literally means "to kill without any words." It can never mean "no comment," in any context, and it can never, ever, ever mean "to consider". It means "ignore", or even "ignore with contempt, without any consideration." The translators were very correct in translating it as "ignore/reject." The guy meant "ignore", he knows it, he's just trying to weasle his way out from an uncomfortable situation. So whatever sins translations may hold (and some are pretty serious), this is definitely not one of them. Wow, I gotta write about this some where. TNX!


Having never translated anything longer than a two-page letter, I wouldn't try to dispute your take on the process. It just seemed to me that trying to determine the core of an author's idea was an important thing to do so that the idea could be preserved. Or, could it be that preservation is not necessarily the main idea?

"best translations are made by people who are larger than the work"

Is this kind of person more likely to be able to "rewrite" a novel with the proper abstractions and lexicon? Your insight is very interesting.

"...I'm all for desecration"

Even in context, that sounded very punk-rock. And respectably so.

Hiroo if VERY punk rock. Check out his web page. He used to punk rock all over my ass until I begged him to stop.

I once got grounded for a week after I decided to wake up my parents by blasting the Clash's "Rock in the Casbah", one peaceful Sunday morning. No Apple ][+ priviledges, either. It was hard time and it was worth it.