Japanese Literary Translation in an English Language Program

James W. Porcaro, Sundai Kanko & Gaigo Senmon Gakko

Translation of carefully selected extracts from works of Japanese literature can be a challenging and exciting exercise for Japanese students of English. It offers a unique opportunity to explore the dimensions of both languages, and to develop written accuracy and correctness of expression, precise use of vocabulary, flexible application of structures, fluency, and style of a nature and quality both different and beyond what they would generally produce in assignments for a standard writing course. As Duff (1989) noted:

Translation develops three qualities essential to all language learning: flexibility, accuracy, and clarity. It trains the learner to search (flexibility) for the most appropriate words (accuracy) to convey what is meant (clarity). This combination of freedom and constraint allows the students to contribute their own thoughts to a discussion which has a clear focus--the text. (p. 7)

Rivers & Temperley (1978) shared this recognition:

Genuine translation involves the exploration of the potential of two languages. It not only involves the students in serious consideration of the expressive possibilities of the new language, but also extends their appreciation of the semantic extensions and limitations of their first language and the implications for meaning of its syntactic options. (p. 328)

The distinctiveness of translation derives from "the main aim of the translator to produce as nearly as possible the same effect on his/her readers as was produced on the readers of the original" (Newmark, 1988a, p. 10). Consequently, the text demands "students consider various aspects of the meaning they have extracted and rethink it in terms of the target language so that as little is added and as little is lost as possible" (Rivers & Temperley, 1978, p. 329). Duff (1981) tells us that students must think in the target language, "from the meaning to the words" (p. 22), "letting thought shape language" (p. 20). As accuracy in a communicative translation is basically lexical, students must engage in a mental struggle to choose the words for their translation; as the grammar can be treated more flexibly, students employ structures and undertake transpositions and shifts of structure, changes in word order, and the like over a wide range and depth to produce as fluent and as economical a translation as they can. This certainly differs greatly from traditional grammar-translation work with its usually narrow focus on individual words, parts of sentences, or whole sentences isolated from context.

In the eight years I have taught courses in Japanese-to-English literary translation, students in these classes have produced perhaps the best English work that I have encountered in more than twenty years of teaching English as a second/foreign language. Students develop skills of translating from Japanese to English and find satisfaction, reward, and enjoyment in the challenge of translation itself and in genuine collaborative work with their peers.

The Setting

I teach two translation classes in the Intensive English Program at a senmon gakko (technical school). Students in this program range from low to high intermediate levels and take 10-12 hours of English classes per week with native English speaker teachers. For second-year students, it is an elective course; for post-graduate third-year students it is a required course. Both translation classes meet once a week for 100 minutes each in groups of up to 15. The curriculum for these students also includes a standard college writing course that meets once a week for 100 minutes, in groups of up to 20. In addition to these two courses, I incorporate literary translation into my first and second-year writing classes.

Japanese Proficiency of the Instructor

The teacher need not be an advanced reader of Japanese, a literary scholar, or a translator, but should have studied Japanese in some depth and acquired a good understanding of basic grammar and structure. While it is not necessary to be able to read the entire selected translation text unaided, a working knowledge of at least a few hundred basic kanji is very helpful, as is frequent referral to a dictionary. Perhaps most important is ready and reliable access to a Japanese consultant.

Newmark (1991, p. 137) notes the need to distinguish teaching translation within language teaching and teaching translation. It should be said that being a skilled teacher of English as a foreign language to Japanese is fundamental. Considerable research, which naturally accumulates over the years, consultation, careful planning and preparation, and detailed attention to students' work are needed to instruct the literary translation outlined in this paper.

Japanese Literature

Good Japanese literature has proven to be more interesting to students than essays, newspaper or magazine articles, or even manga (comics). It elicits the kind of language encounter referred to above to a far greater degree than prosaic pieces, and gives students a genuine sense of purpose and a sense of achievement at having rendered well a work by a renowned writer. At the same time, students develop appreciation and enjoyment of fine Japanese literature. Most students have had barely any contact with such material, even in high school. However, with careful selection, organization, and presentation of appealing and relevant stories, students appreciate the literary merits of the pieces themselves in their own rights.

Selection of Texts

Wide reading of Japanese literature, in the original Japanese or in good translation is necessary in order to choose texts that are most suitable for both teacher and students, and to accumulate a repertoire of texts from which themes can be sorted out and presented in an imaginative syllabus. For example, I have grouped a number of stories into the following themes: childhood and youth, the fantastic, and women's lives in contemporary society and history. Consult the appendix for an annotated bibliography of Japanese women authors and representative works suitable for translation.

Short stories of up to about 15 pages are convenient to work with, since all students can be given copies of the full story and read it in a short time. I use excerpts from novels only if I can obtain a full-length movie based on the novel, one which follows very closely the story line and characterizations in the novel itself and contains the particular scene that the students will be given to translate. There are many movies of fine works of Japanese literature that meet these criteria, including Doro no kawa (Muddy River) by Miyamoto Teru and Nijushi no hitomi (Twenty-four Eyes) by Tsuboi Sakae. Also available are a number of excellent animation videos of modern Japanese classics, such as Botchan by Natsume Soseki and short stories by Miyazawa Kenji. I have also used different forms of poetry very successfully, such as some of the simpler modern poems by Tanikawa Shuntaro and tanka by Tawara Machi. However, as translation of poetry involves further considerations from narrative prose, references in this article are to only the latter.

Depending on the density of print per page, I generally use excerpts of about 3-5 pages: one scene with the principal characters, a highlight or pivotal point of the story, or a representative section. A combination of narrative and dialog easy on description generally works best, heeding Newmark's (1988b, p. 50) observation that "narrative, a sequence of events, is likely to be neater and closer to translate than description, which requires the mental perception of adjectives and images."

Examples of literary works by both modern classic and contemporary writers from which very carefully selected extracts have been used successfully include: Mishima Yukio's Shiosai (The Sound of Waves), Ariyoshi Sawako's Hanaoka seishu no tsuma (The Doctor's Wife), Mukoda Kuniko's "Hana no namae" (The Name of the Flower" and Kawabata Yasunari's "Amagasa" (Umbrella). I have also used popular literature such as Sumii Sue's Hashi no nai kawa (The River with No Bridge) and a lovely short story by Tachihara Erika, Ushiro no shome da are? (Who's Behind me?).

Advisement and Research

Having read the text in translation, I obtain the Japanese version and locate the desired scene. I then sometimes consult a Japanese colleague who has a deep background in Japanese literature about the Japanese language use in the text, the closeness and accuracy of the published English translation(s), particular difficulties students might encounter, and the author and his/her works in general.

I try to read several other works by the author, some background material on him/her, and critical articles or commentaries. This additional research is useful for my own understanding, for introducing the writer and the literary work to the class, and for guiding the students in their work. In the introduction lesson to a new work, I sometimes also show a video documentary on the author taped from television in Japanese. From time to time such programs appear and I am always on the lookout for them.

While keeping in mind the distinction between teaching translation within language teaching and teaching translation, it is very important, nevertheless, that a teacher planning to undertake such a course or to include such translation in a writing course, especially if he/she is not a translator, become familiar with significant aspects of the subject of translation and practical problems involved in such work. The teacher must be prepared to deal with the many issues that arise during students' work and to present to students at those times some fundamental principles and practices of this discipline. Examples include equivalent effect and equivalent frequency of usage, and treating "empty words," repetition of words, collocations, metaphors, cultural words and allusions, and ambiguity. I have found particularly understandable, instructive, thorough, and helpful the works by Peter Newmark (1988a, 1988b, 1991).


After the introduction, students are assigned the text to read and re-read very carefully to understand the story and the particular scene to be translated, and to examine elements such as the tone, style, structure, and vocabulary of the piece. Further discussion of the literary work, translation problems, and questions are addressed as students work through the translation. These discussions should be conducted in English. Any purely literary comments are kept very simple and brief as these are not university literature courses. As Duff (1989) confirms: "Translation, unfortunately, is something you learn only by doing" (p. 13).

Students are assigned the text to translate in draft form, one section for each of the four to six weeks usually spent on one text. The length of each assignment naturally depends on the circumstances, such as class size, students' general level of English proficiency, class hours, and acceptable homework loads. These drafts, in notebooks, are usually handed in the day before each week's class meeting so that in advance of conferencing I can review each one and indicate in writing where corrections or changes are required. In some spots I specify the nature of the problem, such as word choice, meaning, accuracy, grammar, usage, word order, and fluency.


During each class, I sit with each student individually for about 10 minutes and orally review the draft assigned for that week sentence by sentence. In the interest of time, when the number of students is more than 10, I arrange to meet with two or three outside of class. The teacher must be thoroughly prepared for these conferencing sessions.

As to be expected, generally most problems involve "translationese," defined by Newmark (1988b) as:

a literal translation that does not produce the appropriate sense, usually due to interference if the target language is not the translator's language of habitual use, or to automatic acceptance of dictionary meanings. (p. 285)


Interference in translation takes place when, apparently inappropriately, any feature of the source language--notably a syntactic structure, a lexical item, an idiom, a metaphor, or word order--is carried over or literally translated as the case may be into the target language text [and] plainly falsifies or ambiguates [the] meaning [of the text] or violates usage for no apparent reason. (Newmark, 1991, p. 78)

These problems are addressed in my review of students' drafts and oral conferencing, by students in their small groups and full-class collaborations as discussed below.

Reviewing students' drafts, I use a good published translation of the text as a guide. Sometimes two are available. To understand how I, or other teachers with limited Japanese language proficiency, can capably deal with the drafts, it is very important to understand that by this point I have already very carefully studied the assigned text as I have indicated above, seen the drafts of all the present students and often had the experience of using the text with past classes; that is, I have worked with up to dozens of translations of the text. Furthermore, I continue to review various points with Japanese colleagues.

Student Collaboration

During the conference session, the other students collaborate among themselves by comparing and discussing particular points of their drafts, particularly those that I noted needing correction or change, and alternatives and possible solutions to problems. I usually permit students to speak to each other in Japanese at this stage. It is genuine collaboration in the sense that all are working with a common text, though, of course, each student is responsible for producing his/her own translation. Throughout the year I advise them of the vital importance of this aspect of their work. A translation is something that needs to be discussed. Further, I state the seriousness of maintaining the integrity of their own translation in this process. Sometimes there is a fine line between legitimate collaboration and outright copying. It is very pleasing to see that students, in fact, collaborate efficiently and effectively, unlike, in my experience at least, attempts at peer collaboration on writing assignments such as compositions. Further, I have never had a problem with any students seeking out the published translation on their own and copying from it. They are sternly warned of the obvious foolhardiness of doing so.

During each class meeting, as I see common problems in many students' drafts, I bring up some of them for discussion in plenum, guiding or hinting at solutions, but mostly leaving them for students to resolve. A fundamental precept of which I remind students is that, as Newmark (1988a) summarizes, "All translation problems finally resolve themselves into problems of how to write well in the target language" (p.17).

After each week's work of drafting, reviewing, conferencing, and collaborating on a successive portion of the assigned text, students rewrite their drafts. When work on the entire assigned text is completed they hand in a final copy of their translation.

Correcting and Editing

I spend considerable time carefully reading the final translations, most of which are very well written. I correct, change, and reconstruct the language where necessary, tampering as little as possible to maintain the maximum integrity and individuality of each translation. Papers are returned to students with written comments and published translation(s) of the text. Students are assigned to examine very carefully their returned texts and compare them with the published translation(s), alongside the Japanese text. This is a very important learning experience for students to see and to consider alternative ways in which parts of the text could or should be rendered. A follow-up of this examination is done in the final class on this text.


Some teachers may initially oppose the use of translation as part of the English curriculum if their reference is only to the ineffectual grammar-translation typically practiced in Japan. Some teachers who are not fluent in the language may instinctively shun teaching Japanese literary translation. I believe, however, that it is an unnecessarily neglected aspect of English language instruction in Japan. I hope that this paper will persuade many teachers that they can at least initially include some literary translation in a writing course, and if the opportunity arises take on a full course with confidence. In the context I have presented, the work of students translating carefully selected excerpts from short stories and novels of significant figures in Japanese literature, and poetry as well, can be remarkable.



Duff, A. (1981). The third language. Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press.

Duff, A. (1989). Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newmark, P. (1988a). Approaches to translation. New York and London: Prentice Hall.

Newmark, P. (1988b). A textbook of translation. New York and London: Prentice Hall.

Newmark, P. (1991). About translation. Clevedon: Muiltilingual Matters Ltd.

Rivers, W. M. & Temperley, M. S. (1978). A practical guide to the teaching of English as a second or foreign language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





I have used extracts from short stories, novels, and poetry by Japanese women about Japanese women in various circumstances in contemporary society and other periods to raise students' awareness and understanding issues pertaining to women. Learning about the lives of the authors themselves supports this objective.

The following is a summary of four Japanese women writers and representative works suitable for translation.

Ariyoshi Sawako (1931-84) was one of Japan's most versatile, prolific, and popular modern writers. She wrote novels, short stories, plays, and essays. Her later works dealing with social issues of race, pollution, and senility had a huge impact on Japan. Ariyoshi also had great knowledge and appreciation of Japanese cultural traditions and arts. Many of her stories focus on Japanese women, their complex roles in society, and social issues that affect them. Her novel, Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma (Ariyoshi, 1967; 1978) ("The Doctor's Wife"), is based on the life of Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835), a poor country doctor who developed general anesthesia and performed the world's first successful surgery with it. The story centers on two women, his wife, Kae, and his mother, Otsugi, and the love-hate relationship and painful struggle between them as they compete for Seishu's affection, even to the point of being human guinea pigs for his experiments. Together with Seishu's two sisters, they devote their lives to his success. The novel explores the institution of the family and the supporting role of women controlled by the traditional family system and their dependence on men.

Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma has been made into a film which is available on video cassette (1967). A Japanese television documentary on Ariyoshi (1996) has also been made.

Hayashi Fumiko (1903-1951) was one of Japan's most important women writers of this century and arguably its most popular writer at the time of her death. She was the daughter of itinerant peddlers and had a rootless and impoverished childhood and adolescence. In 1922, she moved to Tokyo and lived for several years in extreme hardship, working mostly in cafes and bars while writing poetry and a diary that became the basis for her most famous and successful work. In her novels and short stories, Hayashi's protagonists are mostly poor, working-class women struggling to survive. They are strong-willed, independent, and determined to find happiness. "Dauntaun" (1962; 1992 ) ("Downtown"), written in 1949, is representative of her post-war fiction. It depicts with harsh reality the confusion and despair of Japanese at that time and their efforts to survive. Riyo is a young woman who comes to Tokyo from the country with her son to peddle tea to support themselves. Her husband is in Siberia and has not been heard from for six years. She meets a kind laborer and finally lets herself love him, but is stunned days later to learn that he has died in an accident. In the closing scene, she finds warmth and rest with some women like her in a shabby hut, and gains determination to go on.

Tsushima Yuko is one of Japan's finest writers of novels and short stories. Many of her works portray a single woman bringing up her children on her own, and recount with vivid imagery her day-to-day attempts to cope with isolated circumstances and unsatisfying relationships with men. Her stories explore the interior world of her characters and deal with the problems of feminine identity in modern society and women's changing consciousness. Her writing is also very personal in that she was brought up in a fatherless family: Her father, the great writer, Dazai Osamu, committed suicide when she was an infant. She herself raised two children alone after divorcing when they were very young. Danmari ichi (Tsushima, 1982) ("The Silent Traders") is a representative short story about a 35-year-old divorcee bringing up a young daughter and son. She recalls in stream-of-consciousness her own childhood and growing up, her difficult relationship with her mother, and her marriage. In the extract that I use from the end of the story, her ex-husband meets with her and the children after conceding to spend a day with them after many appeals from her. The absence of physical contact and verbal communication is understood as a silent bargain for survival.

Uno Chiyo died in 1996 at the age of 98. She often said that she lived her life just the way she wanted to, and indeed she did. She was a great beauty who scandalized Japan in the 1920s and 1930s with her sensational love affairs with well-known writers and artists. She married and divorced three times. She was a designer of kimonos and founded Japan's first fashion magazine. She was a strong, independent, courageous woman who led an unconventional, uncompromising life with passion and optimism. A documentary (1996) has been made about the author.

Uno is recognized as one of Japan's outstanding writers of this century. Most of her works are in the category of the "shishosetsu" or "I-novel." "Aru Hitori no Onna no Hanashi (1971) ("The Story of a Single Woman)" is representative of her beautifully crafted stories. The third-person narrator, 70-year-old Kazue, speaks for Uno herself. She looks back with serene objectivity on her remarkable life, from childhood to her mid-thirties, her relationship with her father, her many lovers, and the publication of her first stories. It is the narrative of a woman who did exactly what she wanted with her life without shame, regret, complaint, or apology. In addition to the above, there are many other Japanese literary texts that can provide stimulating material for translation, and at the same time be used to explore women's issues.


References to the Appendix


Ariyoshi, S. (1967). Hanaoka seishu no tsuma. Tokyo: Shinchosha.

Ariyoshi, S. (1978). The doctor's wife (tr. by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant). Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Ariyoshi Sawako (documentary). (1996, July 12). Odoroki momonoki 20 seiki (Rediscovering the 20th Century). ABC television.

Hanaoka seishu no tsuma (video). (1967). Daiei Video Museum.

Hayashi, F. (1962). Downtown (tr. by Ivan Morris). In I. Morris (Ed.), Modern Japanese stories (pp. 349-364). Tokyo: Tuttle.

Hayashi, F. (1992). Shitamachi (Dauntaun). In Hayashi Fumiko: Chikuma Nihon bungaku zenshu (pp. 233-256). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo.

Tsushima, Y. (1997). The Silent Traders (tr. by Geraldine Harcourt). In Y. Tsushima, The shooting gallery and other stories (pp. 91-106). New York: New Directions Books.

Tsushima, Y. (1990). Danmari Ichi. In Y. Tsushima, Danmari ichi (pp. 155-171). Tokyo: Shinchosha.

Uno, C. (1989). Aru hitori no onna no hanashi. Tokyo: Kodansha.

Uno, C. (1993). The story of a single woman (tr. by Rebecca Copeland). Tokyo: Tuttle.