A note: translating a light novel is a collaborative effort. Much credit goes to the rewriters and editors at Seven Seas.
I’m proud to translate a popular light novel series, Loner Life in Another World by Shoji Goji. It’s a highly controversial series, beloved for its, er, unique play on fantasy tropes as well as its manic, bizarre, and mind-boggling style of humor. And it’s despised for, er, these exact same characteristics.
One really really important thing that I want all fans and readers should know about this series: it’s difficult to translate.
A notable description of reading this novel in Japanese was something like (shout-out to manga translator Steiner): “squeezing a lemon directly on to your brain.”
Just how difficult? To get a baseline, first we need to understand what it takes to translate ‘standard’ Japanese fiction. And I put standard in quotes because there is no standard. But let’s say you’re reading a book that is just plain easy to read. It has clear language, concise prose, and you always know exactly what’s going on. Here are the basics of what it takes to translate that.
- Most words can’t be translated 1:1. A translator will need to choose words with a contextual understanding of Japanese vocabulary beyond a dictionary, freely moving between synonyms based on relative nuance.
- Most Japanese grammatical structures do not have direct equivalents in English. So a translator will need to completely restructure and reformulate each sentence from scratch by deciding on the best approximate grammatical equivalent, reordering information as appropriate.
- Proverbs, idioms, metaphors, allusions, names, numbers, punctuation, and suffixes cannot be translated 1:1. So a translator will need to come up with approximate equivalents depending on context.
- Japanese language has distinct features such as indirectness, euphemisms, self-deprecation, repetition, and politeness. None of these will make sense when directly rendered into English, so a translator will need to process these based on the purpose and audience of a text and decide how directly or indirectly to render these “Japan-isms.”
As you can see, translating Japanese fiction is already a complicated process. It’s worth noting that many light novels, not just Loner Life, are notorious for having surprisingly complex and/or maddening literary or pseudo-literary aspects not typically found in American commercial fiction. Many of the devices that I discuss below are found in plenty of novels and light novels. Loner Life is simply unique for combining so many of these traits will also being wacky on the surface.
To illustrate, I’ll dive into how Loner Life is made to be intricate and bizarre at each stage that I laid out above.
Shoji Goji clearly loves language and wordplay. Many of the word choices are erudite and rare, and he regularly uses a little-known kanji (Chinese character in Japanese) with a “rubi” reading (or hiragana phonetic reading of the kanji) for humorous slang on top of it. So he loves to mix an archaic, literary word with modern slang. Goji also likes to use an out-of-date kanji when most contemporary writers would simply use hiragana. I compensate for this tendency by using luxuriant, over-the-top vocabulary whenever possible, but freely mixing it with the most absurd slang I can come up with.
Loner Life also pulls this vocabulary and slang from an incredibly wide variety of contextual sources: J-drama from the 70s, famous haiku, Sengoku war histories, little-known web comics, children’s fairytales. I need to put vocabulary that I already know from most sentences into a Japanese Google search just in case it’s also doubling as a reference to some famous or little known source material, which will substantially change the way I need to translate it.
Throw grammar out the window, because Loner Life is narrated in ungrammatical first-person perspective. Now, this is common in Japanese and English-language fiction, but the main narrator Haruka-kun has a tendency to end nearly every single sentence he speaks aloud with a question mark. It’s a choice by the original author so off-the-rails that it is simply impossible to get away with in English. It doesn’t make sense for someone to speak every sentence ending in a question mark. But there is a real character logic here: Haruka-kun is an idiot-genius who breaks down into awkward cringe whenever he has to speak to other people. But his tendencies go so far that no reader could conclude that logic wins in the end. So I’ve translated his non-grammatical rants and frequent questions with an ever-evolving and adapting mix of rambling grammatical structures in English that are, on the one hand, viable for an over-compensating socially awkward individual, but also exaggerated to a humorous and at-times absurdist extent.
Proverbs and Puns
As mentioned above, Goji loves to layer meaning. Often a pun is an allusion is also a metaphor. Japanese pun is a rich subject because of the abundance of phonetic sounds in Japanese that could have multiple meanings. Vice-versa, there is the potential for a kanji or combination of kanji to stack together in different ways to produce a multiplicity of meanings. Goji abuses–I mean, uses–this power of Japanese. At times in the series, an entire paragraph may consist of puns, usually turning a reference to a common proverb, saying, or piece of pop cultural on its head by also sounding like something absurd/naughty/non-sequitur.
English is not as easy to pun in, and puns tend to sound a lot cheesier in English. My approach to this has been to process all of Loner Life’s various types of wordplay as ‘wordplay’ and respond with a flexible roster of options in English. I use puns when possible, jokes or references to bizarre or absurdist culture and pop culture, and silly but sometimes clever alliteration, assonance, rhyming, and tongue-twisters.
Cultural Linguistic Features
Loner Life also takes many of Japanese’s culture features to extremes. Dialogue tags are much less common in Japanese fiction, but usually you can tell who is speaking because of verbal tics like the degree of formality used and masculine/feminine sentence endings. Goji purposefully obliterates this with a massive roster of characters, none of whose names are remembered by the main character, and only a few of whom have any distinguishing verbal tics. I would have loved to come up with a better way to deal with this feature, but in the translation I’ve simply created verbal tics for certain unique characters like Vice Rep B, added dialogue tags when helpful, and then forgone them the rest of the time.
Loner Life is also no slouch when it comes to euphemisms and politeness, which are more common in Japanese and come off as stilted or strange when directly translated into English. Haruka-kun often flips between extremely polite and extremely coarse language, which needs to be exaggerated even more to have the same relative effect in English. I also need to emphasize dirty puns and sexual double-meanings to make them stand out like they do in Japanese, which I usually do by doubling down on the creeping naughtiness of a passage. (This becomes a much bigger issue in Volumes 3 and beyond, so you’ll have to wait to find out!)
I hope this provided some insight into my translation of Loner Life. It’s important to note that these literary and linguistic devices used by Goji are only half of the reason the novel is so tough to translate – the plot is also told deliberately out of order much of the time, with the narrator purposefully (or accidentally) withholding information because he is either too clever, too dense, or both. But I think this comes through very well in the English translation, so any readers will be well aware at why Haruka-kun is such a difficult but entertaining narrator to follow.
Being a light novel, the series moves very slowly at times, but it definitely evolves in an exciting way. So please look forward to Volume 2 coming out next June. And thank you for reading!