Lost and Found in Translation

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Re-Authoring—The Inevitable Consequence of Translation

I first read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in Japan. I’d been one of a rare group of Australian high-school students whose English curriculum did not include the iconic work. cover the-catcher-in-the-rye-004 I’d also elected to follow the science stream and never found an opportunity to read and analyze the book.

Years later, while working in Japan, I came across a Japanese translation by author, Haruki Murakami. I finished it, but never felt that ‘wow’ factor I’d heard so much about. So, I read the original English text. What a difference. The narrative and its connotations affected me for days.

Wanting to know why the English and Japanese versions evoked such contrasting responses, I compared the English original with Murakami’s translation word by word, line by line, and paragraph by paragraph from beginning to end.  My observations were surprising. I repeated the process with another earlier translation by Takashi Nozaki and the findings were identical. My thoughts on the semiotics of the experience follow:


D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was instantly successful in the U.S.A. when it was published in 1951. The story is an autobiographic monologue by an institutionalized teenager, Holden Caulfield, who recounts a recent experience. The monologue is rich in expletives and vulgar language, such as “turd,” “bastard,” “crap,” “kiss her ass,” and “f—.“. The text also abounds in vernacular phrases with depressing connotations, and explicit questioning of accepted social norms.

The narrative assumes a shared understanding of the culture and a shared sense of dissatisfaction with the dominant ideology. As such, it positions the reader to decide that it is not Holden who is crazy, but society for failing to see the futility of life governed by social norms, conventions and stereotypes.

 In Japan, the book was translated in 1964 under the title of “ライ麦畑でつかまえて” (Catching in the Rye Field) by Takashi Nozaki. It sold well because in the view of Japanese author and translator, Haruki Murakami, reports of its un-American content fueled lingering postwar anti-American sentiment at the time. According to Murakami, sales during the subsequent 50 years remained steady due more to the source book’s reputation in the U.S.A. than to its popularity in Japan as a comprehensible tale. murakami translation In 2003, a new modernized translation with updated language was published under the title of “キャッチャー・イン・ザ・ライ” (The Catcher in the Rye) by Haruki Murakami.

In practice, translating a text from one culture to another by a native speaker of the target language usually domesticates it. This process embeds target culture values and norms in the translated text, sometimes intentionally, but more often unintentionally. It produces a rendered text that is easily recognizable and accessible to the target culture readers.

Lawrence Venuti in The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference (1998, P159) points out that domesticated translations are common when he says, “Since translating is always addressed to specific audiences, however, vaguely or optimistically defined, its possible motives and VENUTI31p4TgwAN0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_effects are local and contingent……This is perhaps most clear with the power of translation to form cultural identities, to create a representation of a foreign culture that simultaneously constructs a domestic subjectivity, one informed with the domestic codes and ideologies that make the representation intelligible and culturally functional.”

Since Nozaki and Murakami are products of Japan’s culture, they are likely to be governed unconsciously and consciously by Japan’s social norms, cultural values, and stereotypes and their translations achieved at the expense of the source text’s original meaning, literary features, implied readership, and the author’s explicit and unexamined ideologies. The translator’s intervention will have influenced the outcome of conventional reading practices and caused a shift in the reading of the translation from the source text.

To look into this prediction, I compared the text and its translations with a focus on the textual features of the book and a reader-centered analysis.

My textual analysis of the source text suggests that the book focuses largely on death and suicide. Holden is obsessed with death and cannot accept the death of his younger brother, Allie, three years earlier. The expression, “It killed me” on the second page of the edition I read about D.B., Holden’s older brother in Hollywood, recurs at least 35 times in the book in other contexts, providing lexical cohesion to sustain the implied reader’s awareness of death through the story. dead flowers

Suicide is first mentioned on the same page when Holden says the game with Saxon Hall “was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn’t win.” Phoebe, his young sister, says “Daddy’ll kill you” several times. Holden tells a lengthy story about a minor character called James Castle who jumps to his death from a window wearing a black sweater he’d borrowed from Holden, and repeats this on subsequent pages.

Other direct references to suicide and thinly veiled threats run throughout the story. M-CC-Ax References to death using common phrases like “you were a goner,” and “got the axe”, which embody darker meanings can be found in the text with overwhelming frequency. A former Pencey student, Mr. Ossenberger, is described as having accumulated his fortune from the undertaking business.

Holden’s repetitive references to the death of his younger brother, Allie, throughout the text provide coherence to invite recognition of an intense source of stress. There is also the symbolism of Holden’s red hat, which is the color of Allie’s hair. catcher-in-the-rye-2 These textual features suggest that Holden’s death fixation was to some extent a response to Allie’s loss.

His adolescent crisis and awkwardness with sexual socialization appear to have exacerbated this problem. Reiteration of words like “crazy,” “madman,” and “insane,” more than 50 times and “It killed me” around 35 times in the text create “Holden idiolects,” providing intertextuality that positions the reader to sense Holden’s mental distress. These devices combined with Holden’s definitive first-person narrative rich in expletives, vulgar language, and explicit anti-social comments, further position the reader to sense the gravity of Holden’s misery and unstable mental state.

As a reader of this discourse, I concluded that Holden regards suicide as a means to escape the painful metamorphosis to adulthood just as Allie had accomplished. I suspect the book to be a lengthy suicide note, which has not yet been used. Probably in conformity with Salinger’s implied reader, I closed the book questioning the wisdom of peer and social pressure and found myself criticizing a society that does not recognize and support individuals who cannot conform.

But how does this compare with the Japanese translations?jap book shop

Japanese society is homogeneous and governed by powerfully maintained social norms that suppress individuality. Open reference to death and suicide is a social taboo in Japan. I suspected that the embedded cultural values and social norms of each translator would influence their translations, re-authoring the text for their implied readership. This led me to examine their renderings of the death references to see if the recurrent theme of death in the source text appeared in the translations.

The idiolect, “it killed me,” on the second page and at least 35 other locations was rendered by both translators each time as maitta ne! which means “I give up!” or “that’s too good for me!” As a signifier, maitta does not generate any signifieds with death-related connotations. Moreover, maitta does not even approximate the meaning of “it killed me” in any of its uses in the source text. Both translators handled the reference to suicide if Pencey lost the game by using the word kukuru, which means “punish oneself”. Phoebe’s “Daddy’ll kill you” is rendered by both translators harmlessly with words meaning angry and upset.

In the three descriptions of James Castle’s suicide, the Japanese versions state that he “fell” from a window and not “jumped” as in the source text. Nozaki renders the phrase, “got the ax” as opporidasareta, which means expelled and does not generate death-related images. While Murakami’ rendition is more colorful with bassarito kirisuterarete shimatta wake da, which literally means “discarded,” the rendition does not conjure up any thoughts of violent death. catcher-holden-phony

Holden’s disrespectful comment about the undertaker, “I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs,” is rendered by Nozaki in polite words that mean “I can imagine him changing gear and requesting Jesus to kindly provide him with more people who have passed away.” Murakami’s translation is similarly respectful.

These changes eliminate reinforcement from the frequent references to suicide, the creation of the “It killed me” idiolect, the repeated use of expressions with death-related connotations, and disrespectful references to death in the source text. die catcherAs a result, the re-invented Japanese implied reader is not invited through repetition and reiteration to recognize the significance of death to Holden.

As I read the re-authored translations before the source text, I did not sense Holden’s suicidal tendencies or his inability to move on with his life after Allie’s death. In sharp contrast, these realizations were overwhelming when I read the source text.

Next, I examined both translators’ renderings of Holden’s frequent reiteration of related signifiers like “crazy,” “mad,” and “insane.” The recurrent use of this group of lexicalized structures created another “Holden” idiolect, which in my case, generated strong images of a disturbed mental state. Straight_jacket_Joker_by_MasterDrawerThe Japanese word kichigai means “crazy,” “mad” or “insane,” and would precisely render Holden’s comments like “Boy, I was shaking like a madman.” and “It makes me so depressed I go crazy.” However, in practice, the highly negative and socially critical implications of kichigai preclude its common use in Japan where madness carries a social stigma.

In line with social conventions, it was not used even once by either translator in any of the fifty or more references to madness. In most of the fifty cases, both translators employed meaningless stereotyped expressions like baka mitai (silly), which has no social connotations and is used frequently in childhood and adolescent chatter.

Since Japanese readers bring their own embedded social conventions and values to the reading transaction, the frequent reading of baka mitai and similar terms position them to infer that Holden shows the acceptable stereotyped signs of youth and will not sense that he is mentally distressed.

Neither translator appeared to recognize the significance of this “madness” or other idiolects, such as “it killed me,” in the source text. Their omission by rendering them with a profusion of differing translations eliminated their impact of their concept reinforcement on the reader. This in turn marginalized the notions of suicide, grief over Allie’s death, and insanity, which would otherwise be embedded in the implied reader’s consciousness via the cohesive network of recurrent lexical relations. catcher

Holden’s persistently hostile and vulgar language in the source text positions the reader of the source text to recognize the character’s explicit ideology that rejects and despises stereotypes and ultimately, sense the gravity of Holden’s misery. However, both translators raise the register of the text by employing a general level of language that lacks expletives and vulgar terms.

They do not allow Holden to be a true nonconformist as he uses polite, honorific Japanese when he speaks to teachers and parents. His level of language when addressing his peers is typical of his age, lacks expletives, and would not be considered vulgar by anyone. Take for instance, the language with which Holden envisages Sally Hayes’ mother collecting money for the poor in the source text:

“And old Sally Hayes’ mother. Jesus Christ. The only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass for her when they made a contribution.”

In his translation of this passage, Nozaki completely ignores the use of “Jesus Christ” as a blasphemous expletive and substitutes it with a meaningless phrase kore wa ne, which merely has the function of a syntactic connector. This omission might have been due to the translator’s lack of understanding as few Japanese are Christians and most would not know that disrespectful use of the term challenges the dominant social values in the West.

Worse, “kiss my ass” is rendered by Nozaki as sanpai kyuhai shite meaning bowing in respect. japanese-bowTo have rendered the phrase literally would alienate Japanese readers who rarely use vulgar expressions in their native language. These serious losses in translation weaken the force of Holden’s feelings and probably leave the Japanese reader wondering why he mentioned Sally Hayes’ mother at all. Numerous other examples exist, such as “bastard” and “sonuvabitch,” which are rendered with words equivalent to “guy.”

J.D.Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” employs a distinctive rambling Rye narrative style that is rich in expletives and vulgar language, and is endowed with numerous idiolects. The narrative assumes a shared understanding of the culture against which Holden is rebelling and a shared sense of distaste for it. Accordingly, these literary tools position the reader to recognize Holden’s maladjusted, almost suicidal condition and attribute this state to non-conformity to the dominant social ideologies.

The source text can be read as a cautionary tale about human fragility and inflexibility of the social system. Moreover, it questions representations of power and not only explores the subversion of authority, but also the world ignored by the dominant social discourse. As a real reader of the English source text, I was riveted by the abrasive account of Holden’s self destruction. The text called my values into question. I concluded that it is not Holden who is crazy, but society for failing to see the futility of life governed by social norms, conventions and stereotypes.

The translations of Nozaki and Murakami, however, have been domesticated and effectively re-authored. Neither translator violated Japanese norms governing the use of language in the target society. Salinger’s expletives, vulgar language, ideolects and the pervasive recurrent references to death, suicide and madness have been lost. The result is that Japanese readers are not invited to sense Holden’s depressive almost suicidal state and the gravity of his mental instability. Nor are they invited to easily recognize that Holden challenges an inflexible social system. As a result, they are not positioned to question their own dominant social discourse.

Weary of Holden, they might close the Japanese version of the book, as I did, wondering what all the fuss was about, feeling reassured that a runaway adolescent had been safely reinstated in conventional society.  animatedtumblr_mcffn168Le1r2l64oo1_500 The translations have empowered resistant readers. Lacking the explicit violation of social conventions and representing Holden as a polite teenager, the translations are, in effect, resistant readings of the original English text.

In short, this analysis reveals that domestication for a different cultural constituency has caused a shift in the translated texts relative to the author’s intended reading of the original English-language text. Communication on this narrative between readers of the different cultures, therefore, does not seem to have a common basis. The observations also suggest that interlingual translation merely represents a more complex form of interpretation and understanding of an intralingual discourse – the process of reading and comprehending a text written in one’s own language is itself the reader’s act of translation of the author’s words.


  1. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, Little, Brown and Company Edition, 1951
  2. ライ麦畑でつかまえて (Catching in the Rye Field), Hakusuisha Co., Ltd., Translated by Takashi Nozaki, 1964.
  3. キャッチャー・イン・ザ・ライ (The Catcher in the Rye), Hakusuisha Co., Ltd., Translated by Haruki Murakami, 2003.
  4. The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference, Lawrence Venuti, Routledge, 1998
  5. After Babel – Aspects of Language and Translation, George Steiner, Oxford University Press, Third edition, 1998
  6. With Love and Squalor, Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller, Editors, Broadway Books, 2001
  7. New Essays on The Catcher In The Rye, Edited by Jack Salzman, Cambridge University Press, 1991
  8. Pencey Preppy: Cultural Codes in The Catcher in the Rye,” Christopher Brookeman in New Essays on The Catcher In The Rye, Edited by Jack Salzman, Cambridge University Press, 1991
  9. A Retrospective Look at the Catcher in the Rye, Gerald Rosen, Edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987
  10. http://www.hakusuisha.co.jp/topics/rye1.htm


One thought on “Lost and Found in Translation

  1. I’d always assumed translations were reasonably accurate versions of the author’s original message/viewpoint. Obviously, this isn’t always the case. Thought-provoking stuff.



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