Tough Boy

Just when you thought it was safe, I dig up another of my song translations from the Pioneer anime CDs. This one is the theme from the second series of Fist of the North Star, for which i set myself the intellectual exercise of keeping all the Engrish lyrics in exactly the same place in my translation as they occurred in the original.  “Tough Boy”, for so this song is called, is an interesting exercise. Even to the Japanese, it must have seemed impossibly dated — I was hired to translate it in 1997, with a chorus that lionised the fact that its singer was “living in the eighties.” Good luck with that!

From the looks of this, it seems that I couldn’t be bothered to make the lyrics to this one actually rhyme. Perhaps I knew I was on a hiding to nothing.

Welcome to this crazy time

On the run and deep in trouble, your life’s on the line

You’re such a tough boy…

She never met a boy that made her feel so bad

I got a feeling that a man like you could drive her crazy

You, tough boy…

Here we are, at the end of the century

Our time is now, out on the streets, our generation’s taking over

Keep you burning, till the race is run

Got to be more to your life than all this scum and crime and dirty fighting

No boy no cry, cast your fears aside

There’s a bright tomorrow waiting, wait until you see the rising sun

We are living, living in the eighties

We still fight, fighting in the eighties

Looks as if you’ve had your share of battle scars

It’s gonna take more than a few hard knocks to break your spirit

Such a tough boy…

Everywhere she turns she gotta feel so sad

I got feeling that’s there more to you than causing trouble

Tough boy…

Here we are, in the eternal rockland

Our fists are raised, it’s time for us to make a stand and take it over

Keep you burning, till the race is run

Gotta fight the madness of illusion, till our hopes and dreams are all our own

No boy no cry, keep on keeping on

Turn and face the wind and take its strength so you can be a hurricane

We are living, living in the eighties

We still fight, fighting in the eighties

We are living, living in the eighties

We still fight, fighting in the eighties

You’ll notice, perhaps, that my pronouns are all over the place here — a sign of my indecision over whether the singer was male or female, and hence whether the titular tough boy was first- or third-person. Such switches in addressee are a bad idea. I’m pretty sure, for example, that such vagueness in the lyrics of “How Does She Know” in Enchanted cost the song its Oscar. But there won’t be any Oscars for “Tough Boy”, either, not till hell freezes over. These days, I would be able to YouTube the original song and get a look at the band… or Wiki them to work it out, but those options weren’t available 13 years ago. At least, they weren’t to me.

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The Song the Goddess Sings

Time for another visit to the translation archives. I’ve decided to put up more of my pre-Schoolgirl Milky Crisis works up online. Back in 1997, Pioneer hired me to translate the lyrics of some of the CDs they were selling in the UK market. The company already had a reputation for bilingual releases, although often English and Japanese versions of the same song were quite different in meaning. They asked me if I could come up with English versions of songs for the CD liner notes, so that fans could sing along if they wanted.

The ones I was proudest of were songs with lyrics by Natsuko Karedo, including Tenchi Muyo spin-offs like “Ueno Love Story” and “Discovery Blues”. But I can’t find versions of them on You Tube, and without the sound of the song to hang the translation off, it loses a lot of its effect. However, I did stumble across  “Megami wa Utau” from one of the Oh! My Goddess albums. I’ll put the Japanese into the comments if any linguists want to scrutinise it for themselves. I wrestled for a while over the term “nice”, which is horribly twee, but then again, some might say…

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My umbrella has shut out the rain

Now the town is bright and clean again

When I shake the drops away

Like sparkling gems they fly

Park bench still wet from the passing storm

Near the children’s house, so nice and warm

From their window they can see

A rainbow in the sky

Everybody wants to be free, it’s plain to see

Open your windows to the sun

There’s a dream of love, in the sky above

Just listen carefully

And you can hear the song it sings to you

Kindness in all things, loving feelings

Are all you need to be true

And that’s the song the Goddess sings

Heaven’s shining smile is rolling down

Down the hill and straight towards the town

Waves of happiness arrive

They’re reaching out to you

In the flowers, in the birds and sky

In the voices as the kids pass by

The dream transforms all that it sees

And fills them all with love

Everybody can be happy, it’s plain to see

Open your heart and let in love

To your love be true, all you have to do

Is say it from the heart

And then the day of love can really start

I will be happy

You will be happy, and all people

Goddess is always with you

There’s a dream of love, in the sky above

So come along with me

And we can sing our song so tenderly

Sparkle in the sun, love to everyone

It’s all you need to be true

And that’s the song the Goddess sings

Japan Sinks

(This is my review of Sakyo Komatsu’s original SF novel, from Anime FX way back in 1995 when it was released in paperback suspiciously swiftly after the Kobe Earthquake. The latest movie remake, oddly retitled Sinking of Japan, is out this week in the UK from MVM).

Although the hardback version was first published a generation ago, Japan Sinks remains one of the few works of Japanese textual SF available in English. Now re-released this month by Kodansha, the book and translation make for intriguing reading. When first published it was ahead of its time; last year it might have been regarded as a little dated, but this year it has acquired new significance.

Sakyo Komatsu is, according to Brian Aldiss, one of the most-read SF authors in the world. He remains virtually unknown in the English market, but gained many readers worldwide when Japan Sinks was made into a film (known here as Tidal Wave). But Japan Sinks is not the most representative Komatsu story; like his compatriot Shinichi Hoshi, much of his real skill lies in the punchy twists of SF short-shorts. Many of his stories are also parables, making warnings of the if this goes on… variety. In The Quiet Corridor, for example, the narrator realises too late that his own sterility is not unique, and that the ‘quiet corridor’ of the maternity unit and the dying vegetation outside his window are but two indicators of imminent environmental collapse. More warnings are contained in At the End of the Endless Stream, which shows humanity fleeing a dying planet by travelling into the past. Komatsu’s novel Resurrection Day depicts the hellish results of a bacteriological weapon, which leaves only a small pocket of humanity left alive in the Antarctic. In each case we see the human reaction to a global problem, and this form of writing is repeated in Japan Sinks. The title should be enough of a hint. Scientists discover that the Japanese archipelago is just about to give way; the government tries to cover it up, but then all hell breaks loose as the inhabitants flee their drowning country. But what will happen to the global economy? Where will those millions of people go? If they leave Japan, will they still be Japanese?

Japan has always been a danger area, at risk from earthquakes, tsunami and volcanoes. Critics of anime violence who see an easy explanation in the influence of the Bomb, might already have discovered their mistake in the wake of the Kobe earthquake. Natural disasters have played an important role in the development of the Japanese psyche, and this book throws much light upon it. Komatsu’s Japanese are adaptable, brave people, whose characters have been shaped by their environment. Japan Sinks posits the ultimate disaster, and shows us how Komatsu thinks his countrymen would deal with it.

On occasion, his observations speak volumes about Japanese attitudes. In extreme situations, Komatsu’s characters revert to (stereo)type, as an insular, nationalistic and determined herd. By extrapolating ‘disaster’ to such extremes, Komatsu is able to amplify subtle influences to such an extent that many stereotypical views of Japan become much more understandable. However, post-Kobe, some of Komatsu’s scenes are tragic in their inaccuracy. How could he have guessed that when the next big earthquake came in 1995, the rescue operation would be anything less than efficient? Komatsu expects a stiff-upper-lip heroism from his nation, and in one scene describes the arrival of humanitarian aid. It is not unlike the post-Kobe operation, although Komatsu’s characters do not charge money for drinking water. Neither would they have bulldozed ruins scant days later, even though survivors were being pulled from the Mexico City site three weeks after zero-hour. While Komatsu makes many interesting points about ‘the Japanese’, he also makes many assumptions that have proved to be too optimistic.

This may be a symptom of the book’s age. It was written in 1973 and translated in 1977, two factors which have considerably influenced the style of the English version. The 70s edition was abridged from the original by an experienced literary translator, Michael Gallagher. Gallagher is better known for his ‘mainstream’ works, and his versions of Mishima’s Spring Snow and Runaway Horses are excellent. He did a pretty good job on Japan Sinks, too, but there are features of his text that both date the work and demonstrate areas where a background in ‘high’ culture can work to a translator’s detriment. ‘Software’ for example, is spelled ‘softwear’; a reasonable mistake in the computer-illiterate 70s, but not one that would escape the attentions of a contemporary editor. Similarly, there are a few places where Gallagher’s translation seems to be pitched at the wrong market. There are words and references which would require no explanation to an audience of Japanese-language students, but which a mass-market readership would find confusing. In one scene, characters make ironic reference to the sinking of the Tei-en. Although readers would be aware that it is a line from an old war song (it says as much in the text), few would know that the Tei-en, or, to give it its real name, the Dingyuan, was a Chinese flagship in the Sino-Japanese war, or that the lines of the song are the last words of a dying sailor, asking if his comrades have succeeded where he has failed. The pathos of the scene is thus lost on much of the readership. (Although if you really want to know about the Dingyuan, its story is told in my biography of Admiral Togo – JC, 2010).

If Japan Sinks were a modern translation, things might have been very different. It is possible that Gallagher might not have been hired at all; not because he is bad (he isn’t), but because there is now a significant number of skilled translators who specialise in popular texts, just as Gallagher specialises in literary works. One wonders what ALfred Birnbaum, Dana Lewis or Frederik L. Schodt would have made of the same material; they too would have cut it drastically, but they might have also written for an SF audience. Readers used to ‘real’ SF might find Japan Sinks a little turgid in places, while readers of ‘literature’ might find the characterisation too sketchy. Using a literary translator on a popular work is a little like using a spanner to drive in a nail. It might work well enough, but a hammer would have done a better job.

(Ah the naivety of youth. There was me in 1995 assuming that popular translation would bring its own rewards, and cause people to specialise in it. In your dreams, today, in your dreams would you get people of the calibre of Michael Gallagher translating modern Japanese science fiction novels. But I have ranted about this before – JC, 2010)

Mad Dogs and Engrishmen

Back in the days of Anime UK we used to call it Japlish, but far leveller heads have prevailed in the mainstream, and today it is usually known as Engrish. It is an awful, fractured mangling of English, usually found in Japanese instruction leaflets and T-shirts, where someone has had a really good stab at English, but ended up saying something mildly rude or downright ludicrous.

But while we point and laugh at little old ladies with obscene phrases on their T-shirts, we should perhaps wonder what happens when the reverse happens. Believe me when I say it is no urban myth that some oriental tattooists have wreaked a terrible revenge on drunken chavs in their care. I once saw a woman in a Stratford supermarket with Stupid White Bitch written in perfect, permanent Chinese across her shoulders, although she was convinced that it some kind of romantic haiku. What can you say in a situation like that? It’s not like the truth is going to help anyone…

Which brings me to this month’s story – a little glimpse of the world of T-shirt manufacture and Japanese slogans, not in Japan, but right here in the UK. A designer had knocked up a very nice picture of Wolverine fighting the Incredible Hulk, and had decided to throw in their names in Japanese to be cool. To do this, he switched his font to Japanese and simply typed them in. I mean, that was how translation happened, right?

Luckily someone smelled a rat, and decided to run everything past an expert. When they couldn’t find an expert, they came to me, and I snickeringly informed them that the Japanese words on the picture were deliciously random. In fact, according to the legend, they had found a metal-clawed member of the X-Men whose name was apparently Dellabe Pissbarmy, and he was fighting a muscly, green-skinned man called Gaggy Bammy Sauce Swishy Bag-o-bay.

A few emails with the aid of a Japanese word processor, and I had saved everyone’s blushes, although almost immediately I started to feel pangs of Evil Translator Guilt. In order to bring a little joy to the world, surely I should have looked at their mock-up and said: “Yes, that’s absolutely fine.” Better men than I have clearly once been working at Japanese advertising companies and marketing firms, and managed to say with a straight face that Baseball Throw-Up is an ideal T-shirt slogan, as is Sroog: Your Demonstrator Has a PhD For, which I once actually had on a T-shirt and proudly wore all over London.

Broken Japanese, of course, is the common currency of the otaku, and I have long since stopped trying to correct it when it is flung around me like some sort of linguistic dirty protest. I regularly hear anime fans, for example, adding a superfluous honorific in introductions as if addressing themselves, (e.g.: “Call me Derek-chan”) which as my Japanese teacher once memorably explained: “You would only do if you were a bit simple.” But who am I to stop such faux pas from bringing a little joy into the life of the Japanese? I now realise that I really let the side down by not waving through Dellabe Pissbarmy to give all the Japanese tourists a laugh next time they are in London. Oh well, next time…

(This article first appeared in NEO #68, 2010)

Survival of the Fittest

Out now in shops, my Doctor Who: Survival of the Fittest, for which I was asked to give Sylvester McCoy an unrepentant Nazi for a travelling companion. Herewith my 150 words from the liner notes:

My grandmother was convinced she’d been had. After gassing the nest and plugging up the holes, the exterminator returned a few days later to check on it. When he unplugged the entrance, a bunch of wasps flew out and away. But he assured us that the nest was dead, and that the fugitives were merely the last hatchlings, from post-apocalyptic eggs.

The idea of insect civilisation brings questions of its own. How would it operate? How would they feel about being born, already forced into incontrovertible specialisms? As her first act after hatching, a newborn bee queen will murder her twin sister in the neighbouring cocoon. Every insect must know its place. When Big Finish asked me to think on the implications of taking Klein’s ideology to logical conclusions, I drew on my childhood memories, and the concept of a group of creatures, born alone in the dark in the ruins of their world, then freed to fly away to an unknown fate. Where did they think they were going? Were they only following orders?

But there’s more; there always is. As with most scripts, there was a long process of pitching and repitching before everybody was happy with the ideas on the table. “Survival of the Fittest” was in my mind because at the time I was writing a book about Charles Darwin, and I was fascinated at the time with the pull exerted on early Darwinists by the eugenics movement, which, of course, fed into Nazism. I initially wanted to write something about the First Emperor of China, who really took fascism to its logical conclusion. He was raised by what was known in those days as Legalists, people who would do anything to get into power and anything to stay there. The legal system of his Qin dynasty included punitive maiming and institutionalised bribery, while many lower classes were reduced to super-specialised slaves, door-openers and power sources. Hence my original pitch, which was called The Hidden Offices, taking its name from the title of the First Emperor’s personnel division for disabled slaves.

But Big Finish wanted something interstellar and far-ranging, so instead I pitched the concept of a world high above the galactic plane, where the Milky Way itself spun “like a swastika in the sky.” My working title, in fact, was Swastika Night. There was some stuff in there about warp cores and gravity wells, too, and a malfunctioning drive that had marooned human colonists millions of light years away from a solar system large enough to truly support them, forced instead to struggle for lebensraum with indigenous insectoids.

I wanted insects because of the parallels between hive societies and a fascist regimes. But once I had insects, I was drawn inevitably to a recurring issue in my Doctor Who scripts: how does the TARDIS translation circuit actually work? If everything somebody says is translated fully, why do we hear accents? Are accents part of semantics, in which case should we hear stress in unstressed languages? What size of area does TARDIS translation affect? What happens when it’s gone? And in this case, what happens when communication is conducted by pheromones and scents? When creatures have no vocal chords, how would the TARDIS render their communication?

When I realised that there would be little scope for humour, sarcasm or untruths in a pheromone-based communication system, I had my story. And then it was down to producer David Richardson and director John Ainsworth to make all the actors play creatures that communicated by smell. Everybody likes a challenge.

Dragon Half

I can’t even remember the name of the fanzine. I do remember that back in 1995 when Schoolgirl Milky Crisis wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye, they interviewed me about translating Japanese animation, and in passing, someone said that the closing theme of Dragon Half was “untranslatable”. I said that nothing was truly untranslatable, although a faithful rendition of the song “Watashi no Tamagoyaki” would inevitably sound as odd in English as it did in the original Japanese.

“All right,” they said. “Prove it.” So I got a pen and a Wordtank, and got stuck into the song: a mad sequence presenting a girl crazily trying to cook a meal for a boy she is trying to impress. After a brief monologue about the state of her cooking and her feelings for her prospective man, we get to hear her side of the disastrous dinner conversation, before she’s agonising once more in the kitchen, then back at the table, then finally winning his approval. But then, in the final lines, she watches in terror as he reaches for one of the dodgy eggs.

Oh yes, and you have to leave in asides in Chinese and Korean, along with some la-la-la nonsense words, and make it rhyme and scan with the original, which is sung to the tune of a Beethoven medley played at triple speed, belted out by the sublime Kotono Mitsuishi at a thousand miles an hour.

I was pretty pleased with the results. As was the nameless fanzine, which went on to print my translation without bothering to include the interview that was supposed to go alongside it. Fifteen years on, I could probably do a little better… but not much. I’d probably leave out the deliberate British slang (it was a UK publication) and I’d think twice about “bloody”, but otherwise it’s as good a crack as anyone’s had at performing the impossible.

Altogether now…

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, bloody egg!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Look at the grill, it’s turned to smeg!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, spuds are cursed!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Don’t try to boil them or it’s worse!

Oh, he’s a wonder, he’s a dream, mustn’t blunder

I’m a wreck, I’m a nutter, but I want him bad

Heart can’t stop rushing as I’m cooking while I’m gushing

Gotta be the best meal that he’s ever had!

Outside the sun is shining, we could be somewhere dining

Let’s hope he gets the hint and asks me out

Just say you will and we can trash all this swill and have a

Good decent meal without a doubt, RAN RARARAN

RAN RARARAN YAN YAYAYAN YAN YAYAYAN

North East South West Full Empty Up Down RAN RARARAN

RAN RARARAN YAN YAYAYAN YAN YAYAYAN

One Two Three Four, Yi Er San Si

“Don’t eat the tomato!

It’s mine and I should know!

Try octopus, yes do!

I made it just for you!”

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter didn’t know he’d want some more!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

No more boiled eggs so now they’re raw!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

Pit-patter time is rushing, lager too!

Pit-patter time is rushing, Pit-patter quicker-quicker

It’s far too cold but that’ll do!

Wow! Think it’s working! So what now? No more shirking! So…

“Ahem! Did I tell you you’ve got pretty eyes?”

Oh! This is lovely, is it time to get snuggly?

Do I wait or do I take him by surprise?

Don’t think I’m surly, I’m a silly little girlie

But I want you to tell me what you think. Confess!

Ah that’s more like it, he’s so cool, what a poet

I was starting to think I had to guess RARARAN

RAN RARARAN YAN YAYAYAN YAN YAYAYAN

Kamsa Hamnida, I am sorry

RAN RARARAN RAN RARARAN YAN YAYAYAN YAN YAYAYAN

Gambei, Takeaway, School’s Over Hooray!

Toughest meal I ever had, 95% ain’t bad

Jungle law my hand was forced, why not try the special course? Ow!

The egg! It’s all for naught!

I’m done and it’s my fault!

Damn! Bloody eggs! Bloody eggs!

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

It has come to my attention* that someone on You Tube has uploaded the BBC documentary Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1998) in four parts. This is an excellent piece of work from producer Nick Freand Jones — not that you’d know that, because the You Tube version cavalierly disregards the ending credits. So you don’t get to see my name there as the staff translator, either, despite my four manic days spent with 24 tapes of interview footage, a laptop and a well-thumbed Nelson kanji dictionary. Well, 21 tapes — as it turned out, no subtitles were required on Alex Cox and Tony Luke. With motorcycle couriers periodically waiting outside, motors running, I waded through hour after hour of cinematographer technicalities and thespian reminiscences. And I was pretty pleased with the result.

When the documentary was in the can, Nick gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with the translated interview material, used and unused, which is why several bits of it turn up later in some of the articles reprinted in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

*Thanks to Andrew Osmond