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Grotesque Censorship or Creative Editing?

What gets lost in Translation?
Saturday 24 January 2009.

I read lots of novels, many of which are translations from other languages. I am perfectly happy with the idea that the translator may substantially change the literal meanings of words in order to recreate the ‘flavour’ of the original text in a different language. I am less happy with the idea that chunks of the original text are silently removed in the translation.

In fact, to be truthful, I didn’t even realise that it was common practice to remove text from novels in the process of translation. I was alerted to this possibility when I read some readers’ reviews of the book ‘Grotesque’ by the Japanese writer, Natsuo Kirino, on Amazon. I had previously read another novel, ‘Out’, by the same author and had enjoyed it greatly and was therefore looking forward to reading this one.

However, some of the Amazon comments on ‘Grotesque’ warned that the text has been “censored” and that the ending had been altered. After a bit of Googling I found lots of comments elsewhere on the Internet complaining of the same thing. Even the book’s entry in Wikipedia asserts that “Publisher Knopf censored the American translation, removing a section involving underage male prostitution, as it was considered too taboo for U. S. audiences.”

I am used to the idea of organizations dedicated to restricting censoring selected bits the Internet. But could it really be true, I wondered, that a book publisher would silently censor a translation of a novel by a well respected Japanese author in order to save the blushes of American readers? The person who should know the answer to that question is the book’s translator, Rebecca Copeland, a professor Japanese Language & Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. I emailed Dr Copeland to ask if the ‘censorship’ rumours were true and, if so, whether the UK edition of the book was any less censored than the US version.

She informed me that, to the best of her knowledge, the UK and US editions are the same. She says that neither publisher ‘censored’ the translation, as has been suggested but that the translation was edited to make it slightly briefer (which, she tells me, is not an uncommon practice). The ’most aggressive’ edits came in the last chapter of the book. But the ending was not really ‘changed’ just shortened.

She says that she would have preferred not cutting anything but does not think that the edits changed the overall artistry or message of the novel. It amuses her that readers would think the edits were to avoid ‘offending’ readers. The novel includes rape, incest, murder, terrorism, male and female prostitution, sexual deviance, etc. Any one of these issues might offend readers.

I have my own views as to whether it is possible to shorten a book without really changing it. But does this sort of ‘editing’ really count as ‘censorship’? What do you think...?

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  • Grotesque Censorship or Creative Editing?
    23 November 2011, by Anna

    I have read both Japanese and English versions of Grotesque and as much as I respect the translator for her research of Japanese literature from the Meiji era, I disagree with her: in my opinion, the book indeed suffered because of the shortening. Lot of text characterizing narrator and many other characters, namely Kazue, her father, Yuriko and Mitsuru, was cut out, which inevitably made them appear less real and their motives shallow or even illogical. I had read the English version first and thought the book wasn’t exactly great, but then I read the original and found it superior.

  • Grotesque Censorship or Creative Editing?
    27 January 2009

    I’ve done quite a few translations from Russian into English, mostly documents of different kinds and I can say that at least with Russian and English the usual ratio is 10 pages of the original Russian text will translate into approximately 9 pages of English and that’s for official documents like contracts etc, the reason for that is the difference in the ways in which the same things are expressed in different languages, Russian tends to be verbose, English in most cases tends to be more terse. So to answer your question about whether it’s possible to shorten a book without really changing it - I’d say yes definitely, if the languages in question are as different from each other as Japanese and English, it’s quite possible especially if it’s a literary translation whose main goal is to produce a text that reads naturally in the target language; lots of things will have to be changed, some will just have to be left out because in order to understand them properly the reader would have to have been born and raised in Japan so leaving these things in would only clutter the text without adding any real meaning. Things do get lost in translation all the time it’s a fact of life. Try reading poems in parallel with their translations; to keep the rhyme and rhythm the translator essentially has to write a totally different poem about the same general theme. So no it’s not censorship.