Narcissu 2 Afterwards - Translation Style

The style of translation that I used for the Narcissu 2 project is a relatively unconventional one. As I described in the in-game translator notes, my goal was to recreate the mental experience I had of reading the original in the reader’s mind. Like the painting of a picture, I placed very heavy emphasis on the ordering of strokes, the layering of descriptions, the shades of words.

For Narcissu, the way it’s written and presented, I just felt this to be the most natural way to portray the work. If this were another game, another author, I likely would have chosen a different way. Still, this was what just “clicked” in my head when I set off to do the project. I have no regrets in going down this path, only worries over whether I had accomplished my goal.

Painting the picture

I struggled for a long time to describe what I had been trying to accomplish with my translations as I worked, in a way this article is the culmination of 3 years of work and reflection.

I’ve had people say that I’m extremely literalist, that like a rank beginner, I stick way too close to the source material without understanding and taking into account cultural idioms, etc. More moderately, I’ve been simply described as someone who will stick very close to the words of the original if given a choice.

Just to be clear, I’m not following the Japanese text in Narcissu closely just because I can’t think of a better, “more natural” way to render all the lines. The driving factor was, for this particular work, I placed great value in the way things were presented: the order of descriptions, certain kinds of repetition, parallels of form, etc. all things that are tightly bound to the structural form of the original. This value judgment stood squarely in opposition to a more mainstream way of translation that places more emphasis on transferring meaning and intent.

Is it right to place so much value on such structural things? I don’t know. My heart tells me that there’s value there, but whether that notion is shared by anyone else is an open question. This obsession of mine is much more in line with the translation of poetry than it is with prose. A poem is not just the “meaning” but also the rhythm, the order of words, at times even the typographical layout.

That is why I describe the style I chose as the recreating of the painting a picture in the reader’s mind. Layering description by description, one stroke at a time, ideally in the same order as the original where possible and sensible.


Standing in contrast to my view is the other translator of the project, Haeleth. His style is very much part of the majority opinion of how things should be translated. Reading like something the original author may have written, had he been a native of the language.

Certainly for many applications, I can’t say that there is anything wrong with the style. It facilitates understanding by the audience – if information needs to be gotten across, it accomplishes it with minimal fuss and confusion. The current paradigm for judging translation is also overly focused on “transparency” or, that bizarre fiction that there is no translator around.

I just find that method lacking in some way for this project. Perhaps there is a flaw in my understanding of Japanese, that I’m reading more beauty into the lines than exists. But in that case, much in the same way that all translators are guilty of injecting their interpretation of what a text means into their translations, I’m guilty of injecting my aesthetic value judgment onto the text.

The only difference that I try to maintain is that I openly admit that I’m trying to recreate my own mental experience in the reader’s mind, for I have access to no one else’s experience. Whereas the very act of staying invisible requires that the mainstream not admit that it is going on behind the scenes.

Moving the reader

A second way of interpreting what I want to accomplish is a more pedestrian. I want to push the reader to make some amount of effort in understanding a foreign world.

I feel that much of a literary translator’s job is to facilitate some kind of communication, some link, between a reader and a foreign world. Unlike translating business documents, or law, or many other practical reasons, I feel that the translation of fiction is about letting two cultures interact.

In this sphere, my image of the mainstream way of translating is that the translator picks up the foreign work, and carries it over to the reader. Meanwhile, the reader is comfortably sitting in his own culture, and just consumes that the translator creates. To make consumption easy, lots of things are localized, things are reworded to sound natural, perhaps even writing style is adjusted to fit local publishing norms.

I want the reader to get some exercise. I find it silly, even egotistical, of the reader to expect to be given a translation of a work created in foreign culture and not expect to spend energy understanding the foreign culture. The inherent differences in culture, values, style, to cover much of that up is to cover up much of the magic of the world.

That’s why I chose to baffle the reader a bit, to challenge them with things they don’t normally see, ways of describing a scene that they’re not used to. Exactly because they’re reading a foreign work, it should be the case that they learn a bit from it too.

I’m not about to talk about cultural imperialism and all that nonsense, that’s the people who actually study this sort of thing to debate. I’m just a data analyst by trade and it has always been my experience that a clear and understandable data transform may yield noisier output than a complex transform that heavily filters and cleans, but you get so much more power to make unexpected realizations with the former than the later.

I often wonder how it all turned out. Did I make anyone realize that there’s a living, breathing, interpreting translator in the background, putting words together to emulate a hidden text? Did people hate it, find it confusing, wished I did it another way? I’d prefer to hear the criticism, find the weak spots in my thinking. If anyone has opinions either way, I’d love to hear.


  1. 05/09/2010 12:28 PM | #

    It was a very refreshing experience listening to the spoken dialog and be able to read text that followed it almost word for word. And I’ve come to prefer this style in translations, as it has helped me to focus on the words themselves, and let the meaning form in my head, instead of having it spoon-fed to me.

    I strongly believe there is a big difference between a translation and a localization and that what most consider the former is really the latter. I never understood the emphasis on why translating JP -> EN always meant turning the order of words in a sentence backwards(it only fuels the whole “the other culture is backwards” stigma). I think the meaning of the original text will come through better from something that sounds close to the original, rather than one that has the (interpreted) meaning injected into it.

  2. 05/18/2010 02:32 AM | #

    Ugh, backlog of work is piling up. Anyways, delayed comment response.

    A few things. First, just to make it clear. I’m not making any commentary on what you’re calling “the language is backwards” thing (which I think is reading WAY too much between the lines).

    Fact of the matter is, you take an SVO language and force it into an SOV syntax, and you’re either going to make no sense, or make people upset. Usually both. The only reason I pushed on with the idea of trying to order the words as closely as possible is simply for the artistic reasons I mentioned. I stretched English like hell to get there, but even then, there are countless places where I had to pull back because SOV simply didn’t, and couldn’t work.

    Swinging back, also, there’s toooons of interpretation going on in my work, that’s the reality of translation. Countless hours were spent mulling over words and phrasings until everything matched the internal images in my head. That’s injecting interpretation if nothing else. I wouldn’t be doing my job, or hell, any job at all, if I didn’t pick what I thought were the right words, carrying the right images and connotations. That’s what a machine translator can do, and we all know how well accurate those things are in the general case.

    The big difference is that I wanted the reader to realize I was doing that. That if they squint and look at the work sideways, they can see the scaffolding of what I put together to present the work to them.

  3. 05/29/2010 04:19 AM | #

    Delayed comment response to the delayed comment response:

    I have a tendency to be too verbose. My basic observation in your translation is that I actually felt the presence of the translator the least. All the grammatical acrobatics and careful word choice was definitely noticed. You say you wanted the reader to realize that you were there behind the scenes bending the English to showcase the foreign cultures and values in the work. Ironically, for me, the result was an overwhelming sense that I was experiencing the narrative as a native speaker would have experienced it. As if there was no translator at all. And that to me was the most impressive aspect of this translation.

  4. 05/29/2010 04:21 AM | #

    By “presence of the translator” I meant “bias/style of the translator.”

  5. Jonathan
    08/16/2010 05:04 PM | #

    The only thing about your translation that I found somewhat questionable was that, at several points, 「うん」 and 「ううん」 were left untranslated; why not just use “yeah,” “nah,” and the like? Otherwise, I must say I enjoyed it immensely.

  6. Salbazier
    07/30/2011 10:05 AM | #

    Finally, I got around to finish Narcissu 2. So, I feel I should comment a bit.

    Personally, I prefer your translation. For quite simple reason: I’m not Native English speaker nor Wetern-born, so any attempt at ‘localization’ is simply lost on me and just became sort of ‘foreignazation’ into a different kind of foreign, in which I better stick with the original. Plus as a Japanophile, I’m more likely to be interested in Japanese culture than modern western culture.

    At some point your translation does feel a bit strange, but not so strange that it feel off or annoying. It simply feels unique, I guess.

    At any rate, thanks you so much for translating this.

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