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The Decline and Fall of a Translator’s Brain

By Jocelyne Allen

Just when you think you’ve figured out what is going on in the Toh Enjoe story “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire,” you trip on another oblique reference to some bit of the outside world. It’s a story that bears up to—and in fact, requires—multiple readings, as EnJoe takes pieces of pop and folk culture and replaces the original subject with his “Galactic Empire.” By the third line of the story, my translator sense was tingling so violently, it threatened to give me a seizure. Every word threatened to have some hidden deeper meaning that I hadn’t noticed on my first read-through. Because the more references to pop and folk culture I noticed, the more I wondered how many others I was missing.

But as near seizure as I was, I was not prepared for part 10: “There is a young Galactic Empire emperor who roams the hyperspace corridors, and will not withdraw until you beat the side of your ship, and hand over a ladle.”

A ladle? Open dictionary. Double check. Yes, a ladle. Close dictionary, open Google.  The problem was what to type into Google. Ladle, sure. But what was the Galactic Empire a stand-in for this time? And did the hyperspace corridors have anything to do with the ladle, or was that part all EnJoe and not reference? Throw different parts of the Japanese sentence into the search bar and click links in links in links. Learn a variety of interesting things that are completely unrelated to the Galactic Empire.

Which is how, in the end, I learned of an obscure (to this landlubber at least) Japanese folk tale: Keep a bottomless ladle on hand and be ready to beat the side of your ship loudly just in case you run into a ghost ship.

The ghost ship generally lures unsuspecting fishermen by appearing to be sinking and in need of help. When the fisherman approaches and offers up a ladle to help bail water, the ghost snatches the ladle and uses it to fill the fisherman’s boat and sink it. The only escape is a ladle with no bottom.

Of course, none of this makes any sense in English, because for one, we don’t usually carry ladles around to bail water, and two, most of our ghost ships are portents of doom and not the actual doom itself. I tweeted about ghost ships, I called friends, I wrote emails, I drove any conversation with anyone to the topic of ghost ships within seconds (the poor grocery store clerks!), looking for some clue, some English story of ghost ships that I could reference. (The Flying Dutchman seems to be the one that nearly everyone knows, in case you are also struggling with a ghost ship reference.)

After filling my head with seafaring ghosts and finding none that had the same timeless advice quality to them as this story of fishermen and ladles, I opted to focus on the ship part of the equation and substituted “bail bucket” for “ladle," a choice that doesn’t completely satisfy me since the ghostliness is now missing from that sentence. But forcing a ghost into the sentence seemed out of character with the matter-of-fact delivery of the Japanese.

For some reason, the references that led me on the longest chases were all delivered in this removed tone, so much so that I immediately began digging deeper on phrases that seemed a little too distanced. But EnJoe thoughtfully included some obviously insane phrases to make my job a little easier, most notably, “Abraham has seven young emperors.” Open Google.

Following the link trail led me first to a video of some Japanese kids and a green worm dancing, and then to a pretty ridiculous video of a very drunk man falling down at a wedding (I wish I had saved that link), and eventually to the English lyrics of the song “Father Abraham." The Japanese version is slightly different, with one son being very tall and another being fat, instead of none of them laughing or crying, but the basic melody is the same and the overall idea of the accompanying dance made it to Japan unchanged. (A question lingers: How did this religious summer camp song make it to mostly non-Christian Japan and become well known enough that a literary science fiction author would reference it in his work?)

Possibly the most difficult reference was part 90, with its Hamlet reference that I missed entirely in my first draft (thanks for catching that one, editor Michael Emmerich!). I was so focused on figuring out what EnJoe was talking about. The first word in the sentence is usually used as a compound word that means “anticlimax” and has little currency outside that context. And the second choice in the “or” clause was “redundancy.”

After spending too much time searching fruitlessly for some clue, I started thinking that maybe the sentence was an oblique reference to the question of how the universe will end. (EnJoe is not the only one who studied physics.) There are a lot of theories about how the universe might end, but the two that seemed to fit these ideas of anticlimactic and redundant were the Big Freeze and the Big Bounce.

In the Big Freeze, the gravitational attraction of matter is not enough to overcome the speed at which that matter is traveling, and everything gets further and further apart, eventually cooling and going dark. Anticlimactic indeed. The Big Bounce is the bookend to the Big Bang, an ending in which gravity is more powerful than speed and all matter comes springing back together at higher and higher speeds until it smashes together and explodes in a Big Bang beginning. Redundantly repetitive. And the Shakespearean structure made the reference just as oblique as the Japanese original.

An author who has me digging up urban legends, folk tales, religious children’s songs, and the end of the universe is an author I want to translate. Thankfully, EnJoe is pretty prolific and is producing some of the most interesting work coming out of Japan these days. I can only hope that I get the chance to present him to English readers again soon.

Published Jul 19, 2012   Copyright 2012 Jocelyne Allen

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