What’s in a Translated Name, and What Isn’t (at Least in the Japanese Case)?
by Joel Cohn

What got me to thinking about the matter of names and translation was something that I read recently that has nothing to do with translation.

It was an anecdote recounted by an editor named Robert Gottlieb (please note that name — the Robert part). He was working with Joseph Heller, the novelist best known for Catch-22, on Heller’s next novel, Something Happened. In Heller’s draft the main character was named Bill Slocum.

Gottlieb writes:

“Well, we went through the whole book, divided it up into chapters and all the rest of it, and at the end of the process I said, Joe, this is going to sound crazy to you but this guy is not a Bill. He’s a Bob. And Joe looked at me and said, He was a Bob, and I changed his name to Bill because I thought you would be offended if I made him a Bob. I said, Oh no, I don’t think he’s anything like me, it’s just that this character is a Bob. So we changed it back” (Paris Review Interviews, vol. I p. 340).

Obviously, this story was meant to illustrate the uncanny sense of rapport between a writer and an editor. But for me, as someone who has struggled on and off for years with the problem of dealing with Japanese names in English translation, it led to a different set of thoughts, or rather questions.

One is, what are non-native readers supposed to make of the meaning, or at least the associations or overtones, of “Bob” (whatever they may be)? I’m stumped by this one.

Another is, what is a translator supposed to do about this? In this particular instance it might be fair to let the translator off the hook. The deeper significance of Bob, at least in this novel, may be known, or knowable, only to Mr Heller and Mr Gottlieb, although the latter might have been tipping his hand when he described Heller’s protagonist as “a very conflicted man — a man who is consumed with anxiety and all kinds of moral problems.” Besides, as a name, Bob is simply Bob, untranslatable.

But with some other names translators can’t get away so easily. One reason, of course, is that while many character names can be considered generic, and not problematic, others function as important bearers of meanings in a text, especially in narratives where the focus is on character, and when a character in a narrative has been given one of these we can assume that it has a significance that needs to be conveyed somehow by the translator to readers in the target language.

Allegory is probably the most salient case in point: Think of something like Pilgrim’s Progress, full of names like Mr Worldly Wiseman, Mr Great-Heart, Mr Facing-both-ways. Should a translator leave these in English and trust that readers will know enough to make something of them? This may work for readers who may be presumed to have at least a little knowledge of English already, but in many other cases it probably won’t work. Then what? Add annotation? Never an optimal solution. In this extreme case translating seems preferable, since the text is not a realistic one, and the explicit meanings of the names should be easy enough to convey accurately in the target language.

But this approach may not work so well in a translation of Will and Grace. And then there are the many instances where names carry senses that are intelligible but not so neatly definable. There are infinite gradations here. Some have pretty obvious significance — think Joe Christmas, Bigger Thomas, Martha Quest, Billy Pilgrim, or Whitman Ah Sing, to name just a few. Other names lack clear symbolic meanings, but still have signifying work to do in the narrative: Jake Barnes, Holden Caulfield, Zoyd Wheeler — even before we read about them, each of these names creates expectations, and sends messages to native speakers that most non-natives could be oblivious to. Here the translator’s job seems virtually impossible.

Another deeper set of difficulties for translators grows out of the differences in the ways that various languages work, both in the associations that they attach to specific words and images and in the more fundamental differences in the ways that each language slices and dices the world. The problem is magnified when the original language and the target language have no genetic relationship, no common structural ground, and relatively little common lexical ground. English and Japanese certainly constitute such a pair, and this gap makes the challenge of translation that much more difficult — and interesting — in a wide range range of contexts, including the handling of names.

To take a simple example, Murakami Haruki’s1982 novel Hitsuji o meguru bôken (a title that was translated adroitly if not literally as A Wild Sheep Chase), includes an important character called Nezumi in the original Japanese. In the English version this was rendered as The Rat. Even if it’s not clear what, if anything, is rat-like about this character, it’s certainly an accurate translation. The noun nezumi denotes the same creature that English speakers call a “rat.” The problem is that Japanese, at least as far the common word nezumi goes, does not distinguish between rats and mice as English does. And the associations of nezumi as a creature do not overlap neatly with those of either “rat” or “mouse” in English. But as a translator you’re forced to commit one way or the other, unless you simply leave it as Nezumi, which doesn’t seem helpful, or weasel out with something like “The Rodent,” which doesn’t really get the job done either.

Another example of a naming problem in a Murakami text involves a young woman in his 2000 story UFO in Kushiro. In the story she is habitually called Shimao-san (Ms. Shimao) by friend of hers. The literal meaning of this surname name does not seem particularly significant and need not concern us, but the idea, natural in Japanese, that good friends can refer to each other by their family name plus a title like –san without sounding stiff or ironic is an estranging one for present-day speakers of English. In Jay Rubin’s excellent English translation she is simply “Shimao,” which is good enough, even if many readers probably assume, incorrectly, that this is her personal name. Perhaps this might have been a good opportunity to heed Walter Benjamin’s dictum and try to enrich the translator’s own language by establishing the Japanese honorific -san as part of it, but I am glad that I was not the translator who was assigned this challenge, or task.

I once mentioned these problems to Murakami — or, rather, let’s try to get with the program and say Murakami-san — and in a way it was vaguely reassuring that he didn’t have any solutions. In fact he didn’t even seem that concerned. Of course, he was the author, not the translator, so they weren’t really his problems. But he is also a translator himself, from English to Japanese, and his lack of concern with Nezumi and Shimao-san may have been due to the fact that he had a more urgent dilemma to deal with, namely what to do with the highly charged expression “Old Sport” in his Japanese version of The Great Gatsby. I didn’t envy him on that one.

I didn’t envy myself either when I was working on a recent translation of Botchan, a hundred-year old novel that is still very well known in Japan. This is a book where names are particularly important: The first of them is inscribed in the title, as the nickname of the otherwise unnamed character who is both the protagonist and narrator. In general, the meanings of nicknames are particularly significant, since in most cases they are chosen precisely because of the semantic value they carry, both in real life and in fictional texts. Here the translator may feel a fairly clear mandate to translate rather than leave it in the original, even when a less than precise lexical correspondence (nezumi/ rat) means that the translated name will be yet another of the endless compromises that are all translators’ stock in trade.

But in some cases this strategy will create more problems than it solves. For one thing, a particularly wide semantic mismatch may make for a gap far wider than nezumi versus rat.

Also, because of Botchan’s great popularity and familiarity in Japan, the eponymous title has taken on a life of its own as a kind of instantly recognizable literary and cultural brand. To call the book, and the character, anything other than Botchan in the translated version would be a disservice that would not be compensated for by whatever degree of lexical transparency an English equivalent (like “The Young Master”) might provide.

In this case I punted by providing an explanatory preface. But that was just the beginning. One of the novel’s main claims to fame, or at least its most memorable features for many Japanese readers, is its array of nicknames. It’s probably worth noting here that Botchan, the protagonist/narrrator, is a rookie teacher in a provincial middle school, and most of the nicknames are ones that he invents for his fellow teachers and the school’s administrators. Their appositeness and wittiness — and the satisfaction of seeing a teacher playing the game that so many students play — are keys to the book’s enduring popularity among Japanese readers.

Because of the significance of nicknames in this novel, I used the preface to explain virtually all of them. But that still left the problem of how to translate them, assuming that I was going to translate them at all. Since the meanings of the nicknames are crucial to our understanding of these characters’ actions and personalities, as well as to our understanding of the perspective of the narrator who devised them, it is important to to keep them in the readers’ field of vision. Thus, even though I tried to explain them in the preface, translating them was a must in the body of the novel.

Some of them are relatively straightforward across languages and cultures: the Japanese nickname Yamaarashi for a prickly math teacher is unproblematically rendered as Porcupine, at least for American readers who can be expected to know what a porcupine is and don’t have to worry much about cross-cultural mismatches in the animal’s figurative baggage. Others are not so easy. What would you call a thin, pasty-faced teacher who barely seems to have enough vitality to keep himself going? Schools anywhere, not just in Japan, are likely to have one of these, and Botchan’s nickname for him, Uranari Hyôtan, denotes a pale, thin, undernourished gourd or squash that develops, barely, at the very end of a long vine. This is not a culturally determined phenomenon: anyone who has grown vegetables knows what he means — but does English have a word for it as Japanese does? Not that I know of. I settled for Pale Squash, which only begins to convey what the original does. A toadying art teacher is sarcastically dubbed Nodaiko — the name of a profession peculiar to early modern Japanese society, now defunct, that mixed the qualities of a third-rate entertainer with those of a hanger-on. Nothing available at all in English for this one, and being unable to come up with anything better than The Hanger-on or The Hanger left me feeling, like any translator must, that it just might be time to translate myself into something other than a translator.

One more pitfall that lies in wait for the translator somewhere between a Japanese name and an English counterpart is a problem created by another sociolinguistic mismatch: in Japanese, speakers and writers often use names to refer both to themselves and others in situations where English speakers would use a pronoun. At least one prominent translator of modern Japanese literature claims that his work has been assailed by Japanese critics who have counted the number of proper names in his translations and found less of them than there were in the originals. It seems that it is much easier to be a critic of translations than a translator.

There are many other problems both practical and theoretical raised by the translation of names, but since I’m approaching the end of my allotted time I’d like to close by raising a basic question or two that probably should have served as my starting points. I don’t have any better answers here than I do to the question of what to do about Nezumi or Nodaiko.

As unique labels, names would seem to be inherently resistant to translation.

If a name is translated, is it still a name? And if so, whose?

It may be better not to think about this too much. You might end up feeling very conflicted, and consumed with anxiety. If all else fails, you could change your name to Bob.


Joel Cohn is Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa. He has translated several works of Japanese literature from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. His translation of Natsume Soseki’s novel Botchan (1906) was co-winner of the 2006 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature. He is also the author of Studies in the Comic Spirit in Modern Japanese Fiction (Harvard University Asia Center, 1998).