Tsukihime and a review of the Japanese language

Like many Westerners with this hobby, Tsukihime was my first real experience with novel games. Key and Leaf were more recognizable to a teenager growing up in the 2000’s. Traces of their existence meandered through the internet to the English speaking world, and Kyoto Animation’s seminal anime series imprinted into the minds of many a romance with the terminal. But traces are traces. It was Tsukihime’s translation that gave English speaker’s the first substantial taste of that tantalizing written language.

I must have read it at least 3 times. I longed for so much more of what that work made me feel. 15 years later, when the thought of a remake finally started to feel like a reality, I could still sense the remnants of that longing. They were the aspirations of a fledgling human, now buried under years of experience. Despite being something I once considered a lifetime goal, I never did go back and read the original Tsukihime in Japanese. By the time I could read entire novels, I was not the same person that wanted to read more about vampires and churches and demons. No amount of effort would allow me to become the lone adolescent exploring a vast new world. Nostalgia is more like the awakening of a dormant part of the self than the reliving of the past. It is the walking of a familiar, time weathered path, explaining the wonders of the world to a child by your side.

Before even beginning to read, I found myself already intimidated. Nasu has a reputation for being difficult to read, and the oddities of the original translation reflect that. This was an illusion that was immediately dispersed the moment I started the prologue. Tsukihime is written in a modern, contemporary writing style. It is more novelistic than some easier dialog heavy games and a little courageous in its descriptive sensibilities, but an experienced reader would not feel uncomfortable engaging with Nasu’s prose. My preconceptions of Nasu’s writing turned out to be mostly features of Japanese as a language rather than any specific usage he employed.

Japanese is harder to translate to English than it is read.

I say this after having translated an entire visual novel (whether successfully or not, that remains to be seen). Early discussions of Tsukihime often highlighted Nasu’s use of stream of consciousness, a term that wouldn’t enter a typical student’s lexicon until high school, if ever. This is an unfair analysis. The English language is beautiful for its brevity. We have many ways to bring thoughts to an end. It takes much more finesse to transition from one thought to another. When stream of consciousness first started coming to prominence, it is because the modern authors of the time began to embrace these structural interruptions to connect consecutive lines of thought together, with disregard for flow. It sounds nothing like natural spoken language and recreates the feel of raw thoughts being produced without any filter. This is why authors famous for this style of writing often feel experimental, idiosyncratic, and “Hard to read.”

In contrast, the connection of thoughts is a function embedded in almost every feature of Japanese grammar. The connective particles, auxiliary conjugations of verbs, flexible placement of parts of speech, and finally, the prominent burden of the listener to deduce unspoken words from context facilitate the flow from thought to thought. Unlike stream of consciousness, these long chains of words sound like natural spoken language.

To capture this flow from Japanese to English, without adding transitions unsaid in the original, requires the liberal use of conjunctions and punctuation reminiscent of unique authors like Faulkner, Woolf, and Dickinson. If your goal as a translator is to recreate as much of the tone and texture of the original language, you must be willing to experiment and the reader must be willing to read. But Nasu is not Faulkner, and any commonalities would be panned by readers as gratuitously difficult to read, or even a poor use of the English language and a lazy, overly literal translation.

So, because no translator could possibly be brave enough to even attempt to capture the structure of the Japanese language, we all give up somewhere, breaking it up into separate English thoughts with the explicit transitions necessary between them. Subtlety and flow – the elegance and beauty of ordinary language is something irrecoverably lost in translation.

It’s harder to invent words in English than in Japanese

One aspect of Nasu’s writing that can be attributed to him, is the world that he invented out of words. Reading in Japanese now, there is just a little more complexity in the flavor of these words, but it is one that is more closely mimicked in English.

Let’s start with a simple example. 死徒 (shito), translated as Dead Apostle, is the combination of the characters 死, Death, and 徒, Person. It is closely linked to the word with the same pronunciation, 使徒 (also shito), which means Apostle in the religious sense. This translation is a rather clever invention that solves a number of problems.

A key feature of the original is that it is a single noun, not an adjective with a noun. Just as much as it’s valid to call these beings apostles that are dead, it is perhaps even more correct to think of them as apostles that bring death. The original Japanese is able to capture with 2 syllables, a single concept embodying the concepts of death and an apostle without any bias towards a relationship between the two. It wants to be its own individual concept, free of grammar, just like how the word 生徒 (replacing the character for death with life) is Student, not Live Apostle.

The problem we have here is not that English can’t structurally capture the Japanese usage like we saw before. The problem is that it’s just really hard to find a single noun that captures all the details of the original. An enterprising translator might be able to invent a single word for Death and Apostle, but it probably wouldn’t sound like either of those words in the end. We may have Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes and even portmanteaus of English words, but words in English constructed this way are not so naturally comprehensible like they are in Japanese. This leads to a larger conundrum when we combine such inventions.

The Mystic Eyes of Death Perception is a pretty fun translation. The original 直死 の魔眼 (chokushi no magan) is even more fun. Like with 死徒, 直死 is a single word composed of 直, direct, and 死, death. Direct is the key term here because Shiki sees literal lines through his eyes. And just like the name implies, the term itself sounds snappy. While technically 8 syllables, it sounds closer to 5 given how the sounds blend in together, and with each noun only 2 syllables long, the term is short and straight to the point. The English term with 5 separate words feels a little long and circuitous in comparison. This is again a problem that could be solved if you were able to invent single words to represent the concepts presented. My own take would have been something like Transmortal Mageyes, but while it gains some brevity, it loses some clarity in meaning. Again, a problem that doesn’t exist in Japanese due to the aural and lexical information contained in kanji. But I digress, a good translation can still be fun without capturing all of the details of the original. But without an equally vivid imagination and way with words, there’s a touch of wonder that gets lost in translation.

And wonder is what makes the route work

When I read Tsukihime as a teenager, I had never once fallen in love. Not even a crush. But I did have an admiration for romance, a longing for that thing so vividly portrayed in books and movies and games. If I had known that 15 years later I would still never fall in love with another, I might have realized that Arcueid truly was one of my first loves. I may not have found her interesting or attractive as a character, but her relationship with Shiki was exactly what I wanted out of human companionship, one fantastic adventure after another. I don’t think I realized just how fantastic it was. It is something I can see more clearly now after a lifetime of learning about myself and an ongoing romance with the language. What I saw back then was a flickering shadow cast by words I did not fully comprehend. The mystery behind the wonder that had me so fascinated was simple, elegant, and impossibly obscured. I cannot love as I did in my youth, but I can admire even more the beauty that I loved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *