Best known as the editor of The Japan Interpreter
, a journal of social and political ideas in Japan, Kano Tsutomu is remembered as a master of social science/non-fiction Japanese-to-English translation. A voracious reader and versatile student of Japanese society and how it looks from outside, he devoted his life to interpreting Japan for English-speaking readers and to training translators. From early in his career, Kano was determined to “bolster the ability of Japanese to communicate their thoughts in English, and to increase the ability of English-speaking scholars to communicate Japanese ideas in their mother tongue” (written around 1967).
In a 1979 article entitled “The Alchemist,” he wrote:
Most important . . . is the ability to write smooth, logical, polished and natural English. The test of a translator in the deepest sense is whether or not he or she can transform Japanese writing into English that, with the exception of the author’s name, perhaps, gives not a hint of its foreign origin and still faithfully conveys what the author is saying.
Kano was mentor to numerous scholars and translators and a firm supporter of team translation:
I believe a competent team of a Japanese and a native speaker, whose powers of conceptualization and vocabulary are superior, can nonetheless produce translations of any Japanese materials, even those often considered untranslatable.
In this I probably diverge from those who would like to preserve the Japanese order of phrase and sentence, style and vocabulary, for occasionally when handling a certain type of Japanese writing, the resulting translation sometimes appears to be so different from the original that the critic may wonder what sort of black magic went into its production. But if it is a skillful job, a closer look will show that it indeed says what the author wanted to say. In short, it conveys to the English reader exactly what the author told the Japanese reader. There is bound to be, especially in literature and poetry, some loss of style, nuance, the beauty of the original, but that can never constitute a reason not to translate a given work.
Concretely, the job of the translator is first to absorb the ideas and directional flow of what is written, grasp the main message and the supporting material, distinguishing among levels of importance. Then in the alchemy of the brain, he must process this understanding and conceptually rearrange ideas and facts in order of their logical role in English. This often means shifting material from the end of the Japanese paragraph to the beginning of the English, recombining elements of sentences to clarify their relationship, and making certain that illustrative points or secondary material appear where most effective.
. . . I believe—and I would not have stuck with the often thankless job of translating so long if I didn’t—that Japanese have much to offer the world in the intellectual realm, much that is neither imitation nor adaptation of Western ideas. Until now the intellectual resources of Japanese social science thinkers, both contemporary and past, have hardly been tapped for the world. The reasons lie largely in translation.
The language is difficult, to begin with, but I think more important is a deeply-rooted, almost unconscious assumption, that Western thinking is world thinking. We are beginning to realize that this is a mistake, but in the case of Japan, nothing can be done about it until the quality of translation reaches a point where Japanese writing can be offered to other peoples in their own languages, and English is the first step.