Regional Dialects and Literary Translation

This paper explores the conundrums involved in translating the regional dialects of two contemporary Japanese authors, Nakagami Kenji and Abe Kazushige, whose respective uses of dialect carry significance beyond the meaning of individual utterances. Both authors make linguistic choices that underscore a politics of regional identity and difference from both standard language and the centripetal forces that define that standard. Dialect in Nakagami’s early fiction illustrates the radical otherness of his characters’ class and regional origins, insisting on more than just a linguistic incommensurability between Tokyo and the Kii peninsula. In his epic novel Shinsemia, Abe’s florid, precise prose style in standard Japanese contrasts with utterances in Yamagata dialect, which ties linguistic alterity to different, local modes of knowledge. Translations that ignore these linguistic differences profoundly alter the signifying practices of the source texts. Orthographic solutions, such as italicizing utterances, ends up flattening out differences among dialects. It remains a question whether there should even be a standard for translating nonstandard language. Using examples from texts by these and other authors, along with translations, this paper proposes strategies for translating literature (and, perhaps, film subtitles) in which dialect plays a prominent role.