SWET Kansai Event Report: Juliet Winters Carpenter—Reflections on the Translation of Ryōma!

By Susan E. Jones

In October, 17 SWET members and interested others eagerly gathered at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto to hear illustrious translator Juliet Winters Carpenter talk about her latest work, a joint translation project with two other translators of Ryōma! The Life of Sakamoto Ryōma:  Japanese Swordsman and Visionary by historical novelist Shiba Ryōtarō. The Japanese title is Ryōma ga yuku. Originally published as a newspaper serial 1963-66, it is a well-loved novel that has sold upwards of 21 million copies—and made Ryōma a household name in Japan.

Before joining the team of translators on the Ryōma project, Carpenter translated two other Shiba masterworks: The Last Shogun (2004; Saigo no shōgun) and Clouds Above the Hill (2014; Saka no ue no kumo), also co-translated, with Paul McCarthy and Andrew Cobbing, which won the 50th Japan Translation Award for Publishing and Culture (第50回 日本翻訳出版文化賞). A brief meeting with Shiba in 1995 and past experience translating his work meant this translation was in good hands. Carpenter assured us that while these historical novels may seem daunting, “You’ll like Japanese history more than you think you will.”

Readers familiar with Shiba’s original work know that its sheer volume, published in eight bunko-bon volumes, makes this no small project, and Carpenter began by describing the team that agreed to tackle it. Veteran translators Paul McCarthy (vols. 1, 4 and 7) and Margaret Mitsutani (vols. 3 and 5) joined Carpenter (vols. 2, 6 and 8) to work with editor Phyllis Birnbaum on the four-volume English version, only the first of which is available as of this writing. Team translations can be difficult to coordinate, but Carpenter credits Birnbaum with the skill to keep the project on a steady course. She has created a detailed style sheet and coordinates the style issues as they arise. The person responsible for putting the whole project in motion is Takahashi Akira, a trade house employee and ardent fan of Shiba’s work. He decided to launch the project as a labor of love, even before a publisher was decided, negotiating the rights to publish the work in English and commissioning the translators, editor and checkers.

Translation Concerns
The first translation task Carpenter mentions is the title: Ryōma ga yuku. “Where is he going? Are we going with him?” she wonders. It has been and could have been translated many different ways: Ryōma is Going, Ryōma Moves Ahead, Ryōma Coming to Us, or Ryōma on the Move (as suggested by Henry D. Smith II in the insightful introduction to the translation). In the end, the simplicity of Ryōma! with the addition of an explanatory subtitle seemed the best option.

The use of macrons when rendering Japanese words and names into romanized versions was also an issue. Macrons are used throughout, but Carpenter contends that they can be “pedantic” and “off-putting”—especially to readers who may not know Japanese. She also noted that the book has a bewildering number of names, and macrons can add an additional burden for readers unfamiliar with Japanese. Besides taking a survey of the room on this issue, she told us that the issue of macrons will be reviewed again with the input of the three translators for upcoming editions.

In producing the translation of the saga, the great number of place names and character names has provided a significant challenge. People in that time often had childhood names, aliases and new names after the Meiji Restoration, adding layers of complexity. Lists of proper nouns are documented and updated as needed, and are an integral shared resource for all team members. Minor names are eliminated when possible, to decrease potential confusion. A handy list of principal characters and chronology of events is provided at the beginning of the book to keep all of the clans and clan members, rivals and allies in order!

Dialects play an important role in the novel, as characters are immediately marked by their local vernacular, and it is always a challenge for the translator to know how far to go with a linguistic equivalent that doesn’t sound contrived. Here, Carpenter mentions that when it wasn’t essential to the story to differentiate the speech, no particular dialect was used. When it was essential to the story, it was usually described as in this example:


                  「あんたさん、どこへ行っておいでたのですかえ。. . .

The proprietress of the inn went on and on in her thick Ise dialect. “Where were you off to, sir?” . . .

Dialects are an effective way for the writer to mark a character’s origin and for those characters to represent their localities when serving in Edo, but deciding when and how to represent those dialects in translation can be complicated. In the following example, the actual dialogue in Kyoto dialect is replaced by a clarification in the translation of the speaker’s origin:



            The Kyoto samurai suggested stopping there.

Instead of attempting to use a comparable dialect in English, the rest of that character’s lines are translated without inflection:


            “Don’t worry,” said the samurai. “I brought along extra money.”

According to Carpenter, the point is often to “give some sense of changing dialects, but not necessary to over-translate them.” Sometimes dialects that use completely different vocabulary turn out to be instances where including the romanized Japanese served best, as in this example:




              “Honi, honi!”


Ryōma switched smoothly to standard speech. “Absolutely. He’s the emperor’s biggest fan in all Kōchi. I know you and he would hit it off.”

Carpenter described one delightfully humorous passage in volume 3, part 6 involving the word umakuchi, used by a Nagasaki woman when she was asking Ryōma to kiss her. Not being a Nagasaki native, it took him quite some time to realize what pleasures awaited him.

What about the translator’s relationship with the characters she translates? Carpenter talked about the importance of digging deep, “becoming” the character in order to create authentic dialogue. At the same time, such bonds make translating a character’s demise a sad prospect—as Carpenter mentioned concerning her translation of Chōjirō’s seppuku scene at the end of part 6.

As one might expect, swordplay figures prominently in the novel, and accurately translating the terminology for these scenes is key. Thanks to shared resources and the 40+ page list of terms coordinated by Birnbaum, the three translators are able to manage—which moves were upward slashes, defensive stances, countermoves, etc. Here is one of many examples:




As Tōyō collapsed, Nasu, standing in front of him, made his move. “Yoshida Tōyō, for the nation’s sake, now die!” With a bold, swift motion he executed a right diagonal slash from neck to waist.

We know that sometimes the best way to convey a nuance that may be obvious in the original, but which would be lost on the reader of the translation, is to add some information to make the point clear. Long experience has given Carpenter a great feel for when such nuance might be lost and how to compensate for it:


            …he ended with his severed head wrapped in the still-warm loincloth of an impecunious gōshi.

Here, the addition of “still-warm” gives the reader a visceral understanding of what it meant for the high-ranking Tōyō to end up with his head wrapped in a loincloth taken freshly from an underling’s body.

The change in format from the original serialized novel in Japanese to novel in English required the re-working of the inevitable plot re-caps and character re-introductions that occur from one installment to the next. Carpenter notes that the Japanese audience seems quite tolerant of the intact repeats appearing in the serialized version, but these sections needed to be eliminated or re-worked to create a smooth read in English.

A Career in Translation
Most of us who have had the pleasure of hearing Carpenter speak over the years are struck by her generosity in sharing her experience; this lecture was no exception. The room was filled with veteran and newbie translators alike, all of us grateful to absorb some wisdom from someone with over 70 published titles to her name. From heavy historical novels like Ryoma! to the contemporary tanka in Salad Anniversary, from Abe Kobo to Zen retrospectives, Carpenter’s work is as diverse as it is prolific. She rarely turns down a project, saying it’s important for her not to be typecast and declaring that the challenge of tackling new material always intrigues and excites her.

Despite her success, Carpenter remains unpretentious and reflective about her work—even taking notes about possible inconsistencies or changes which might be needed in this translation as we discussed it. At the very end of the day she said softly, almost as an afterthought: “I’m not perfect, but I do what I can.” We should all be so humble about our work.


Juliet Winters Carpenter plans to retire from her professorship (not from translation) at the end of this academic year and move to Whidbey Island in Washington. She will deliver her final public lecture at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto on February 6, 2019.

Ryoma! The Life of Sakamoto Ryoma: Japanese Swordsman and Visionary, Volumes 1 and 2 of 4 are available as a Kindle download on Amazon. Use the link below to support SWET for this and all amazon.co.jp purchases. [url=http://bit.ly/Ryoma1_Kindle]http://bit.ly/Ryoma1_Kindle[/url]