Translating ideophones: after the theory, the practice


Following on from her article on translating ideophones in our April issue, T&I master’s student Laura Fritch reports on how she went with her translation of the early twentieth century Japanese author Kenji Miyazawa’s ideophone-laden short story for children, Kaze no Matasaburo.

Photo 14 2 2023, 2 53 16 Pm

The vivid, quasi-synaesthetic quality of ideophones allowed Miyazawa to paint ‘tactile’ landscapes …

Words is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around. 

(A quote from The BFG by Roald Dahl, first published in 1982) 

Ideophones such as ‘squibbling’ are a staple of children’s literature and are known for their evocative ability to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ through their form. Linguist Mark Dingemanse formally defines the ideophone as ‘a member of an open lexical class of marked words that depict sensory imagery’*.

In the last issue of In Touch, I talked about how this curious category of words is harnessed by Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa in his writing for children, and argued that we shouldn’t be tempted to see ideophones as ‘untranslatable’ – rather, we should go against the trends of previous translations. If we are to keep the spirit of Miyazawa in translation, we should endeavour to maintain ideophonicity – perhaps even learning something about the English language as we go. 

A few months have passed since I wrote that article, and I’m happy to say that I’ve finished my project – undertaken for my Masters of Translation – of translating Miyazawa’s children’s story Kaze no Matasaburo. So this time around, I want to take a moment to talk about ideophones not simply from a typological perspective, but from a stylistic one. 

Miyazawa, although relatively unknown in the Anglosphere, is a celebrated author in Japan, where he is particularly well known for his idiosyncratic use of ideophony and lauded as a ‘master of ideophones’. Kaze no Matasaburo is particularly emblematic of Miyazawa’s aptitude for this word form, beginning with a striking soundscape:

どっどど どどうど どどうど どどう

(doddodo    dodōdo    dodōdo    dodō)

This opening line evokes the bellowing sound of the wind, and invites us into a world animated by rhythm, music, and the poetics of ‘voices’. Indeed, Miyazawa’s use of ideophony is not just a linguistic quirk, but also serves a thematic purpose: literally and metaphorically giving ‘voice’ to nature. Miyazawa, as a devout Buddhist and also a professional agronomist, was someone who cared for the natural world both spiritually and practically. It is, therefore, no surprise that his sensitivities towards nature bleed into his style. The vivid, quasi-synaesthetic quality of ideophones allows Miyazawa to paint ‘tactile’ landscapes: ones in which the reader can not only envision the scene, but feel at one with the nature it depicts. Ideophony operates in Miyazawa’s work both aesthetically, through creating musicality and orality, and also ideologically, by instilling his animistic philosophy in the reader. 

However, the translators reading this may be thinking, ‘Whether you translate one word as a noun or a verb is generally not something to fret about. Does it really matter if you translate an ideophone as an ideophone?’ – to which I say, ‘You’re not wrong!’ Rather than focusing on strict adherence to typological equivalence (i.e. the use of ideophony), it is much more fruitful to shift our focus to the stylistic significance and rhetorical effects of ideophones: ‘ideophonicity’. 

But enough talk about theory. How do we put this into practice? In my translation of Kaze no Matasaburo, I found a range of strategies that can help us retain ideophonicity in translation. 

Of course, the simplest way would be to translate ideophones using ideophones. A recent corpus study by Eriko Sato analysed seven English translations of another famous story by Miyazawa, Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru, and found that 15.61 percent of ideophones were rendered by ideophones. Using the same methodology as Sato, I found that my translation rendered 32.6 percent of ideophones using ideophones. If we include novel ideophones which are not codified by the list Sato used, this figure rises to 39.3 percent. Although my sample size is much smaller than hers, that the figure is double what Sato found seems to suggest that the use of ideophony is not so much a linguistic restriction as it is a translational choice. Perhaps English has more ideophones than we thought!

But what about the other 60 percent? This is where all that talk of ideophonicity comes into play. To render the literary and rhetorical effects of ideophonicity, I relied on figurative language and poetic devices where I was unable to use ideophony itself. For instance, the wind in Kaze no Matasaburo has a unique rhythmic quality which I found reminiscent of marching, so I used this metaphor of ‘marching’ to personify the wind, just as Miyazawa uses ideophony to animate the wind. In total, I translated 26 percent of ideophones using poetic devices such as metaphor, sound symbolism, alliteration, simile, rhythm and repetition, and I’m happy to say that complete omission occurred in only 8.47 percent of instances. 

Still, translation and style are complex  processes to which statistics cannot do justice. For this reason, I’d like to finish with an excerpt from my translation – one of my favourite scenes, in which one of the schoolchildren becomes certain that the new kid, Saburo, is no ordinary boy – no, he must be none other than Matasaburo the Wind Imp:

Before long, Saburo had arrived in front of the school doors yonder. He then turned around and stood there for a while, with his head slightly bent as if calculating something.

Naturally, everyone goggled and gawked at him from afar. Looking troubled, Saburo folded his hands behind his back, and started   walking past the staffroom over towards the embankment.

  Thereupon, the wind blew “whoosh!” and the   grass on the embankment rustled and bustled; in the centre of the schoolyard too, “swoosh!” a cloud of dust rose, and when it reached the school doors, it whipped and whirled, spiralling into a small whirlwind. The yellowish dust coiled into the shape of an upside-down bottle, and rose above the roof.

Then, Kasuke yelled out:

“I was right! He really is Matasaburo! He can make the wind blow!”

* Dingemanse M. (2019). “Ideophone” as a comparative concept. In: Akita K & Pardeshi P (eds), Ideophones, Mimetics, Expressives, John Benjamins Publishing Co, 13–33. [You can read an outline of the article here.]

Miyazawa Kenji
Portrait of Kenji Miyazawa (1896–1933) taken in the 1920s (image source: Kamakura Museum of Literature archives, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Laura Fritch is currently studying Japanese>English translation in the Masters of Interpreting and Translation (MITS) program at Monash University. See a fuller biography at the end of her article in our April issue, available here.


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