On the surface Idol Burning (推し、燃ゆ Oshi Moyu) by Rin Usami and translated into English by Asa Yoneda, is a story about a young girl obsessed with an idol from a boy group, but underneath it’s an look at mental health and a critique of the Japanese education system. This novella has sold over 750,000 copies in Japan and won the 164th Akutagawa Prize in 2020.
If you’re familiar with Japanese stories then the structure of this novella might not surprise you. It’s more of an exploration and thought provoking narrative with an ending that leaves you wondering “but what next?” If you’re not familiar with Japanese novels the seemingly ‘lack’ of in-depth discussion or even an ending might be disappointing (at least according to a number of Goodread reviews).
But what about the translation?
I thought the translation overall was expertly handled. It didn’t feel clunky or unnatural. In her message at the end of the novella, Yoneda says how she wrote this translation for an audience who could already speak Japanese, which I think created some interesting translation choices that got me thinking–what was gained and what was lost through some of these choices?
Oshi or Idol?
The most obvious translation choice was to translate the term 推し as “oshi” instead of “idol”, or more specifically one’s “fave”.
The entertainment industry and way Japanese people view and interact with idol culture is different from the West’s, so keeping the term “oshi” makes it obvious to the reader that this is a Japanese story and that oshi are different from idols.
But the choice to keep oshi in almost every instance of it appearing resulted in some weird sentence structures. Such as, “Every fan sat along with their oshi in the chair their oshi was allocated.”
The main character and narrator Akari constantly says “my oshi, my oshi, my oshi”. She rarely uses “he” or even his name (which I’ve forgotten it’s so rarely used). Even when she’s talking to fellow fans she uses “my oshi”.
This didn’t feel strange in the original Japanese but it felt odd in English because repetition or use of titles instead of pronouns or names isn’t natural.
Then again, the constant use of “my oshi” helped to drive home her obsession with this idol and created a distance between them as if she saw him more as a thing than a person.
To Push, Stan, or Idolise?
In Japanese the phrase 推しを推す (oshi wo osu) is often used when talking about idols. It directly translates to “to recommend/endorse an idol” but it’s more the action of engaging with your idol such as talking about them, buying their merch, seeing them at concerts/events, etc. In English slang we would say “stan someone” (from the Eminem song Stan about a creepily obsessed fan).
Yoneda uses this term beautifully at one point where a character jokes “I stan by my oshi in sickness and in health.” This is a great twist on “I stand by XXX in sickness and in health”, joking that they would be married to their idol for the rest of their lives.
But in other instances where this 推しを推す phrase is directly translated to “pushing my oshi” which made me pause because this didn’t make sense, it isn’t something we say in English–“But pushing my oshi was the center of my life, a given, and my one point of clarity.”
Yoneda could have used the verbs “supporting” or “devoting myself to” here to better convey the image of the original Japanese. “Stanning” wouldn’t have worked because that’s not how we use the word (we can’t turn “stan” into a continuous verb), but another verb might have been a better fit in the other instances this phrase popped up.
Do Directly Translated Slang/Proverbs Lose Meaning?
– Lightly Salted –
“I didn’t know you were into the ‘lightly salted’ type.” is said by Akari’s sister about her idol.
At first the phrase “lightly salted” made me think he had grey hair or had a slightly bitter personality, but when I looked up the original term 塩顔 (shiogao) she’s actually talking about his face!
A “salt face” is someone with a thin, pale face, often with double eyelids, a high bridged nose and sharp features–basically, a Japanese man who has fairly “Western” features. (This is opposed to a しょうゆ顔 (shoyugao), someone with “Japanese-looking” features.)
Besides the meaning of “lightly salted” being lost, another issue is the use of “salted” in English. We have the slang “salty” which means “bitter, angry or resentful”, so calling someone “lightly salted” might imply they are a little resentful all the time.
This is a really tough term to translate without dropping the original Japanese slang. “I didn’t know you were into Western-looking guys.” or “I didn’t know you were into doe-eyed boys.” might have worked, but you lose the flavour of the original slang.
Another option might have been, “I didn’t know you were into those ‘lightly salted’ Western-looking boys.” but would that really be something someone would say naturally?
– Hate the Monk –
Very shortly after the “lightly salted” phrase we get, “It was the reverse of that saying “Hate the monk, hate his robes.” If you fell in love with the monk, even the frays in his robe become loveable.”
Even though “hate the monk, hate his robes” is a direct translation of the original Japanese, the meaning is still clear in English. The original Japanese (and by extension, the translation) explains how Akari is interpreting this as the opposite, where once you love someone you love everything about them.
An English proverb might have replaced this phrase, but I don’t think one would have worked the same way. It also keeps the Japanese feel of the original work. So in this case keeping the translation close to the original worked in the translation’s advantage.
Should Honorifics Be Translated?
Japanese uses honorifics to convey relationships between people. The suffix “-san” after someone’s name is fairly neutral, while “-kun” or “-chan” implies a close, friendly, or subordinate relationship to the speaker.
The vast majority of this novella doesn’t use honorifics, except for one part where Akari is working at a bar. For some reason Akari uses “Miss Sachiyo” for her boss but “Katsu-san” and “Hidashi-san” for her customers, apart from a note with “Mr. Katsumoto” (which I assume is Katsu-san’s full name). This is particularly strange when she switches between the two within a single paragraph and when one of her clients calls her “Little Akari” instead of “Akari-chan”.
Maintaining honorifics is a good way to create a sense of place. Even if a reader doesn’t know exactly what these suffixes mean, they can easily gauge from context the meaning.
Then again, I really liked the use of “Little Akari” and “Miss Sachiyo”, and the inconsistency with “-san” was personally jarring.
The Voice of a Youth
Characterization is so important in writing. This isn’t to say every character needs an silly accent, but they do need their own voice, and I think Yoneda did a fantastic job giving Akari a unique voice that made her sound like a teenage girl.
My mentor would often berate us for using “got” because ‘there are so many better words out there’, but “got” is often used in conversational English, especially by younger people. Akari uses “got” a lot in this novel, and although I found it weird at first it quickly settled into the writing, and made me realise this not only reflects her age but her lack of education (she struggles in school and even fails a year).
There were other parts of the English that created Akari’s unique voice, but this stood out to me in particular.
Generational Online Speech
Yoneda also does a brilliant job reflecting how young people communicate with each other online. In her note from the translator she says “I was surprised by how easily I seemed to be able to imagine how the social media comments in this book would sound in English. Each corner of the internet has a different culture and set of conventions, but the gestures, dynamics, and narratives that arise out of the collective are only too familiar.”
This is all too true, and the sections where people are talking to each other online are *chefs kiss*.
I particularly liked Caterpillar’s “Akariiii!! I missed you! When you stopped updating it was like tumbleweeds around here so I went back into your old posts to get my fix, if that ran your hit counter up that was all me lol.”
There’s also a distinction between how different generations speak online, and once instance where Akari finds a tweet of her dad’s which sounds distinctly different from the tweets posted by her friends throughout the novel.
Obviously the characterization and tone of the original Japanese is also different between generations, but if Yoneda hadn’t been conscious of re-creating that in the English (some translators are not conscious of characterization at all) then it would have been lost.
I really think that a translator unfamiliar with the language of the internet in fan circles would not have done this book as much justice as Yoneda did.
It might sound like I’m nit-picking but I honestly really liked the translation for Idol Burning. I probably enjoyed the translation more than the original story, but I was also reading the English version conscious of how the translation was handled.
I think it felt like it was written English while maintaining a sense of place with some of the Japanese terms, and the character voice was wonderful.
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