Mimi o Sumaseba

Mimi o Sumaseba

"If You Listen Closely"
by Aoi Hiiragi
ISBN 978-4086183383

Of all the Studio Ghibli productions, one of my sentimental favorites is Yoshifumi Kondo's Mimi o Sumaseba (literally, "If you open your ears," often rendered as "Whisper of the Heart"), written and produced by Hayao Miyazaki (note the Kiki doll hanging over Shizuku's desk), based on the equally delightful manga by Aoi Hiiragi.

Shizuku, the high school student at the center of this coming-of-age story, lives an ordinary life with her danchi-dwelling middle-class family: working parents, cramped accomodations, an annoying older sister. As with Tomomi Mochizuki's Umi ga Kikoeru ("I can hear the sea"), another exemplary high school melodrama, it illustrates the expansive reach of anime, able to take as its subject matter realistic portrayals contemporary life as well as fantasy.

What sets Mimi o Sumaseba apart for me is its depiction of the creative process. It's rare that a movie can talk about any aspect of literature, especially writing, without falling into glib stereotypes about "being an artist." Miyazaki and Kondo find the right balance by analogizing physical craftmanship (making musical instruments) with the harnessing of thought through the written word. In either case, artistry is ultimately the product of hard work and sacrifice, and not simply the uncontained currents of the unfettered imagination.

Miyazaki's adaptation shifts the Tsukishima family a socio-economic rung downward from the upper-middle class neighborhood in Hiiragi's manga to a urban danchi. This affectionate and straightforward depiction of lower-middle class Tokyo family life is one of the pleasant surprises of the film.

Additionally, Shizuku's older sister Shio is in college, not high school. Kouji has been written out of the story, and Seiji is a musician, not a painter, which also changes the cause of the original conflict between Shizuku and Seiji. And with the Studio Ghibli version, you get a whole new interpretation of John Denver's "Country Roads."

All of Hiiragi's core themes, characters, and settings--especially the Earth Shop and Sir Cat--are faithfully preserved. Even so, these differences between the movie and the manga make neither superfluous to the other. This is not a case of the book being "better" than the movie, or visa-versa, but each standing well on its own and complementing the other.

The English DVD version of Whisper of the Heart (with Cary Elwes reprising his role as Sir Cat), has been released by Disney.

The junior high school classroom

In the United States, the "homeroom" in junior high and high school is for the most part a holding pen for counting heads, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and making announcements.

Japanese public education, in contrast, organizes a student's educational life around the homeroom class from the first through the twelfth grade. She will receive her room assignment at the beginning of the school year in April, and for the following ten or so months that room is where she will be taught all her required subjects, excluding electives, clubs, and physical education.

Even lunch is served in the homeroom. General upkeep, including light janitorial duties (o-souji), is the collective responsibility of the class. One or two students will also be assigned nitchoku or "day duty." They make announcements, take roll, and present the visiting teachers to the class. Teachers, not students, rotate from class to class every period.

This focus on the homeroom as the student's pedagogical and social enviornment means that while students will (whether they like it or not) become quite close to their classmates, they can remain unfamiliar with others in their same grade.

Problems with translation

The title of the Studio Ghibli film, the same as the book, is commonly rendered, Whisper of the Heart. The theme of Hiiragi's original story, though, argues for its more literal meaning: "If you open your ears," or If you listen closely, which I will use.

"Whisper of the Heart" has a more graceful feel to it. Literalism too often deadens the poetry of translated material. Otherwise, authorial intent, vis-a-vis a character's personality and motivation, overrides: there must have been an intent to mean something germane to the mindset and in the vernacular of the characters involved.

To illustrate: the decision in the subtitling of Kare/Kano (produced by The Right Stuf International) to translate yurunde-iru literally, as in: "You have a loose expression."

Now, nobody says that. Considering the context--Arima is setting up Miyazawa for a fall just as she believes she has escaped comeuppance for a previous indiscretion--the better meaning is "slacken," as in of one's attentiveness. That still isn't something one teenager would say to another. Here is where authorial intent has got to kick in. What's Arima intending to say to Miyazawa? Something closer to, "There you go, letting your guard down again."

Making things even trickier, Japanese is an elliptical language--as exemplified by Haiku--with subjects vanishing from the sentence in even formal writing. The use of kanji allows the author to impart substantively more information in a word than Latin script can offer (English etymology generally being too opaque to prove helpful in that regard). So it often fall upon the translator to fill in the blanks.

Consider the frontispiece in Mimi o Sumaseba:

If you listen closely . . . to the sound of the wind, of the rain, to the whispers of the stars, to the words we speak.

For the last phrase, Hiiragi only uses kotoba (kotoba), which easily translates as "words." Except that kotoba has three syllables and the prosaic "words" only one. Moreover, the first character in kotoba, when isolated in verb form, has the additional meaning "to speak." So rather than the noun "words," I decided that the noun phrase "words we speak" better fits both the meaning and meter of the original.

Dealing with hierarchies

More substantial adjustments are called for when translating the many forms of direct personal address--pronouns and first names--to English. Especially when referring to a social superiors, including older siblings, it remains common practice to use hierarchal titles. The plain, second person pronoun (anata) would be considered rude in any but the most casual of situations. A wife will refer to her husband as anata, but not in public.

So, Shizuku refers to her sister Shio as o-neh-chan in both second and third person contexts. Neh, a reduction of ane, identifies her sister as her older sister. The diminutive chan indicates an intimate degree of familiarity, yet is preceded by the honorific prefix o. There is not a good way to accurately represent all this information in English without interjecting the translator's voice into the narrative.

The stilted "elder sister" doesn't work at all, and "big sister" communicates a regional affectation. Similar difficulties arise with relationships between children and adults. Kousaka Sensei refers to Shizuku as Tsukishima-jan (a reduction of chan), and Yuuko by her last name only. Part of this is idiosyncratic and personal preference, but it also springs from that predominance of the family name.

While it might pass muster in a British boarding school, it's a bit severe in an American English context. I will follow the American custom and use first names when appropriate, and list surnames last.

The simplest solution is to follow the American convention and use first names in these situations. But as in the case of Kousaka Sensei, some terms simply do not approximate well in English. Sensei, like san, covers a much wider usage than "doctor" or "professor." Junior high school health sciences teachers, for example. My recourse here is to use Sensei rather than try to approximate an English equivalent.

The same holds true for Senpai, which is used to discriminate by age and experience among members of the same social class or professional caste. Thus, Shizuku, a seventh grader, would refer to eighth and ninth graders as Senpai.

More un-translatables

For the most part, the common stock expressions have ready equivalents: "Hello," "Goodbye," "See you later." The ubiquitous Ganbatte usually means "Go team!" or "Hang in there!" (Shikkari shite). Though as something said casually, in passing, as Shizuku does to a friend on the tennis court, I haven't yet come up with a suitable saying, so will stick with Gambatte.

Its consonant-vowel structure makes Japanese an onomatopoeically-rich language. When it comes to comic sound effects, the bigger problem is identifying the often culturally-bound source of the sound: cicada, electric trams, sliding doors (though reading it aloud will often make the usage obvious). I will spell it out the kana rather than invent an English equivalent, and sometimes explain what the sound represents.

Reading right-to-left

According to Japanese publishing conventions, vertical text is read right-to-left, while horizontal text is read left-to-right. As dialog in manga is usually written vertically, manga are printed in right-to-left format. The right-to-left, top-to-bottom rule also applies to page and panel subsections and inserts. In the accompanying scripts, each double-space represents a new panel or section.

Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.