A Superb Book, Lost in Translation

 Cross-posted on CaracasChronicles in Japanese. This April, as the streets of Caracas, San Cristobal and many other Venezuelan cities were alive with protests, I felt powerfully called on...

Translator Hiroaki Idaka, with one of his malas juntas.
Translator Hiroaki Idaka, with one of his malas juntas.
Translator Hiroaki Idaka, with one of his malas juntas.

 Cross-posted on CaracasChronicles in Japanese.

This April, as the streets of Caracas, San Cristobal and many other Venezuelan cities were alive with protests, I felt powerfully called on to do something, even if small, to lend my support. Though I was in Montreal, I found myself helping my Japanese friend to organize “#SOSVenezuela en Japón” – the Tokyo chapter of what had become a worldwide protest. Neither of us had ever done anything like this before; we were desperately in need of guidance. It was then that I found that Rory Carroll’s book, Comandante, had been translated into Japanese and would be published soon by Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, one of the most prestigious, biggest and oldest publishers in Japan. Here was just the guide I thought I needed.

Carroll’s book describes Chávez’s life and politics from a number points of views. He interviews people who worked with Chávez and shines a spotlight on the mixed feelings of nameless public employees and people devoted to the grassroot activism. It showcases not only their respect and faith in Chávez but also, vividly, their frustrations, guilty consciences, self-justifications, and regrets. In other words, Rory went out to chronicle the real voices of chavistas, beyond the propaganda.

The book opens with a scene retold by Gabriel García Márquez about a flight from Havana he took with Chávez in 1999. Reflecting on his meeting with Chávez, García Márquez says “I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot.”

What do an illusionist and a messiah have in common? Miracles. Both work miracles. The detail is that a messiah’s miracles are real, while an illusionist creates the mere appearance of “miracles” and uses them to manipulate his audience.

Chávez certainly launched any number of miraculous projects such as the Misiones. One of his programs, which funded cataract surgeries for people losing their sight, was even called Misión Milagro. And miraculously cheap gas, food and necessities, cut-price Chinese appliances from washing machine to TVs, many seeming to materialize just before an election, and so on. His followers experienced them as miracles of generosity. With oil prices high for most of his time in power, there was plenty of miraculousness to go around.

The question Rory sets out to answer is, after all the miracles, are Venezuelans saved? Was Chávez a real messiah or a mere illusionist?

Caracas Chronicles readers know Chávez was an illusionist. Rory painstakingly documents this, though, for the benefit of neutrals.

Miracles flowed only when the Chávez’s spotlight was on a given issue. Any number of unique and epoch-making projects were announced only to sink into oblivion. A railroad line to link Caracas and Buenos Aires, a mere 5,000 km. due south. A network of man-made islands in the Caribbean. Sometimes these far-fetched scheme were capriciously re-announced again after having been announced and forgotten once, only to be forgotten again.

The grand schemes contrasted with a threadbare reality on the ground. After 14 years of Chávez’s chaotic policies, Venezuela had lost much of its domestic industry, agriculture, human resources, environmental integrity, infrastructure, financial autonomy and most of its civil liberties and human rights protections. Despite Chávez’s indignation at elites indifferent to the poverty in their own country, the rich and spoiled just sat around in their mansions and whined. Chávez had a chance to really change the country. Instead, he installed an elaborate farce that continues to this day. The beautiful country and its bright future exist only in promotional videos.

I was excited to hear Rory’s book would be made available in Japanese translation. There’s precious little reliable material about Venezuela in Japanese, making Rory’s book a rare and valuable asset to those of us in the #SOSVenezuela en Japón movement. A must read.

The translator, Hiroaki Idaka is a Japanese journalist specialized in Latin America and also a professor of Latin American Studies at Rikkyo University, a private university in Tokyo.

Idaka’s written books about Latin America and Colombia and has translated many books into Japanese such as “Fidel y Raul, mis hermanos. La historia secreta” by Juanita Castro and “Venezuela and the New Latin America: An interview with Hugo Chávez” by Aleida Guevara (Che’s kid). In latin americanist academic circles in Japan, he’s a well know figure.

Together with the kinds of books Idaka had chosen to translate in the past, reading his afterword, I found that he was a proud chavista. That’s his right, of course. But I was suspicious: could all these hard-to-fathom passages be purely innocent?

I found sections of his text confusing, some barely intelligible. It was bad enough I decided to check the original English version, and that’s when I realized how serious the problem was. Time and again, Idaka misunderstands and mangles sections of the text and at some points, especially toward the end, he goes off-text altogether. It seemed he was trying to translate for meaning, but it also seemed he had missed the point spectacularly. The result is a car crash.

Idaka did grasp that this book has two key words: Illusionist and Stage. The problem is that Idaka translates “illusionist” as(夢想家 – “musouka”) – which really means “dreamer” or at farthest “idealist”. As a translation for “illusionist”, it’s just wrong. And its wrongness is amplified by the fact that “illusionist” itself is a perfectly ordinary Japanese word borrowed from English – イリュージョニスト (pronounced “ilujonisuto”).

This word is fundamental in the original text. Of course, the mistranslation recasts the entire book into something entirely different from what Rory had clearly intended: “Messiah or dreamer”, which, as a framing device, really doesn’t make much sense.

That’s just the start, then there’s the issue of the footnotes.

To be clear, Japanese readers will need lots of explanatory footnotes in a book on a subject as exotic (to us) as Venezuela. It’s a welcome and even necessary component of any good translation. But what if the translator uses his footnotes not to clarify, but rather to polemicize with an author he clearly disagrees with?

Let’s take Idaka’s footnote when Rory introduces Leopoldo López.

In February 2014, when the anti government protest started in Caracas and all over the country, López was arrested because he incited a riot calling on people to “Drag Maduro down” and he came in the spotlight as the vanguard of the extreme right opposition.

Idaka is entitled to disagree with López. But he goes way beyond that, to smuggle straight-out government propaganda into an “explanatory footnote”! (And propaganda about an event that hadn’t even taken place when the book was written, no less.)

Take Chapter 11. PROTEST It’s a key chapter, where Rory writes about the former chavistas, who believed in the revolution but were betrayed by the government and disappointed, while other disaffected former supporters knowingly look the other way to cling to their jobs. This was, in both my view and Quico’s, the best part of the book: an absolutely blistering indictment of the way chavismo corroded the character of even its best and most idealistic early supporters.

Such criticism remained unheard in the palace. Even as many communal council faltered, and with them the conceit that Chávez was delivering power to the people, nobody spoke out. Generals, of course, were handpicked loyalists and for good measure allowed to stuff their pockets. The opportunists bobbed along, playing dumb. (my emphasis.)

It’s hard to convey the absolute dog’s breakfast Idaka makes of this passage for an English-speaking audience, but here’s my best attempt to gloss his (bad) translation back into English.

Such criticism remained unheard in the palace. Many communal council faltered. Nobody spoke about the fantasy that Chávez was delivering power to the people. Even though the generals are handpicked according as their loyalty, they were allowed to stuff their pockets. The opportunists remained silent and moved a little bit together.

Where to start? Idaka just didn’t understand the structure of the original paragraph. “Nobody spoke about the fantasy that Chávez was delivering power to the people” is not only nearly the opposite of what Rory meant, but also plainly contrary to the facts. To soften the blow from the sarcastic kick in Rory’s “for good measure,” he downgrades it into an inoffensive “even”.

And then the cherry on top: “the opportunists bobbed along, playing dumb” turns into “the opportunists remained silent and moved a little bit together“! What the heck is that?! It reads like one of those “Engrish” viral websites you see making fun of horrendous Japanese instruction book mistranslations.

Maybe this guy was just not up to translating a whole book. Maybe he’s just not actually competent at all. These fatal mistranslations can’t be ideological, just…bad.

Later on, Rory talks about “the third faction, the coalition of progressives, feminists, labour leaders and indigenous rights activists” who initially supported Chávez. He writes:

When Chávez emerged from jail in 1994, he had fame from his coup attempt but no money, no organization no political experience. He swept to the palace four years later largely because he was adopted by this coalition. It comprised thousands of dynamic individuals with passionate democratic convictions. What happened to them?

A single smashing of revolutionary ideals would have been traumatic and triggered an exodus, but incremental chiselling permitted exculpations. If the comandante overruled party grass roots to impose candidates, well, there was strategic need. If he ignored evidence of corruption, well, the timing was delicate. Chip, chip, chip at principles until all that was left was Chávez. (My emphasis.)

Here’s an English flavour for the Japanese disaster the bold-face section turns into in Idaka’s hands:

If the revolutionary ideals clash with each other, it would be traumatic and trigger an exodus.

Do you think this is just a small mistake? But it blurs the core of Rory’s argument and makes the passage that follows unintelligible. (I’ll spare you the gory details about how the poetic metaphor of “chipping away” tripped up this old communist’s circuits.)

Of course, Rory’s argument has been more than confirmed by the experience of the last two years. When you look for chavista principles on SiBCI today, all that is left is Chávez. Chávez lives everywhere; cultural events are in homage to Eternal Comandante, Chávez’s handwriting is shared as free typography, Chávez’s sign becomes free tattoo, Chávez’s birthday party is celebrated, Chávez in prayer, and Chávez the 2014 National Culture Prize laureate.

For Rory, this deification of Chávez is what was left after the gradual dissolution of the moral high ground that the coalition of progressives who initially supported Chávez, who gradually came to act no differently than the corrupt generals who propped up his rule.

The last chapter 12.THE ILLUSIONIST is even worse. As I wrote at the beginning, the title here in Japanese is not “The illusionist” but “The dreamer”.

Rory is careful to acknowledge positive aspect of Chávez’s tenure.

Hugo Chávez left a mixed legacy. He could boast real accomplishments. He taught barrio dweller they were the majority and deserved a place at the table, that they were human beings with a right to dignity. He scolded the wealthy, the masters of the valley, for shopping in Miami with petrodollars while ignoring the shacks on the hills. He told them their sense of entitlement was obscene, and he was right. (My emphasis.)

I agree with Rory in this point, however, Idaka seems not to. So he changes what Rory meant and rewrites:  He might have been able to boast real accomplishments. Of course, after you write that, the text that follows doesn’t make any sense.

Rory then closes the book with a sublime paragraph that I cherished upon reading it in English:

Yet the abiding legacy was waste. A sublimely gifted politician with empathy for the poor, the power of Croesus and the result, fiasco. […] Venezuela atrophied. Nothing worked, but there was money and spectacle. An empty revolution, then. No paradise, no hell, just limbo, a bleak, misty in-between where ambition and delusion played out its ancient story. The faces and follies did not add up to despotic horror but they bore the melancholy echo of opportunity squandered, of what might have been, and there was the tragedy.

Here’s how it comes out in Japanese

Yet the rest of the legacy was wasted and used up. The sublime politician working for the poor, the use of the power of money like Croesus and the result were fiasco.  […]  Venezuela atrophied and didn’t work, however they had money and spectacle. It was an empty revolution.

Not paradise, nor hell, but limbo, which is a bleak and misty in-between where ambition and deception are playing their ancient story. The farces and satirical drama (written above “follies”) were far from despotic horror. I wonder, however, if there was another possibility and it might have lost its strength. The theater which was once developed should bear such a melancholy criticism.  And there was the tragedy. (The added paragraph breaks follows the translation, the emphasis is mine.)

Was it that his English was so bad he just had no idea what Rory meant? Or maybe was he convinced that since Rory was friendly to the opposition the conclusion should be harsh in its criticism? Or what?

Through his agent, I asked Mr. Idaka for a reaction. He did not reply to my request for comments.

One thing is very clear: Idaka has no sympathy nor even a rudimentary understanding of  the tragedy Venezuelans are sharing, and which Rory tried to explain. The pain, the wave of melancholy, the feelings of emptiness that Venezuelans share seeing the destruction of their country, all of this is utterly lost on Idaka. He read a superb book about it, “translated it”, and understood nothing.

The strength of Rory’s book is that it is full of sympathy towards Chavistas who have seen their dreams betrayed, and to Venezuela’s brutalized society as a whole. Of course the author is criticizing Chávez’s policy, but he is more interested in understanding it than judging it. That’s why the gross mistranslation and misreading of its closing section part is particularly offensive and unacceptable to me.

It was all terribly disappointing for me. In Japanese, it’s nearly impossible to find a book worth reading about Venezuela in the Chávez era. It was deeply sad to find the translation of one of the finest was this bad. It was pathetic to see a famous Japanese journalist doing such shoddy, unprofessional work. If Idaka were not ideologically committed to chavismo, I would say that he was just a mediocre translator. But it’s worse than that: the impossible mistranslation of the entire book’s keyword, tendentious footnotes, seemingly arbitrary misreadings and misinterpretations, and so many of them with a clear ideological agenda.