Humor and Translation: Translating the Enemy

By Mark Herman

Some of you will remember that not very long ago, in an outburst of paranoia, American translators of material from Iran were being investigated by federal authorities. Also, I’m old enough to remember that during the early 1950s, at the height of the McCarthy era in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, anyone expressing the slightest interest in Russia or the Russian language was immediately suspected of being a communist. And the U.S. was not at war with either Iran or Russia.

Japan was at war with English-speaking countries, among others, and during World War II, to avoid prosecution or even execution, Japanese people hid or destroyed anything Western, including books, art, music, even musical instruments. According to the biography of Hanako Muraoka (1893-1968), written by her grand-daughter Eri Muraoka1:

The Japanese government demonized American and British people, calling them “Western brutes,” and English was branded an enemy language. Some people threw stones at Hanako [who was known to be a translator of English books into Japanese] and Keizo’s [Hanako’s husband] house, shouting “Traitor!” and breaking windows. The stones barely missed Midori [their daughter]. Keizo stopped listening to his collection of classical records, and Hanako, who had always carried several English novels with her when she was out of the house, removed the books from her bag. Midori’s primary school gathered the translated works of any authors from English-speaking countries and burned them in the schoolyard. (171-72)

And all the while, Hanako Muraoka was translating Canadian author L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables2 into Japanese.

The translation was published on May 10, 1952 as Akage no An (Redheaded Anne) and the rest, as they say, is history. Akage no An, together with its sequels, is still a bestseller in Japan, and there, as elsewhere, has spawned comic books, theater pieces, and television shows. It’s even part of the regular Japanese school curriculum. Unlike in English-speaking countries, where translators have to fight to get mentioned at all, or to have their names in print large enough to be noticed, Hanako Muraoka is revered in Japan.

The biography, An no yurikago Muraoka Hanako no shogai, was first published in 2008 and is now available as Anne’s Cradle in an English translation by Cathy Hirano. The book includes in its appendices a chronology of events in Hanako Muraoka’s Life, a glossary of Japanese terms and people, a selection of Canadian missionaries at Toyo Eiwa (the Canadian Methodist Mission Girls’ School which Hanako Muraoka attended and where she learned English), endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. The book is fascinating. It frequently reads more like a novel than a biography, since it includes many direct quotations, some of which have been accurately transcribed from letters and other writings and some of which must be paraphrases since the exact words are unlikely to have been known by the author.

Hanako Muraoka was born at a time when Japanese women were definitely not liberated, making her accomplishments all the more astonishing. Here are some of them:

  • Japanese translator of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its nine sequels and the same author’s Emily trilogy, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Bremen Town Musicians,” Eleanor Hodgman Porters’ Pollyanna and Pollyanna Grows Up, Marie Louise de la Ramée’s (pseudonym “Ouida”) A Dog of Flanders, and three children’s books: Virginia Lee Burton’s Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away, James Daugherty’s Andy and the Lion, and Louise Fatio’s The Happy Lion.
  • Interpreter for Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement, during Sanger’s 1952 visit to Japan, and for Helen Keller during her visit in 1955
  • Vice president of the Japan Society of Translators
  • Author of tanka poetry, short stories, essays, and biographies of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Helen Keller
  • Founding member of a literary magazine dedicated to women writers
  • English teacher
  • Active participant in the Japanese women’s suffrage movement and the movement to end legal prostitution
  • Radio announcer
  • Director of a women’s cultural center
  • Head of the Japan Progressive Party’s women’s division

The book is not meant to be funny, but there are a few amusing anecdotes, one of which concerns a former teacher at a mission school, Loretta Leonard Shaw, who remembers:

giving a talk on Cain and Abel in Japanese during which she meant to say the two brothers did not get along (naka ga warukatta), but instead said they had diarrhea (onaka ga warukatta). (176)

I will end my discussion of Hanako Muraoka with her advice to would-be translators who sought to emulate her, advice they found surprising, but which is as true today and, unfortunately, also as surprising to many, as when she gave it:

You don’t have to use difficult words. But in translation, you need to choose the right words, ones that bring out subtle nuances, and to do that, I believe you need a rich vocabulary and sensitivity to your mother tongue. That’s at least as important as, and perhaps even more important than English-language ability. When you look at the many expressions in the Japanese language for the seasons, nature, colours, and emotions, when you think of the language’s rich history, surely you can see how important it is to expose yourself to Japanese classical literature and poetry, such as tanka and haiku. (225-226)

And now for a short quiz about vowels, the answers to appear in the next column. All the answers are English words and each answer, except for the last, includes only a single vowel repeated as needed. The vowels are not necessarily the same from answer to answer.

  1. A 2-word 15-letter title.
  2. A 2-word 9-letter product of Ecuador.
  3. An 8-letter word, seven of the letters of which are consonants.
  4. Seven numbers: one 3-letter, three 5-letter, two 6-letter, and one 9-letter. Warning: this is partially a trick question.
  5. A word containing the vowels a, e, i, o, u, and y in that order.


  1. Anne’s Cradle: The Life and Works of Hanako Muraoka, Japanese Translator of Anne of Green Gables, by Eri Muraoka, translated from Japanese into English by Cathy Hirano (Nimbus Publishing, 2021).
  2.  Anne of Green Gables (and nine sequels), by Lucy Maud Montgomery, first published in 1908 by L.C. Page & Co. of Boston.


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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