Saturday, September 17, 2011

Searching for Starlight

I fell in love with a song I heard online recently.  It's called "Starlight."  It's written and sung by a Japanese singer named Miho Fukuhara.  Here's a link to the youtube video of the song in the title: Starlight.  Please, take a look at it.  
As people familiar with me already know, and anyone who follows my Twitter feed can tell, I'm interesting in Japanese culture and history.  I can't remember how I came across the song, though it turns about by coincidence that someone from my language study group has a connection to it.  I do know that I really love Ms. Fukuhara's voice, I enjoy the song's melody, and I appreciated seeing some of the lyrics in Japanese put into the video.  It was how I came part of the refrain of the song, which became my favorite line: 
せめて君を強く抱きたい。In Romanji, or latin characters, it reads, "Semete kimi wo tsuyoku dakitai."  
"At the very least I want to hold you close."  
That's actually an interpretation of the lyric, my initial one.  If translated literally, word for word, the line is, "At the very least, you, strongly, I want to embrace."  In English we don't often use the adverb, "strongly," to describe an embrace.  We say things like, "hold you close," or "hold you tight."  I recognized this immediately and shifted the words around in my head.  The meaning is a strong one, and is very beautifully expressed in Japanese.  Playing around with this line in my head, coupled with the discovery that there didn't seem to be an English translation online, lead me to the decision to translate the entire song into English.  
I started by translating the lines floating in the video, pausing and translating them as I went along.  That was pretty easy.  Next, I tried listening to the song, writing down what I thought I heard and then looking up the words in a Japanese-English dictionary.  
I immediately started having problems.  Within the first two lines in fact: 
君は行くんだね? そう決めたんだね?
kimi ha ikunda ne?  sou kimetanda ne?
yuuhi yori mou akai sora moeru basho he. 
You will go, won't you?  You've decided to, haven't you?
More than the setting setting sun, a red sky "moeru" place.  
I used the Japanese word, "moeru," in the sentence above because there are more than one word with that pronunciation.  Japanese has 1/3 fewer phonemes, or sounds used to make words, compared to English.  The word, "The," for instance is made up of two phonemes: the "th" sound and the "uh" sound that follows it.  Because of this, Japanese has a lot of words that sound alike but have different meanings.  
When I looked up the word, "moeru," both of the words I found sounded like they could fit.  One was "to burn," or "to be fired up."  The other was "to burst or sprout," with a secondary meaning of, "to have a crush, to be infatuated."  
Without the Kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese, I couldn't tell which of the words were being used.  It gave me a choice of these two lines for the place the person the song was being sung to was headed: 
"To a place more enticing that the red sky of sunset."
"To a place that burns more than the red sky of sunset."  
Operating under the assumption that this was something of a love song, I picked the line for an enticing place and carried on.  
The next line to give me trouble was this one: 
Yozora wo saku sentouki no akari
kimi ni ikite hoshii to negau yo.
The second line was easy, "My wish is that I want you to live."  This seemed a odd line for a love song, but OK...  The first line was more of a problem.  "Yozora wo saku," means, "to tear apart the night sky."  The last word, "akari," means "lamp" or "glow," the light from some object.  
"Sentouki," was the word stumping me.  I was pretty sure I was hearing it correctly, but my dictionary gave the definition of "sentouki" as "fighter plane."  Yeah...  Fighter plane.  A plane the military uses to drop bombs on things.  
"Tearing the night sky with the light of a fighter plane..."  Hmm.  Didn't sound much like a line from a love song.  
It was at this point I sought help from a friend of mine that worked as an interpreter in Japan, translating Japanese and Korean for businesses.  She confirmed the word was "sentouki" or "fighter plane."  She went on to tell me that Japanese culture, particularly pop culture, will use technological devices as metaphors.  For instance, if I'm understanding her correctly, a line about a cell phone in a song could be used as a metaphor for the desire to overcome the distance between you and a loved one. 
My friend also told me something I didn't know about the song; apparently it was written in response to the rising number of young people committing suicide in that country.  It's an appeal to be strong and resist the desire to do so.  
Armed with this information, as well as a Japanese website that had the lyrics written in Kanji, I carried on.  From the website I also learned that the "moeru" being used in the song was for "burning."  This made more sense in a song about suicide.  
I finished a literal translation of the song.  I found myself wanting to do more at that point.  Instead of merely writing down what the words of the song meant, I wanted to interpret the song into English.  While at the World Science Fiction convention in Reno this year (Renovation or WorldCon 69) I attended a panel about Japanese science fiction being imported into the United States.  One of the panelist offered her opinion that the interpreters of these works were as much artists as the stories' original authors.  They were more like collaborators.  Having watched some Japanese anime where I could tell the subtitles missed some subtle point in what was being said, I could well agree with this opinion.  
Returning to my literal translation, I worked on the refrain first.  It would be repeated throughout the song and having it done from the beginning would take care a good chunk of territory, so to speak.  But it would also set the tone for the rest of the song as well.  
Here's the refrain: 
Ayamachi mo yokubou mo nandemo kurikaeshite shimau.
Sore de mo ima ikiteiru no nara
semete kimi wo tsuyoku dakitai.
Both indiscretions and desires we unfortunately keep repeating
But with that, if I am to live,
At the very least I want to hold you close.  
I began reconsidering the last line, the part of the refrain that I was able to understand when I first heard the song.  While "at the very least I want to hold you close," was a more natural translation of the line itself.  With my new understanding that this song was directed to people whom the singer wanted to be strong and resist the temptation they were feeling made me think that a more literal translation was better.  I began to think that the line in Japanese, "tsuyoku dakitai" or "I want to hold you strongly" might have a double meaning.  A sense of, "I want to hold you as close to me as I can" and "I want you to feel the strength in me I want you to have." 
It was also at this point that my concept of the second line of the refrain changed.  "Sore de mo ima ikiteiru no nara," doesn't contain any subject or topic.  This is something that differentiates Japanese from English.  If you and I am talking about my plans, which include going to the store, I may tell you, "I will go to the store."  I wouldn't just say, "Will go to the store."  You might think that I was asking if you were going to the store, too.  It’s more common in Japanese for someone to say the equivalent of, “Will go to the store,” with everyone understanding that I’m referring to myself.    
It now occurred to me that I might be making an incorrect assumption.  "Sore de mo ikiteiru no nara" could mean, "If I'm to live" or "If I'm to continue living."  But it could just as easily mean, "If you are to live" or "If you are to continue living."  Returning to the sense of appeal that I now thought the song had, this change in whom the line was speaking of was much more important.  
After a few tries, this is what I came up with for the refrain: 
So many times, we repeat the same desires, we repeat the same mistakes.
And yet, while you live right now,
At the very least, I want to hold you with all my strength.  
With this change in the interpretation of the refrain, I could also now sense a resignation in the song.  "You will go, won't you?  You've decided, haven't you?"  The opening lines of the song indicate a situation where it's too late to change the person's mind.  Other lines reinforced this sense of being too late.  
Mamoritai.  Mamorenai.  
I want to protect you.  I can't protect you. 
Ayamachi ga kowai kara nanimo erabezu ni tachitsukusu
sou dakara ima naiteshimau no nara
semete kimi wo tsuyoku dakitai.  
Because mistakes are scary, one stands there without choosing anything
So, because of that, if I'm to cry for you now
At the very least, I want to hold you close.  
This sense of resignation is something I don't think you'd see in a song written by an American about the same topic.  At least, I don't recall sensing such a feeling in any song or story about suicide I can remember.  It does give the song a poignancy for me.  Here was someone who thinks it's too late, but is going to do what they can to change the person's mind.  
And this brings me to one last point I noticed about the song.  The title of the song is "Starlight."  And yet, there is no mention of stars or their light anywhere in the piece.  We hear about the night sky, but it is being torn apart by the light of a fighter jet.  We hear about the sunset, a precursor to the night sky when the stars are out, but the sun still burns and blocks the stars from view.  
I think starlight represents some form of hope in the song.  It's faint at the point the singer chooses to sing about.  It's blocked out by the fiery feelings that are driving the person the song is for to do what he/she is about to do.  It's not powerful enough to change the direction there are going in, so something more powerful and immediate, like a jet streaking through the sky, is needed.  
But the stars and their light are there.  All the time.  Even when we can't see them.  And it's their eternal presence the singer wants to point to as a reason for carrying on.  Even if we think it might already be too late.  
I enjoyed the process of translating this song into English a great deal.  It has made this song one of my favorites.  I now offer you the interpretation I came up with.  If you enjoy it half as much as I did writing it, I will be pleased.  
You've decided to go, I can see it in your eyes
To a place that burns brighter than sunset's blood red skies.
You don't know, you still don't know
How the people you leave will cry after you go.
So many times, we repeat the same desires, we repeat the same mistakes.
And yet, while you live right now
At the very least, I want to hold you with all my strength.  
The unloved children, who do you think they'll love?
The children that never loved, who do you think they'll believe?
I stand here and do nothing, so scared of making a mistake
So, if I'm to cry for you because of that
At the very least, I want to hold you with all my strength. 
So many times, we repeat the same desires, we repeat the same mistakes.
And yet, to have you live from now
At the very least, I want to hold you with all my strength.
I would tear apart the night with a brilliant, burning light
If I could have my wish that you just stay alive.
I want to protect you.  I can't protect you.
I just can't see the right thing to do.
All I can say is that I still love you so.
I want to hold you...  hold you...
So many times, we repeat the same desires, we repeat the same mistakes.
And yet, while you live right now
At the very least, I want to hold you with all my strength. 
I want to hold you with all my strength.
I want there to be strength.  
I want to hold you with all my strength.
I want there to be strength. 


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