Old Wives' Tales
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Claim: The John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath was published in a Japanese translation bearing the title The Angry Raisins.
Example: [The New York Times, 1996]
Origins: Whenever we need a humorous story (true or otherwise) to highlight how easily different cultures can misunderstand one another, we turn to the Japanese, folkloric exemplars of foreigners who admire and imitate American culture but are too different from us to truly understand it. We don't lack for amusing anecdotes about how the Japanese have managed to garble some essential part of American culture in typically hilarious fashion, everything from their fashioning Christmas decorations showing
For a number of reasons, the anecdote quoted above might not be nearly as implausible or silly as it might seem at first blush:
(The anecdote involving Mrs. Steinbeck quoted at the head of this page might still be literally true, just not the result of a badly-translated title. It's quite possible that the bookstore owner might have been very familiar with what he knew as Steinbeck's Ikari no budou, but in the pressure of the moment, having to communicate with a foreigner who likely didn't understand any Japanese, he expressed the title using the closest English words he could remember: angry and raisins. ("Wrath," especially, is a word only a more advanced student of English is likely to know.)
As we noted above, what's more interesting about this tale is the variety of forms in which the same amusing tidbit of mistranslation has been presented to us over the years. The earliest version we found was a short item in The Jerusalem Post about a trip John Steinbeck's widow made to Japan in 1989 (coincident with the fiftieth anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath's publication), which stated:
John Steinbeck's widow, Elaine, was in Tokyo to accept a posthumous honour for the author of The Grapes of Wrath. One particularly effusive Japanese told her: "We like your husband's work very much, particularly The Angry Raisins."Five years later, the New York Times printed a slightly different version, one which had
Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's widow, can spot her husband's name on the spine of a book in many languages, including Russian and Greek. Once she was in Yokohama and, at sea with Japanese, she asked a book-store owner if he had any books by her favorite author. He thought for a moment, then said, yes, he had "The Angry Raisins."Those two accounts aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but a few years later an Irish newspaper reported the garbled title came about in an entirely different fashion, as the product of one of those classic "
In real life (as opposed to the brochures and sci fi films), when machines try to translate things, they often run into problems. One Japanese machine turned "The Grapes of Wrath" into "The Angry Raisins". Another translated "Out of sight, out of mind" into "The Invisible Idiot" (think about it).A couple of years later, writer Neil Steinberg was using the garbled title to test whether sales clerks in independent book stores possessed any more literary savvy than their counterparts at the large chain stores:
Round One began at the neighborhood Borders. I walked up to the information desk and stood before a young lady with long hair. "I'm looking for a novel," I said. "It's about migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression."Finally, in an article about Cliffs Notes (those venerable shortcut guides to analysis and interpretation of literary works which students have been using for decades in order to avoid having to actually read books like The Scarlet Letter), the tale comes full circle as it is transformed into an anecdote about a American student woefully unfamiliar with his own cultural heritage:
Her reply was automatic, like pushing a button. No sooner had I pronounced the "n" in "Depression," when she said: The Grapes of Wrath.
I then walked down to LPB. The store was utterly empty, and there were two clerks (one's heart does break for these places), one behind the counter, one dusting the shelves. Not wanting to double their chances, I waited until the dusting clerk drifted out of earshot.
"I'm looking for a novel," I began, and unspooled the same request as at Borders. He looked at me blankly. I proceeded to hint
"Grapes?" said the guy with the feather duster, who had drifted back. "Grapes of Wrath?"
"Yes," I said, feigning excitement.
The first clerk, obviously abashed, explained that he assumed I was looking for something more "obscure," and there is probably some truth to that. You'd get a blank look at McDonald's, too, if you asked for a slice of meat between two discs of bread. Still, big chains won the round.
In area bookstores, sales clerks' experience suggests that all these guides will have a prime market for many years to come.In less than ten years' time, The Grapes of Wrath journeyed halfway around the world and came back as The Angry Raisins, in the process spawning a tale that started out as condescension towards foreigners who want to imitate our culture without understanding it, but ended up as a lamentation over how woefully out of touch we can be with our culture ourselves.
"I had one guy come in asking for Angry Raisins," said
Last updated: 4 August 2004
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