Claim: The title of 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:
- Although in English we have distinctly different words for certain types of dried produce (e.g., dried grapes are "raisins"; dried plums are "prunes"), not all languages do. Just as the English language has no specific term to describe dried tomatoes (they're generally referred to simply as "sun-dried tomatoes"), so Japanese has no specific term for dried grapes. In Japanese, grapes are budou, and raisins are hoshibudou (literally "dried grapes"). Thus, substituting one term for the other wouldn't be quite as noticeable a difference in Japanese as it would be in English.
- Titles of translated works are often chosen by publishers (rather than translators), and a publisher's goal is more likely to be to try to come up with a short, catchy name that will appeal to the target audience rather than to provide a faithful translation of the original title. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the case of the Japanese pop song "Ue O Muite Aruko" (literally "I Look Up When I Walk"), a hit in both the UK and America in 1963 in a cover version by jazzman Kenny Ball and the original
version by Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto, respectively. Both versions were sung in Japanese, but the British record label that released Kenny Ball's recording was concerned English-speaking audiences might find the original title too difficult to remember and pronounce, so they gave it a new title: "Sukiyaki." (The American record label retained the British title when they released Kyu Sakamoto's version a few months later.) Of course, sukiyaki (a sauteed beef dish) had absolutely nothing to do with the lyrics or meaning of the song; nonetheless, the word served the purpose well because it was short, catchy, recognizably Japanese, and familiar to most English speakers (very few of whom could understand the Japanese lyrics
anyway), evenif, as Newsweek quipped, the re-titlingwas akin to issuing "Moon River" in Japan under the title "Beef Stew."
- Words and phrases often have special significance to a native speaker's culture that may not be obvious to foreigners. Most Americans recognize that the title The Grapes of Wrath echoes a line from Julia Ward Howe's defiant
19th-centuryanthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," but a Japanese translator might not be familiar with the referent and therefore might not understand the importance of rendering the phrase literally rather than figuratively. Likewise, an American translating a Chinese work might render a title whose literal meaning was "fog-shrouded bamboo thicket" as the shorter and more poetic "Forest Mist" without knowing that "fog-shrouded bamboo thicket" was actually a key line from a well-known work of the T'ang dynasty poet Li Po, thereby inadvertently producing, through a seemingly inconsequential alteration, a title hilarious to those familiar with Chinese culture.
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:
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.
"I had one guy come in asking for Angry Raisins," said
Last updated: 16 March 2015
Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. New York: Billboard Publications, 1985. ISBN 0-8230-7522-2 (p. 131). Cunningham, Michael. "Happy Birthday, HAL." The Irish Times. 13 January 1997 (p. 18). Gussow, Mel. "Steinbeck, a World-Class Homebody." The New York Times. 23 November 1996 (p. 13). Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "What's in a Book Title? Some Narrow Escapes." The New York Times. 26 December 1994 (p. 35). Steelman, Ben. "Making a Long Story Short." [Wilmington] Morning Star. 11 July 1998 (p. D6). Steinberg, Neil. "Search for Literary Truth Often Yields Bitter Fruit." Chicago Sun-Times. 1 November 1998 (p. 22). The Jerusalem Post. "Word Watching." 9 November 1989.