The Ghost Dog Principle

illustration by Tom Ralston

Not too long ago, I spoke to a writer acquaintance who is learning to translate. He was worried about a sentence that, as he put it, did not want to go from French to English. All his translations of it either changed the original’s meaning or were too ugly to tolerate. He was looking for permission to change the meaning. I gave it to him. I’d like to say I helped him give it to himself, but the truth is that I just told him to change it. Afterward, though, I walked him through the thought process to which I return every time I decide, as I often do, that a scrupulously or fundamentally correct translation of meaning is hideous, clunky, or in some other way unacceptable, and cannot remain in the English text I am creating.

My process has four parts, three of which I shared. (I should clarify that none of them apply to idioms, jokes that translate poorly, or references that require context. If a joke that was funny in Spanish falls flat in English, I need to write a new joke; if a reference won’t work without my help, I need to help it.) First, I remind myself that my intentions toward the project I am translating are fundamentally good. I respect it and want to share it; I understand it; I want my translation to do the work and its author justice. Second, I remind myself—I wish this one were no longer necessary, for me or for anyone else—that translation is an art, and I am, therefore, an artist. My aesthetic judgment matters. Bearing those ideas in mind, I then test myself for literary bias. Do I dislike the sentence at hand because it is too far from the conventions of contemporary English-language prose? Does it make me itchy because it wouldn’t fly in a workshop, or because it might freak a publisher out? If the answer is yes, or could be yes, or if I have the slightest doubt that the answer might not be no, the sentence stays, to be revisited down the line. If I feel in my bones that the answer is no, it goes.

I did not tell my acquaintance the last bit of my process, which I was afraid would sound discouraging or bleak. My final step is telling myself, once I have decided to change a bad sentence but before I start playing with it, that what I do does not matter. I say this not in a broad sense, but a narrow one. Literary translation matters; it also matters to preserve the meaning of a translated text. Preserving the meaning of every single word, though? No way. I recognize that this may seem perverse, but while I translate, I often encourage myself with the thought that a sentence’s meaning does not mean much. In translation, just like any other form of writing, each sentence has to play well with others. Its tone has to match; its rhythm has to work; it has to flow naturally from, and feel coherent with, everything that came before. Disrupting any of that is a far bigger crime than losing a little meaning here or there.

I am not saying I accept the idea that parts of any text get ‘lost in translation.’ I do not. Any good book—or story, or poem, or film, or play—holds so much meaning that the occasional minor shift, sensitively done by a good and devoted reader, should do no more than turn the text a degree or two, changing the way the light reflects off it rather than what it looks like. And besides, in real live human communication, meaning is rarely the most relevant thing. Privately—and, now, not privately—I refer to this fact as the Ghost Dog Principle, after Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It is a movie I would like all translators, and their readers, to watch.

* * *

Ghost Dog’s eponymous protagonist—played by Forest Whitaker, for whom Jarmusch wrote the script—is an ardent reader of translation. One translation, rather. He is devoted to the samurai philosopher Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, a spiritual and logistical guide to life as a samurai written around the turn of the eighteenth century. It is a roaming, anecdotal collection of some 1,300 short texts that, taken together, form one of the central distillations of the ethic by which many samurai fought and lived. Ghost Dog lives by it, too. Jarmusch’s first shot shows Ghost Dog lounging in the rooftop shack where he lives, reading his battered, translated copy of the Hagakure; bits of Yamamoto’s writing, read in Whitaker’s gravelly baritone, break up the film. The first such quote begins, “It is bad when one thing becomes two.” Not to a translator, I always think.

Ghost Dog is two things himself. In his heart, he is a samurai. He is also a Black man working—tenuously, it turns out—as a Mafia killer in a nameless, decaying industrial city that, going by its architecture and its residents’ speech patterns, is based on Newark, New Jersey. He is loyal to Louie, a Mob underboss played by an excellently despairing John Tormey, who once rescued him from a vicious beating and is bemused to have wound up with a feudal-style retainer as a result. Still, the two have more in common than Louie realizes: both live by “old ways,” albeit not the same ones.

Ghost Dog is two things, too. Jarmusch imbues it with a drifty, dreamy beauty that does not obscure, or even collide with, the fact that it is a violent portrait of poverty and precarity. In fact, the movie’s ability to balance dreaminess and harshness makes it possible to accept that Ghost Dog is a samurai, though he leads a contemporary life. Jarmusch never pretends otherwise. RZA, of Wu-Tang Clan glory, scored Ghost Dog, which is either startlingly quiet or bubbling with hip-hop energy. (RZA has a brief cameo, as another samurai.) Ghost Dog owns a katana, but on hits, he uses a silenced pistol or automatic sniper rifle. His best friend is a Francophone immigrant named Raymond, played by the Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankolé, an ice cream vendor whose English is limited to a handful of words. Raymond and Ghost Dog’s relationship is the sweetest strand of Ghost Dog, and the one that feels closest to magical. It is also the source of my Principle. Ghost Dog and Raymond cannot convey meaning to each other through words, and yet—Jarmusch does not permit the viewer to doubt this—they understand each other perfectly.

Ghost Dog is not a big talker. He seems happiest when communing with the homing pigeons he raises and uses to contact Louie. (Among Ghost Dog’s most beautiful shots are those of Ghost Dog training his pigeons, radiating joy as he flags the birds through the sky; among its most tender are those in which he allows a pigeon to nestle happily into his enormous hands.) Whitaker plays him with such expressiveness and grace that it seems hardly relevant—though certainly noticeable—that he does not speak until thirty-seven minutes into the movie, when an elementary-schooler named Pearline strikes up a conversation in the park where Raymond parks his ice-cream van and Ghost Dog likes to sit. She asks if it’s true that, as her mother says, he doesn’t talk to anyone and has no friends. In order to disprove the latter, he brings her to Raymond’s van, where a beaming Raymond announces in English that Ghost Dog is his best friend before reverting to French. “Can’t you understand what he’s saying?” Pearline asks Ghost Dog, who tells her, “No. I don’t understand him. I don’t speak French, only English. I never understand a word he says.” 

Ghost Dog is full of nonverbal communication—consider the pigeons—but that isn’t quite what is happening between Raymond and Ghost Dog. Jarmusch opts to subtitle Raymond’s dialogue, so non-Francophone viewers know it lines up precisely with Ghost Dog’s. Often, the two men repeat the same statement—or one asks a question, as if rhetorically, that the other then answers in similar language. Rather than seeming coincidental, this mirroring reveals the depth of their friendship. Viewers slowly gather that, though Raymond may not understand that his friend is a hit man, he gets the odd hours and potentially violent nature of Ghost Dog’s work; Ghost Dog, meanwhile, has a feel for Raymond’s preferences, his social life, his routine outside the ice-cream van. It seems that the two are bonded by their affinity for the dreamlike or anachronistic: in one scene, Raymond tells Ghost Dog he’s found a sight he will love, then takes him to watch a man building a boat on a roof. For a moment, the friends marvel together. Ghost Dog asks, “How the hell is the guy ever going to get it down from there?” Raymond says the same in French, then calls their shared question to the boatbuilder, who replies in Spanish, “No entiendo! Sigo trabajando!”—I don’t understand! I keep working! He is outside the small realm of understanding-without-understanding that the friends have built.

You could take their ability to talk to each other as magical—certainly Ghost Dog, with its persistent dreaminess, invites that reading—but I prefer to consider it an exaggerated version of reality. Raymond and Ghost Dog do not need language, shared or not, to demonstrate affection; they do that with daily visits, free ice-cream cones, body language, time spent talking without any expectation of a direct reply. I may not have an endless supply of ice cream to distribute, but I still recognize their ways of showing love from my own life. It is that recognition that lets me trust Ghost Dog when, in a late, climactic scene, he delivers a monologue about the old ways to Raymond, ending it by saying, “I know you understand me. I know you understand me.” His repetition is both emphasis and plea. Nobody but Raymond (and maybe Pearline) understands Ghost Dog emotionally. In a world moving too fast for him, he needs that sense of deep comprehension much more than he needs a conversation that works in English.

* * *

Emotional understanding of the sort Raymond and Ghost Dog share is vital to literary translation, and, for that matter, to reading. (It is not original, but always relevant, to note that no one reads a book more thoughtfully than its translators.) So much of the work of translation is capturing and conveying the feelings humming beneath a text that I cannot help but feel, perhaps too optimistically, that literary translators are safe from the threat artificial intelligence supposedly poses. A machine can do meaning, but no more. Really getting a work of art, or a person, requires a wide array of understandings. Watching Ghost Dog without appreciating RZA’s soundtrack would be both less meaningful and less fun. So would watching it having never seen another Mafia movie, or refusing to acknowledge while watching it that Raymond and Ghost Dog, both Black men living on the margins, have very different experiences of precarity. A translator rendering Ghost Dog’s script in another language would, in order to do it justice, need to think carefully about highlighting, or in some cases transforming, those nuances. An easy example of such a transformation is the fact that, in the French-dubbed version of Ghost Dog, Raymond speaks Yoruba; if he spoke French, as he does in the original, the audience would not experience any measure of his inability to communicate in the literal sense with Ghost Dog. A bigger example, of course, is Ghost Dog himself. He is a living translation of the Hagakure. He adapts its principles to suit his life and adapts his life to suit its principles, just as its various translators have both adapted the book to work in English and adapted English to work with the book.

So much of translation is two-way adaptation, negotiation between language and language or self and self. I am not immune to my acquaintance’s fear that changing a sentence’s meaning is lazy or cowardly, but I have learned that the reverse is true. When I translate, my greatest goals are to recreate the original text’s voice and the effects that it had on me. Doing so is much harder, and much more rewarding, than getting the meaning of every sentence perfectly right. If that were all I tried to do, I’d finish my drafts much sooner, and with much less talking to myself in the process. But instead, more often than not, I look up every word in a challenging sentence six times, but still feel like Jarmusch’s rooftop boatbuilder, repeating to myself, “No entiendo! Sigo trabajando!” How else is art supposed to be?