One of the first things you're hit over the head with when you study Japanese literature is how hard it is to translate. That's partially for easily explicable reasons: Japanese and English are structured very differently, and ambiguities and associations are possible in each that are not possible in the other.
But of course with Japanese it goes much further than that. Even more than the rest of East Asia, Japan has a reputation for mystery and paradox that, one is frequently given to understand, the Western mind doesn't have the tools to grasp. That the Japanese have equal difficulty understanding us, despite our reputed forthrightness and literal-mindedness, somehow gets less play. Users of any language (such as writers) rely on shared cultural assumptions that may not obtain for the audience of a translation, and there are times when that barrier is impossible to get around. The problem with a lot of authors who deal with Japanese is that they tend to assume that that barrier is a feature, not a bug. Lots of translations of Japanese literature have a resolutely flat quality; it's supposed, I think, to suggest a placid surface with a lot actually stirring underneath, but it often just comes off affectless.
And the problem doesn't just come up with translations; literature written in English about Japan often has the same kind of flaws--sing-song prose and would-be profound paradoxes on every page. An example that really stuck in my craw was Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, which opened like this:
Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.” I expect you might put down your teacup and say, “Well, now, which was it? Was it the best or the worst? Because it can’t possibly have been both!”
Well, of course it can have been both, dear lady. What are you going on about? The conflict between opposing but equally strong forces--moral duties, affections, predilections, desires--animates much of the world's greatest literature. For a novelist to put into the mouth of a narrator the idea that it's only natural not to believe one could hold two opposite feelings simultaneously is a shocking display of bad faith. (And Golden's novel gets far, far worse from there.) But he was writing about Japan, don't you know, so Sayuri's patronizingly patient explanation of why such a thing is possible was considered charming, if not profound. Objecting would be spoiling the Zen.
So my question is…what's the best balance when trying to convey a foreign setting? What authors are good at realizing an exotic setting without being smug about how esoteric it all is? When is it good to sprinkle in foreign words, and when does it become show-offy and jar the reader out of the world of the story?