No substitute for human touch in translating

By Ry Beville

I’ve been a professional translator for over 10 years, and I have to admit that online dictionaries have saved me more than a few times. But as dictionaries and, more importantly, translating programs become ever more sophisticated, does that mean I will become obsolete? I sure wish that were the case, but I’m afraid I’m here to stay.

I thoroughly enjoy translating poetry. But some of the voluminous financial documents I’ve done over the years contained sinewy sentences running over a page in length and more subordinate clauses in a single paragraph than an entire Faulkner novel — enough to engender midnight bouts of despair. Next come the verbose academic diatribes of retired professors that can provoke habit-inducing behaviors. And of course, all the mundane, mind-numbing assignments that probably make up 80% of translation work: news and announcements, brochures and manuals, business letters and web pages. Luckily, translation programs like those provided by Google and Babelfish can handle the latter to a reasonable degree; they at least convey the gist of a text.

Such programs, while convenient in a casual setting, still have a long way to go before they become truly viable. The fact that their translations need to be heavily edited isn’t the problem. It’s all the meaning that is lost, especially between Japanese and English. Linguistic science tells us these languages are worlds apart. For a native-English speaker, Japanese is a level-five language, meaning the hardest to master (a distinction it shares with Arabic). Creating a program that can negotiate such vast differences seems like a quixotic dream perhaps exceeded in difficulty only by the pursuit of robust artificial intelligence.

One approach to the problem would be a program that translates by consensus or “open-source,” so to speak. Wikipedia provides the most convenient analogy. Its entries are by no means absolute, but rather refined through increasing participation in the project. A program could always map out the structure of a given sentence (remember diagramming sentences?) and use those discrete values to create a correspondence in the target language.

But perhaps it would be best to somehow begin compiling publicly available translations of identical or similar structures and finding a kind of average or typical rendering of those structures. Like Wikipedia, people could submit suggestions. Already, the website searches the internet for all known translations of a given word. Not all the translations it uncovers are correct, per se, but it is very useful and you can generally determine an approximation through comparison.

The first problem is that even though generally accepted grammar structures are finite, possible combinations of words and their meanings within those structures approach infinity. Mapping structures, compiling known translations, refining the system — it all seems so Sisyphean, even for a computer or enormous open-source project. Obviously, scientists relish the challenge, but my skepticism remains. How do you translate "muzukashii?" Its basic meaning is “difficult,” but it often means “impossible.” Think of the catastrophic consequences that could result from that mistranslation. And that’s just an ordinary adjective.

This problem — meaning in context — became clear to me years ago when I was doing some unusual copy-editing at a translation company. A Japanese woman was writing desperate letters to an English-speaking lover who had left her. She was having her letters translated into English and his letters translated back into Japanese. For a while, I only got to see translations of the outgoing letters, and it was apparent something was wrong. Cross-cultural, cross-lingual relationships can have more than your usual disconnect, but this was uncanny.

I asked to see all the original letters. The translations were relatively faithful on the surface, but something was missing. What were they really saying to each other? Implicit meanings were being lost. More empathy (and audacity) was required of the translators. Greater interpretation had to come into play. (A key distinction is helpful here: “interpretation” pertains to extracting meanings from a text, while “translation” involves rendering those “interpretations” into another language.) All translation entails some level of interpretation, though it seems the most important ones require a lot. When interpretation is already so difficult for humans, I’m not sure how a computer or program is going to cope.

Our every interaction with someone demands interpretation, and that is mediated in nebulous ways by what we know of the person and the context. Even with an anonymous text where those bearings are stripped away, we need to interpret the tone to determine meaning. Then there’s that most modern of afflictions: irony. Throw in humor, understatement, hyperbole, satire, oxymoron and any of the dozens of figures of speech, and you have “no small task” in translating. Language can be a nightmare as much as a miracle.

People use translation programs for their own convenience but also at their own risk. Will the risk decrease? Of course. But the nightmare won’t go away. The chances that scientists will come up with something we can trust over your seasoned translator are about that same as that couple getting back together: rather "muzukashii," I would say. Ry Beville maintains a site of poetry translations at This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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Written Japanese can be quirky, but good writing is very imaginative and enjoyable. The process of translation is slow, and held back by time and budget constraints. We only get to see a tiny fraction of the huge body of printed matter writers in this country produce. I get the feeling the number of non-Japanese whose grasp of the language is good enough to grasp the nuances of a magazine article or short story or poem is not increasing. This probably reflects on demand (or the lack of it).

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Subtlety in japanese language ?! can we stop the propaganda here ? It's an arcane based mayhem where new generation can't read the older books because the kanjis are outdated and no proper dictionary method exist to find them. There is no governing body, words of foreign origin are used for few years and then forgotten or slaughtered enough to lose all link whit their meaning and origin. You can randomly use 3 alphabets to write things making reading speed totally uneven to the point of being uncomfortable (1cm for a criptic kanji badly printed to the point of being unrecognisable, then 7 cm to write a common word in katakana... speed reading method are not just failing here, they are akin to intellectual suicide)

I was flabbergasted last weak on a machine-tool related website in chinese, just using google translator gave me a perfect english version. The same method with japanese gives a nerve wrecking stacking of meaningless words. As usual, the japanese stole characteres from the chinese without understanding their proper use. With their usual pseudo superiority came with random rules to use them as a written language... and completely failed.

Yeah, sure, as usual, you can say that it's because we are not subtle enough, didn't drink enough sake or eat enough dry fish and sticky rice. OR you can be honest and call poop when you see some.

German for precision (and the bad guys in old war movies) French for beauty Italian for romance English for the VCR manual (and the good guys in any movies) Russian for the bad guys in spies movies Japanese for the trash instruction...

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Just b/c the Japanese language is too complicated for you to easily understand is irrelevant. Japanese is a beautiful language that flows and has deeper meaning (through kanji). As for stealing from the Chinese, the Japanese adapted Chinese to suit their tastes. The Koreans and others did the same. "60% of the Korean vocabulary consists of Sino-Korean words." The Japanese merely simplified Chinese.

As for French being a superior language, French for all its claims of purity utilizes a lot of English in everyday speech as well as bizarre slang. The French language written makes little sense. English is a hybrid of many languages ranging from Greek, and Roman to Arabic and French.

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nice rant enjoyed it, bet you felt better after that one!

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Republic of texas... Dude... you just falled in a wide open trap... Complicate is one thing, operating an helicopter is complicate, but it make sense and give a result. Japanese language is really just a puddle of mud with as much obscurantism as possible, rules that are more often broken than followed and bail outs that hide behind "the context" to make sense of anything, while being unable to retrieve any context because nothing make anysense (cathc 22). You can claim superiority by saying it's complicate and those who don't get it are inferior. Or just admit that the first purpose of a language is making efficient communication possible. And Japanese fail miserably where German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and many other suceed.

Again, for precision nothing beat the German. But the sound is quite uneasy on the ears.

Deeper meaning through kanjis ? in europe we call this rebuses, it's considered as a game for little kids, not as a full language. Even the Vietnamese who are quite an4l-retentive (or strict if you prefer) on education matters have given up on kanjis. Japanese is closer to the definition of a pidgin than of a real language. Metaphor or other stylistic tools and play of words seems to be lost on 99% of the population.

By law (the dictionary of the French academy), english words can not be used in the French language, only a few of them have been allowed (bizarre slang in the french language ? you mean, not even english ? oh mai!!!). I feel FoxNews level of education here.

For their origin and influence, enjoy this:

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Or just admit that the first purpose of a language is making efficient communication possible.

The problem with your theory is that the Japanese have no problem communicating with each other, can easily learn their own language, and have produced some of the world's greatest pieces of literature/movies/ other language related media.

Your case for western language superiority is merely cultural imperialism and snobbery.

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I agree that japanese has a lot of exception to rules, which in turn got exceptions than you get exceptions to the exsceptions. Even my japanese teachers called it nuts and couldn't explain it, their answer was it is learned/experienced.

German is a very strict language and you can't vary from the rules. I should know as I learned it as a babe. Granted NOT familiar with the new simplified german gramar rules as they came in after I learned it.

Being able to speak 4 languages(fluent plus others somewhat) you also need to learn the culture in order to understand the language. Any translator will tell you that translating is NOT straight forward and often relies on cultural, etc concepts.

No dig at anyone.

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I admit to feeling better after Coligny's beautiful rant! Republic, I've been a translator in Japan for 20 years, but even I don't know how the Japanese communicate with each other! I am beginning to believe in ESP.

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Yes, but you do admit that they are able to communicate with each other.

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Zen_Builder hit it right on the head when he said, "you also need to learn the culture in order to understand the language." That's the most basic an explanation can get.

Regarding the fable that kanji gives "deeper" meaning to Japanese language, that depth stops at context. It is true some kanji may individually express several unrelated meanings, but the ability to communicate aims to express specific ideas; yes, with some wit,, flare, double-meaning, sarcasm and slang; but in every case you could hardly find more than two meanings to a given sentence within its own context.

Latin based languages, for example. Every word has a basic root, which carries several meanings. Suffixes, prefixes, and complementary particles form every variation of words in Latin based languages. In that, it could be said that because words have roots in Latin based languages, the language itself has a deeper meaning. In the case of every language on Earth, the "deeper" meaning applied to isolated words simple fallacy. Languages aim to communicate feeling, knowledge and concepts efficiently. Finding out that some texts are not exactly shallow is like rediscovering lukewarm water. Every language and every culture have philosophers, historians, poets. I think the sole fact that such thinkers were able to express themselves in the living tongues of this planet is more than sufficient proof that such languages are efficient at transmitting deeper meaning. The deeper meaning is in the way a sentence is built, not in the separate characters that conform it.

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Japanese people with their 'hara' sense' naturally!

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the Japanese have no problem communicating with each other,

Yeah, take a bloke from Hokkaido, make him speak to a bloke from Okinawa. Enjoy the misunderstandings.

can easily learn their own language,

Joking right ? that's why there is always cryptakana translation over every possible kanjis on the signs. Lower the standards to improve the results...

and have produced some of the world's greatest pieces of literature/movies/ other language related media.

No, that would be the europeans starting in the 17th century. While the japanese where still struggling in tribal wars.

Also, Dragonball and evangelion are not greatest piece of anything. Because of obsolete kanji old japanese litterature is lost for everybody. For movies the only name I can think of will be Kurosawa. And it's more a name that you remember because he is japanese rather than because his movies are exceptionals.

Again you will cheat in your arguments by saying that if i don't mention other artist it's because i don't know of any other and is a nekulturniy but to be honest... there is really nothing else to be mentioned... Japanese cultural influence is minimal and mediocre as is their language.

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I agree with what you said. I did mean at all times, sorry to be vague.

Each culture has its own way of communicating and the Japanese language fits the Japanese culture well.

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*didn't mean...

Sorry, typo :)

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Yeah, take a bloke from Hokkaido, make him speak to a bloke from Okinawa. Enjoy the misunderstandings.

Yes and Americans/French/Brits from different regions don't have trouble communicating with each other?

You're confusing differences in regional dialect with the issue at hand. Also the people of Okinawa speak a sub-language of the Japonica family. So wrong again, I would like to know where you get your info.

Also to answer your last two questions, I'm fluent in Japanese as I am half Japanese myself. I doubt your shallow understanding of Japanese is worth anything.

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Coligny, I'm starting to wonder if you even live in Japan...and if you do...why are you still here if you hate it so much? If you want to argue the beauty of language then you're arguing something that can not be argued. It's all subjective, based mainly on cultural upbringing and education. Don't be so quick to judge something you obviously know little about. If I'm wrong, prove me wrong. Show me some of your mastery of the Japanese language before you start spewing out diatribes that sound like they're coming from someone who started to study and gave up when it became to difficult for them. The issue at hand is the difficulties that lie in translating language across cultural threads. Working in the industry myself I know from firsthand experience that much of translating is not simple word for word translating, instead much of it is cultural and contextual. This is also true for any language, not just Japanese to English or vice-versa. Will computer programs eventually be able to do it? God, I hope not...the human touch in such complex tasks is absolutely needed, in my honest opinion...

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Yes and Americans/French/Brits from different regions don't have trouble communicating with each other?

So you just agreed that japanese have trouble communicating, nice... I won't be in the mood to play this game with you more longer...

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Great discussion and I may be out of my depth and un-qualified to comment. But, that doesn't usually stop me so can I suggest that you CAN be as clear and precise as you want in Japanese - not only Japanese, but us gaijin. But often, people are purposely vague. English speakers sometimes do the same thing, but Japanese, I think, do it more often.

Often as a gaijin, you can get frustrated with misunderstandings and think its because of your limited Japanese and failure to appreciate nuances, but if you live here long enough you will see Japanese misunderstanding each other all the time too. And a lot of the time its not the vagueness of the language, but people trying to understand what the person "really meant", when sometimes they didn't mean anything at all, and sometimes they just meant exactly what they said!

read between my lines, and you can probably guess that I have had my fair share of problems in arguments with my wife, and even more listening in frustration to Japanese complaining about other Japanese and wondering what they meant. So, I can't really agree with Coligny and the outright assault on the Japanese language, but Tex saying Japanese have no problem understanding each other shows a different experience to mine. But in the end, if a Japanese wanted to get their meaning across in a hurry if their life depended on it they could. But as to the original story - no, I can't see a computer giving great translations for a while.

Hey, on a lighter note, have any of you been asked by a Japanese girl to read emails from a gaijin guy when she wants to know if he "really loves her and is serious"? Can be pretty harrowing.

Come to think of it, I could never be a translator. My wife thinks that if I tell a co-worker that her hair cut looks pretty, it means, "Hey, Baby, let's get together behind my wife's back sometimes. After all, I'm a playboy gaijin sukebe who is only interested in one thing". So, I am thinking of giving up Japanese.

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Translating must be one of the worst jobs in the world. Maybe even worse than teaching English. At least eikaiwa teachers get to meet a lot of people in the course of one working day (and even get to date the cuter ones!).

As a translator you're probably working freelance, stuck at home in front of a computer screen, translating (as the writer says) mundane documents for a pittance. It must be mind-numbingly boring.

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youareacat -

Actually it's a pretty good job. Some of it is humdrum of course, but you also get to read a lot of stuff (some of it secret) that would never come your way otherwise, which can be pretty interesting. And if you're reasonably good at what you do, the pay is pretty good and you get to pick and choose what work you want to do. For those of us no longer interested in 'dating the cuter ones', being 'stuck' at home is a bonus, not a bind; I can set my own hours, work in my pajamas if I want and waste time posting on JT without some bar-coded kacho or kocho breathing down my neck.

And earn a lot, lot more than I ever did teaching English, for a fraction of the time.

If you haven't tried it, don't knock it!


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cleo, some translations take a little more than a fraction of time and can be hair-tearingly frustrating. You must have a super placid disposition...

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"Japanese businessman: We will consider your proposal carefully.

Translation: We will feed your proposal to a goat.

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So let me get this straight, when i want to say "You're Welcome" is it still "don't touch my moustache," or has it changed now?

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Nope, bamboohat, nothing's changed. You're still right on the money. And for Grace, "Eat a sticky mess" is still what you say before popping that rice ball in your mouth.

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nandakanda - I meant a fraction of the time it takes to earn the same amount teaching English. Personally I find the longer translations more interesting - they give you something to get your teeth into - and more rewarding - once you get into the flow you can work faster than if you're doing the same amount of work but divided up into ten different jobs on ten different topics so you have to work out ten times what it is they're talking about.

And yes, I am extremely placid.


Sarge - Wot's wrong with goats?

"don't touch my moustache," "Eat a sticky mess" lol lol lol

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If you haven't tried it, don't knock it!

Well, I have done some translating work and, frankly, it was mind-numbingly boring.

One problem is that there is such little scope for creativity. At least an eikaiwa teacher can (theoretically) make their own original materials and teach a lesson that is a product of their own ingenuity. If the lesson went well and the students really enjoyed it then I could imagine that being quite satisfying.

A translator's job merely involves converting a document created by someone else into another format. That's what really did my head in when I tried it... the lack of opportunity for creativity. I suppose it could be argued that choosing verb X as opposed to verb Y is a creative process but that certainly wasn't my experience.

I had a good idea! Perhaps it would be an ideal job for Japan's countless thousands of hikikomori. They could "work in their pajamas", have documents sent to their computer, translate them, send them back, all without any human contact. All they need is to get trained up a bit in language skills.

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I'd like to know what the colour Orange was called before it became "orenjii"

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Japanese businessman: That is difficult.

Translation: That is impossible.

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In a Tokyo bar: "Special cocktails for the ladies with nuts"

In a Tokyo hotel room: "Please to bathe inside the tub"

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Sarge har!

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orange = 橙色 (daidai-iro)

cat -

I don't suppose it would do for everyone to find satisfaction in the same job. That way we'd have six billion English teachers and not a single translator. Or vice versa.

I don't think there's any merely about converting a document created by someone else into another format; it's a challenge to convert the person's words into a form that allows people who don't understand the writer's language to understand not only what he said but the tone in which he said it. I find it very creative and satisfying.

Granted, there are some jobs that are just boring routine, and others that are mind-bendingly difficult. But then the English teacher has to cope with boring stuff like teaching exam curricula, and mind-bendingly difficult stuff like dim students who are never ever going to latch on to how the verb to be works or the difference between why and because.

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Yes, I know about the misunderstandings between Japanese colleagues. Or between a big company (for example Toshiba) making a subcontract with a smaller company and then we wonder why the quality is worse than the original sample made in the Toshiba factory.

They saved money, but some information (in Japanese) was lost. Fortunately, as I am German, I try to analyze what has happened, and give comments and hints how to improve. Sometimes it is so obvious.

Yes, Japanese language can be precise. But many times it is used in a non-precise way. Even my japanese wife some times complains about it.

Simple example - a shop assistant asks at the cash-register: O-Hashi ha yoroshii desu ka? (Do you like to have chopsticks?)

Possible Answers:

1) ii desu. (It is good.)

If spoken in an angry way, it means "no". If spoken in a friendly way, could mean "yes".

2) ii desu ne. (That sounds good.)

Means "Oh that would be nice". Probably the shop assistant will be confused.

3) Onegaishimasu.

Is a polite way to say "yes, please".

4) Kekko desu. (That's good.)

Means, I have ennough, it is not necessary.

5) Irimasen. (Not necessary).

Not so polite, but gives a clear message: I don't want.

6) Iranai. (Not necessary).

Somehow rude, therefore giving a really clear message: I don't want.


Some funny ways to apply english thinking to Japanese language: If you get handed some flyer on the street, which you don't need, try to say

"Gomi arigatou" (Thanks for the garbage).

If you don't like the TV program, call it "Ban-gomi".


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Japanese culture itself is vague. It is ingrained into Japanese society that one avoids being blunt. Chinese on the other hand values telling it how it is, they don't mince words. The Japanese value the other extreme, that it is polite to be circumspect. Wetern languages tend to fall somewhere in between, As the saying goes, there are 15 ways to say maybe in Japanese and no ways to say no. That is of course hyperbole, but it explains the Japanese mentality well. Like many other languages, tone and mood is important to convey multiple meanings of the same phrase. Subtleties like that are important in Japanese. Also while some phrases literally translate into things they do not mean, in Japanese that phrase is used to mean a certain thing all the time, so there is no confusion. Like any society there are those socially awkward people who cannot pick up on certain subtleties, but they are in the minority ad exist everywhere. Even normal people miscommunicate on occasion, but that is not a uniquely Japanese phenomena. I do not believe the Japanese language is perfect or even that it is the best language, however the purpose of a language is to fulfill the needs of the culture that speaks it. In that sense Japanese does a pretty good job. Just be/c Japanese doesn't fulfill the needs of a Frenchman or a Spaniard does not mean it's a failure. Different cultures prize different things. Besides English is already the international tongue as a result of the efforts of the British Empire and American industrialists, so Japanese is not necessary for communication between foreign groups.

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Cleo has expressed perfectly my own feelings on translation. I hated my occasional forays into teaching at eikaiwa (primarily covering for friends while they were on holiday) and would walk barefoot over glass to avoid teaching English again.

I used to work as an in-house translator for a research institute, while also working freelance (sometimes on the institute's time, I must admit, because after a couple of years, you can translate the rehashed papers of some of the staff in your sleep). It was an excellent combination, because the in-house work meant I got out of the house (and got a work visa) and met people, while the freelance work kept my brain active and introduced me to new fields.

After moving to NZ, getting an in-house translation job wasn't an option, and I'm now working for an international assistance company. It's a totally different challenge from translation work and I'm enjoying it a lot, but I still do the freelance work (working for an agency that's part of the Tokyu group, so I get some quite high-profile jobs) because I really enjoy the translation. The creativity involved in crafting a well-turned sentence from something not v.elegantly expressed in the original should not be underestimated.

I'd be interested to hear what the oddest document that other translators here have translated. My most bizarre job to date was translating a sperm donation agreement for a lesbian couple.

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I work for a company that uses in-house translators and an in-house native speaker of English to inflict English documents upon the world. Whenever I find an English sentence that is less than elegant (or downright confusing) I ask the translators. It has never been the case that the translation was bad. It has always been the case that the original text (written by a native speaker of Japanese and in Japanese) was poorly written - imprecise or 'subtle' and vague. In an engineering document!

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it's a challenge to convert the person's words into a form that allows people who don't understand the writer's language to understand not only what he said but the tone in which he said it. I find it very creative and satisfying.

I think it's stretching things a bit to call translating "creative". The creative thing is authoring the document in the first place. Translating is just converting someone else's words from one format into another. They're not your words! ;-) That's how I felt when I did it anyway.

I think translating could be improved by working in-house in a company but it's still just a boring office job.

But if your spoken language skills are good enough I would have thought that being an interpreter would be 100 times more interesting than being a translator. However, less work I suppose.

Overall I would say that being stuck at home in front of computer translating boring documents is a nightmare job. If it's just a kind of sideline to earn a bit of extra cash then it's OK but if it's your main existence then my advice would be to get out more.

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I doubt a computer could "understand" the subtleties required in translating a language, but every translator injects some of their own opinions/bias when translating a literary text for example. So with works that don't need to be translated quickly I think they should use multiple people and when a discrepancy arrises they should "discuss" until they reach a consensus. But for quick little things it doesn't really matter.

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cat -

Obviously, the ultimate creativity lies in authoring the original document (though some documents turn up that give the lie to that...) Probably many happy and successful translators, including me, would have been writers in their own right in a parallel universe. But in this one it was not to be.

Maybe that's why I enjoy pontificating on JT.

But if your spoken language skills are good enough I would have thought that being an interpreter would be 100 times more interesting than being a translator.

Interpreting is hell on earth. Many many years ago I got roped in to interpret for a group of people who had come to Japan to explain their new software package to customers. After three days I was a physical and mental wreck and my brain hurt. On the last day I literally staggered home. Interpreting is darn HARD WORK! In addition to simple spoken language skills, I think you need to have a very special mind set, that can withstand having your verbal language sensors flicked on and off like a light switch without blowing the fuse. Definitely not for me.

The good thing about translating is that, as I mentioned before, you can earn more in less time - which means you do have time to get out more than your English-teaching friends who are stuck in the classroom during hours that are convenient for the students. Simply fudging over the problem is bad translation.

zaichik -

would walk barefoot over glass to avoid teaching English again

A soulmate!

borscht -

When a translation contains inelegant or downright confusing English, it has to be at least in part because the translation is bad. If a translator comes up against original text that is poorly written to the point of being incomprehensible, it's up to the translator to go back to the source and find out exactly what the writer meant to say. Or if that isn't possible, to mark the passage with a note highlighting the problem.

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I prefer the slightly off centre translations used in advertising and media it shouldnt be changed. engineering and academia fair enough but it riles me up when people complain about "engrish". leave it be

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Cleo, most of my translator friends earn less than teachers. And when, before coming to Japan, I was a translator was my salary so low that I loved interpreting about twice a week for the hot meals I could get with customers. And well, not only, I enjoyed visiting places and meeting people. Of course, I was working for industry, translating boring technical stuff written by geeks that expected nobody would read. But isn't 95% of the job looking like that ?

Good for you that you managed to get only the well-paid litterary translations. I love being a teacher, I teach only subjects I have a passion for, and I'm managing my school in a way that I only need to teach few hours to get a good income.

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I was working for industry, translating boring technical stuff written by geeks that expected nobody would read. But isn't 95% of the job looking like that?

Exactly... probably more like 99%!

If you were translating a novel that could be interesting, but really even that might be a bit depressing. Every line you translate you'd be confronted with the thought... why is it that this person has created something amazing, whereas all I do is convert it from one format to another.

As for translating technical manuals, god that must be horrible.

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It isn't simply a choice between high literary novels and boring geeky tech stuff (which I wouldn't understand anyway and so would never be asked to translate...twice)

How about plans for drilling wells in Africa, so that people can have access to plentiful, clean drinking water for the first time in their lives. Schemes for the distribution of mosquito nets and inoculations to combat malaria and other endemic diseases. Plans for the building of hospitals and the training of local doctors to man them. Work sheets explaining the workings of micro-credit to help women drag themselves and their children out of poverty. Plans to help people get more out of the land without turning it into desert. Plus reports on how all those schemes are doing.

Closer to home, schemes to turn some of Japan's dead concrete-lined rivers back into viable ecosystems.

I've done all those and lots more similar. Boring? No. Worthwhile? Very.

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I've done all those and lots more similar. Boring? No. Worthwhile? Very.

All well and good but you're making my point... wouldn't it be a million times more interesting to be involved in creating these plans and putting them into action rather than stuck in front of a computer screen converting the documents for these plans from one format to another?

Also, is it OK to take money (lots of money as you claim!) for doing translation work such as this for projects in developing countries? I would have thought that was volunteer-type stuff that someone would offer to translate for free...

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This is one case where it'll take a while before a real human is replaced by a machine.

I've gotten some really off the wall translations using sites like bablefish and google translator.

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cat -

Perhaps for people with the expertise and the inclination to spend their time 4-wheel-driving around undeveloped countries, it might be more interesting. Personally, I'm not interested in that, neither am I qualified to dig wells or train engineers, to give kids inoculations or run credit schemes.

The engineers, builders, medical staff, etc etc are trained professionals doing a professional job and getting paid for what they do. The projects involve vast amounts of money, and literally change people's lives. Why on earth would you expect them to leave an important aspect of the job - communicating their plans, recommendations and requirements to overseas/local counterparts - to well-meaning amateurs? Translation is like many other 'commodities' - you get what you pay for. At one end you have the free but totally useless (at least in the case of J-E/E-J) Bablefish, at the other you have professional translators who can be relied upon not to throw a spanner in the works by mistranslating or producing gobbledegook, but who expect (and need - we all gotta earn a living) to be paid for what they do.

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Mate, I don't know if you are still here, or if you have run off to hide, but you are about to get yourself into trouble. The reason why? I am going to ask you for some examples that support your claims.

"Japanese language is really just a puddle of mud with as much obscurantism as possible, rules that are more often broken than followed and bail outs that hide behind "the context" to make sense of anything, while being unable to retrieve any context because nothing make anysense (cathc 22)."

Well, as I wrote above: let's hear some examples! And I am looking especially forward to exampes about "rules that are more often broken than followed", because a few lines further you claim...

"And Japanese fail miserably where German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and many other suceed."

Whenever I hear the words "rules" and "exceptions" the first couple of things to come to mind usually include "French", "English" and a couple of other languages. Let's hear 'em, those rules in Japanese that are so often broken! And after that, you can give us a list of all irregular verbs in Japanese, English, German, and French, and we will compare their lenghts!

"Again, for precision nothing beat the German."

I dare to say that you, my dear, probably don't know German. Sure, "der die das" seems fun at first. But to say this increases precision? I think not. Did old Greek and Latin have a higher precision than current languages? If so, why did they become dead languages?

"Deeper meaning through kanjis ? in europe we call this rebuses, it's considered as a game for little kids, not as a full language."

In Europe wo do not call this rebuse, we call it "subtlety" or "nuance", and I can assure you that even the "supperior" German, English and French contain plenty of it.

"Even the Vietnamese"

Ho ho ho! Even the .... Vietnamese!!

"Metaphor or other stylistic tools and play of words seems to be lost on 99% of the population."

Examples~! Examples~! Are you saying that all those Japanese who use "目の中へ入れても痛くない" have no clue about what they are saying? When they say "助け船を出す" do they actually run off to get a boat? When "親の顔が見たい" that they actually want to see the faces? When they use "軌道に乗る" they actually think something is entering an orbit? How about "心の琴線に触れる"?

I think you have abslutely no idea what you are talking about. What's more, most of it is just caused by frustration.

But let's continue:

"Yeah, take a bloke from Hokkaido, make him speak to a bloke from Okinawa. Enjoy the misunderstandings."

Hokkaido and Okinawa are how many km apart from each other? In my tiny home country - which could fit more than 10 times between Hokkaido and Okinawa - people from provinces more than 50km away from the capital need subtitles on television to be understood!!

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I think you just brought the pwn out on Coligny. I will be amazed if s/he comes back to try and answer your questions. Well done!

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To say that there is no creativity in a translating is very wrong, granted the original may not be yours, but what you make of it is. Yes, the object is to say in a second language what has been said in a first language, but to do so with some style. Creating a sentence to say exactly what has been said takes creativity, it’s your job to make the best of it. I will not be translating from Japanese for a very long time, but I have translated from Spanish to English & English to Spanish & there is such scope for saying exactly what is needed but doing so as beautifully as you can. There are nightmare jobs though & advertising is the one that I hate above all others, so little is said yet needs to impart so much. Added to which you have to work with such pedantic flakes who don’t know what you are doing but know that they could do it better. Cleo. To do this for a full time job? No way! A very, very small percentage of the translations I have done were interesting, the bulk of the rest tedious & a very few so horrendous that I felt I would never speak or understand any language ever again. I wish you well, but rest assured I will never be in competition with you for work.

BTW I thought it was “eat a tacky mess”? Might explain some of the funny looks I get.

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If you believe it or not, German language can be very precise, but also very vague - just depends on the choice of words. Yes, "der die das" makes it difficult for non-Germans to ever learn correctly and not to confuse. But hey, almost same for Spanish, French and Italian, although there are only 2 genders. Of course most of the genders in all these languages are different.

And, German language is more rich in words than standard English (if this exists). Like Japanese language, German language has words for

"the day before yesterday" (Vorgestern) and "the day after tomorrow" (Uebermorgen).

Such words also exist in the same way for "week, month, and year".

But, unfortunately, German language also has exceptions. This is hard for German kids and students, too.


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Borsct wrote--

It has never been the case that the translation was bad. It has always been the case that the original text (written by a native speaker of Japanese and in Japanese) was poorly written

You nailed it on the first post.

In my technical editing, it's not uncommon for the Japanese author to rewrite his or her paper according to changes in the English version made by an intuitive Japanese translator and issues raised by a bewildered English-language editor. Organizational problems, missing steps of logic, internal inconsistency, blatant errors of fact, unsupported conclusions, innumeracy -- it's brutal.

Proper translation requies intuition and a respect for the reader.

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Some of it is humdrum of course, but you also get to read a lot of stuff (some of it secret) that would never come your way otherwise, which can be pretty interesting.

Yes, those NDAs and licensing contracts are a barrel of laughs. :)

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It has never been the case that the translation was bad. It has always been the case that the original text (written by a native speaker of Japanese and in Japanese) was poorly written

If the original Japanese is unintelligible then it's impossible to translate. The translator either has to go back to the writer to find out what was meant (leading to an acceptable, accurate translation and possibly a much-needed revision of the original); or guess at the meaning (and probably get it wrong); or fudge over it, submitting something that is less than elegant or downright confusing. In the last two cases the translator is failing to do his/her job.

If an interior decorator notices that the wall he's been asked to paint is about to fall down, he doesn't just slap the paint on thicker and hope no one will notice.

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In the last two cases the translator is failing to do his/her job

In principal I agree. But there are many cases where the translator has no access to the original author of the article. The original author:

may be dead.

may be anonymous.

may be known, but due to the nature of the translation cannot be contacted for client confidentiality reasons. (For example, I do patent translations for a multinational that wants to keep tabs on Japanese technology. As a client of the competitor, I can't just call up the inventor or patent attorney of the Japanese patent and ask them to clarify things for me.

may not want to help. Some people, especially in literary circles (or so I have heard) do not want to be contacted by translators to go over what they consider to be trivialities. They either consider themselves too important or too busy to waste time with someone translating their work into English - a decision most probably made by their publisher, and not them personally.
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papasmurf -

Yes, I realise those are problems. In those cases where the writer cannot be reached for whatever reason, the translator has to add his own comment outlining the problem, not simply gloss over it and hope no one notices.

In the case of the snotty literary types who think they're too important (can't say I've ever come across that type - most people want their words to be translated faithfully, even if that means them having to take time for a chat with the translator), obviously they're the ones who lose out if the translation that hits the bookstores is not a true reflection of what they intended. It's still the translator's job to point out the problem, probably to the publisher or agent whose responsibility it then is.

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I agree. I don't advocate ignoring it or fudging it, but sometimes making an educated guess with a translator's note outlining the ambiguity is the best one can do.

I have, however, occasionally come across clients (usually the type that request a translation every 2-3 years for a trade show presentation or something) that treat "comments" as a sign of an inexperienced/unprofessional translator. "You're the translator - don't you know what I mean?" This is mostly due to their ignorance of the process of translating.

They are often the same people than run a document through a machine translation, then send it to me for "proofreading" in expectation of a lower rate (I charge them the same). Cheap bastards.

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papa -

We don't need the occasional clients who treat comments as a sign of an inexperienced/unprofessional translator. They're usually the ones who think translating should take no more time than it would to copy out the original, and demand super-short deadlines. They're more than welcome to go find themselves what they consider an experienced, professional one. Less strife for us.

At the other end of the spectrum are the helpful types who wait till a translation is almost finished, then send in a 'modified' document 'clarifying' what they wrote in the first place; in many cases they've just tweaked the Japanese wording without affecting the meaning at all, but you still have to check the whole thing for the one place where they've changed the whole meaning.

I don't accept machine translations for proofreading. Like you say, cheap people whose parents aren't joined in holy wedlock. When I get a document to proofread that is over the top, I ask for the Japanese original, translate that and charge them for that.

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More likely it's impossible to interrogate the author because they're too rarified ever to have written anything except pure gold. Calling the author to task would only ruffle feathers. In such cases, the author's as good as dead, for all practical purposes. And if you should have a heart to heart, you often find that the author him or herself has no idea what he or she's going on about.

Many's the day that I wanted to interrogate an author or two, preferably by waterboarding.

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Asking for clarification isn't 'calling the author to task'. (At least not the way I do it...softly softly...) (makes mental note never to get on the wrong (wet) side of a plesiosaur interrogation...)

you often find that the author him or herself has no idea what he or she's going on about

Yup, had that happen more times than I care to count.

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Asking for clarification isn't 'calling the author to task'.

It often is interpreted that way, although I admit you probably have a softer touch than I do. Gotta leave the sponge at home next time.

Even so, plenty of male researchers don't take kindly to answering questions from female translators -- the gender that is in the majority for that profession here. At least my scientist clients are less likely to dissemble than writers in the social sciences. I work with one excellent translator who regularly berates her Ph.D. clients for not knowing their own field. Not to their face, of course.

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