Take our user survey and make your voice heard.



The trouble with translating



For the uninformed, that’s the command form of “Run!” in Japanese. For the average foreigner caught in an earthquake or being chased by Godzilla, this direct translation is perfectly acceptable.

But what if you are a large Japanese company featuring this word as catch copy on the annual financial report sent to your shareholders, and you need it translated into English? The simple, direct translation might then begin to indicate something completely unintended. The command form “Run!” in English sounds panicky and serious. Slap it in huge letters on your financial report, and your shareholders might think you’re urging them to “Bail out now!” because your company is in trouble.

This is exactly the situation I faced at my PR agency some time ago. The company in question used the Japanese “Hashire!” to impart a feeling of “never stopping” - A far cry from the “Get the hell out of here!” connotations of the English equivalent. In grand Japanese fashion, a meeting was called (which lasted several hours) to discuss exactly how to tackle the translation. In the end, we were proud of our solution and our client was pleased, too. But, only after we explained to them – much to their surprise – the potential for misunderstanding that would have resulted from a direct translation.

The translator’s duties, which this and other experiences have taught me, are often myriad and mutually exclusive. The client is often not pleased unless the translation is as close to the original text as possible. Yet, the translator’s imperative is to create an acceptable facsimile that is accurate, but also pleasant to read and, perhaps most importantly, culturally relevant to the translation’s intended audience. Every translation is a complicated balancing act, where one of these fundamentals may need to be sacrificed for the greater good of the overall piece.

Now try explaining this admittedly lofty and pretentious-sounding concept to a client who is entirely inexperienced in writing and translating, and has only a limited understanding of the English language itself, and you begin to understand the gargantuan hurdles a Japanese-English translator faces.

It just so happens there’s been a lot of recent buzz about the thankless and mostly anonymous job of the translator, thanks in part to the international popularity of Haruki Murakami’s "IQ84," Steig Larsson’s “Millenium Trilogy,” and veteran literary translator David Bellos’ book exploring the profession, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything.”

It’s a passage in Bellos’ book that I believe best captures the fundamental role of, and primary source of frustration for, the translator in Japan. In the book, he explains that a translation is rarely right or wrong “in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils,” in that it is never an exact copy, but rather an approximation liberally peppered with artistic license.

That artistic license, often employed in the pursuit of cultural intelligibility, is what confounds many a Japanese client. They fear that the original meaning of their piece is being lost and, feeling the translation is inadequate, may be inclined to make last-minute changes by consulting with a high-level (though not native) English speaker within their ranks. After making the changes and with little time left before deadline, the client may then push the edited piece through to publication without consulting the translator. Ever wondered who’s responsible for a lot of that mangled English you see all over town in Tokyo? The big reveal is much of it was conceived – at least originally – by native speakers.

A J-to-E translator’s woes aren’t just limited to ad copy and technical translations. I’ve spoken to manga and video game translators who complain about questionable changes made to their works, which might explain those mediums’ frequently quirky or cheesy sounding passages. (Not that this is limited to J-to-E translations: famously, Steven T Murray, translator of Larsson’s trilogy, was so upset by the publisher’s last minute changes that he took a pseudonym for the books.)

The point I’m trying to make is that a translator is an artist and documentarian, not a machine crunching equations to produce an exact replica of some original work. This seems especially hard for the Japanese to come to grips with. A rigid business culture that demands attention to detail combines with a (sometimes misplaced) pride in English skills and a persistent belief that Japanese is “too difficult” for foreigners to grasp to create a misunderstanding of what a translation should look like.

My hope is that the Japanese will change their tune some day, take their hands off the controls, and let us do what we do best. And that the world will recognize the translator as a devoted professional. But I’m not holding my breath. A lot of art, after all, is only appreciated generations later.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

From my personal experience, a lot of translating deals with trust. If the translator is trusted, the "client" or whoever is asking for the translation will generally accept the end product without much complaint. No matter how good you are, if you aren't trusted, you are going to have "issues."

Having said this, many of the "issues" that can arise between some people in Japan and non-Japanese is often about trust. Gotta be trusted to make it far in Japan.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

An article that speaks to the heart!

From my personal experience, a lot of translating deals with trust. If the translator is trusted, the "client" or whoever is asking for the translation will generally accept the end product without much complaint.

Can't disagree with that. Problems arise when there's a coordinator/translation company between the client and the translator; on many occasions I've felt sorry for my coordinator when a client has questioned a perfectly good translation because it has dealt with a variation of Mike's 'Run!' problem. The coordinator knows I've got it right, but persuading the client can be a difficult task.

Another problem is that people with no experience of translation think it's possible to type out a translation in no more time than it takes to read the original. It takes time to do properly, folks.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Really? I thought it was common sense that translation was a half science half art discipline. I hope Japan never loses the Janglish, it is just too entertaining. Variety is the spice of life.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

One of the interesting things I came away with after the recent PROJECT Nagoya (Japan Association of Translators) conference was the observation that the Japanese who translate works into their language usually have their names quite prominently displayed on the book cover. Sometimes even bigger than the original author's. But for works translated into English this is rarely the case.

Translations into Japanese usually have an afterword by the translator, and some of these professionals have quite a fan base. So it would seem that the role and status of the translator in Japan is perceived quite differently depending on the direction of the translation.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Actually there's been far less of this attitude in our experience, compared to 20 or 25 years ago. I used to get infuriated when someone questioned my English, and now find that the Internet is an ideal way to "prove" correctness.

So instead of trying to defend yourself (or going into a sulk), simply find an authoritative web source that agrees with you and send it to the client. If the person doesn't agree after that, just let it go.

That said, the Internet is also extremely helpful when you're not dead sure yourself on some word or technical point. In the past I've spent hours in the library trying to unearth some elusive matter, as well as spent hundreds of dollars on my own source books across various fields. The Internet ended all that, and no, I do not agree that Wikipedia is dangerous. I've found it usually to be highly useful and authoritative.

My favorite typo was a word that appeared on an expensively printed book, on its cover, in 40-point type. It was supposed to be "Glossary." One of those unfortunate L <-> R problems. The entire run of 10,000 had to be redone.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Have very much the same experience in this translation business. Often wonder, "Why put so much effort into a project when the client inevitably mucks it up at the end?" English language issues in Japan are a quagmire whether one is teaching or translating. My Japanese colleagues at the office say, "Just make the client happy and sacrifice proper English. We've got to bring in business." What a crock. The control-issues that exist in this culture rear their head again and again.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

@Mark Bennett - That could actually be the translator's choice. Who wants to have their name attached to a document that gets 'doctored' into Japanese-friendly English before it goes out? I know I don't allow publishers to attach my name to anything unless I've personally re-checked the final copy. There have been cases where changes have been made that make it no longer my work.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

This illustrates why I decided to have no involvement in the translation business here in Japan.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Hashire! Fighto, Safety Japan!

We need a new line of goofy slogan "can badges" and T-shirts now that the "Pray for Japan" wave has crested.

If anyone asks me for a translation of the Neil Young song title "Long May You Run," I'll offer "Hashire!"

0 ( +2 / -2 )

A lot of art, after all, is only appreciated generations later.

The words "artist" and "art" are used so much they have essentially lost all meaning. Translation is grunt work, and I wish the writer hadn't gone and tried to over-romanticize it. I understand the frustrations of it all, I have experienced them. But at the end of the day it's the almighty yen that rules the job. Nothing particularly sexy about it, really.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

A very thoughtful written article. While I seldom translate the texts of my Japanese co-workers, I am often asked to check their English language publications. Yes, like Cleo said, it takes time to iron things out to make a decent document.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I've done some freelance translating work and have had my clients question my translations. I took a hard-nosed approach and told them that I was the expert here and not to question me. That approach tends to work better.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

One of our clients decided to dispense with an English translation entirely. Their English annual report featured something like "Creating Kando Together" (no italics). They were adamant and inflexible about that. It was good that they allowed a change to the caption that identified a certain musical instrument as a "fork guitar" (L<-->R). Not this: http://rookery.s3.amazonaws.com/2752000/2752186_9418_625x1000.jpg by the way.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Wow, thought all this was common knowledge, while I sympathise with translators & their plight having to deal with J-speakers etc this is just same ole same ole.

Nothing new here, move along now.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Translating is difficult whether verbal or written.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

There are various problems with the translation. Such as Google translates the name of the Ainu people with character "barbarians." The Ainu were once our ancestors and us strange to read a translation about the people who invented the world's first pottery and created the first in Asia republic. But if 29,000 Ainu in Japan believe their ancestors barbarians, we are, Aynur (Ainu Russia), only 100 people, and we ourselves do not believe the barbarians. Translation from one language to another should be done only bilingual, then no problem.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Wow, Boris, are you one of 100 remaining Russian Aynur? Incredible!

I enjoyed the above article, having done some J-E translation recently. On one scholarly article of 20 pages I spent about 100 hours trying to get it just right. Nothing like computer-generated translation, it reads smoothly and easily. They compressed it into tiny format and it was printed within a book as 10 pages of English. The author's name and title featured prominently on it, and my name appeared in small writing with no title. I was offered 50,000 JPY for the work.

Luckily this time around there was little last-minute interference with my English, so for that at least I guess I should be grateful.

Translation is in my experience generally a hard grind with little to enjoy, though, as someone said above.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

This is an interesting article - it kept my attention from start to finish - with interesting comments following it. A rarity on JT, and a pleasure to read. Thank you all.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Translating (especially manga, anime...) is a real challenge. There are no exact words for "Suimasen" "kawaii" "yabai" "ochame"...in English. How do you translate something like this.

"Uchi no kaachan, yabai kurai kawaikute suimasen." said ochame na Kato-chan!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

catch copy is like promo word like "Eikimae Ryugaku wa NOVA" "Ashitano moto Ajinomoto" "Faitoooo ippaaaaaatsu" ...etc.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

While I'm here since when is the imperative of a verb called the command form?

Since before I went to school. The world is considerably bigger than your little bubble of "knowledge" - just because you haven't heard of something doesn't mean it's wrong.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Beyond translating, I just love it when they use English on products and headlines because "it looks cool". Some classics - in a womens magazine "Stars And Their Mouse" (supposed to be "mouths" - it was an article about lipstick!) and on a packet of pastries dripping in oil and drizzled with butter icing "Croissants - for Health and Beauty"!

This is one of the quirks I love about Japan. Dont ever change it!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Nicky, that was really funny. I must say that I love reading these funny, strange translations too on products. Try walking into a 'Hot Bakery'. Without those, life would be so boring here. I constantly find something that makes me laugh here. Japan is such a great comedy.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Blair - your objection supports the author's point. If you believe that experience in totality is common to all humans, and that language is a vector for translating "analog" experience to "digital" words, then there must be a way to convey the thought; it is just that that way does not use the same phrasing as the original. An example that comes to mind is in the English version of となりのトトロ, where the young girl exclaims to her older sister: えらいですね!- I believe that was translated in the English as: "I'm a big girl, aren't I?"

It is possible; it is an art. It's a lot of fun with literary translation; it is a very large pain with poorly written technical documents.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Agree with a lot being said here. When asking for messages to be translated into Japanese I usually ask for the content to be rewritten for Japanese as opposed to translated. That involves the cultural element to be considered too. It works both ways of course, and when people write (or ask face to face) for me to co-operate with them, it used to have me scratching my head as that is what work colleagues would normally do (asking for it infers they are scared it might not be there, etc). But they were just translating (ご協力お願いします) which doesn't culturally translate well (directly).

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Good commentary. This ultra-cautious and inward looking attitude (involving a distrust of foreigners) is destroying Japan in the 21st century.

Ever see the English-language TV commercials and tourism promos on CNN, BBC, etc? The ones by Indonesia, Korea, Singapore, etc. are really slick and natural. The ones from Japan are clunky and awkward. Same for NHK World news. The stilted writing makes it really difficult to watch, although they're spending tons of taxpayers money on service.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

This article does ring a lot of bells with me. My translation companies quite often run the checker's amendments past me and they accept any amendments I make to those. Of course, I often don't see the finished article, but I'm usually happy with those I do see (generally those that give me a translation credit).

There is a certain politician whose press conferences I've translated for publication on the web. His utterances (like those of many politicians) can be rather difficult to render into English if translated word-for-word, and he's very fond of the word "yappari". One has to find a way of conveying the substance, which can be challenging. I do enjoy that challenge in translation - there's enough creativity in it to satisfy me. It's a bit like doing a crossword, really.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"Uchi no kaachan, yabai kurai kawaikute suimasen."

"I'm sorry but my mother is just devilishly cute"

off the top of my head

0 ( +1 / -1 )

"Uchi no kaachan, yabai kurai kawaikute suimasen."

This is actually Kato Cha (commedian/singer) said at the interview when he got married to a woman who is 45 years younger than him. I would translate like.... hmmmm...

"My sweetheart is just killing me, deheheheeh" said Kato Cha (drooling).

Nah... too much.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The World needs more Translators For better understanding of Different Culture Of People........James, Arkansas, Malvern, USA

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

"For the average foreigner caught in an earthquake or being chased by Godzilla"

I've never been chased by Godzilla.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites