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