Difficulties in translating English texts into Japanese
21 November 2001
Recently, I had some opportunities to translate English sentences into Japanese ones, and through the work, I noticed some important things. These are my business secrets, but today I'll give you some of them specially. I think you'll share precious time with me tonight.
First, I found that translation is different from just
replacing English words with Japanese words. I mean, translation
is above the work of consulting a dictionary. There is a problem
of 'nuance'. Let me give you some concrete examples.
Let's look at the sample dialogue 1 in the resume.
The sample dialogue 1
Bill: How would you describe Tom?
Ann: He's really honest. He never takes the easy way out. When he broke up with Carol he could have just stopped calling her or invented some excuse. But he explained his feelings honestly. I wish all guys were like him.
If you are a translator, how do you translate this? I'll try.
Before we work on the translation, we must understand the
situation in which this conversation is made.
I'll give you one minute. Please look at the question-1 and select the most appropriate option.
I suppose Bill and Tom are young men and Ann is a young woman, so I have to adjust their way of talking as such. In Japan, the way man talks and the way woman talks are different, but I must confess that this tradition is collapsing these days. How about their relationships? Perhaps they are friends or classmates, so I have to take this into consideration and choose the informal Japanese words.
If I hadn't paid such attentions, my translations would have been as follows.
How do you feel? Is this a natural conversation which is made between young men and women? I must say that some students around me talks like this, but in most cases this is unnatural, too formal. And this is not a good translation because readers can't understand the background.
Next, we'll look at the word 'honesty' which appears in the
dialogue twice. Many English-Japanese dictionary writes that a
counterpart of 'honesty' in English is '正直' in Japanese.
These seem to be the same and basically they are. But there are
some differences between them. I'll introduce an interesting
experiment in a certain book. The author of the book asked
Japanese people to write about their associations with word '正直'
and Americans to write what they think of when they hear the word
'honest'. The biggest difference was that about half of the
Japanese respondents had at least some negative associations with
the word '正直. The word brought to mind phrases like
要領が悪い、愚直、バカ正直. The first two words may
be translated as 'tactless' and 'inflexible' but Americans don't
usually associate these words with 'honesty'. And there is no set
phrase like 'foolish honesty'.
All the American respondents thought 'honesty' was a wonderful thing. They seemed to truly believe the traditional saying 'Honesty is the best policy ' and the word they most often associated with it was 'trustworthy'.
Let's back to the sample dialogue 1. Of course, there are no negative senses in 'honesty' in the dialogue, so I refrained from using '正直' in the translation.
Second, I found that I don't have to put every English word into Japanese one. I mean, sometimes it is better to leave English words or phrases as such. Let's move to the sample sentences 2.
The sample sentences 2
Whenever the IRB reviews a protocol, an initial question is whether the IRB has jurisdiction over approval of the research. That is, the IRB must ask, "Is the research subject to IRB review?"
How do you tackle this ? I'll show you the 2 versions of the translation.
Which is the appropriate translation? Don't you think that the
version 2 is more understandable?
Before we work on the translation, we must imagine what type of readers will read the translation. Are they laypersons? I mean, is it the first time for them to hear the terms like 'protocol' or 'review' or 'research'?. I suppose not. They should know the meaning of these words. So we don't have to take the trouble to translate these words. We'd better leave them as such. I mean, we change these terms into KATAKANA.
This is particularly true in the next case. Please look at the sample sentences 3.
The sample sentences3
Research is defined by the regulations as 'a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge'.
My translation is as follows;
What would happen if we translate ' research' as '研究'?(see Version 2) The book, which contains this sentence, defines 'research' slightly different from '研究', so the readers must throw way their preconceptions for the words. If we choose '研究' as the translation, it will confuse the readers. And by just changing into KATAKANA, we can draw the reader's attention.
Then is it safer to leave every word un-translated by the help of KATAKANA? Of course not. Whether we should translate a word or leave it depends on the context and our abilities, and this is one of the charm of translation..
Thirdly, although it has something to do with the findings
which I wrote above, I found that it is impossible to translate
English passages into Japanese perfectly. There is a difference
between English and Japanese as a language, because languages are
dependent on their cultures.
The title of a 1981 collection of short stories by Raymond Carver is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. You can look up words like 'love' in the dictionary and it will give you a few definitions, but the only way to really understand these kind of words is by paying close attention to how they are used in context.
This is particularly true in cross-cultural contexts. One Japanese word may be understood to be equivalent of a given English word, but it is rare that two words in different languages have exactly the same meaning or the same associations for the people who use them.
Then how can I do the translation? Is it better to leave the
work to translating machines? Speaking of translating machines,
I've read some interesting story. （please look at the
illustration 1 in the resume）.Someone invented an
English-Japanese translating machine and he tested the machine by
getting it to translate the sentence;"私は意気消沈している。"
into English. The machine offered the sentence "I am out of
spirits." as an answer without difficulties. Then he had the
machine to translate this sentence back to Japanese. The machine
made a strange sound and gave out the sentence "私はお酒が足りない。"
Isn't it funny? In the near future, there will be machines of
better performance, but in my opinion, translation should be left
for human beings. I'd prefer the translation by human beings
because I can feel some warmness in the work.
I believe that translation starts when we admit there is no perfect equivalents, no perfect translation, and in the next phase, it is best to understand the difference between English and Japanese. I'm also sure that taking the time to consider the difficulties will give me some interesting glimpse into the culture behind the words.
In order to do this, we have to learn about both cultures. That's the reason why I think translation is the work of depth and we must not be afraid of failure in order to learn the art of doing a good translation.
I'll conclude this presentation with my favorite quote.
Comedian Jack Lemmon once said: 'Failure never hurt anybody. It's the fear of failure that kills you.'
Keep making mistakes, because that means you're doing something.
And failure is never fatal.
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