Friday, January 21, 2011

Lost in Translation: Translation for Intent Vs. Literal Translation

A few people complained about the translation of English to Japanese that appeared on the blog Obfuscation from Groupon Japan?

I really do not want to get into a long discussion on translation and methods... There's a million articles out there written on that by doctors with Phd's and other professionals. So, let me avoid walking where I have no business walking...

One reader, though, said that my translation of what was written on that blog was wrong. He then also went on to castigate me as not knowing how to read or write Japanese. 

He's right about one thing; I believe that I could live in Japan for 100 years and never become perfect at Japanese. I can also say that about 99.8% of the Japanese.

But, as the president of a company that has been operating in Japan since 1992, I know enough to always have a native Japanese speaker check my crummy Japanese in my emails. And, I am bright enough to always have skilled professionals check important things too (like Japanese translations on this blog)... For I know that the average Japanese - like most foreigners too - are not professional at the art of communication... I also know that there are many people who just love to jump in and kick whenever and wherever they can.

I am a professional communicator; but I'll never be a native Japanese speaker.

Lost in Translation... What the heck does this say?
(Actually, it doesn't say anything. This is not a proper Kanji as 
far as I can discern. This was a kanji tattoo seen on 
a foreigner's shoulder... Foolish boy!) 

I mentioned to the girl, who helped me with translation this time, about some of the criticisms and it surely ruffled her feathers. She has been a professional translator for over 25 years in Japan. She has even worked as a simultaneous translator for famous businessmen and famous people from the west in the past (that's how we met). She said that, "There is no native Japanese professional in this business who will say that my translation is wrong."

She added, "Whenever you translate Japanese, you must read in between words; you must read into intent and nuance. These people who said my translation is wrong are definitely not native Japanese speakers. I am a professional."

She also added, "These people who complained don't know what they are talking about. I considered this entire affair and viewed the entire video and researched before I made a translation. I can't believe that any Japanese person would say that my translation is wrong..."

She gave an example:


Literal translation is: 

"It is raining. It continues to rain. It doesn't seem like it is going to stop."

But, she added, that this literal translation adds no emotion or feeling. If you knew the course of this writer's thinking and could listen to the silence in between, you'd know that this might say,

"I am sad. My sadness continues. When will this ever end?"

See? It says nothing about rain or the weather.

So, the point is that, unless you have background information and understand the situation then you cannot make a good translation nor be a good translator.

She is absolutely right.

It reminds me of my frustrations with Japanese language many years ago when an elderly man told me, "To understand what a Japanese person wants to say, never listen to their words. Listen to their heart."  

I have to ask her to forgive me for doubting her for even one second. I stand 100% behind the translation made here.


Ira Hata said...

Ignore the ignorant foreigners, Mike. You don't need to justify yourself.

The only cure for stupidity is death. Logic with the illogical will get you nowhere...


Andy "In Japan" said...

Mike isn't exaggerating. My Japanese wife thought her auntie was dying of liver cancer, but it wasn't true. Turns out my wife's sister misinterpreted the Japanese kanji when reading the email she received on this topic.

Lots of English words are difficult to pronounce and our grammar rules are chock full of exceptions, but this Japanese language is just crazy, sometimes.

Andy "In Japan" said...

Not only that, but the Japanese lessons I bought at a discount from Groupon for 9 Yen per hour haven't helped me learn to speak fluently. Not yet anyway.

mike in tokyo rogers said...

Brilliant! That's it! I wanted to start my own English school and was trying to figure out how to get students... Let's see, the classroom rental will be ¥90,000 per month... Electricity, gas, toilet paper, etc.... Another ¥30,000... Textbooks, copier, paper another ¥40,000... That's ¥160,000 a month in expenses... I need at least ¥3000 an hour x 4 x 40 hours = ¥480,000... 480,000 + 160,000 = ¥640,000....

Then I Groupon my ¥3,000 an hour lessons at 97% off... ¥90 per person, per hour...

Wow! I only need to teach 7000 hours a month in the classroom to break even! Thank you Groupon!

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