Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Supernumerary Translator

I guess I owed you all a translation post at some point.

Though I never did tell you when I'd make it.

I've always wanted to put how I translate into words, so I guess I'll subject you all to a horrible barrage of them.

First off - what is 'translation'?

Let's build up in order to discover its component parts. I'm sitting there in a room. I can't be translating, because I understand my own thoughts relatively well*. So we need somebody other than me. We'll call her an 'author' for reasons that will be evident two sentences from this one. Even if we're both sitting there in the same room, I'm still not translating, because the only ideas that I have are my own. The author's ideas must be transmitted from her to me. For now, let's say by speaking. Now am I transl-

"Wait a minute," you say, "I had to take Comm 101. That buildup, that sounds suspiciously like the transmitter-medium-receiver definition of communication."

... well, yes. That was actually where I was going. Now if you've passed Comm 101, you impatient git, you'd have been taught that one of the most important facts of interpersonal communication is that it is terribly easy to misinterpret what is being said. The fact that we can fail to communicate, even when using the same language, should show one obvious truth: Thoughts are not words. If words were thoughts, we would know what people are thinking just by speaking with them. But memory, context, and tone all modify words so that they have to be interpreted by the receiver. That is, translated.

Why go through all these obvious things? To show the parallel between reading Japanese and listening in English - there is an author, a medium, and you. Since you have no access to the author's thoughts, you have to gather information from the medium in order to divine what the author is thinking. It's just that you happen to be considerably more practiced at listening to speakers of English than you are at reading writers of Japanese, so the listening seems to be not translation at all when compared to the reading.

Now hopefully I've lost the stragglers and the remainder of you know what translation is. So how do I translate?

The thing that I have to say to that is that when working with a foreign language**, there is no such thing as a literal translation. You can get very close, especially with languages that are similar in construction, but there will always be niggling little differences remaining at best and serious differences the rest of the time.

Consider the particle wa (は). For those of you who have at least an elementary understanding of Japanese, you may have used it as 'is'.

Akira wa shuuboushi desu. (Akira is a firefighter)

However, that is incorrect. 'Wa' has no equivalent in English, grammatically speaking, and the verb that you should be translating to 'is' is 'desu'. In English, the focus is on the subject, which verbs an object (you may hear this as a subject-verb-object construction). In Japanese, as well as Chinese, which the structure was inherited from, you set a topic, which is then commented upon (you may hear of this as a topic-comment construction). The best that you could translate wa as is 'as for'.

Akira wa shuuboushi desu. (As for Akira, he is a firefighter)

That isn't the way we normally translate that sentence, though. It normally is translated as in the first example, "Akira is a firefighter". We don't translate 'wa' in most cases because we don't have a graceful method of rendering it into English without the proper context. In the same way, if you were Japanese and attempting to translate "Alex is a firefighter" into Japanese, you would omit the closest equivalent that you would have to 'a' because Japanese has no need for articles.

Already, then, you can see how we make massive adjustments in order to translate foreign sentences into something readable. It is readability that is my primary goal, with literalness being a secondary goal. I too often see folks (some of whom are me and Ai) write horrendously stiff sentences in order to try and fit what we're doing into some imaginary concept of a 'literal translation'. Readers are taken out of the story whenever they see such sentences, and heap well-deserved scorn upon the writer. Remember that, while you are reading writing, you are also writing. You aren't just fitting the pieces of a logical puzzle together, you have an audience that wants to be communicated with.

When you're translating, you need to spend a little bit more effort in rendering the sentence into something a native English speaker might actually say or write. When going through dialogue, it always helps me to read the sentences out loud so that I can rework stiff or awkward clauses. Sometimes that might mean ripping out a particularly flavorful idiom or turn of phrase. But if it can't be worked into the sentence to any satisfaction, then whatever flavor that you've dug up is wasted like chili sauce on a vanilla cake. If you can make that work, then that's the best of all possibilities. But if you can't, you'll only have something nasty to serve to your guests.

I might add a bit more up here later, but for now it's well past my bedtime.

*You could probably make an argument for the process of self-discovery being 'translating myself', but that's an argument for another blog.

**... Hell, now that I'm thinking about it, it's often the same way when working with the same language. You ever read a conservative blog and a liberal blog in quick succession? It's like watching chickens and penguins go to war because each species doesn't consider the other a bird.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. If only more people would give this more thought... there are too many readers/watchers of anime and manga that make demands pertaining to how a translation should be like even thought they can't get past "desu" and "kawaii" in their vocabulary, lol.