On Translation

I’ve recently had cause to re-read a lovely post by Matt Thorn, and having so done feel a sudden inspiration to do a little writing on the issue of translation myself. Now, I am hardly anywhere near as qualified – Matt is a professional translator with the history, experience and talent to be in a position to give advice to his kouhai (his words!) and for it to be in their best interests to listen. I, meanwhile, do not have the advantage of having been translating for a period of time that – on reflection – is very nearly longer than I’ve actually been alive. However, I feel it is always good to take stock of one’s own viewpoints and, hopefully, give an insight into what I do, and why I do it. With that said, I’d like to begin with the very same quote his article begins with:

“Translations are like wives: the faithful ones are not beautiful, and the beautiful ones are not faithful.”

I’ve never come across a quote that so utterly and perfectly distills the nature of translation – though simplifying it into absolutes, it is the struggle any translator – and any translation, hence – is always having to work their way around. Recently, the notion of a “perfect” translation is often being toted around by some fans in tokusatsu circles as though it’s some galactic save-all – a translation that is both absolutely literal, and yet can somehow dispense of any kind of awkwardness of wording and not have any need to “localize.”

At the risk of being sensationalist – this is an absurd notion.

First of all, let’s dodge what they actually mean for a second and establish one point. It is impossible not to localize. “Now hang on.” you may say, “I’ve seen translations where no names are changed, where no titles are given awkward English equivalents, where references to foodstuffs and locations and customs are preserved.” And certainly, when people talk about localization, this is generally what they mean, but the issue here is a much greater one – it’s one of the very language itself.

A field of concepts that might have 2 words in Japanese might have three in English – and those words may cover parts of other concepts the Japanese don’t. A sentence in Japanese will often leave its subject implied, which is something that one cannot do naturally in English. You might point to a color in English and ask if someone considered it green or blue – where in traditional Japanese works, you’ll find there’s no such distinction. (And let us not delve into the etymology of colors and how the Greeks thought the sky was copper at this juncture.)

The very nature of a translation from Japanese to English involves localization – it is the localization of the very language itself. The adjustment of grammar to that natural to your target audience, of phraseology that sounds natural to them, of finding a situationally appropriate way of handling over-broad adjectives like  “tanomoshii” or perennial favorite “kawaii.” Would there be any sensible argument against this, an argument in favor of preserving these aspects of Japanese sentence construction that would create a work that – while comprehensible, one hopes – would be utterly bizarre and offputting to your target audience?

Of course not.

And yet the road towards accessibility starts running through rockier ground when it has to start translating culture. What happens when a child is singing a children’s song, that any Japanese viewer would know and treasure as a personal memory? When a machine is created with a name that clearly states what it is set out to do – in Japanese – and the viewer would immediately gain knowledge of its purpose? When a character cracks a joke that instantly makes the Japanese viewer cringe with its corniness, but would mean nothing in its literal form to an English speaker?

We come to the crossroads. To choose the faithful wife, or the beautiful one.

The easy mistake to make here – the one often made by people with little experience of translating, or who think they know more than they do – is to assume that there is a right choice. In my mis-spent youth, this was my mistake from both sides of the fence – in my initial honeymoon period of first experiencing the language, to decry anything that defiled it as a blasphemy, to use the tiny amount I knew in ways that I would now consider a hate crime against good taste. And when I later grew the skills I needed to start translating for myself, to then think of literal translation instead as the evil – one designed purely to add layers of complication to the process of enjoying fiction, that clearly could not have any benefit to its use.

Of course, it is not really this simple. I could describe it as a balance one must strike – and that is perhaps true, but it somehow feels wrong. Despite having established that absolute literality is not going to happen – and absolute beauty being something that’d generally involve rewriting half the show in the case of most of the things we sub – there is so much leeway that one can choose to very much take a larger dose of one path than the other and for this to be totally alright.

The balance, is essentially, this. Do you try and preserve the nature and structure of the Japanese, and attempt to educate the viewer as best you can about the viewpoints and mentalities behind it, which enables for greater understanding of the nuance of the work at the cost of the fact the viewer is distracted from it? Or does one consider ‘accuracy’ to be attempting to give the English-speaking viewer as close an approximation to the Japanese viewer’s experience – where there’s a bad joke in the Japanese, you make a bad joke in the English, where someone quotes an ever-familiar idiom in the Japanese, you try to find an English one with equivalent cultural relevance.

Each translator is going to have their own balance, their own limits of how far they are prepared to go down their path. Obviously, when you are trying to be beautiful, or to be faithful, you are not going to abandon the pursuit of the other virtue. But the issue – the subjectivity – is how much of one are you prepared to sacrifice in the pursuit of the other? We are all going to have our own thresholds of what we like and appreciate from a translation, and one of the few benefits of fan translation in the Japanese Weeaboo Scene(TM) is that you generally have multiple fan translations to choose from, whereas a license to an anime or manga tends to be absolute – and when it is not, companies are generally reticent to retranslate works that, let us face it, are hardly works of great culture.

So, having spent entirely too long marking the playing field, my personal take on translation is this: It should always be accessible, such as that the only barrier to entry is the desire to experience the work.  The litmus test I like to imagine for this is simple – it shouldn’t put off the person watching the show over your shoulder. By this I mean simply that you take the following situation. You’re in a place with other people about – watching it on the TV at home, or on a laptop in a cafe, or on a tablet on the train. Someone else in the vicinity peeks over and takes a look at what you’re watching and, bam, it’s a Japanese childrens television show.

Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument that their reaction to this is not “what a big manchild”, but an actual interest in the show for whatever reason. To my mind, the subs should be attempting to bring people into the show. They shouldn’t be dissuading the viewer by making it look awkward, bogged down in Japanese culture they might not know. They shouldn’t be making it complicated by covering it in translator’s notes to explain the nature of the joke or the significance of the phrase. The purpose of a sub – at the level of culturally insignificant shows that we are dealing with – should be simple enjoyment.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t take greater pleasure from analyzing fiction if they so wish – after all, you probably wouldn’t have to look far to find high-level academic discussions of Dr. Seuss, for example, and that’s hardly aimed at the highest echelons of intelligence. But the point is that the work, in and of itself, is there to be enjoyed – and to me that means creating a sub that just allows the viewer to watch the show, as a Japanese person would. They’re not having to read notes explaining why something is how it is, they’re not having to deal with awkward sentence structure forced on them by the death-throes of a foreign language (Engrish aside!) and they’re not having to THINK about the meaning of the sentence – leaving them free to just enjoy the work, and all it has to offer.

But there are so many translators who seem to make the fundamental mistake of assuming their viewerbase has a familiarity with aspects of Japanese language, or culture. The work becomes exclusive, uninviting, prepared to say that some things are just too complicated to convey in English, so we won’t, or some things are going to seem stiff and wooden because that’s how Japanese works. But is not our job, as translators, specifically to overcome these obstacles in the name of our viewerbase? Our job is not merely to translate words, in my opinion, it is to ensure the narrative is told well.

By this I mean one has to think beyond the words as they are used, and consider more the flow of the work. If one encounters a scene where the writing seems awkward, or a joke not all that funny, or a response just seems unnatural to an English speaker, then to my mind my job is simple – to analyze the logic behind the line, keep a tight grip on it, and think how the scene would have been written in English. That’s not to say one makes changes for the sake of changes, but when one has the opportunity to clarify, hone and convert the original script into something more appealing and understandable to English sensibilities, then such is one’s duty.

You see so many amateur mistakes amongst translators who fail to think of these things. Who do not make sure to consider that they are weaving a narrative – that each line has to flow smoothly into the rest, to feel at place with the rest of the narrative. Lines where it’s obvious that no thought has been given to ensuring they match what came before. And then there’s the over-use of Japanese grammatical constructs that seem odd in English, like “How could you do such a thing?!” or “It can’t be helped…” or my personal favourite, “We’ll have to use… THAT.”

And that’s before we get onto just leaving random Japanese words in the middle of sentences. Sometimes this isn’t always a bad thing – for example it’s much easier to point out wordplay, or to refer to cultural and traditional things. There are even just plain good excuses to do it – like names of foodstuffs which are clearly shown when they’re being consumed (though if one can find a decent way of explaining what they are, then that’s superb.) But so many times there’s this assumption, again, that the viewer knows these things, that it is somehow to be expected that if you’re watching a fansub of a Japanese show, you should know what honorifics mean, or what a Bon Festival is, or what anpan is.

Sometimes, of course, translators are good enough to provide notes on these things – but often they’ll just appear at the top of the screen, distracting you from the action while they provide a vague synopsis of the concept which will never appear again. I’ve even known translators who’ll put a TL note in for something once, and then never explain it again, even in completely unrelated shows – as though watching a group’s back-catalog is a learning prerequisite for anything new they sub. Not that this is done out of egotism, of course, but merely forgetfulness that ultimately, one cannot assume the viewer knows all these things. Knowing a language well enough to translate from it can often cloud your judgement as to how much of it your average person will actually know, so the safest answer, in my opinion, is to always assume “none.”

In doing so, you ensure your work can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone. They can watch the show, laugh when they need to laugh, cry when they need to cry. Feel nostalgic, if that’s what’s needed, facepalm when someone says something stupid – because you’ve ensured you’ve picked good equivalents that ensure whenever the viewer comes across terminology, culture, humour that’s alien to them – you’ve provided something equivalent that’ll mean something to them. You’ve freed the work of the trappings of it’s original language – a language that, 99 times out of 100, is there purely because that’s what the writer spoke. To treat language with reverence – as something one cannot defile or alter for fear of sacrilege – is ridiculous. It is a canvas, for one to paint upon it the narrative one wishes to convey, and to do so in a way that will best stir the emotions of those who see it.

And that, to me, is what a good translation should hope to achieve. Of course, I try to provide as much supplementary information on the site as I can when it’s relevant, so that people who are curious about the literal aspects of the writing are capable of indulging their curiosity, allowing both for simple enjoyment of the show and a deeper understanding on the nuance of the language. But I would like it to be the case, that as hopefully intelligent adults, we are all capable of realizing the beauty of each others’ wives.

Even if some of them are liable to cheat on us.

12 thoughts on “On Translation

  1. Just out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on this particular scenario? This has little to do with any of your shows, but it’s a theoretical translation conundrum that I, personally, wouldn’t know how to solve should I ever attempt to do so.

    In a certain story that I happen to be a fan of, the protagonist’s surname is ‘Kamijou’ (上条). Since it’s just his surname, it’s all fine and dandy. However, later, the story constantly makes references to terms and phrases that are homophonous to that character’s name. In this case, those terms are “神上” and “神浄”. In this case, it’s clear that these two terms with very different meanings were used with the intent of connecting them to the protagonist’s surname (and indeed, the author says as much).

    In a scenario such as this, can you think of a way to carry the meanings and connections of these terms without relying on translation notes? Or would you consider such a scenario to be too unique and therefore an exception to the rule?

    • I cheated and googled it to see what you were talking about. By the sounds of it, this is something that’s deliberately pointed out in narrative as a misinterpretation – which allows one to surreptitiously work an explanation of the kanji reading system in, explain the other meaning, and why there’s confusion. I mean here’s how I picture the exchange in my head. (And it is pure assumption on my part because, slight love of only my railgun aside, I’ve never really seen or watched To Aru):

      Touma: sup my name’s kamijou touma
      Kaori: GOD-CLEANSING DEVILFUCKER?!
      Touma: nah wrong kanji lol

      where you can make that, in a translation:

      Touma: sup my name’s Kamijou Touma
      Kaori: “He who cleanses God, and exorcises the devil…” (using the quotes to establish this as a meaning of the phrase)
      Touma: If you wrote it with different kanji, sure.
      or
      Touma: It’s pronounced the same way, but written differently.
      or
      Touma: The kanji my name’s written with mean [whatever], actually.

      Once you’ve established that his name can also mean those things, you can, I think, refer to them (maybe in quotes, as a way to remind the reader/viewer they’re ~special~) fairly invisibly in the writing without calling attention to the homonym each time. If, however, there was an instance where the alternative was just used without attention being called to it at all, then one would probably have to delve into the realm of notes and external explanation.

      I’m kind of lucky in that I basically work entirely on kids’ shows which don’t have that kind of thing to deal with, generally – even in the closed captions they’ll quite often avoid using kanji for words because the target audience may well not know them. But yeah, I think one would have to look at it and see if there’s an opportunity to present an explanation in the dialogue itself (even if one isn’t necessarily present in the original text) and then, if all else fails, resort to TL notes.

  2. Haha, sadly, no real attention is called to it. That’s what makes it so difficult.

    In the case of the “cleanses God” thing, in the novels, the only thing is the differences in Kanji. What Kanzaki says allowed is still just ‘Kamijou Touma’. … Well, this sort of thing doesn’t translate well into spoken language even in the same Japanese so, understandably, the animated adaptation pretty much sidestepped that one completely. In any case, it’s all just hypothetical scenarios, so it’s all moot, I suppose. Still, localization’s some pretty tricky business.

    … But yeah, the series would probably be a nightmare to localize. After all, it uses that particular technique that’s so popular amongst Japanese light novelists these days, where they write a certain term or phrase one way, yet its read as something completely different. For instance, the protagonist has an ability called “Imagine Breaker”. However, it’s ‘written’ as “幻想殺し”. Just about all translations simply use the term “Imagine Breaker”, even if the language use is decisively Engrishy. In comparison to that, stuff like Massigler -> Fullthrottler must be a godsend.

    By the way, out of curiosity, how come you don’t translate the “Kamen” in “Kamen Rider”? Is it simply due to how iconic it is? Or is it due to the sudden, conspicuous shift where rather than directly translating the word like they’ve been doing since Kuuga, starting from Double, Toei decided to simply romanize the Japanese term? To this day, I’m not quite sure what the reason for that shift was, exactly…

    • … And only just now do I notice there’s a ‘Reply’ button. Also, Christ, those are some horrible typos. Was I spontaneously drunk when I wrote all that?

    • Mostly it is just because of it’s iconic nature, yeah. Re: the official name, I don’t know how much sense this makes, but I feel the fact it was officially “Masked Rider” and is now officially “Kamen Rider” is a more convincing case for it’s use than it would be if it had always been Kamen Rider. They’ve specifically gone out of their way to make the change and say “This is how it should be.” and I feel more inclined to go along with it because of it.

      I don’t think the whole “English furigana over kanji” thing is too bad. I mean, in that case, they essentially mean the same thing, and you could easily just make the Engrish less bad (Imagination Breaker would be a harmless fix, imo.) That said, I seem to recall hearing that Accelerator’s kanji don’t actually match the English that well, or something?

      Edit: and I don’t know why I picked this WordPress theme, it’d be nice to have a more visible reply button (and I should make a less garish banner.)

      • Yeah, Accelerator’s name is written as “一方通行”.

        Personally, I don’t think “Imagination Breaker” rolls off the tongue as well. “Imagine Breaker”, despite being a completely nonsensical term, has a certain catchiness to it. If I had to comprise, I’d probably settle on something like ‘Illusion Killer’ or ‘Illusion Breaker’ instead. … Of course, that would call further attention to the corniness of the character’s usual catchphrase “I’ll break that illusion of yours!”, though perhaps that’s just me.

        Personally, I think when it comes to translating phrases like this, a direct translation isn’t always enough. To the Japanese, ‘Imagine Breaker’ sounds kinda cool, so when localizing the work, it would be more accurate to use a more ‘cool-sounding’ name. … Of course, that sort of thing is completely relative.

        Also, I think the biggest problem with these sorts of things, especially in television shows, is that when a different phrase is used, what the viewer sees on the subs and what they hear from the characters’ mouths will clash. It’s fine if the original term was Japanese; to someone who isn’t familiar with the language, it all sounds like gibberish. That’s the reason the translation exists. But if the original term or phrase was English (even if broken), then it creates a sense of contradiction to the viewer. It becomes considerably more difficult to compromise in these circumstances. At least, that’s just my take on it, anyway.

        • That’s certainly true – about English-English desync. Personally, I’m fine with ‘fixing’ bad English, but I tend to work on the basis that one has to trust a translator to do the best thing for the flow and writing of the work – otherwise there’s little point watching the sub. Often I find myself accused of making changes that don’t need to be made, and that it’s “fine” as is, and maybe it is, but… can’t one improve on fine and acceptable? I dunno.

          That catchphrase does cloud things, doesn’t it? I’d almost say it’d be worth side-shifting to “delusion”, for the noun because of it, but now we enter dangerous territory that I don’t feel comfortable with making without knowledge of the work.

          • Mm, personally, I don’t think the changes you’ve made are bad. Although, admittedly, there are times when I tilt my head at some of the changes in confusion, for the most part, I enjoy your work.

            The fact of the matter is, few Japanese shows are made with non-Japanese speaking viewers in mind. If you didn’t take at least a few liberties, anyone who didn’t have at least some knowledge of the language and culture would have no idea what’s going on, which defeats the point of translation. Plus, there’s the whole issue of “author’s intent” there, and when it comes to that, you really have no choice but to rely on your own instincts.

            Concerning ‘unnecessary’ changes, well, that’s probably always gonna be a shaky topic. You don’t need to know multiple languages to understand that humans often dislike change. Plus, the idea of what’s “acceptable” and what isn’t is entirely subjective, so there’ll always be those who disagree. There will always be the mindset that “the original is best”, so no matter what you do, even if you used extremely literal translations, there will most likely be someone who will disagree with you.

            Admittedly, though I try, it’s not always easy for me to accept these changes either. Since I have some knowledge on the Japanese language (though I’m still learning, of course), I’m constantly forced to compare between what I’m hearing and what I’m reading. Of course, this probably isn’t quite the same as the problems you usually have to deal with, seeing as how people who actually do understand the language ordinarily wouldn’t bother watching a fansub in the first place.

  3. I just dropped by to say thanks for the release. Being a student of Japanese, these kind of posts really help me out getting a better picture in my mind having heard the japanese dialogue with your “localized” sub. And I do admit, sometimes I laugh at instances where “I-see-what-you-did-there” with the jokes. :) Props to you guys.

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