Becoming A Japanese Translator: Specializing A New Skill
You have English. You now have Japanese. When these two powers combine, the “sword of translation” falls from the sky, into your eager hands and ready to be wielded like a true legend…
Native English + Fluent Japanese = Translator?
That’s what I thought. If you have both powers, you should be able to seamlessly transfer between the two.
Regardless of your level, you’ve done some translation before. In your head, out loud, back and forth as you learned the basics and beyond. You probably even have tried hard to get your mind to stop translating. If it’s something you had to work hard to avoid and phase out, then if you openly welcome it now you’d assume the words would flow naturally.
You’ve probably even done a little actual translation for Japanese friends, or your own country’s friends, or helped other people move between the languages a bit. Someone asked you “what does this Japanese sentence mean in English?” and you’ve translated it.
Small casual translation is fine. You can do it by default. The problem that arises through it is it gives you a false expectation.
Translation comes naturally to a bilingual speaker
Feels right. But it’s wrong.
The difficulty of translation is deceptive
It’s a trap that is easy to fall into.
You understand fully what you are reading in Japanese. Great. So you would assume you could just put it into English. If you understand it in one, you should be able to understand it in both.
The beginning eases you into that illusion:
E: Thank you!
That was easy.
E: I want to go to Japan!
See, translation is easy.
Let’s take a random average, non-complex sentence from an online news site. This is not technical discussion, but a simple article.
Most people level 40~50+ can probably understand a lot of this sentence. Even if there are some words that you haven’t seen, through the kanji and context, your brain processes generally what is going on. Those 60+ probably understand the sentence fully.
Now let’s get to the translation.
There may be a few words that you might not know the best English equivalent for. For example 宿泊 (lodging) or 波及 (extends to). Then there are words that you could give an English equivalent for but you wonder if it covers the full range of meaning. For example 飲食業 in Japanese is literally the “food and drink industry,” but depending on the source, some places translate that naturally as “restaurant industry” or “restaurant business.” And even 宿泊 (lodging) and レジャー (leisure) might just sound more natural as “hotel” and “recreation.”
Where it really starts to require work is when you try to pull the sentence together. If you look at the sentence literally, here’s what it looks like in English.
Direct literal translation:
“With the thing of the increase of foreign tourists, not just the tourism industry that is lodging/leisure, but even to the retail/restaurant industry, economic effects extended to them.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is a bad translation. But remember, even this bad translation first assumes you knew all the parts, which you may have already had trouble with. Now you have to take all the parts and put it into a nice sounding English sentence, while keeping the original meaning of the sentence.
See where the fun lies?
Then you start to mix in sentences that are way more complex than this, with words that don’t have direct English meanings, with words that have multiple interpretations in English, with words that you can’t figure out. This isn’t to scare you off. With practice, this all starts to become natural and enjoyable. It’s only assuming that you are supposed to naturally receive the sword of translation that causes self-doubt and confidence reduction.
Translation is a new skill
English is a skill.
Japanese is a skill.
Translation (or the transfer of language from one to the other) is a skill.
Once you reach a high level, and start as a translator, you are now a beginner translator.
Japanese Learner: Level 58
Translator: Level 1
Not to worry though. Your ability will play a major role. The higher and more refined ability you have, the better your start will be in translation.
A story about feeling this directly
Many of the jobs I do involve translation or fluency tests. A while back, one of them had me read out loud a complex financial chat between two people, and was administered in front of a Japanese man. I read the chat out loud, fast, naturally, and with high comprehension (minus a few of the unfamiliar specialist financial terms). Anyone from the outside would thing, “wow he knows what he is doing.” I could easily discuss what was going on in Japanese.
“Now translate each sentence line by line for me.”
My pace dropped. That speed I had was gone, and going from line to line I had to read each over a few times internally, playing around with the parts, and creating coherent English sentences.
“I’m confused. your Japanese was so good. What happened?”
I had to explain to the slightly misguided person that I understand and can explain everything I read. However, turning that into nice English is something different and takes time.
Base attributes affect your translation skill points
The four main attributes you have in Japanese are reading, writing, listening and speaking.
In order to specialize in the new skill of translation, these attributes need to reach a certain point base. Once you acquire the translation skill, your base translation ability will be determined by how high those base attributes are.
This means that indirectly, you can continually improve your translation skills simply by increasing those base attributes. But to really gain skill, you need to directly pour experience points into translation. You can increase your speed and coordination all you want, which will make you a better swordsman. But it’s not till you actually practice that sword skill that you will be able to dominate.
This is why I don’t consider myself a veteran translator, and I’m not sure if it is actually something I desire to obtain. I started off with very high base attributes, which gave me a natural edge. And I’ve practiced my translation skill quite a bit. But nothing compared to veteran translators. While I do translation, a lot of my work doesn’t involve translation at all. It just involves understanding the Japanese and doing work based on that understanding. Understanding is a skill that will come naturally, but translation took me several years to get up to a “good” level.
You are a beginner again.
Don’t be discouraged though at what seems like a new major obstacle to overcome. While it can feel weird to be a beginner again after coming so far, in a way it is refreshing. It knocks you down a bit, but at the same time gives you something new and different to strive for. This is part of the excitement of translation. That excitement you had when your Japanese was young, and you were excelling fast. You restart that cycle here. And when your translation skill rises, it sure feels empowering. It’s all part of your new “translation adventure.”
Part 1 ● 2 ● 3 ● 4 ● 5 ● 6 ● 7 ● 8 ● 9 ● 10 ● 11
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I recently learnt that translation was not something that I excelled in, (to put it mildly) but I will give it a go!
With the increase of foreign visitors to Japan, there has been a financial impact not only in so called tourism businesses such as in leisure and hospitality, but in retail and restaurants as well.
Translation can really knock you down if you aren’t careful. Especially when you switch between different types of translation, different genres, and even different speakers.
> “I’m confused. your Japanese was so good. What happened?”
This probably also stems from the fact that the main method of studying English in Japan is read, translate into Japanese and then study and discuss it in Japanese. He probably expected your process to be the same.
On another note can you make a page that has links to this whole translation series? I don’t know much about translation but I get asked about it a lot anyway so these articles are going to become my go-to, “Go here. Read this.” link. :)
Yeah, and the concept of monolingual studying and what kind of ability it produces it produces is still pretty foreign to most people.
Haha, I don’t know how thorough or helpful this series will actually be yet, but I’ll make a table of contents at the bottom of each post.
My grandmother was a native Swedish speaker, and she lived in the U.S. speaking English for 65 years. Her English was not perfect, but it was good. She had a little bit of an accent, and she often made kawaii mistakes in English, but other than that her English was just fine.
But…she really was terrible at interpretation. Heee…I do not even think she tried written translation. When we asked her to translate articles from Swedish, we would get one sentence out of her if we were lucky. When older relatives from Sweden came (the ones who did not know English), she did her best to interpret, but she usually ended up speaking half English/half Swedish, and no one understood her.
Actually, recently other relatives from Sweden came, whose English was good, but not as good as my grandmother…but they were able to do a much better job of interpreting. They gently teased my grandmother about that.
I think that the difference was that my grandmother learned English completely through immersion. She did not take any classes, nor did she learn English through Swedish. My Swedish relatives learned English in school, probably initially through Swedish.
On a related note, I have noticed that I have the hardest time reading Japanese if people are speaking English around me, or if there is English in the background.
I have a theory that our brains have something like language switches, and once we have enough of a language, we can flip the switch into that language, and our native language gets turned off for that time. I think that translation, and even more so interpretation, requires one to keep both languages in one’s head at the same time, which is much, much harder.
I think you are on to something about the language switch. I learned English mainly through immersion and for many years after, I was completely unable to use English at the same time as my native language, Danish. English and Danish occupy two completely separate parts of my brain and they are simply not cross referenced.
Slowly over the following 20 years I have been able to connect them, and I am now able to translate quite decently between them and also switch language mid sentence, which was previously impossible for me. Interestingly I consider hardly any words to be direct translations of each other. I am aware of so many nuances, because of how I learned the languages that even words that are literally spelled the same, I do not consider equivalent. For the same reason I already knew that J-J was the way to go, when I started learning Japanese.
My French parents learned English through immersion after moving to the US and they are now fluent in English and can translate in both directions and write professionally in both languages. So I don’t believe it’s a question of having learned via school versus immersion. Did your grandmother only use English for basic everyday function or did she use it professionally?
Since my parents had to use English for their jobs they knew both the source material in French and English so it’s easy for them to switch back and forth. Also, they read a lot in both languages so they have a more natural feeling of both languages.
Just like myself. I can freely translate/interpret in the following:
Japanese –> English
Japanese –> French
Only Japanese to Spanish is difficult as those are my 3rd and 4th languages and I rarely do that sort of interpretation. Also, my Japanese writing is embarrassingly poor so I cannot yet translate into Japanese.
But all these languages are a mix of native languages and learned languages.
Oh, I am sure my grandmother could have learned to translate and/or interpret had she been inclined to do so, and she may have even been quite good at it. She learned English when her children were little from television and from my grandfather insisting that they speak English in front of their children. She did eventually work outside the home, which of course meant she had to use English professionally to a certain extent. She often talked about having a secret dictionary in her desk drawer at work and bringing home business letters she had to write for my mother to correct for her.
The thing is that my Swedish relatives never really learned to translate/interpret either…but my guess is that they had more practice through school, because translation is commonly used to check understanding, or at least that has been my experience.
Actually, I was thinking a little more about this, and I probably should clarify it a little more. My grandmother was born in a small town in Sweden, at a time when only rich people went to school beyond elementary school, and had absolutely no schooling at all in any language other than her native one. Also, from she said, she had never took one class or ever purposely “studied” English at all. By the time her younger brother who was 9 years younger than her went to school, most people did go on to high school, and English was a required subject. I think that few people in Europe under the age of 70 (or maybe even 80 now) have not had *any* instruction in English or in a non-native language. Even in the U.S., most people have at least taken a year or two of a non-native language in high school.
In my own Japanese studies, I see her situation as analogous of a control in an experiment…what can and can not be accomplished by immersion alone, without any lessons or study, by someone without any natural talent for languages (my grandfather had almost perfect English after a year of immersion only…but he had a photographic memory, so in my mind he was a special case). Her English was acceptable, but never perfect. She communicated just fine; however, she still made mistakes after 65 years, and she never sounded polished or educated and sometimes was unable to express subtle nuances in meaning. It is why I am convinced immersion does work, but it is also why I think that at least some intentional “study” is really helpful.
The reason I brought her situation up was not to say one can not learn to be a good translator if they learn languages through immersion, but as an illustration of the point of the article…that learning to translate and interpret is a separate skill.
Very interesting story about your grandmother. Thanks for providing the story and providing even more background. Certainly makes a strong case for immersion and as you point out, showing that yet, indeed, translation is a separate skill.
I wonder if my being fully native and fully immersed in both French and English is what helped me be fairly good at translation in all my other languages. Also, having read intensively at high levels all my life, I’m good at nuances (even if I constantly make basic mistakes in Jpn).
Kind of like when you see an internet forum and a poster is clearly being sarcastic but everyone harps down on him for being a monster because they took them seriously. Many people just cannot pick up nuance which is highly important in general communication, and then translation.
I think that your brain forms connections between ideas that are used together; If you learn a second language through your first language, then the strongest connections are between a meaning in one language and the same meaning in the second language. If you study monolingually, there are more connections between the ideas in the second language, but few or no links between the two languages. Therefore, monolingual study should produce better language ability, but at the cost of your translating ability.
Note on the above: I’m not knowledgable enough myself to form my own opinion, but I believe what Adam said about the tradeoffs not being equal.
As a translator who has studied monolingually from almost the beginning, I disagree. As you say yourself, the connections are between the ideas; the written word is just one medium by which the ideas can be transmitted. Translation is all about understanding the underlying message of the source text, and conveying it in a way the readers will understand themselves.
Learning a language and translating a language are obviously closely linked, but they are two very different skills. It’s quite hard to speak concretely about the process itself, but one mistake that’s very easy to make is to get too caught up on what the Japanese says, rather than what the intention acually is. A bilingual dictionary can be your closest friend and worst enemy in this respect. It really doesn’t matter how you study as long as you realise this when translating.
I think the following quote by Kreeb is the important magic moment to realize.
“One mistake that’s very easy to make is to get too caught up on what the Japanese says, rather than what the intention actually is.”
You could create the most faithful to the original translation ever but if you don’t have flow, and if you haven’t translated the intention of the work, then you have a bad translation. You can’t forget flow.
Since this series of articles was started I’ve been looking at the book I’m currently reading and find myself saying “this is how I would translate this” and sometimes my translation doesn’t used a single word present in the original. At least, not if you were going for a direct word-by-word translation. But I still get the “hot damn, that was a good translation” feeling when you know you’ve perfectly translated ‘the moment’. Very important. At least with literature.
Attempt 1: Due to the fact that foreign sightseers have increased, the economic effects influenced the lodging and leisure aspect of the tourist industry as well as even small and restaurant businesses.
Attempt 2: Not only have the economic effects of the increase of foreign tourists influenced the lodging and leisure sectors of the tourist industry, but small businesses and restaurants have also been affected.
I’m struggling haha. This is kind of frustrating! The Japanese makes sense to me (after looking up the unknown words), but it’s super difficult to wrangle the English into a form that makes sense AND conveys the original meaning of the sentence.
And that’s exactly why the skill of translation takes time to develop.
“Not only have the economic effects of the increase in foreign tourism been felt by the hotel and recreation industries, but even businesses such as dining and retail.”
There’s my attempt.
Thanks for adding in your attempt!
I think familiarity with the subject matter in the target language is also a major factor, even if in general you’re highly skilled in both languages.
“血圧計” is super straightforward in Japanese, but how many people outside the medical profession know the actual English word for it?
And from there you go down the rabbit hole of, even if you do know the word, what if most of your audience doesn’t? Should you still use the technical term to be “proper”? Or do you prioritize ease of understanding for the audience and use a generic term like “blood pressure monitor”?
It’s amazing how many different considerations factor into translating decisions X_X
Personally I’m of the belief that good translation requires a lot of re-writing. As long as you’re staying true to the “intent” of the statement, it’s OK to deviate significantly from the original meaning and structure. For example:
“The increase in foreign visitors has had a broad economic impact. Naturally tourism-dependent sectors such as hotels and leisure are enjoying the extra business, but even retail outlets and restaurants have reported an uptick in sales.”
“As long as you’re staying true to the “intent” of the statement, it’s OK to deviate significantly from the original meaning and structure.”
I think the problem with this is – how can you be absolutely sure you’re interpreting the “intent” of the original message correctly? Also, while I think deviating from the structure of the original is, in most cases, unavoidable, due to the differences between two languages, significantly altering the meaning is not okay. That is, unless you’re translating a literary text and you’re faced with an instance of joke, pun, wordplay or something else that would lose its original function if translated literally. In those cases, the translator has to get creative.
There is no scenario where you fail to comprehend the author/speaker’s intended meaning and still provide a successful translation. Using that understanding, you identify the key information, emotions, etc being conveyed and produce a statement in the target language that communicates the spirit of the message effectively.
Take Adam’s example. The main ideas are:
-Tourism is on the rise
-As expected, tourism based industries are seeing an economic boost
-But it’s not limited to that sector; other businesses are also seeing these effects
The author’s intent is to convey those 3 pieces of information. The structure doesn’t matter, as long as it sounds good and makes sense in the reader’s language.
And by “meaning” alteration, I’m mostly talking about implied facts present in the source material that are not stated explicitly. Even though the original article doesn’t specify that stores “reported” a sales increase, you can infer they must have done so (if not, you wouldn’t have their data), and utilize that to make your translation sound more natural if appropriate. Japanese in particular tends to leave a lot of details implied through context that we’d state more explicitly in English, so there are many cases where this sort of alteration to make details more explicit makes sense.
The translator must master that rabbit hole. Eventually it becomes second nature, but as you point out, there is a lot of thought and “translator style” that goes into the process.
I’m a little late to the party, but I think how much you deviate from the original structure and style of the writing really depends on what you’re translating. Like, if you’re translating a news article like this it’s probably fine to deviate a bit for smoothness of reading, but if you’re translating, let’s say, the Bible or something, obviously one isn’t going to deviate too much from the original structure. Try comparing these verses I lifted at random from the English Standard Version, which is generally deemed to be accurate to the original Greek, and the Message, a colloquial Bible with significant deviation from the original structure:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, ESV)
“Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle. doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8, MSG)
One can see that there are significant differences in the tone and style of each passage. While many people enjoy the Message for stylistic purposes, churches generally will not go to it when teaching the gospel, instead opting for the ESV or NIV as they retain the most integrity with the original text.
All in all, I think it’s better to opt for sticking close to what you’re translating from. Not to the point where syntax and grammar are difficult to understand, but not so far as to add loads of stuff that wasn’t in the original text. That being said, there is beauty to be seen in something that deviates far from the original structure but conveys the same message; however, in my opinion, that can be quite difficult to achieve.
So… Monolingual studying makes your new language skill excell, but at the expense of your translating skill?
I don’t think you can put it like that. Since monolingual study excell your foreign language skill which is needed in order to build up your translating skill. So your possible level in translation will cap out since it depends on both your source and target language skill level.
The next article will cover this topic, but what Silwing said is right. A J-E learner doesn’t have as big an advantage as you think, and a J-J learner has many more other advantages.
Here is my attempt:
Increased foreign tourism has not just benefited the hotel and recreation industry; these economic benefits have spread to retail and restaurant industry as well.
Will you be discussing the difference between skill levels and what’s required to translate something into Japanese. I heard this is quite a bit more difficult than translating from Japanese into English.
What do you think?
You mean the skill levels of a translator? Yes I will be touching on this later.
And yes, it is significantly harder for a native speaker to go E to J.
Translation sure is no joke… here’s what I got:
With the increase in foreign tourists, not only the lodging and recreation industries, but the retail, food, and drink industries have all been experiencing an economic boom.
Nothing new about what I am going to say but it is interesting to notice this thread is about the same questions. Whatever language we are talking about, translation asks always the same questions: shall we stick to the text or shall we stick to the meaning? Translation is a tough job and whatever decision being made because all the underlying components, there will always be criticisms because you will never be as accurate as the original language. In general people won’t understand it unless they give it try themselves. And that is the reason why many companies asking/paying for translations do not understand why it is that expensive or why it takes so much time.