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Difficulties in translating English texts into Japanese

Yoshihisa Morita

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.

ビル:「トムの事、どう思う?」
アン:「彼はとっても誠実よ。彼は決して安易な解決法を採らないわ。キャロルと別れた時も、ただ電話をやめたり、何か言い訳をしても良かったのに、彼は包み隠さずに自分の気持ちを伝えたわ。男性がみんな、彼みたいだったらいいのにね。」

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.

ビル:「トムの事を、どう描写しますか?」
アン:「彼は非常に誠実です。彼は決して安易な解決法を選択しません。キャロルと決別した時も、ただ電話を中止したり、何か言い訳をする事も可能でしたのに、彼は包み隠さずに自分の気持ちを説明しました。男性が皆、彼の様であったらよいのですが。」

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.

Version1 IRBが実験の記録を再検討する際に常に生じる問題は、IRBが研究の承認に対して権限を持つかということであります。つまり、IRBは、「研究はIRBの再検討に従属しているのか?」という事を問う必要があります。

Version2 IRBがプロトコールをリビューする際に常に生じる問題は、IRBがリサーチの承認に対して権限を持つかということであります。つまり、IRBは、「リサーチがIRBのリビューを受けるものなのか?」という事を問う必要があります。

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;

規約によれば、リサーチとは、「リサーチの立案、実施、そして評価を含む体系的な調査であり、総合的な知識を確立したり、それに貢献したりする目的で実施される」のです。

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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