EVENT REPORT - SWET Shop Talk: Translation Quandaries

February 18, 2015 (Wednesday), Books on Japan Library, Jinbocho

Ten people gathered around the large table at the Books on Japan Library in Jinbocho for the February SWET Shop Talk, some with sandwich/onigiri and drink in hand as we introduced ourselves. Four present were completely new to SWET, though had clearly been involved in “wordsmithing” work for years in their respective corners of professional life. One long-time member from SWET Kansai who happened to be in Tokyo joined in. With a good mixture of Japanese native, English native, and bilingual speakers, our on-the-spot resources for answering translation questions were excellent and the round-the-table discussion later broke up into numerous closer conversations as people established connections.

Initially, it had been planned to have a computer-projector set-up to mutually view examples and editing on-screen. However, high-tech equipment proved unnecessary (it was actually a bit in the way) as we got to talking and sharing ideas and experience in the intimate, bookshelf-lined setting.

Over the three hours we discussed all sorts of things, but some of the quandaries and responses (different responses marked by bullets) heard are collected below.


Quandary: Translations of salutations and closings for Japanese letters, which may all be 敬具 (keigu) even though the addressee is different or the writer is different. Whether/when to vary the English? Whether “sincerely” is appropriate or some other (sincerely yours, cordially, respectfully (yours), faithfully, yours, kind regards, etc.) closing?

Responses: All depends on the context: whether the writer is a man or woman, who the addressee is, how old/young. • Japanese conventions generally differ for men and women (men encouraged to use kango (Chinese-style) terms; women hiragana (Japanese-style) terms), the atmosphere of which can be transferred to English letters in more ways than just the formal salutations and closings.


Q: How much time do you use looking up words and difficult parts of a translation before moving on? Time is usually limited but difficulty may be considerable.

R: Often the meaning of an unclear word or a difficult passage becomes clear after doing the complete translation, so it may be wise to move on and come back to it later. • Time looking up difficult parts is investment in future work, never wasted, but need to gauge what time you can use, digging into your personal schedule and considering the value to you of the time spent. • Translators who go the “extra mile” to do careful, accurate, and well-researched work may be preferred to those who rush through without checking things and leave questions unresolved that the client or editor has to deal with. • Having a good collaborator to help with such things can cut down on time spent. Sometimes, with less time available (such as when working in-house), your efficiency can ironically increase. • It’s your judgment call as to whether the item you are researching is something that is the client’s responsibility (specialized content) or your own (knowledge you should have).


Q: Sometimes the order of a text doesn’t seem right for the purpose of the English text and the expectations of the English reader. Is changing the order in the course of translation permissible? routine? difficult? I routinely do some reorganization to get the information in the most effective form for its purpose, but wonder how common this is.

R: For certain kinds of texts, this will surely be routine. Japanese has its customary ways of presenting information; English has its ways, which sometimes differ. • The translator has to “translate” not only the actual words but the whole message of the text, so some reorganization may really put the finishing touches on the translation process that is only begun by translating the words. • Authors/clients may not be accustomed to this, so need to be prepared to argue in support of what you have done and show that nothing has been left out or sacrificed in the process. • Translator Phil Robertson in Translator Perspectives 2012, published by JAT (p. 46) addresses this quandary, saying: “In order to produce natural-sounding English output, don’t be afraid to do the following when necessary: Depart radically from the order of the Japanese sentence; use idiom and paraphrase; split long sentences into two or more English sentences; combine short sentences into one English sentence; use words or terms that do not feature prominently in standard Japanese-English dictionary definitions for the Japanese word or term.


Q: What do you do when the editor changes the meaning of your translation so that it is in error?

R: You may have no power to do anything in such a situation, and correcting mistakes may be beyond your brief as far as the work you were hired to do is concerned, but you might be able to at least alert the editor to errors. (If done in a way that helps/supports the editor, this is likely to earn you further credibility as a wordsmith.) • It is possible that the way a passage was translated was phrased in such a way that it could be misconstrued (this frequently happens). When translating for such an editor, it may be necessary to clarify various things, perhaps using square brackets [/], to add between-the-lines information that may not be expressly stated in the original, so as to keep the reader solidly in the right semantic field. • When going over your draft before submitting, it may be a good idea to review it with the specific client’s tendencies in mind. • It is constantly good to exchange information about the kind of translation desired by your client so that you can come closer and closer to what they want. If they are using you as a “hack” (draft translator) and giving their editor free rein to change as he/she sees fit, then it may be better not to trouble your mind about what happens to the text after it leaves your desk. • There are many things going on at the client/editor end of a project that the translator may not know about, so sometimes changes have nothing to do with the original Japanese or the translator’s work.


Q: What do you do when the manuscript is not in digital form and you need it in digital form to facilitate the translation process?

R: OCR software is getting better and better, so if the manuscript is clear, you may be able to read it into a text file. Some apps for phones appear to be available that will read kanji and provide readings—worth looking into. • You might have to get a colleague to read the text to you to help get the readings efficiently. • Typing it all yourself—or the difficult parts at least—is one way to really get the readings (this will also help you master those readings for future use), though it takes time, using Nelson’s or an electronic dictionary that allows you to write in the character with finger or stylus, to do so. • Hire someone to OCR or type it. Consider collaboration with a native Japanese SWET member. • Always endeavor to increase your kanji-retention powers.


Q: Some articles and essays seem to open with an observation and circle around the topic, then end without a real (apparent) conclusion: What to think of such texts and how to handle them in creating an equivalent English piece? Is it okay to concoct a conclusion so that it will seem “more like English”?

R: This can be a problem in research papers, newspaper articles, essays, and other writings, and depending on what the target text is supposed to do, your strategy may differ. • If the newspaper article has to catch the attention of news readers, you may need to make it as convincingly “journalistic” as you can, concocting a conclusion or an effective non-conclusive closing. • If the research paper needs to be accepted by a journal or committee, you may need to go back to the author and get a conclusion written. • Often the conclusions of the author are to be found in the text, but not at the end; you can gather together those parts and stitch together a topic sentence/paragraph and/or concluding or wrap-up sentence that will give the English some rhetorical structure. • Again, the advanced translator can take the craft a step further by performing these “writerly” or editorial tasks as part of the translation process. Be sure to let the client/author know about your reorganization and be ready to explain/defend it (if you are doing it, you must have good reasons).


Q: I’m an editor of translations but I only check the Japanese when I’m really stymied in finding the right word. In a book of art criticism, where an author is writing about a certain genre of painting, the translation goes: “. . . we can infer that [Hirafuku] Hyakusui meant by doro-e not only paintings by Japanese made in a Western style using mineral pigments, but also a certain inorganic quality visible in doro-e as a genre of painting.” The underlined passage is ある一種の無機質化を指す. To my ear, “inorganic” doesn’t make sense, so I tried “inanimate,” but am wondering what would be best.

R: • The use of a word like 無機質 might be partly for the effect (kakkō o tsukeru tame) in Japanese, not as actually meaning “inorganic” literally. Probably your intuition about what is right is on-mark, but bringing such problems to the attention of a Japanese editor or checker as well as the translator might result in a satisfactory resolution without undue anguish. • In this case, the passage following this explains that “...doro-e are painted with a reduced set of colors and the human figure and other elements simplified; at times, shapes are stylized. ... empty cities with a mysterious stillness.” • With that much information, maybe you could do without a misleading adjective—delete it! It sounds like you are on the right track in that the “quality” that defines doro-e is their “de-animation.” • Looking for the opposite of the word you are searching for is another approach.


Q: We want to translate into Japanese a work by an author who died in 1960. In Japan right now books by an author who died 50 years earlier are already in the public domain, but in the US and the UK, they are not in the public domain until (at least) 70 years have passed since the author’s death. The book will be individually marketed in Japan only via Amazon KDP direct publishing. If Japanese copyright law changes and the copyright period is extended to 70 years, will we be able to continue marketing the translation, without any reference to the rights-holders?

R: SWET contacted a member who works with copyright questions and she responded with the following advice: “When the details of the TPP are finally agreed upon, the copyright will be extended to 70 years. From what I understand, what is in the public domain now, and up till the day before the Agreement goes into effect, will remain in the public domain, i.e., no retroactivity.” She also called to our attention a World Intellectual Property Review article (2013) referring to the inclusion of copyright extension in what is generally considered a trade agreement, at http://www.worldipreview.com/news/japan-considers-copyright-law-extension (viewed February 19). Further investigation is of course necessary, but this should offer some guidance. • Translators and editors have to keep up with basic information on copyright and changes going on.


The SWET Talk Shops are monthly opportunities for SWET members and visitors to meet face-to-face, network, consult each other, work on SWET-related projects (such as Wordcraft and website articles), and discuss ideas for enhancing the SWET community and contributing to its aims. If you are interested in participating in SWET Shop Talks, be sure to check the SWET website for announcements of meetings and let us know that you are coming, at info@swet.jp

This report was compiled by Lynne E. Riggs with the cooperation of the participants at the meeting on February 18, 2015.