Word Wise: Typically Troublesome

By Richard Medhurst

What is the ultimate bugbear translation term? If there was a vote, 代表的 might well be in the running. Both it and synonymous variations of を代表する are scattered across Japanese texts at a rate that can vex translators who want to keep their writing fresh.

The way 代表的 covers a broad range of meaning from neutral description through to positive praise is one aspect that influences choice of the best English word. For example, a list of 代表的なアレルギー症状, would become “common” or “typical” allergy/hay fever symptoms. Occasionally “representative” may work, but I think there are often better options.

More frequent than neutral, however, are the generally positive meanings, which tell you that the person/place/whatever in question is one of the most important, famous, popular, or just plain best of its kind. Sometimes words like “famous” or “popular” themselves will slot into the sentence, while others that often fit include “top,” “leading,” “major,” and “essential.”

Taking a couple of specific examples, for 代表的アルバム, I suggest a “classic” album, while for 英国を代表する美術評論家、ジョン・ラスキン, I would go with the “eminent” British art critic John Ruskin. Incidentally, even with the verb form 代表する, in this kind of phrase an adjective is usually the best choice in translation.

The point is to use a positive English word that fits naturally into the sentence. And as I cannot cover the huge range of possibilities in this short article, I recommend dipping into a thesaurus to either seek out that perfect term that doesn’t quite come to mind or provide some variation on favorites that have become overused. If you have any feedback, please comment below or on the Facebook group page.

Illustration: Stuart Ayre

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