Challenges of the translation profession Part 1

For those people not “in the know” (Why is that in quotes? Keep reading and you will see why!) doing the work of a translator probably appears to only have one major hurdle to overcome, you must be bilingual and speak both languages. Well, as the old saying goes “rock bottom is a college education”, a saying that really applies to the translation industry. It is true, the absolute bare minimum skill you must possess to work as a translator is having the ability to read and understand both the source language and the target language of the document you wish to translate.

We call this the language pair and at that language pair is Japanese and English. But, as we will discuss in the rest of this article, just being able to read and understand both Japanese and English is only the first step to being a good translator. You speak your native language fluently, I assume, since you are reading this article, but do you feel comfortable enough with your English skills to work as an editor or proofreader at a book publisher’s office? For many people, that would produce a resounding no. So let’s examine some of the challenges translators face, especially those specializing in Japanese, which is already one of the most difficult writing systems in the world.

One of the primary reasons you will find many references on our website to our use of native translators, meaning translators raised in Japan who speak Japanese as a primary language, is because culture plays a huge role in the formation of our language and language skills. Like many other languages, Japanese is filled with idioms. An idiom is, in the simplest terms, a saying or grouping of words that have been given meaning beyond the meaning of the individual words. For example, in the US you might hear someone utter the phrase “I decided to let him off the hook” Now, if you are someone who knows how to read words written in English, but are unfamiliar with the culture of the English speaking country for which you were providing the translation, this phrase could cause some serious confusion.

In a situation where a wife was telling her friend about making her husband take her to dinner and then she uttered that phrase, the reader could be very confused as there was no previous mention of any hook and what does that have to do with going out to dinner? Now, from a cultural perspective, you are probably aware that this utterance means, in this context, to release him from the obligation. The phrase likely has its origins in fishing and refers to releasing a fish from a fish hook, thereby freeing the fish from the obligation of becoming someone’s dinner. But you could not parse that out just from the actual words, you have to know it means something different. Every language has thousands of such expressions.

Japanese is no exception containing phrases that, without a cultural and contextual understanding, a translator might be at a loss to understand. Imagine someone was translating an email between a supervisor and one of their staff and they come across “明日は明日の風が吹く (あしたは あしたのかぜがふく)” which translates to “Tomorrow’s wind will blow tomorrow”. Huh? What did the speaker mean by that? Did this email suddenly turn into some sort of meteorological report? This is one of those Japanese idioms that for a native speaker with an understanding of English will see as basically the Japanese version of “Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow” or “Tomorrow is a new day”. Now this is one of the simpler idioms as it does in fact contain the word tomorrow in it. But there are others that are even more difficult like “雨降って地固まる (あめふってじかたまる) “ which translates to “After the rain falls, the ground hardens”. Once again we have a phrase where the words may have little to do with the conversation at hand, except that our native speaker’s cultural references let them know that this is similar to the English phrase “That which doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.”

Another factor that can complicate the translation of these types of idioms, and Japanese has a lot of them, is the extremely unique nature of the Japanese writing system. If you want to see a more in depth breakdown, click here to see the article titled “(Insert Link Here)” located elsewhere on our system. The short, short version is that the Japanese written language is composed of three separate parts called hiragana, katakana and kanji.

Hiragana is a syllabary (set of syllables) used to compose original Japanese words, katakana is a syllabary of foreign and loan words and kanji is a symbolic language represented by Chinese ideograph characters. Because of this triplicate writing system, it is possible to have the same word written in different ways and only the context denotes to the translator which word the writer intended to use and why.

So this is once again one of those situations where the translators cultural understanding plays a vital role in being able to accurately translate in such a way as being able not only to convey the words written on the page, but also the meaning. The unique cultural touchstones and intricate writing system of the Japanese language provides for a challenging set of parameters in order to achieve complete and accurate translations. But there are many other hurdles on the path to a correct translation. So check out part two, where we will go over homophones, words that sound the same but are written differently. After reading this article, I am sure you can already imagine some of the difficulties that may raise. See you next time!

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