I feel I cannot express this idea clearly in either language...
March 17, 2011 10:43 AM   Subscribe

A question for translators: How do I convey diplomatically to my monoglot coworkers that translation is not an exact science?

My job (which is not professional translator, by the way) involves a lot of translation between Japanese and English. I studied Japanese for more than a decade, have been employed in Japanese work environments and have spent a lot of time in Japan. My Japanese is excellent but not perfect. When we translate documents from English to Japanese, we do so with a professional translator who is a native speaker. Japanese to English goes through me, a native English speaker.

None of my coworkers speaks a second language very well if at all and they sometimes question how I can translate the same sentence two slightly different ways. Others wonder how an article that is one page long written in kanji can be three pages long in English.

I recently was given a document in which the Japanese author had included several highly complex abstract quotations from a work in English, sentences which he had translated himself. I suggested that we track down the original work in English for my English version of the Japanese paper so my re-translation does not put a different spin on the original English-speaking author's ideas, but I am meeting resistance, because the thinking is that I should just translate it back and I will have the original author's exact words, right? After all, I have been told, "a word is a word."

It is a little frustrating, and I know other translators must have encountered this. I am thinking of a few years ago when the US State Department decreed that translations from Korean, Farsi and Arabic on nuclear technology must be exact translations, with no interpretation involved. How did US government translators deal with the fact that ALL translation involves some degree of interpretation?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Ask them if they've ever played the Telephone game when they were children. Alternatively, if any of them are old enough to remember VHS or music cassette taping, explain that with each generation of reproduction, the signal-to-noise ratio degrades.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:50 AM on March 17, 2011

If Google translate doesn't persuade them, some of the anecdotes in Biting the Wax Tadpole might help. The title refers to a Chinese mistranslation of Coca-Cola.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:52 AM on March 17, 2011

Tell them to translate a reasonably complex sentence from English to English - i.e same sense but put a different way, without comparing notes.

Then get them to see how now two "translations" actually mean exactly the same thing.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:53 AM on March 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

If the only difference between languages were simple word-for-word substitutions, learning a new language would be as simply as learning some new words. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple. In addition to stuff like grammar and structure, there's slang, idioms, ambiguous words, and nuance.

For example, a phrase I often encounter is translated word-for-word as **insert literally translated idomatic phrase here**. Since it's a common phrase, I know it really means **x**, but the literal translation won't tell you that.

A lot of times, translating involves interpreting subtle differences in meaning, and that nuance can be hard to capture. This is why it can be important to look up original sources when possible, so I can be sure to obtain the exact original phrasing.
posted by zug at 10:55 AM on March 17, 2011

I too am a Japanese translator. There are a lot of ways you can approach this.

The "telephone game" is a great way of explaining this. I was at a J-E translator's conference some years ago and we actually played this game, on paper, with the results being collected and published. I put them up on my blog to illustrate how wrong things can go. Mind you, these were all professional translators dedicated enough to go to a conference. So, you know, you could show them that.

You could start with something they might be able to understand directly. Like "how do you say 'buenos dias' in English?" There are a few possible responses, but "hello" is probably most colloquial. But then you can point out "buenos dias" literally means "good day," but that sounds more stilted in English than it does in Spanish. Even a simple greeting is prone to multiple interpretations.

You could say "have you ever read the instruction manual to your DVD player? Did you ever ask yourself 'Who translated this?'?"
posted by adamrice at 10:56 AM on March 17, 2011 [19 favorites]

I do wonder about the work where you want to go back to the original English quotation, though. In this context is it at all important to capture what the Japanese author believed the English quotation to say/mean? (it might not be)
posted by Pax at 10:56 AM on March 17, 2011

After all, I have been told, "a word is a word."

Get two people in a room. Ask them both to write a definition of the word "happiness" on a piece of paper. Then get them to compare results. Watch the hilarity ensue.

Another example -- "Schadenfreude" is a single word that commonly takes an entire sentence in English to express.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:56 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Douglas Hofstadter wrote a book which covered this in detail and has lots and lots of examples.
posted by empath at 10:58 AM on March 17, 2011

I've encountered the same problem with J->E translation, though most of the people I've tried to explain it to are more receptive to the idea that translation isn't exact.

The telephone game is a great idea, but if that doesn't work, I think I'd get a very simple example (a basic sentence or two) and walk people through what the "exact" word-by-word translation looks like (i.e. not good English). Maybe make an analogy to Google Translate -- that sort of mess is what "exact" translation looks like, you see, and that's why every translator needs to put things into their own words to get it to look like natural English rather than stilted nonsense-talk.

This should help with the "why is a small block of kanji a whole page in English" issue, also... if people see that each kanji's meaning has to be represented by a whole string of letters in English, they should get why the English version is always longer.
posted by vorfeed at 11:01 AM on March 17, 2011

I am thinking of a few years ago when the US State Department decreed that translations from Korean, Farsi and Arabic on nuclear technology must be exact translations, with no interpretation involved.

I think in a limited technical domain it's more possible to do 'exact' translations and you can create standardized dictionaries. When you're talking about engineering, the same word or phrase will be often be referring to the exact same process or technique, with very little room for interpretation.
posted by empath at 11:01 AM on March 17, 2011

I don't know if I have a good answer but I sure have a lot of empathy. Though I spend more time trying to convince my employers that they should please not ask me to translate out of my native language, so I guess that is kind of the opposite problem.

Telephone is a good example. Have you tried showing them a stab at a literal translation? Try to translate a sentence "word for word" (I know it is not even possible sometimes -- hard enough in Spanish, I can't imagine trying it in Japanese) and show your supervisor the gibberish that will result. If literal translation were remotely useful, everyone could get by with just a bilingual dictionary, and Google translate wouldn't be such a joke.

Half -- or more -- of the work of translating is making decisions and following your instinct for both the target and the original languages. It may make employers uncomfortable to hear that there is no "right" translation, but they should be glad to have someone who understands that translation is subjective and nuanced, rather than someone who claims to know all the answers and delivers a terrible, stilted, literal translation.

Good luck!
posted by little cow make small moo at 11:03 AM on March 17, 2011

Also in English you can use several words to convey the same idea, though those words have slightly different nuances to their meaning. For instance, pretty, beautiful, and lovely. All could mean attractive, but lovely could refer to personality or looks, and generally people consider beautiful to be more attractive than pretty.

As well, in one language there might be a single word to describe a complex idea, and an equivalent word does not exist in the other language. We had a heck of a time trying to specify exactly what "ganbatte o kudasai!" means in english, but "ganbatte" kind of means "you can do it!" "keep working hard" or "keep fighting the good fight!" etc. Generally a statement of encouragement to persevere through the difficult work.
posted by lizbunny at 11:04 AM on March 17, 2011

In addition to the above suggestions, I would recommend simply telling the person that best practice for translators is to get the original source rather than re-translating a quote back to the source language. Letting them know, explicitly, that this is one of the expectations of professional translators may help them to stop resisting, even if they don't necessarily understand why. I have no idea why accountants use the practices they do, but if an accountant tells me that X method is an accepted best practice, I'm going to assume that the accountants know what they're talking about unless I have reason to suspect otherwise.
posted by philosophygeek at 11:04 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Show them the examples in the wikipedia entry on syntactic ambiguity. Its a fun way to get across the fact that a word can be many words, depending on the context. For example:

"Charges dropped in submarine attack."

The word "charges dropped" could mean 'depth charges that were used by a boat during a battle against a submarine' or "an indictment against an individual (who attacked someone on a submarine) has been withdrawn."
posted by googly at 11:06 AM on March 17, 2011

Two words: the Bible.

By some counts, there are over 50 versions of the Bible in English alone, and two new translations came out on March 9, 2011.

Words are more than letters - they're a message.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am in the same boat as you, I am not a translator but am required to translate (damn you bilingual bonus!) from English to French, particularly for things such as error messages. I don't know if this is the same for English/Japanese, but generally, the French translation will be longer (more words) than the English. So when when I try to explain the complexity of translating, I point out that even though the messages say the same thing, it requires more words in French, so it is not a simple word for word excercise.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 11:12 AM on March 17, 2011

(I'm not intending to make this about religion, but I think the range in bible "options" is well known. )
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on March 17, 2011

A good place to start might be that while a word is a word, the way those words are used change from one language to the next, as a language isn't just a list of words but the manner in which they're used. Japanese is a really good example of this, I think; I had a friend who was in the JET program and through him I started to understand that one of the roadblocks to comprehension is that a whole lot of Japanese just doesn't translate directly into English.

To put it another way, what your coworkers are thinking is that all languages work like they imagine, say, French does (which is funny because it doesn't), in that every word has an English equivalent (again, doesn't), so they're imagining that (as an example) if you have five words in French forming a sentence then if you swap out each word for its English equivalent then you will have a sentence in English meaning the same thing as the original. And this is not true at all, but without a backing in another language it's how a lot of people think.

Let us consider Rimbaud's "Nina's Replies."

The final line - and a wonderful punchline, by the way - is "Et mon bureau?"

Translated literally, she's saying "And my office?" This page translates that as: "And what about my office?"

A book I have somewhere, not to hand unfortunately, translates it as: "...And be late for work?" Which I think is probably a lot closer to what Rimbaud intended it to come across as and conveys the nuance in English which would be lost in a strict translation of the French.

You see this a lot in translations of poetry and prose: A literal translation is clunky and conveys very little; the translator's job is to show what the author meant.

But let us move on from poetry, to this page.

Not including the use of one's own name - according to this page anyway - the Japanese language has thirteen singular personal pronouns, also not including regional and dialect changes. Thirteen most commonly-used ones. Bear in mind also that these thirteen are all context-sensitive and that they all refer to the same thing, in other words there's no differentiation between I and me.

If we include the latter restriction then the English language only has one. One singular personal pronoun. If we remove the latter restriction then we have three. You really can't translate a sense of casual deference vs. a sense of formal politeness using only English pronouns. There you go.

I'd imagine that once they wrap their head around that then it might be easier for them to grasp that translation is as much art as science.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:16 AM on March 17, 2011

Perhaps ask them why they think it must be the case that all other languages (eg, non English) must be word for word compatible with English? Ask them if there was a conference held one day by all Japanese and English speakers went through the largest and most up to date dictionaries available to mankind in order to ensure beyond all doubt that there was, in all instances, a perfect correlation between English and Japanese and that all people from that day on would only ever use the standardised terms in conjunction with new unified grammar and would endeavour to retrospectively update all prior texts to reflect the newly created universal compatibility of English and Japanese.

(They might detect some sarcasm before you finish telling the tale).
posted by dougrayrankin at 11:19 AM on March 17, 2011

A technical manual for one of the Sony pdas rendered each "Turn on" as "Rotate on". It was hilarious, and can be a good example of how words have different meanings in context and are not always 1:1.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:22 AM on March 17, 2011

Send them to TranslationParty.com

Or to restate your question:

This issue is a translation: language translation, please see me and I appreciate that please tell me your peers. What is the exact science of what is foreign?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:33 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

A technical manual for one of the Sony pdas rendered each "Turn on" as "Rotate on". It was hilarious, and can be a good example of how words have different meanings in context and are not always 1:1.

You don't even have to cross languages with this approach, just substitute a perfecty valid other word.

"Personal" might also mean "Private" in some context ("Hey! That's personal!"), "digital" could easily mean "of the fingers" and "assistant" could be translated as something like "Secretary" or "helper". Even "on" could be "upon". So I guess just substituting words, it wouldn't be hard to come up with "rotate upon the private finger secretary". That's just translating words from english to english.

I think examples and evidence are the way to go with this.
posted by mrgoat at 11:40 AM on March 17, 2011

An example you may wish to use - when I worked in product development, we had our packaging translated for several different languages, one of which was French. One of the phrases was "Get creative with XYZ Product!" The translator, who either never got the context or was just . .asleep . . used the French verb meaning, literally, to obtain - "Obtenez." What we were looking for obviously was more "Soyez créatif" -- BE creative -- or the longer phrase, "Faire preuve de créativité" -- and neither of these really conveys the actual intention of the English, which implies a bunch of emotional stuff / activity / doing-ness.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:45 AM on March 17, 2011

I'm afraid I don't know any Japanese, but since coming to the midwest I've actually had similar conversations about Chinese/English translations. So, following FAMOUS MONSTER's approach, I say this:

In Chinese, we have some equivalent of Aesop's fables, except there are thousands of them and every one can be cited with a four-syllable abbreviation that a well-educated speaker will mentally expand out to the full moral of that particular story. (I believe these exist in Japanese too, except worse because after they took all of ours they added a bunch of their own.)

So you say (literally translated) something like "lift arm block cart".

Now, you've already done some interpretation here:

* The last character in modern Chinese generally refers to an automobile, but in historical context it's obvious the speaker was referring to a horse-drawn cart.

* The second character could be translated equally well as "arm", and it's not clear even in context whether the particular gesture was holding up the entire arm to shield his body from the collision or just his hand, palm-out, like a policeman commanding the cart to stop.

But let's not get caught up in this sort of low-level quibbling because, really, a good translator shouldn't even mention carts and arms. He should recognize this as an allusion to the story of some kind of insect who sees a farmer's vegetable cart barreling down the road at him and throws up an arm as if to stop the cart.

Idiomatically, you should say at this point, "and this was really quite useless." Or "but in vain." Or any of a thousand other perfectly legitimate phrasings, depending on the author's register, whether he meant to emphasize the futility or arrogance or stupidity of the act.

At this point, people sometimes claim that Chinese is unnecessarily complicated, at which point I tell them I've got to see a dog about a man but I'll be back in two shakes of a lamb's tail to stand them a round.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:59 AM on March 17, 2011 [11 favorites]

Let me add that I have a very good understanding of your frustration right now, and you should, above all, not appear impatient or annoyed. Speaking at least two if not 2.5 human languages and several more programming languages, I too find the idea of a perfect translation just baffling. I have no idea how people come to this conclusion. Were they never up in the wee hours back in high school or university just trying to figure out what someone meant to write in English? But it never helps to get short with anyone.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:06 PM on March 17, 2011

Since it's Japanese, a traffic light is red, yellow and ____?

I know it's not literally true that Inuits have 30 words for snow, but ask them to imagine if you translated an article about snow into English, then back again, whether they think something valuable would be lost compared to the original.
posted by RobotHero at 12:11 PM on March 17, 2011

I don't think you need more facts. I think you need more persuasion. Start saying things like, Well %Name, as you know, Japanese Kanji characters don't have precise English translations. and Of course, kanji expresses cultural subtleties that take a lot more words to explain in English, %Name. and Excellent point, %name, as I'm you're aware, translating literal words doesn't always convey the true or intended meaning. Also, throw in some comments about your years of learning, like As a student of the language, Japanese is so different that even with X years of studying, I feel I've got so much more to learn. And you could do some particularly obtuse word-for-word translations, as an example.

I'd spend some googletime on persuasion techniques. They come in handy.
posted by theora55 at 12:19 PM on March 17, 2011

A word is a word, but even in English that's not true. We assign a lot of connotations to words. How would you word-for-word translate proverbs for example?
posted by asciident at 12:53 PM on March 17, 2011

I have no idea how people come to this conclusion.

I think it is a brand of parochialism combined with the classic a little learning. Everyone seems to believe that the mother tongue is the most expressive and subtle of all human languages, and when -- for example -- anglophones have a couple of years of government-mandated obligatory Spanish or French, they sometime come to feel that because they have grasped that hat equals chapeau or sombrero and dog equals pero or chien, that this one-to-one equivalency carries through for every word (that a language is a code, essentially).

Related is the tendency (in my finding) for unilingual people to believe that there is some magic breakthrough where you just "speak" Spanish or French or whatever and all vocabulary is magically yours. Yes, I speak French as my second language and am able to carry on a conversation. If the conversation suddenly turned to auto parts or holistic medicine or steeplejack racing, I would be on much less certain ground. A unilingual colleague of mine fails to grasp this: I have tried to explain that if we were talking about the rigging of a sailing vessel neither one of us would be able to describe the difference between an upper topgallant sail and a lateen without pointing at things. She does not see how that is the same at all.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:13 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Rather than abstract examples, why not show them directly? The next time they express skepticism, demonstrate on the spot how you can translate a sentence (or, if you have time, a paragraph) in the very text under discussion in two different ways. Show them that while both have the same general meaning and content, different translations inevitably emphasize and deemphasize different things, and very slight differences in word choice can add up over large numbers of words to more significant differences in meaning.
posted by No-sword at 1:16 PM on March 17, 2011

A lot of gret advice up thread. Here's another suggestion: Pull out your best J<->E dictionary (Wordtank, etc) and your best English Dictionary (web site, etc.) Have the person pick any adjective at random. Have then look up the English definition of that word. Then have them look up the Japanese for that word, then look up that Japanese word's definition. Compare.

Or pick two English dictionaries and look up the same work in both and enjoy that even these definitive sources have different definitions.
posted by Ookseer at 1:26 PM on March 17, 2011

I've used this page to start a discussion on translation issues:the fox's secret. I found it when I was trying to figure out why one of my Japanese copies of The Little Prince was easier for me to read than the other.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:11 PM on March 17, 2011

I think we are looking primarily at cultural issues here.
First of all, your coworkers are Japanese, correct?

I suggested that we track down the original work in English for my English version ...

OK, that's your problem right there.
The best way to go about this (even in Japan) is to go ahead and track down the original yourself. Use the internet, call the author, contact the publisher, shouldn't be that difficult in an office environment. Your coworker might not care very much about the quality of the English and perhaps just wants to get the work done and go home. Also, good quality English and poor quality English might look exactly the same to him, so how big could the difference be. And besides, the English is your responsibility. If you track down the original first, then you can use that to back up your translation in case someone questsions it.

But the ultimate problem in all this is that the reason your Japanese coworkers question your translation is because Japanese working environments are process-oriented, which means that a high emphasis is put on controlling the process. Putting this to extremes means that every step of the process has to be verifiable. That's why your translations are questioned and blind trust is put in dictionaries. "Trust me, I'm the native speaker here," is not a good answer, at least not until you've known them for years and earned their trust. Also, I doubt that an explanation starting with "Do you know the kid's game telephone?" will get you very far.
posted by sour cream at 2:16 PM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could just tell them to bug off and let you do your job. Sorry, I mean, you could just tell them to get lost and let you work. Wait, that doesn't sound right. You should ask them to leave you alone so that you can work.

There are multiple ways to say almost anything in English. If we can't express the same concept using exactly the same words as everyone else then why should translators?

Do they know any other languages at all? If someone there knows even a little Spanish, ask them if the correct translation of "No tengo nada" is "I have nothing" or "I don't have anything".
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:16 PM on March 17, 2011

Can you give "word is a word" set some specific counter examples? I took Japanese in college, and although it's been a while, I think I remember there being a lot of cases where the Japanese word encompasses several English ones (e.g. the Japanese use the same kanji for "write," "paint," and "draw,") and--relatedly, I think--Japanese often relies more on context than English does for meaning. So this explains the differing lengths of texts and the possibilities for different meanings, because when you're going from Japanese to English, in order to be grammatical in English you have to write out the subject of the sentence every time, and then you have to decide if that subject is writing, drawing, or painting. And if in the Japanese the subject is doing something between writing and painting--like [writing] calligraphy--sometimes the translator has to add extra words in English in order to clarify that.
posted by colfax at 6:30 PM on March 17, 2011

One word answer: synonyms

Logical argument:
- if synonyms exist, then words can have more than one translation
- if synonyms don't exist, then one word equals one word
- synonyms exist
- therefore, words can have more than one translation
posted by unintelligentlydesigned at 7:33 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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