Translation vs. Translationese

It’s common in foreign language classes for the teacher to check students’ understanding of the material presented in class by having them translate all or part of it into their native language.  One time in a Japanese class in college, I translated something naturally to English, and my teacher said, “Mm, that’s the good translation. Now translate it so the others can understand what the Japanese words are doing.”

For the life of me, I can’t remember exactly what the phrase was, but it was basically something where the sentence structure ended up being completely different in English from the original Japanese when translated naturally. It was probably a relative clause. In any case, that distinction remained clear in my mind: natural translations vs. translations that accurately reflect the structure/mechanics of the original language. I don’t know if this is what other people mean when they say “translationese,” but it’s what I mean when I use that word.

When I first ventured to post a Japanese–>English translation online in 2009, I was still a bit stuck in the mode of translating to reflect what the Japanese words were doing on a grammatical level. Partly, I was worried about people who could read a bit of Japanese saying “that’s not what’s written there” if I translated more naturally. But these days, while I think there’s a place for such translationese in the beginner levels of foreign language classes (a small place, preferably), my stance now is that there’s no place for that when writing translations outside of a language learning environment, such as the GACKT translations on this blog. If the people reading these translation are English speakers, why present them with unnatural English that is bound by the grammar rules of Japanese? If the readers haven’t studied Japanese, they won’t even be able to recognize the underlying cause of the unnatural English, so what’s the point of doing that?

When writing in English, I now think, my loyalty should go to the English language, not Japanese grammar. Of course, I must convey the meaning of the original Japanese faithfully. But whereas in the past I’d get caught up on such minutiae as trying to make sure verbs were represented by verbs, nouns by nouns, and so forth, now my main goal is to write something that looks like it was originally written in English. In other words, the readers should forget that what they’re reading, is, in fact, a translation. It’s kind of like suspension of disbelief. A good movie makes you forget you’re watching a movie, even if there’s aliens or talking cats on-screen. So, that’s my goal for the translations on this blog.

Speaking of which, I hope to post a GACKT-related translation soon. I just finished reading the novel Kirin no Tsubasa by Keigo HIGASHINO. It was good! Started dragging in the middle a little, but I couldn’t put it down for the last 100 pages or so. I think that should fill my quota of non-GACKT related Japanese reading material for a while, so I’m gonna go ahead and go back to reading old GACKT stuff for a little bit. Ahaha….

On the topic of translation, I recently found the blog Legends of Localization, which is about the localization of video games. Really interesting stuff, whether you read it as a gamer, translator, or both!


5 thoughts on “Translation vs. Translationese

  1. Lazy Cat

    Hi =)

    Interesting post. I do translations sometimes too (from English to Portuguese) and I’d never think to a “translationese”, as you put it (I call it a direct translation). Although sometimes it happens, cause I’m so engrossed in the English I forget how Portuguese works. Silly me.
    Anyway… translations can be tricky, but at least you can use foot notes to explain certain things a little better and be more faithful to the original. Translation jokes and doubles meanings are the worst…. and in my case, I can’t use foot notes, so I have to make the best I can. Ah, it’s really frustrating sometimes!

    The link to Legends of Localization doesn’t work. You got it mixed up with your blog’s address 😉

    1. I’m not the only one who uses the term “translationese,” neither did I make it up. It’s actually a Thing that has been researched scientifically:

      …but I haven’t read the studies myself. My particular impression of the term was that while Translationese does consist of direct translations, there’s an extra layer of meaning to the term; “direct translation” doesn’t imply that that method of speaking/writing can take on a life of its own, whereas “Translationese,” by making it sound as if it were a language in its own right, does. Plus, direct translations often end up being grammatically incorrect, whereas Translationese can pass the grammar test but not the Native Speakers’ Gut Instinct test. I’ve had Japanese people speak Japanese to me in Translationese. That is to say, they made their Japanese more grammatically similar to English (for example, by always saying あなたは—anata wa, “you [are]”—despite the fact that Japanese usually drops the subject of a sentence once the subject has been established. Such Japanese is grammatically correct, but it’s not natural. Going the other way around: Japanese tends to use the passive form rampantly, but it’s not nearly as common in English; translating those passives as such yields grammatically correct sentences, but when you read a whole bunch of passive sentences together, it sounds unnatural. For me, that’s one of the biggest tell-tale signs of Translationese in JPN→ENG translations.

      I use footnotes in this blog because the medium permits it (plus this is a fan blog and I can do what I want, ahaha!), but I’ve so far never had a paid translation job in a medium that would allow anything similar, so I have to find ways to work around certain things.

      Ah, I don’t know why, but that particular link issue (the real link getting appended to the blog post link) kept happening a few months ago. I’ll fix it. EDIT: Fixed. The editor assumes that if I don’t write http:// the domain is within this same blog.

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