Filling in the blanks

The other day, I wrote about when translators should leave information in the original out of their translations.

Today, I want to write about the opposite case: when you should add information not included in the original.

This often happens when the grammar of the target language requires certain information to be explicit that's optional in the source language. When going from Japanese to English, this includes things like the number and gender, the subjects and objects of verbs, and verb tense. For example, Japanese by default doesn't mark nouns as being plural or singular, but you usually need this information in order to translate into English.

There are also times when information not in the original needs to be in the translation for cultural/normative reasons. One example is names; in Japanese, it's very common to refer to people by their family names only, while in English it's more usual to give the full name (or just the given name in some cases). Even if you want to be a little stilted and write "Mr./Ms. Tanaka," often there'll be no clue about the person's gender (though sadly, if the person is an engineer or executive, you're pretty safe in assuming it's a man).

Yes, there are weaselly tricks to get out of expressing this information in English, such as never using pronouns:

A customer called technical support on Friday. The customer was upset about the customer's cell phone exploding. The customer threatened to sue us for "a bazillion dollars." We may be able to get the customer to accept a free ringtone instead.

There's also that insipid semi-personal pronoun "they," but I don't believe that it belongs in formal writing. It also gives the impression that you're intentionally leaving the gender vague for some reason, which adds a nuance not contained in the original.

You can also just call people Tanaka, Suzuki, and so on, with no hints about whether it's a family or given name.

While these kinds of tricks mostly work, though, I believe that in order to produce a good translation, you've got to include the information that English-language readers expect.

Picking up the information from context

So how do you get this information? The easiest way is by picking up the context from the document. For example, the following sentence is ambiguous when translating into English:


Depending on the number of CDs, this could be translated as "Store the CDs in a safe place," or "Store the CD in a safe place."

If there's a packing list in the document, or a picture of the CD(s), then you can tell if there are more than one of them. Likewise, if there are installation instructions, you can see if it tells you to insert the second CD, and so on.

Getting the information from the real world

If the information can't be retrieved from the document itself, my next step is the real world. For example, if the document talks about "president Suzuki" of Sprocket Industries, I'll go to the Sprocket Industries website and get the president's first name there. Likewise, if the document says that SI's plant(s) is/are running at 50% capacity due to the recession, I can check to see how many plants Sprocket Industries has.

Last resort: ask the client

If I can't find the missing information on the internet or in my references, then I'll contact the client. This is usually my last resort because (a) I don't want to bother the client with things I can dig out myself, (b) it takes more time than the other methods. Sometimes, though, the only way to get the information is from the client, like when they give the name of somebody too lowly in the organization to merit a mention on the website.

Here is one of the ways in which in-house translators have a big leg up over freelancers, because they can simply walk down the hall to get the needed information in most cases.

Of course, getting this information right isn't always worth the effort. A couple of months ago, I was doing a piece about a tech company that taught science classes at local elementary schools. The article mentioned several of the students by last name only, and with no clue as to gender. I asked the client, and they told me to just assume half the children were girls, and half boys, and assign them gender appropriately!

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