The really hard part about translating
Non-translators often have wrong notions about what makes translation hard. They think the problem is in understanding all those funny squiggles, or if they're a bit more sophisticated, they think the hard part is knowing all those technical terms.
They're wrong, of course. Firstly, you're not ready to start thinking about becoming a translator until reading those foreign squiggles is no longer a challenge, and secondly, technical terms are actually the easiest things to translate. Why? Because they're most often in a one-to-one correspondence between the two languages. I doubt there are many languages lacking a direct translation for the word "hydrogen," for example.
Technical terms aren't the problem: it's the fuzzy stuff around them that really gives us headaches. Figurative, vague, and culturally bound phrases are what give us ulcers, or what make translation an exciting and rewarding career (or both!), depending on your outlook. 🙂
The problem is that unlike "technical" terms, there's no one "right way" to translate these expressions. You've got to tailor each translation to the context at hand. If you look at translators' mailing lists like honyaku, by far the most digital ink is spilled on translations of "fuzzy" terms like ganbaru and tettei. Note that here I'm using the term "fuzzy" to mean a phrase that doesn't map directly to an equivalent in the target language. "Ganbaru" and its ilk are fulfilling their roles perfectly in the context of the Japanese language.
A case in point is the term 取り組み (torikumi), which literally means "grapple." It's used figuratively in the sense of "grappling" with issues or challenges, and makes frequent appearances in corporatespeak of all types.
While it's possible to translate this into English as "grapple" as well, it's not nearly as common as the Japanese, and in many cases doesn't fit. This is a conceptual mismatch: the Japanese language has a figurative image of "coming to grips with something" that English lacks.
Take for example the following phrase, which gets nearly 26 million hits on Google:
The phrase means, roughly, "things that we are doing for the environment." It would be totally inappropriate to translate this as "grappling with the environment," or even "coping with the environment." I would likely translate this as "Environmental Initiatives" or "Commitment to the Environment."
Yet all most dictionaries give us as the translation for 取り組み is "grapple," with perhaps "come to grips with," "cope with," or "tackle" thrown in.
The two example sentences from the 5th edition of the Green Goddess (widely recognized as the top J->E bilingual dictionary available) also take this weaselly way out:
When it comes to that problem, society as a whole must grapple with it.
Japan is still lagging far behind in grappling with environmental problems.
Even if there seems to be a direct match for the term in the target language, the connotations can create unwelcome meanings in the translation. I blogged before about how translating 防止 as "prevent" can be politically charged in the case of global warming.
With time and experience, we gradually build up a personal bag of tricks to deal with these pesky terms. Each time you figure out a way to deal with a fuzzy concept adds another trick to your bag. I gave two examples above for 取り組み: "initiatives" and "commitment." Another possibility is "efforts."
Having this bag of tricks means that you can solve conceptual mismatches quickly, instead of pulling on your hair for an hour and then going with the lame dictionary translation anyway. It's one of the main assets a translator accumulates with experience, and it's far more important than dictionaries or glossaries of "technical terms" for producing smooth, accurate translations at an economically viable pace.