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:

環境への取り組み

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:

その問題に関しては社会全体の取り組みが必要である.
When it comes to that problem, society as a whole must grapple with it.

まだまだ日本の環境問題に対する取り組みが遅れている.
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.

5 comments to The really hard part about translating

  • Kevin

    Ryan,
    Again you’ve very accurately described what I’ve experienced as a translator. I’d just like to add to the last line of your post about “producing smooth, accurate translations at an economically viable pace,” I find that there are days/hours when I can do this with little effort, it’s actually enjoyable, but there are other days/hours when it just doesn’t happen without a lot of effort and overall it’s not as efficient. I’ve worked out that exercise and sleep are important, but there seem to be other factors too. And interestingly, after spending say four or five hours on good “in the flow” translating, playing guitar or reading is very relaxing, but the mental energy for chess or blogging just isn’t there, for me at least. I wonder if that’s the same for other translators?

  • @Kevin

    Sometimes, when the concentration won’t come, you just need to take a day off. :) Translation takes a lot of mental effort, and we can’t really slog away like factory workers.

    But we’ve got to put tofu on the table, so I do have some tricks to get things done when the translation starts slogging.

    One is to copy out the first paragraph into a new document, and just translate that. That tricks your brain into going along. Usually, by the time I’ve translated that first paragraph, I’m into the swing. Otherwise, I’ll set the translation aside, and after a break, it’ll be easier because the translation is already started.

    A similar ploy is to break up a long sentence into phrases, one line per phrase, and just translate those phrases, and then stitch together the sentence. After doing that for a sentence or two, I’ll usually be able to start holding the whole sentence in my brain as I translate (necessary for Japanese, since you often need to translate from the outside in, doing the beginning and end of the sentence, then the parts in between).

  • Kevin

    That’s good advice, Ryan, thanks.
    Actually, the second technique there is one that I was taught very early on in my career about 10 years ago when I started being mentored in financial translation. I didn’t end up getting into financial translation (way too much deadline pressure) but I did keep that technique of splitting up sentences into meaningful phrases, which is perhaps even more useful with patent translation. And that’s one thing that is difficult about working with hard copy or with un-OCR-able PDFs — can’t put in returns after phrases to break up the sentences.
    But I like your idea of making a file of one paragraph and just doing that. I guess it’s like many things (exercising, dishwashing, house cleaning), it’s just the start that is the main obstacle to be faced and got over. After that, things often fall into place or that illusive rhythm just kicks in.

  • Hi all,
    @ Kevin: I agree with the fact that “the start” is (more than often) the main obstacle to getting started. And yes, sometimes, I take half a day or a full day off. Doing something else helps a lot too… as long as I am away from the computer ;)

  • Tom

    I have also seen 「取り組み」 translated as “activities” in CSR related documentation.

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