Japanese-to-English Translation Basics

Old Books

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a translation seminar with one of the finest translators of Japanese literature into English. The course texts she selected for the seminar presented all manner of interesting translation challenges, and she brought in a number of fantastic speakers from the Kyoto-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators to discuss these challenges with our class. Unfortunately, I was not able to take full advantage of this seminar; it was as if these professional translators were teaching us translation calculus, and I still didn’t grasp basic translation algebra.

I just finished a tertiary round of edits for two major translation projects, and I’ve noticed a number of patterns in the areas I’ve repeatedly needed to adjust. Once I became aware of the currents my editing was following, I started to imagine that I was getting at some of the basic and fundamental issues of Japanese-to-English translation. If I could go back in time and give my fledgling translator self some advice, this is what I might say…

(1) Japanese sentences tend to begin with prepositional phrases and other subordinate clauses that separate the subject from the verb. Although sentence variety is important in English, simple subject-verb-object sentences are the foundation of muscular and fluent English prose. Consider splitting a sentence into two sentences if the sheer number and frequency of subordinate clauses render a literal translation of that sentence into a hermeneutic puzzle in English. Also, never be afraid to switch the order of words in a sentence if it sounds better to your ear, such as in the case of placing adverbs after verbs instead of in front of them.

(2) Letting the reader know that information is hypothetical or coming from a secondhand source is a common feature of Japanese, but an overuse of expressions such as “it seems,” “I heard that,” “someone said,” “it’s often said,” “perhaps,” and “maybe” tend to weaken English prose. If the information being presented is obviously a subjective impression or something that the narrator/speaker would have no way of knowing on a firsthand basis, it’s usually safe to omit the attribution markers.

(3) Adverbs, especially temporal adverbs, are much more tolerated in Japanese writing than they are in English writing. If adverbs or adverbial phrases such as “suddenly” or “after a while” are clear from the context, the translator should feel free to omit them. Also, if the meaning of an adverbial phrase can be transferred to a verb, such as in the case of “said in a loud voice” becoming “shouted,” then the translator should consider doing so. This is not diluting the author’s language but rather transforming strong writing in Japanese into strong writing in English.

(4) Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. If the subject of a passive sentence can be inferred, insert it into the sentence and change the verb to the active voice. The implications of the passive voice are interesting and valuable but can usually be deduced in other ways, and passive sentence structures are much more common and natural in Japanese than they are in English, where they can quickly become jarring to the reader.

(5) The literal translation of the triple and quadruple negatives of Japanese rhetoric sounds ridiculous in English, a language in which a single negative or positive statement is usually considered infinitely more articulate.

(6) Think twice about retaining honorific titles such as “san,” “kun,” “chan,” “buchō,” “kachō,” and “sensei” in your English translation. Such Japanese-isms can feel gimmicky, and often they are not necessary to convey the relationships between characters. Moreover, if honorifics are maintained in translation, it may still be difficult to make the reader aware of what it means when a name is used without honorifics. Japanese is well known for being able to express multiple levels of formality, but English is no slouch at conveying degrees of distance and friendliness, and the manner in which two characters speak to each other can mean much more to the reader than which honorifics they use.

(7) The written approximation of dialect is common in Japanese, but don’t try to “translate” dialect into an English equivalent unless you feel absolutely comfortable doing so. The written approximation of dialect in English will almost always appear goofy and corny to the reader. Different grammatical patterns, tonal registers, and word choices will usually help to convey dialect better than means such as replaced, duplicated, or truncated vowels.

(8) When faced with the task of translating untranslatable words, consider not translating them. You have a smartphone, your grandmother has a smartphone, your four-year-old daughter has a smartphone, and it’s not difficult to run a quick Google search for something like “kotatsu” or “umeshu.” Even without outside sources, your reader will generally be smart enough to get an approximate impression from the context. When it comes to brand names, it’s especially easy for the reader to figure out what’s being referred to from the context, and it’s generally best to leave them be without any footnoting or inserted explanation. In some cases, however, leaving a word untranslated can feel silly and pretentious to the reader, so it’s helpful to have an ideal reader in mind and cater to the presumed knowledge, tastes, and expectations of that reader.

(9) When it comes to puns, jokes, proverbs, idiomatic expressions, and made-up words, crowdsourcing translation solutions is always an option. This is why Al Gore invented the internet back in the eighties, so feel free to use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as your own personal dictionaries of creative genius. Some of the problems you face in translating certain words may also be an issue of relative expertise, so there’s no shame in relying on other people for help if you need to know more about how to refer to certain foods, colors, meteorological phenomena, or American sci-fi stories from the seventies. Translation is just as much of a research project as it is an art, but there’s no need for research to be a solitary task in a lonely room full of dusty books (unless of course you’d like it to be).

(10) Make sure you do at least one read-through of your translation while completely separated from the original Japanese text. Even if you have a crystal clear translation of a certain word, expression, or passage, it’s all but worthless if it doesn’t gel with the rest of the English on the page. Also, if you can exchange favors for translation checking, proofreading, and copyediting, do so and count yourself fortunate. If your ideal reader is an actual person, then let her actually read your drafts. Translation is difficult and complicated work, and you might be surprised by the things you miss as you juggle multiple documents and languages.

Finally, don’t let anyone get you down with analogies about how a translation is like a woman who can’t be pretty and faithful at the same time, or about how reading a translation is like having sex while wearing a condom, or about how the translator does damage to a text by forcibly penetrating it with a phallus-pen. Such analogies are not only gross but also inane and banal. Translation is awesome, and being able to read things originally written in a different language is an amazing privilege for those of us who benefit from translation. Some of the best English prose I’ve ever read has come in the form of translated literature, to be honest. For what it’s worth, the word games and creative challenges of translation are also an enormous amount of fun.

If you’ve just started translating from Japanese into English, good luck! And check out the Kyoto Journal‘s wonderful piece They Who Render Anew for inspiration.

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Three)

It can be argued that all of the characters in Final Fantasy VII are amalgamations of popular character tropes. One of the most important and popular characters from the game, Aeris, comes dangerously close to many of the various tropes identified with a Mary Sue. For example, the short paragraph of text in the game’s manual describes her as “mysteriously beautiful,” she has an exotic name, she has an usual and dramatic back story, she’s exceptionally talented in a wide variety of areas and possesses rare powers, she is the last of her race, all of game’s characters (even the markedly antisocial ones) adore her, she is brave, cheerful, and incorruptible, she is too pure for this earth and sacrifices herself to save everyone, and her only flaws, innocence and naivety, are far from damning. I am not trying to suggest that Aeris in fact is a Mary Sue character, or even that Mary Sue characters are necessarily a bad thing. What I am trying to suggest is that the character receives a very sympathetic portrayal and occasionally seems to good to be true.

No matter how close Aeris comes to a Mary Sue, she can never be a true Sue, as she is neither a writer nor a reader stand-in. That particular role belongs to Cloud, a confused and lonely young man who just happens to have a bigger sword than anyone else. It’s difficult not to sympathize with Cloud as he wins countless battles, runs up endless flights of stairs, snowboards, rides a huge motorcycle, cross-dresses, discovers his forgotten past, wins his revenge from the psychopath who torched his hometown, and is praised and admired by almost everyone in the game’s cast. At his core, though, Cloud is emotionally vulnerable and just needs someone to comfort and understand him.

That someone, for the first half of the game, is Aeris. Unless the player is armed with a cheat sheet of responses to in-game dialog, Final Fantasy VII sets Aeris up to be Cloud’s love interest. Aeris’s many attractive qualities serve to make her mid-game death more dramatically effective, of course, but they also serve to make her a more desirable partner for the player-protagonist. In this sense, then, she is what I might call a male-generated Mary Sue. She is not everything that the player wants to be, but everything that the player wants to be with. In other words, she is a perfect romantic partner, someone who is strong and kind and beautiful but still unconditionally attracted to the dorky male hero. Is the strength of such a female character truly empowering when it only serves to bolster the ego and libido of the player-protagonist?

Actually, quite a few female gamers have declared that yes, it is empowering. Over-rated though it may or may not be, Final Fantasy VII brought an extraordinary number of new players to the franchise with the richness and depth of its storytelling, world building, and gameplay. Many of these new players were female. As I mentioned earlier, although we can now say that it’s misleading to think of the majority of video game players as male, that stereotype wasn’t so far from the truth in 1997, the year that Final Fantasy VII was released during the early years of the Playstation gaming console. Female players were attracted to the game both by the burgeoning mainstream popularity of gaming and by the presence of female characters who were more than guns and boobs on a remote-controlled stick. Many female gamers in my generation grew up with Aeris and Tifa, and we saw these characters as much more than Cloud’s love interests – we saw them as real people, with real personalities. We also saw them as role models in a way that would have been difficult with the extremely limited dialog of earlier characters like Rydia.

Aeris may have been too good to be true, but she had thousands of lines of dialog that at least made her seem real to the player. Moreover, her dialog was not merely ego-reinforcement for the player-protagonist. Aeris kept secrets, and she had her own set of motivations that never became entirely clear until after her death. The character knew things that she did not share with the player-protagonist, and she expressed emotions that were not directly related to the player-protagonist or to the development of the game’s story. In other words, she had interiority.

Final Fantasy VII also passes the Bechdel Test in that Aeris is friends with Tifa, and the pair on multiple occasions talks about things other than Cloud. Tifa is herself an interesting character. Although her character design is all legs and chest, and although her fighting style seems tailor-made to show off her tight shirt and short shirt (witness her victory pose at the end of every successful battle), she has much more dialog than Aeris, and she is arguably a much darker character.

After the Shinra power company destroys her village and covers up the operation, she moves to the city of the company’s global headquarters, where she opens a bar that will serve as a base for a terrorist resistance movement. Throughout the game she is conscious of the human cost of terrorist activity, as well as the consequences of shutting down the world’s major source of electrical power. She must also navigate the guilt she feels at having bullied Cloud as a child, the confusion she feels regarding his amnesia surrounding their shared past, and the jealousy that she begins to feel toward Aeris. Yes, Tifa’s huge boobs are on constant display, and yes, the camera looks up her skirt when Cloud saves her from falling at the end of the game, but a new generation of female players were able to see past this and sympathize with Tifa as a complex character. Although there are countless fan works depicting the seduction and rape of both Tifa and Aeris, there are arguably many more that explore the aspirations and anxieties of the characters outside of sexual or romantic relationships.

Female players therefore brought with them a female gaze. This gaze not only transformed female characters from objects to subjects, but it also turned an objectifying lens on the male characters. These new female fans took advantage of the fledgling world wide web to form communities with other fans with whom they could discuss topics such as whether Cloud’s nemesis Sephiroth was even more attractive than Cloud. The international character of the internet also exposed Western fans to the work (and particularly the artwork) of Japanese fans, and soon Cloud was no longer in a romantic relationship with Aeris or Tifa but rather intimately involved with the evil military leader Sephiroth. For a generation of female fans too young for Star Trek, then, Final Fantasy VII was a gateway into alternative readings of popular texts. To give it due credit, the game has a story and cast of characters deep enough to actively encourage the female gaze that helped to make the game so popular. Although the vagaries of corporate marketing decisions are beyond me, I can only assume that Square quickly connected the unprecedented success of Final Fantasy VII to its popularity with gamers of both genders, since each successive game in the franchise has featured stronger and more developed female characters – as well as a colorful sprinkling of homoerotic tension between male characters.

Part One
Part Two
Part Four
Part Five