Language for a Living

Language for a Living

There is something intangible about the work of a translator. Some may wonder whether translating even qualifies as working. During my student years, on more than one occasion I was approached by a Japanese friend who would ask me to translate a wall of text into English, “because you speak the language, don’t you?” Even as a professional translator, my prospective clients are sometimes startled when I tell them it might take more time to accurately translate a text than it took them to write it. Experiences such as these made me think a closer look at the work of a translator is in order.

Let’s start with the obvious: you can be sure that any translation job that exceeds the complexity of a shopping list will be deliciously bungled by Google Translate. Let’s have a look at what Google makes of the following Japanese sentence:

Japanese: 青春の輝き、熱き若者たちの挑戦 (seishun no kagayaki, atsuki wakamonotachi no chōsen)
Google: “Youth of shine, challenge of Passionate young people”

I will not bother you with the Dutch translation, which ended up even more creative because Google first translates Japanese into English before the end-user is shown the final translation in Dutch.

The Japanese sentence itself poses an interesting challenge. It is the subtitle of a television series and captures rather typically the importance concepts such as nostalgia and youth hold in the hearts of many Japanese. I would translate the sentence as follows:

Iki: “The power of youth – fearless youngsters on a mission”

Even without further context, the general emotion behind the subtitle shines through. In an actual translation, aided by a footnote or two, I would go on to explain the reasons behind this somewhat melodramatic take on youthful bliss. For example, this could be linked to the way university life clashes with the transition into society, where students bid farewell to four years of freedom upon graduation as they suddenly have to transform into responsible adults. More on this in a future Ikiji.

It is essential that the deeper meaning present in the original text, or in the words of the speaker, is converted in a way that people with a different cultural background are able to grasp the finer nuances. Even if one understands the individual words, without context a translation is often meaningless.

Interpreting takes this further, because culturally defined habits and body language often manifest themselves subconsciously. As an interpreter, it is my job to convey both the client’s words as well as the emotion behind them. Japanese people are often inclined to express their intentions in an indirect fashion. When a Japanese person remarks that it may be difficult to achieve a certain deadline, more often than not the audience is expected to gather that in this context “difficult” means “nigh-impossible,” rather than assuming that the deadline will be met by putting in a few extra hours. In Japanese, correctly interpreting comments like these is called “reading the air” 空気を読む (kūki o yomu). By doing so, one’s unspoken intentions are picked up by the other party, thus circumventing the impending social gaffe.

All of these elements are essential to the delivery of a proper translation. Naturally, then, this process takes time, but clients are often grateful for an inside look into a foreign culture. This is certainly one of the most gratifying parts of this job. A translator makes sure that it is not just the words that are translated, but that people with completely different backgrounds are able to understand each other.

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