Notes from the coffee mill...
Translations, Trashlations, What's the Difference?
Ah the translation game. It's an area I both like and dislike looking at when it comes to evaluating an anime. Let's face it, it's not easy translating things from one language to another, especially when cultural aspects are integral to a language. Translating things roughly from one language to another isn't exceedingly difficult. Afterall, it doesn't entirely matter how you say things so much as getting the gist of what's being said. Translating "on the fly" is like that. However, while I'm not a translator (professional or otherwise), I can see where some headaches come into play when doing translations.
When translating and looking at the quality of translations, it becomes important to consider several factors including whether it's for a sub or dub. Why is this so important? Dialogue flow. There is an inherent tradeoff which happens in a dubbed title between natural dialogue and accuracy of the translation. This doesn't mean that the translation can't be accurate, just that there is a greater likelihood that something will be dropped, glossed over, or re-worded to be more natural in English (or whatever the target language is). It's more important in a dubbed video for the dialogue to flow smoothly and sound natural in order to maintain viewer interest and understanding. Go too far towards accuracy, and the dialogue starts to sound stiff, odd or just not make sense. Meanwhile, subbed titles, don't have as strong a necessity for idiomatic English or dialogue flow. Instead translational accuracy can be more stringently maintained. Afterall, the subbed version does have the inflection and emotional content in the original voice acting to carry the emotional subcontext of the subtitle. (Not to say that idiomatic or more natural English aren't important; just that they are less important compared to translational accuracy).
So, dialogue flow is important, but we knew that from the sub-dub debate. Afterall, that's one of the key points between the two. So how does this come in from the translation viewpoint?
"Say what you mean, mean what you say". This was the title of an article in the Daily Yomiuri recently looking at denotative, or literal word meaning, compared to the connotative, or implied, meaning of words. Words with strong denotative but little connotative meaning are nice since they're very straight forward, but are limiting because they lack the expressiveness inherent in connotatively rich words. Consider talking about a seedy, slum compared to a poor, dirty, high-crime neighbourhood with a bad reputation and in a general state of disrepair. You can see the power of connotative meanings. However, if an inappropriate connotative phrase is used, it could skew the original meaning to something different. Also, excessive use of literal words means that translations are longer and subtitles or dialogue could become unwieldy. Connotative words on the other hand could be too loose but they are nice and short. There's that trade-off between length and accuracy.
Cultural assumptions are also often made in the original language version for a given video. In these instances a true translation becomes difficult. Some words and phrases have no true cultural equivalent in the target language such that literal translations make little sense or "sound weird". Instead a completely unrelated (with respect to meaning) phrase or word may need to be substituted to convey the meaning or to completely circumvent the phrase and provide filler dialogue. An example would be the phrase "o-tsukaresama desu". Literally meaning "to be the one who is tired". ?!? Really it means "good effort" or "thank you for your effort" depending on when it's used. The closest normal English use I can think of would be after a sports match, but in Japan, it's commonly used at the end of the work day, after an exam, various different times. While in anime we don't hear o-tsukaresama desu that often, we do hear gokuro-san on occasion, and it has similar problems in translations. There simply is no real English equivalent for the phrase. And this will happen, whether we're going from English to Japanese or Japanese to English. There will invariably be different ways of expressing certain terms some of which may or may not have an equivalent in the target language. And because of this, a translation will lose some of the meaning existing in the original.
Idioms and jokes and the need to maintain them for the integrity of the program is also important. Does the joke or phrase have an English equivalent? Is the equivalent a literal translation of the Japanese or something completely unrelated but still conveys the same meaning? Is it important to be accurate with them? A long time ago, someone I know overheard a conversation (regarding something she was involved in) and translated one of the comments from French to English as "get an erection out of something". To say the least, she was quite shocked and insulted. However, someone later pointed out that we say much the same thing in English "to get a rise out of something". Suddenly the statement isn't so in your face and shocking. Same meaning but completely different impact. Moreover, one is idiomatic. The other...
Target audience is another factor to consider when looking at the translations. Is it for kids, adults, serious Japanophiles, etc. If it's for kids, looser translations which convey the humour or atmosphere may be more appropriate compared to a "stick in the mud" literal translation. Literal translations may not be entirely appropriate for younger audiences especially if it uses exceedingly difficult or cumbersome words. Obviously if it's for serious language learners then accuracy in translation is extremely important. The actual target will be somewhere between the two.
All of these factors, and undoubtedly others, are all important when looking at translations. Japanese is a complex language with different levels of complexity and politeness that are regularly used in daily language. English isn't quite so strict in language usage. You aren't likely to seriously insult someone by using normal, everyday English instead of more polite English. Likewise, English doesn't vary between male speakers and female speakers in word usage whereas Japanese males use certain language which isn't used with women. How can you make the female's dialogue that bit more genteel or flowery to convey the differences in word usage? And is it really that important or even desireable to do so? Afterall, the language is everyday language, just different for the two sexes.
Some of the stranger things to translate include the "-kun", "-chan", "-san", "-sama" etc., honorifics. "Cute, young Miyuki in Wonderland" for "Miyuki-chan in Wonderland"?! Maybe not. If you look at a dictionary for "-chan", it talks about how it's a term of endearment and for English the equivalent nickname would be appropriate. For example "Patricia-chan" would become Pat or Patty. Except, how often do English names get used with this suffix, and more importantly what do you do with the Japanese names? They don't have these nickname equivalents.
One thing I've heard comments on is the translation for Magic Knight Rayearth of "-chan" to "-ster"; the comments were not the most flattering. Personally? When I saw it I thought "nice try, but not quite". The "-ster" suffix, while idiomatic and is something which was used normally especially between young teenage girls in English, is also rather dated. The concept behind the usage is correct and in that sense I had no problem with the translation. The problem is the usage of "-ster" is no longer in common use. And this is a problem with using idioms, slang and "hip talk". Often, idioms are regional in use and may also be dated. Consider the idiom "pull the other one, it's got bells on it". You won't hear this that often in North America, it's decidedly British. Another example of being dated would be the word "cool". When did it become popular to start using this again in regular dialogue? Late '80s to early '90s. Before that? It wasn't really used unless you go back to... maybe the late 70's at best. Certainly not at any point where I'd use it in regular conversation as a teenager.
There are lots of "bad translation" examples. Yet... perhaps I like playing devil's advocate too much. Another peeve translation I've heard of is the change in Kiki's Delivery Service of "coffee" to "cocoa", presumably because Western (sic. North American) children don't drink coffee. Worse in the sub, you can clearly hear Osono-san say "ko-hi-". Likewise, in the picture you see Kiki adding sugar to her "cocoa". My question is, given the early-mid 20th century European style setting (even though they use instant coffee...) for this feature, could unsweetened hot chocolate still be the norm? Unfortunately I have no idea when sweetened cocoa became readily available so I can't answer the question. It's a mildly intriguing concept however, which if true, would neatly sidestep the whole question in the dubbed version. Afterall, it could be an accurate representation of reality at that time.
How literal can translations get? Well, consider translating a webpage from Japanese to English using something like BabelFish http://babelfish.altavista.com/. This will literally translate a Japanese page or a piece of script into English for the reader as you desire. However, it's very literal. And while you will probably be able to garner the gist of the meaning, I find it more effortless to struggle with my limited Japanese reading ability and gather meaning that way than plough through the formal literal translation of unrelated words strung together. Mind you, it is extremely useful when I'm at a loss for the meaning of an unknown word and the kanji dictionary is out of sight.
Translation really is an art form. Translators are expected to be able to function equally well between both source and target languages; essentially they should have the babelfish' ability and to be able to do so while choosing appropriate language whether it is idiomatic, literal, metaphoric or otherwise as the situation may demand. And, while I'm not saying that we should settle for poor translations in our anime, I do have to admit that there are a lot of little points which have to be watched for when doing a translation. Ideally any serious translation would have at the minimum, a team of two translators working on it. One whose native language is the original language, while the other's native language would be the target language. Why? One would understand the cultural implications of the original work and would be able to express it, while the other would then be able to polish the language, consider any English equivalents for idioms and phrases, and otherwise help proof the work. Likewise, any points where the translation is too literal, rather than idiomatic or metaphoric, the native target language speaker should pick up on these points and translate appropriately. The question is, does this happen for anime?
Jane Nagatomi, 2001.07.11
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