Meaning, not words

Meaning, not words


One of the most difficult things to remember when translating is that you must focus on the meaning, not the words. The picture above is a great example of this. I’m sure the person who made it thought that they were “translating ‘Hello'” into many different languages. However, that is not entirely accurate. “Hello” in American English is a neutral greeting. It puts some distance between you and the target of the greeting, compared to the relative closeness of the term “Hey.” However, it is also formality and time neutral. こんにちはis also of relatively neutral formality, but it is more akin to “good afternoon” (in that it has a variant: こんばんわ) and is appropriate only at a certain time of day. That being said, “Hello” is used commonly when picking up the telephone in English, for which こにちわ in Japanese would be inappropriate. “Ciao” can mean “hello” or “goodbye.”  你好 is both “hello” and “how are you?” Even the translation of a simple word like “hello” varies by time of day, target of greeting, professional level of the speaker in reference to that target, medium of communication, etc. TPO!

So, when you are translating (or interpreting) it’s important to focus on the meaning of what’s being said. Too often (especially in E>J) I will see a word and say to myself, ‘I don’t know how to say that word in Japanese’ so I will spend several minutes finding the appropriate Japanese translation of an English word, only to find that, when I get the sentence all put together, it doesn’t make any sense in context. Then I end up changing it to words that I already knew because they reflect the meaning better.

Just remember, being true to the original means reflecting the meaning of the original in the target language, without dropping any aspect of that meaning. It does not mean making sure that every word used in the original is used in the target. That makes for a wordy and confusing translation.

I leave you with a quote from Alexander Smith, a well renowned video game translator who I had the privilege of speaking with recently. In an interview with Square Haven News, he made the following comments about word for word translation:

The goal then becomes to leave the word-for-word text behind, and create something that will be as significant to the English audience as it was to the original audience. If you don’t really know how a particular line sounds to a Japanese audience, you might misfire when transposing it into English–or worse, offer up a direct word-for-word translation that leaves the game sounding bland because that line that had a vivid life and cultural context in the original is just an unanchored string of words in the target language. 


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