Meaning, not words

Meaning, not words

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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.

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Not every word you don’t know is a word you don’t know

Not every word you don’t know is a word you don’t know

Have you ever had this experience? You see or hear a word in your native language and think that you don’t know how to say it in your target language. But then when you look it up, you find a word that you actually knew. This happens to me a lot. The main problem is that we are looking for one-to-one equivalents and ignoring the general meaning, which we understand because it is are native language.

Here is an example. I recently looked up the word “orientation” (in terms of “the orientation of the part in the fixture”). I thought that it must be a word I didn’t know. But when I looked it up, I found 方向. Of course I know that word, but I never equated “orientation” with “direction” which was the English definition that I assigned to 方向 when I first learned it. The problem is that we don’t think about the overall meanings of the words we hear or read. If I had thought about it, I would have realized that the “orientation” of the part is pretty much how it is put in the fixture: right side up, left side in first, vertically, surface down, etc. It’s more or less the same thing.

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There is actually a book about this called 同時通訳が頭の中で一瞬でやっている英訳術リプロセシング. I have only just started reading it but it seems like her main thesis is that interpreting is really just taking what you hear and instantly changing it to reflect a meaning that you can then convey clearly in your target language. Unfortunately, after that thesis the book devolves into a series of common business phrases and their “appropriate” translations. But still, the main point is fairly solid. If you are trying to 直訳 everything, you are going to get some funny sentences. The same holds for words. We need to grasp the meaning of what is being said and translate that rather than paying attention to the words the person is using.

Comparative Learning

Comparative Learning

When you want to learn how to say something correctly, you can’t always look it up. To give an example, I have been using 数量for a while to talk about the quantity of anything and everything. However, as I was translating J>E I realized that the author of the document used 個数 and it dawned on me that I have seen tons of occurrences like that but never incorporated it into my own Japanese. (枚数、件数、トン数など)

If you do J>E, the original document can be one of your best study resources ever. Because you already know what you want to say in English. You can see what you translated the original into and then remember, when you see something like that come up in your E>J work, you will know what phrasing a native speaker would use.