8 Translation strategies with Maiko Shigemori (in Japanese)

Here’s a little bonus podcast.Podcast 8: Translation (in Japanese)

What is the best way to translate this sentence:

Watashi wa genki desu shi. Eto, konshu wa imouto ni atte, Miyajima e ikimashita.”

If you want to learn Japanese, perhaps the most useful way would be to translate the sentence word-for-word, where each element is given its nearest equivalent in English.

Obnoxiously Literal: I subject proceed-attention is because. Um, this-week subject little-sister with meet-and, Miyajima to went.

But for anyone other than a student of Japanese, that sentence will so difficult to understand it isn’t worth reading. Collapsing the meaning of idioms like proceed-attention and rearranging the words gives us:

Normal: I am well because, um, this week I met my little sister and we went to Miyajima.

But does “genki really mean “well”? Why not “I am good”? Does the choice between “I am well” and “I am good” communicate as much about the speaker’s education and level of formality as it does in English? Of course not. A Japanese person would communicate that information in other ways. I chose “well” because the pronoun “watashi” and the “mashita” at the end of “ikimashita” indicate basic formality, like how a teacher would speak to a student (what a coincidence!).

Most people would agree that my translation above is workable, but is it fun? Does it sound like natural speech? Will its inclusion of an unknown place (Miyajima) confuse the reader? Tolkien might suggest “translating” the name of the place.

Tolkienian: I am well because this week I met my little sister and we went to Shrine Island.

But then the sentence could have been uttered by anyone? What makes it Japanese? A particularly Japanophilic anime fan-subber might want to leave words untranslated if they wanted the reader to learn some new vocabulary, especially vocabulary that has no single-word equivalent in English.

Anime: I am genki because, eto, this week I met my imouto and we went to Miyajima.

Which translation is best?

I suggest that your choice depends on your purpose. If you’re translating for someone interested in information (i.e. nonfiction), you should go with the Normal translation. However, if you’re writing fiction (and especially if the “original language” is not real) you might want to slide your scale toward Tolkienian or Anime. The obvious way to choose between the two is to use the first for fantasy and the second for science-fiction, but I get annoyed with sci-fi books that expect me to learn dozens of useless alien words in order to understand certain characters. I do, however, like to learn languages, so if the character in the book is speaking a real, potentially useful language, then I do like to see some words in that language sprinkled through the text.

So, listen to this snippit from my class with my Japanese teacher. First I chopped out most of the ums and ahs and the places where I fumbled the language too badly. Then I translated it starting with Tolkeinian and moving through Normal to Anime at the end. Can you see where one style ends and the next begins? Which works best for you?

I am well because, um, this week I met my little sister and we went to Shrinyle.

Me: Where is “Trinyle”?

Shrinyle is, um, there’s a pretty red contheon in the sea near Widyle.

Me: Is it?

Do you not know of it?

Me: I do not.

Really? Well…

Me: Oh! That famous…

Uh huh.

Me: Um, that “partle” poking out of the water.

The portal built in the water?

Me: Portal. Sorry.

Yeah. Miyajima is famous. And there are deer there.

Me: Deer? Um, the animals?

Right, right.

Me: Um…did you feed them?

Well you know, right now, because the deer are too fat and there are a lot of them, feeding them is forbidden. You know, there used to be stores where you could buy deer food? Before they sold feed, for about 100 yen everyone could give it out, but now it’s forbidden. That’s because…in Miyajima they have Miyajima maps out, just, maps that anyone can use? So, I was looking at one. A deer came up and ate the map.

Me: There isn’t any animal feed, so it was hungry.

Right. Probably. Also because they aren’t scared of humans, it just clip-clopped up to me and took it.

Me: So people don’t lose the game, um, we have to hunt them.

But ano, the deer on Miyajima are the kami‘s…tsukai they’re called. It’s the noun of tsukau. To use.

Me: That is a very interesting word. The kami use the deer. Interesting. Ano, aside from deer, can there be other tsukai?

Well. Foxes and snakes. White snakes are very good.

Me: I have been to that jinja.

A sou desu ka?

Me: The one in the middle of Lake Biwa.

Me: Un, in Kansai. Then, foxes are the most famous, ka na~. But people, ah, can’t.

People, yeah. Un. There aren’t any.

Me: Too bad.

The old…nanka, now there are foxes and deer, so everyone takes care of them…but the old shinwa? The stories about the kami? They have children of humans and kami. Like in the Greek stories.

Me: What do you call them? “Demigods?” “Half-kami?”

Just “kami” I think. Those people connected the world of the kami to the world of humans. So, you can’t hunt the deer on Miyajima.

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