Thoughts on translation as a profession and a hobby

By | January 14, 2015

Translation of text from one language into another, in particular of a novel or short story, has been an interest of mine for quite a long time.

It’s my belief that to be a superb translator, one has to have been brought up speaking both languages, or at least spent 5-10 years in a country where that language is commonly used. On top of that, getting a bachelors, if not a masters related to linguistics would be preferred. Finally, extra training and experience may be required depending on the field of the content to be translated. For example, in order to translate scientific publications just having been brought up with both languages would not be sufficient. There is a host of field-specific terms to be learned and writing styles particular to that domain. When compared to other jobs which would only require a bachelors degree (or similar), or just a few months of training, translation has a pretty high barrier to entry.

On the other hand, one interesting thing about translation is that it’s not black-or-white. Assuming the target language is one’s mother tongue, as long as the final translated text sounds natural and self-consistent, it would be easy to fool many of the readers to thinking it is a great translation. To put it another way, even if the translation doesn’t carry every little nuance of the source text, the reader may very well enjoy the experience without knowing any better. One example of this is “fan subs” of Japanese anime (cartoons), where sometimes people with relatively little experience in Japanese will attempt to make English subtitles of a series they want to be seen by a broader audience, and so support it by doing a free translation. I’d say that a majority of the consumers who watch such low-quality translations won’t know the difference, and applaud the effort of these people (legal issues aside).

With my Japanese ability I occasionally get the itch to try and translate something into my native English, but until now have only done very small passages, nothing more than a page. Though my background and experience is far short of what I mentioned above for an ideal translator, the reason I feel I would have a chance to do a reasonable translation is that I try to maintain a perfectionist mindset regarding understanding of any Japanese text I read. I make sure to understand each and every word, and sometimes stop to think about various nuances of what the passage is trying to say. Above all, I try to avoid skimming over things without really understanding them completely, a habit I have in my native language. (To be fair, there are times when such skimming is very useful, see an older post of mine about this topic).

I’ve met several people who where brought up speaking a language other than English, and when I asked them to translate some phrase into English they just stopped and said “I understand what it means, but I can’t really explain it”. Clearly, there are phrases in any language that do not directly map to some simple phrase in another language, but it’s my belief that if one understands the original phrase completely, making a best effort translation to a language they are fluent in should be possible. It may take time and effort, but I can’t believe that it would be impossible for anyone.

If I decided on pursuing transition as a hobby, I could start with translating some of my own writings, and then move onto slightly more advanced things like newspaper articles. I could then move on to small portions of my favorite Fantasy novels or short stories (originally in English), but of course due to copyright laws I couldn’t legally post that anywhere. I haven’t actually tried this, but I feel that without the proper credentials the author would never accept my translation enough to sell or even put online somewhere, unless that writer was in such desperate need to be noticed that he or she would accept a risky translation. Of course, this categorically removes any famous writer that I would want to translate.

But as long as I keep it to a hobby, I could surely find an author who would appreciate my free translations, and grow my abilities over time with a series of translations. How satisfying that would be is hard to say until I actually try it out, though I have a feeling it might keep my interest for some time, since I’ve had an interest in writing ever since I was a child, but have trouble with the part of thinking of a plot that is worthwhile.

One of my concerns is my speed of translation. Possibly because of my perfectionist attitude or a lack of experience, when I have tried to translate in the past it typically has taken several minutes for a few short sentences. Usually I can understand the source text pretty quickly, but finding the right phrasing which keeps that meaning intact while fulfilling the requirements of proper English grammar and natural phrasing takes quite a bit of calculation for me. I’m fairly certain it would improve with practice, however.

There is a reason that translation is pretty unfamiliar to me, despite many years studying Japanese. Thats because I actively avoid translating between languages in my head whenever possible, in an effort to think in the language I am reading in. I wanted to avoid creating the bad habit of rephrasing a Japanese sentence in English, then thinking about that in English. Now that I am comfortable without having to switch to English constantly, maybe I can safely play around with some longer translations.

You may have caught on the fact I haven’t mentioned translating away from my native English to Japanese, which is a purposeful omission. From what little I’ve tried, it’s very difficult to find phrasing that sounds natural in Japanese, and without spending a massive amount of time pre-researching (by reading about the relevant domain), it would be nearly impossible for me to make a translation that I’d be satisfied with, especially if it’s from a novel where the vocabulary level is typically much higher than everyday language. There is always a large gap between the number of words one understands enough to get the big picture of what a passage is trying to say, and the words that one understands well enough to be adept at using them.




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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on translation as a profession and a hobby

  1. liske95

    Don’t get discouraged by all the requirements that you listed. I am a student translation/interpreting/multilingual communication and believe me if I say that it is something that you can grow in. My first translations were very static, almost literal translations, but the more I translated, the ‘prettier’ my texts got. The teacher’s instruction helped of course, but aside a fixed set of rules, there isn’t much to learn. The moment you know the rules, it’s all about practise.

    I have courses for translation from my native language to French and English and vica versa, but honestly I believe that however good I might become at English and French, I won’t ever be able to translate to those languages. As a student-translator I think it is the best to always translate to your native language. The reason being simple: when I read in English and French, I understand all the nuances and know how I can depict them in my native language. The opposite is less easy and nuances tend to disappear as you don’t know every possibility to express one idea.

    Also, what I find the most difficult is saying something in your own language. Suddenly you have forgotten how to say a simple sentence in your own language! Translation makes you think about your native language in a different way and you are confronted with your lack of it. But not the lack of vocabulary, but the lack of deeply understanding your language. While translating, I have discovered things about my language I have never known before! It makes you think about why something is gramatically correct but not idiomatic and thus still wrong etc.

    To come to my point, translate as many as you can 🙂 it’s fun and you’ll learn a lot of things, about Japanese as well as English. You can always translate for your own and have your friends read your text. Also, I don’t think it is copyright infringement if you post a translation of a small fragment and credit it right, but then again, I don’t study law… You’ll improve along the way, your texts will become more idiomatic and coherent and finding expressions in your own language will go better each day ^^ Good luck!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the long comment, it’s very motivating!

      Thats interesting you pointed about how you learn things you never expected about your native language. I’ve tried teaching some aspects of English grammar to others, and through that process I learned how English is to learn (: Especially things like particles, plural, and verb conjugation.

      By the way, what is your native language? I noticed you didn’t mention it directly (:

  2. liske95

    My native language is Dutch 😉

    I learned things such as French uses more nouns to describe something, while Dutch will always use a verb where possible or idiomatic French avoids prepositions whereas Dutch loves prepositions. All sorts of language specific things ^^ Very interesting!

  3. Something

    Not all fansubs are so bad, though I have seen ones even worse than you describe.


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