Researching terms during translation

By | January 9, 2016

As I gradually hone my translation skills through, I’m learning not just new words in Japanese, but more effective ways of researching word meanings and their proper translations in English.

When translating in an environment where conveying the meaning of the original text accurately is critical, there are often cases where only one word or phrase would be appropriate. The translator must not just understand the original word or phrase in it’s entirety, but also understand the context it is used in and the best word or phrase to translate it to. I feel this is especially important for translating business-related texts.

Let’s talk a specific example: the word 航空局 (koukuukyoku), which I recently came across. It didn’t show up in the dictionary I typically rely on (Dictionary Goo), and even if it did, dictionaries often contain aged expressions that are no longer in popular use.

Fortunately, I already knew that 航空 means ‘aviation’ (for example 航空券 = plane ticket) and had a general feeling that 局 meant something like an organization. The dictionary gives ‘bureau’ for that word, so now we have a first guess at a translation: “aviation bureau”.

A search for that word (in double quotes) with Google yields a bunch of pages, and the second hit actually discuses something called the “Japan Civil Aviation Bureau”. In that same sentence, the word 航空局 is even present., so now we have a potentially better translation. But, as you know sometimes Wikipedia isn’t correct, so let’s get a second opinion to validate this translation.

Searching for ”航空局” on Google gives this official looking site, which happens to have a link titled “航空局の役割”. (役割, yakuwari – role,part). Clicking on this link gives a good description of what the role of the 航空局 is, but doesn’t have any English on the same page. The website does have an English version (the button is on the top right of the page), but clicking on the link starts back at the main page, which is laid out differently then the Japanese homepage. If it had the same visual layout, it would have been easy to just match up the terms between Japanese and English.

A quick inspection of the English homepage shows the term “Civil Aviation Bureau”, but clicking on it brings to a page with significantly different content than the Japanese 航空局 page. However, looking at the two URLs, we can see that “/koku/” is in both (probably a shortening of “航空”, and this is further evidence that “航空局” is the “Civil Aviation Bureau”.

The only question remaining here is whether we use “Japan” at the beginning of the term or leave it out. While specifying “Japan” could be safer (since omitting that term could imply some other country’s bureau), if the person reading the translated English text was in Japan, or knew the text was from Japan, they might find it slightly unnatural. Ideally, if this is a paid job you should talk to the customer to verify things like this, but that doesn’t always work out because of deadlines and the fact the customer may not respond in time.

Assuming we can’t rely on the customer, I would probably go without using “Japan” in the term’s translation, since that part is probably obvious to the person reading this. Also, I trust the official website I mentioned more than Wikipedia.

If you still aren’t convinced, you could do more followup searches to further validate your translation. Ideally, if you know the name of the customer who posted the translation job, you can look on their website and see if they happen to have any similar texts translated in English. If you find a term which seems to be used to mean 航空局, then it’s probably best to use that in your translation as well, even if it conflicts with other sources.

The hardest part is being able to do all this quickly. After all, we’ve done all this work just for a single word (:

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