Japanese Word Highlight: 超訳 (chouyaku), the “extreme translation”

By | June 27, 2018

Recently when I was reading a book with explanations of old Japanese (for example a Matsuo Bashō poem from over 300 years ago), I came across the word 超訳 (pronounced ‘chouyaku’). I had never seen this word before, despite having prepared this vocabulary list which included a few terms about translation.

While the word was not present in the two main dictionaries I normally use, a google search did find a bunch of references to it. Probably the best of these sources is this Japanese Wikipedia article. This word turns out to have an interesting meaning and history so I’ll go into it in some detail.

The word was originally coined by Academy Shuppan, Inc. (アカデミー出版) and is actually a registered trademark of theirs (登録商標). It appears to have been first used for the Japanese translation of the novel “Master of the Game” by Sidney Sheldon, which went on to become a best seller in Japan. For the definition of the word itself I’ll quote the above Wikipedia article (along with my own rough translation):

…作者が何を言おうとしているのかを主眼にして、読者が読みやすいよう自然に訳す、という概念の翻訳法である.

…is a method of translation that puts primary emphasis on what the author is actually trying to say and purports to translate naturally, in a way that readers find easy to read. 

There are two words that are typically used to describe the two ends of the spectrum of translation styles:

  • 直訳 (chokuyaku): a literal translation
  • 意訳 (iyaku): a free translation

So how does the 超訳 relate to these two words? At first, it seems very similar to the latter (意訳). This source helps to clarify this question: (again with my rough translation which itself is an ‘iyaku’)

超訳とは「意訳をより洗練したもの」です

A “chouyaku” can be defined as  “something more refined than a typical ‘free translation’ “

The original Wikipedia article also describes how a “chouyaku” can involve extreme things such as omitting parts of text or changing the order of events, and I have some sources call  超訳  “an adaptation” of sorts, or allude to a debate regarding such translations (for example saying they can “deviate remarkably from the source text”).

Strictly speaking, I feel like a 超訳 (chouyaku) is still just a 意訳 (iyaku) in disguise, or at best a subcategory of it. And while there may be academic debates surrounding this practice, I’m would imagine that authors like Sidney Sheldon (who were made famous by it) wouldn’t have any objection to it, at least when it is done correctly. If my work was translated into another language and the translator could explain the “adjustments” they made with sufficient justification, I could see accepting such a translation.

Ultimately, rather than anything revolutionary in the translation world, I feel this is more an example of superb marketing: a company creating a new word to describe something that makes their products great and different than other translations which may be hard to follow or unnatural. I feel it was a great choice to use the kanji for “extreme” or “exceed” (超) plus the kanji for “translation”(訳). By the way, the book “Master of the Game” was only the first book to use this translation technique. Since then, Academy Shuppan has made an entire series called “超訳シリーズ” that has translations from notable authors such as Danielle Steele.

I also find it interesting that this word seems to have made it into books from other publishers, and is even used in the context of explaining a 300-year old Japanese poem using modern language (something I’m not sure would normally be called a ‘translation’). But perhaps the definition of the word “chouyaku” itself is a “chouyaku”!

Or, maybe that usage of “chouyaku” is really a “jump” in its own meaning? (Dajare warning––this is my attempt at a play on words, owing to the fact that the word 跳躍, also pronounced “chouyaku”, means “jump”)

By the way, I have not seen what I felt was a great translation of the word “chouyaku” itself yet, but if I had to take a shot I would say “hyper-translation”. It seems I have not been the only person to use this term, however.

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