In one of my recent translation projects I ran into an interesting challenge, so I thought I would a write a post about it for anyone interested in translation.
There are many approaches to translation, but in a simple sense you can categorize a translation as being somewhere between the extremes of a literal translation (直訳) and non-literal, or free, translation (意訳). The latter is more about the big picture (as opposed to translating word-by-word) and about what the author implicitly meant.
When I started doing translations, I was squarely in the literal camp, but the more translations I did the more I realized the need to make adjustments in order to get a natural result, yet maintain the spirit of the original text. Having said that, I still tend to start with a somewhat literal translation and only change things when I feel it is really needed. (I’m simplifying things a bit here, because I would never translate expressions literally when they don’t make sense in English, but I think you get what I mean.)
One of the stories in this translation project was titled “美しく生まれたばかりに” (“The Price of Beauty”), and early along in the story is the following paragraph:
This relatively simple sentence is about two birds coming down into a tree. There is one “shijuukara” and one “yamagara”. The problem comes when we see how these words can be rendered in English:
- Shijuukara: great tit, titmouse
- Yamagara: varied tit
As you probably quickly picked up on, not one but both of these birds are quite awkwardly named because “tit” is a slang term in English for “breast”. A little research showed that apparently at least one of these bird names was created before the word “tit” was used to mean breast.
At this point I had a few options:
- Keep the above terms in order to preserve an accurate translation. Bird experts would probably appreciate this, but some typical readers might be a little surprised, perhaps even laugh when they get to this part. Because these are fairy tales there is a higher chance that younger (potentially immature) people might read it.
- Find birds with less awkward English names that are close either visually or biologically related to these birds.
- Remove the specific bird names and treat them simply as “little birds”.
A this point, I want to stress that I don’t feel there is a “correct” choice here, it depends on the stance of the translator and other assumptions about the audience, as well as relevancy of the exact bird species in the story.
After some consideration, I decided on the last of these options (rendering them as simply “little bird” or similar). This was because I felt that #1 would sound too odd––readers likely not know these birds anyway––and #2 would be dishonest to the text, implying a specific bird that was not actually used by the author. Fortunately these two birds were only side characters, which made my decision easier. The main character in the story happens to be another bird, and I kept her as being a robin (komadori), not just to be literal to the text but because I felt the type of bird was a key element in the story.
Here is the way I ended up translating that sentence: (I’ll repeat the Japanese for convenience of comparison)
- Just then, two tiny birds flew down into the forest.
You may have noticed that I also replaced “soko” (“there”) with “the forest”, because that made the sentence flow a little better and didn’t change the implied meaning. I also changed the sentence structure from “What flew down there was…” to the more straightforward “… flew down”
There is a little more to the story, because there are a few other places after that in the text where the birds are referred to. But I was able to get by with things like “the other little bird”, although the reader would not know which of the two birds performed a certain action.
Finally, I ended up adding a brief note about this translation choice in the back of the book so that curious readers could know the full story.
If you want to see how the entire story turned out, you can check out the book on Amazon here, which contains both English and parallel English/Japanese versions of all the stories.
(Note: the picture of two birds was taken from Pexels.com. I’m not sure what type of birds they are, but they probably are not the two types of birds discussed in this article.)