The joys of translating

By | December 14, 2015

Very early on in my studies of Japanese, the idea of translation from Japanese to English popped into my mind. Many times, it would appear as a watchdog, a double check on my understanding. For instance, if I just glazed over a passage which had a few words I didn’t understand, I’d say to myself “What if I had to translate this?” or “How would I translate this?”, and it would give me motivation to look up all the words I didn’t know, and get as close to a complete understanding as possible.

On the other hand, I tried to keep myself from actually doing said translation in my head, not only because it would take extra time, but because I felt that developing the habit of translating everything into English would be going in the wrong direction. As I’ve written before, I feel that it’s good get into the habit of thinking in Japanese (or whatever other foreign language you are studying), so you can approach the feel of words as natives of that language do. Constantly thinking in terms of your home country’s language keeps you from reaching that stage.

While writing this blog in the last few years, I had a few opportunities to translate short passages from Japanese to English as part of explaining grammar or some other point (example). These experiences were challenging, but at the same time enjoyable, so a desire within me to do more serious translations gradually blossomed.

Then came my first semi-serious translation, of the Candy Candy Final Story‘s first chapter, which you can see here. Though only 20 pages or so, I spent several days doing the initial first draft, and then another few going through rounds of editing to polish things up. One of the reasons that I feel potentially suited for translation is my interest in writing fiction, which I was pretty heavy into around four years ago. At that time I had used the site Critique Circle to get very helpful feedback from the wonderful community there, and learn how to refine my writing to a new level. So when it came time to edit this first serious translation, things went pretty smoothly. (In case you are curious, although I do edit my blog entries, I spend less time writing and editing them then I would for other writing, so the style and quality you see of these posts does not necessarily reflect my fiction and other non-blog works.)

As for the actual translation process of this first self-given assignment, it was extremely enjoyable, perhaps more than I had expected. For the first time in awhile I felt a rare form of Joy, which I think was partly because I was really able to get involved in what I was doing, without becoming distracted and wanting to take a break. Another reason for this fulfillment was because I learning so much from the act of translation itself.

Despite how much effort I had put in before to completely understand Japanese books or other media, until you set down (virtual) pen to paper and try to actually translate, you won’t know if you actually get it or not.

You can look up each and every little word in the dictionary, and understand those separately, out of context, but to do real translation you need to have a good feel for how everything gets put together, and also make sure the resultant text is as natural as possible. Since I was trying to do this work with the imaginary assumption I was doing this as a career, I was even more careful about having a professional-looking result.

In the future I’m considering writing up posts which talk details about translation of specific sentences and why I chose certain wording, but for now I’ll just say that going through this process requires a very deep understanding of the original text – much beyond what you would find written in the dictionary. In some cases this literally required several minutes per paragraph, where I would first make sure I understood the Japanese, and then experiment with various ways to try and communicate that same feeling into English. Many times there were elements that just couldn’t get conveyed using natural English, though I did my best and began to learn when to accept such compromises.

In doing this, there were discoveries I had in the original Japanese text that were little rewards in and of themselves, little surprises I hadn’t seen on previous readings. Sometimes they were related to the style and composition, sometimes the story.

At the end of this task, I finished knowing I had not just deepened my understanding of the story itself, but I had enriched my knowledge about many of the Japanese words that were present in it (even those I thought I knew before). I even brushed up my English writing skills and vocabulary. It’s funny how thinking about translation of a sentence can dig up English words I haven’t used or heard in some time.

After Candy Candy, I decided on taking on a short story from a classical Japanese author, written in the 1970s. This is mostly done and I am planning on posting it soon.

Anyway, I think that’s all for this post. I hope you’ll follow me on this journey as I explore translation, though I still plan to make posts about grammar as before. As with my study of Japanese, I’m going to try and retain my beginners mind regarding the art of translation as well, which means I’ll keep an open mind about where I can improve.


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4 thoughts on “The joys of translating

  1. Hannah

    I’m making the steps towards becoming a translator myself. I like to think of the process like a creative puzzle which has so many layers to it. I quite enjoy it and although I’ve read it’s not good apparently to translate while studying a language I find it helps. Look forward to hearing more! 🙂

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the message! Glad to know there are others out there pursuing the same goals. Have you tried

  2. Kevin

    I recently just found your blog and I have been loving it so far!

    For someone who is at the intermediate level, do you recommend any particular Japanese texts for translating that can be effective for studying?

    I think I have the issue where I understand most of the individual words in a sentence but to form an accurate meaning from that sentence can be tough sometimes.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Hello Kevin, thanks very much for reading my blog and for the comment!

      I have not read any books specifically targeting translation yet, however I feel that once you reach a certain level of fluency in both languages, it is something you can begin to experiment with.

      Just judging from what you said, I would guess that you might need a little more work firming up your understanding of Japanese grammar, and word order.

      Can you give me a specific example of a sentence you were having trouble translating? If so I can probably write up a post for you talking about how to translate it, or how to pick it apart piece by piece.

      I’ve found that until I understand the original sentence very deeply, it doesn’t make sense to even think about how I would translate it. So I focus on that part first. To me, it’s like Japanese => Meaning (language-agnostic) => English.

      You can’t always covert individual words to words, you have to extract the meaning from that not really based on any language, and then re-form that meaning into your target language.


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