Translation Troubles: Two birds, two titillating names

By | June 15, 2020

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Find birds with less awkward English names that are close either visually or biologically related to these birds.
  3. 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)

  • ちょうど、そのとき、そこへ飛んできたのは、やまがらと、しじゅうからでありました。
  • 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 I’m not sure what type of birds they are, but they probably are not the two types of birds discussed in this article.)

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2 thoughts on “Translation Troubles: Two birds, two titillating names

  1. Ian

    I was somewhat nonplussed by this post. I agree that a non-literal or free translation can produce a more fluent result from any language (and especially Japanese!) and would expect nothing less from a competent translator. But you then go on to give an example which owes less to achieving good idiom and more to a certain squeamishness using a single word. Of course I understand why: I still remember the smirks in my school Latin class whenever the vestal virgins were mentioned. But tits are a very common species of garden bird, at least in the UK where I live, and are popular for their busy habits and bright colours. We have blue tits, coal tits, great tits, and long tailed tits (but not varied tits, as far as I know). Given the popularity of bird watching, you are wrong that most people won’t know the term – even someone with only a passing interest will be familiar with it. And we manage to use the term without the slightest thought of female anatomy! Language throws up these coincidences and, like schoolboys studying Latin texts, we learn to get used to them. There is no need to be so fastidious!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Hello Ian,

      Thanks for reading my blog and for the honest feedback about my this post.

      I respect your opinion, and as I mentioned I don’t claim my decision was “correct” in this case, and I also mentioned that assumptions about the reader factor into the decision.

      It sounds like if the primary audience for this translation was the UK, using the the “tit” names would be the right choice. However I don’t think these birds are nearly as common in the US, or at least I have never heard the term.

      Indeed, there are many words with multiple meanings that we get used to using in daily life without having to focus on the “alternate” meanings (ex: “Dick”, a common name in the US in older generations). But I just felt that there would potentially be a lot of readers not familiar with this term who might struggle to consider it as “normal” when coming across it out of context. For example, if a character happened to be named “Fart” in some book (and let’s assume this word has another meaning in some parts of the world), I would definitely stumble over that.

      Anyway, thanks again!


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