The Translation Project of a Lifetime

By | April 26, 2021

For the most part, my translation career so far has been about translating Japanese fiction in written form to English (the exception being a few months of freelance translation at Gengo). But the other day I accepted a job that was in a very different form, providing new challenges that stretched my boundaries as a translator. So I thought I would write an article about that experience.

In short, I was asked if I would be able to translate a specific episode of a certain TV program produced by a large Japanese company. The program would be shown for a limited audience of English speakers as well as streamed to a few locations.

My first thought was that because this involved speech instead of written word, this was technically interpretation as opposed to translation. Furthermore, despite using Japanese in my daily life for many years I have practically no experience translating spoken Japanese. My next thought was that if it involved live interpretation of content I was seeing for the first time, I would probably not accept since I heard it takes a lot of experience to be able to listen, translate, and speak live––tasks that must be done simultaneously, pipelined, if the speech is quick enough (perhaps a process conceptually similar to “cycle breathing” for those windwood players out there).

But once I was told that I could view the program ahead of time, I felt much better and decided to accept. This particular program is of the type where they have a main narrator as well as a few guests, plus a handful of special guests related to the topics at hand, shot not only in a studio but also on-location. In total there was over an hour of content that would be presented and require English translation.

To get started I watched the entire content, just trying to make sure I understood what was going on. Fortunately, the main topic was something I had some knowledge about already, so I understood a majority of the spoken language on the first runthrough. But there were a handful of places I didn’t understand that required research or re-listening––mostly due to special terms, cultural references, or people not speaking clearly enough for me to hear (the audio quality wasn’t as great as I’d liked). As is common to this type of program, the dialog was a combination of scripted and unscripted speech, and as a result there were parts where several people spoke at once. There were also a few places where some form of comedy was employed, something I also had little experience translating. And perhaps my biggest concern was the show was very fast-paced, with everyone speaking quickly and only brief breaks between bursts of dialogue.

To make this project easier, rather than trying to translate in my head and memorize what I would say, I decided to translate to a document, essentially making a script that I would read during the presentation. As I was doing this I got the idea of preparing a video file that contained the original video (w/ audio), plus my voice at the right volume, and delivering this to the customer. This file could be simply played and would reduce setup time, and would also allow me to do several takes and stitch together pieces for the best quality.

Being somewhat of a perfectionist I ended up doing a lot of research during this stage, and it took several days of my free time (maybe at least 5-6 solid hours) to prepare a 35-page document with the entire relevant portion of the program translated, close to 10k words in total. As I was going through the translation I had this lingering fear in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pace of the show when reading my translation back, but I decided to push forward and get it done, not knowing what else to do.

When I was done, first I decided to print out the entire script. While turning pages was a bit of a burden, in exchange I didn’t have to worry about potential computer issues, and it was also easy to glance between the script on the table in front of me and the monitor (as opposed to trying to use two smaller windows on the same screen). I used a pencil to make notes, including places that I wanted to break into separate paragraphs to indicate long pauses in someone’s speech.

I went through the entire thing, reading the dialogue to try and match the program’s audio. As expected this was pretty challenging to do accurately. If I listened carefully for the start of each phrase, I could begin the translation of that phrase shortly after, but the problem was if I finished late (cutting into the next phrase), or if finished too early (leaving a awkward space with no English speech). After doing this, I realized that it was possible, given I had some time to practice and hone my skills synchronizing the narration. At the same time I found a few mistakes in my script and refined the translation in a few places, although I was not aiming for the same quality level as my literary translations (where 10+ iterations is the norm).

At this point I decided to prepare a 1-minute video clip with my voice dubbed on top of the english audio, and sent it to the person who was effectively the producer of this event. It took me some time to get the audio levels and quality right, though I was able to leverage my experience with OBS studio that I had used with some experimental translation videos.

When I finally was able to meet with the producer, he told me straight out that me doing the narration live was preferred. This was a bit of a shock, but from the beginning I had acknowledged this possibility. The good part of this was that I didn’t have to spend many more hours making a video with nearly error-free narrations of the hour-long program. As for the bad part…well, it’s an understatement to say I felt nervous about having to read the entire script live, synced to the audio.

Between then and the day of the event, I went over the script again and refined a few parts, but tried to avoid overdoing things as to keep the live “performance” fresh. 

For the actual event, while my tongue failed me many times, I managed to get through their entire thing without any dramatic slip-ups (such as the imagined worst case of dropping the script mid-presentation, or losing my place and being unable to pick it back up again). Due to my nervousness, I ended up speaking fast and overcompensating in a few areas, creating a few awkward pauses here and there, which might sound to a listener as if I forgot to translate something. I got a bit out of sync a handful of times, but by reading ahead I managed to catch up relatively easy.

I discovered that once I started reading a certain phrase I got lost in my own voice, and tended to lose touch with the Japanese audio, and it was a challenge to pull myself back. Because sometimes word order changed significantly within a sentence, it was hard to easily check if I was early, late, or on-time. But I found that listening for pauses was easier, and also if I matched my speaking rate to that of the person I was translating, it was easier to stay in sync. 

My interest in narration played out well in this project, enabling me to use different voices for different people in a few key areas, and I even threw in some gestures for good measure (some were unplanned that I just thought of on the spot).

Even though I was able to avoid doing actual live interpretation, this project gave me a feel for not only how difficult that is, but also for how great the satisfaction is that comes from seeing that you have conveyed the source material adequately to the audience, even some of the tricker spots that involved comedy or some sort. I’m not planning on becoming a full-time interpreter any time soon, but I may gradually start taking on more jobs like this.

I felt that the act of going through the speech of each person in great detail (sometimes listening 4-5 times to pick up an unclear word or two) gave me a certain level of intimacy with the Japanese language that I rarely encounter. I’ve spoken awhile back about the advantages of watching Japanese TV programs to help increase fluency, but I admit this is something I haven’t done much myself in the last few years. It sounds weird to say, but during the initial translation effort there were moments where I felt like I was really living in Japan.

In terms of managing my time to prepare I think I did fairly well, but if I had my choice I would have preferred to have a little more time for a program of this length, since this time I had only a week.

A side effect of the project is that I gained a renewed appreciation of Japanese TV programs. It must take a great deal of effort and planning in order to produce a show like this, requiring a team of people across many disciplines. I don’t watch much American TV any more (or equivalent shows over streaming), but the general quality level of Japanese programs seems to be much higher than those of the US. Come to think of it, the Netflix drama “Stay Tuned!” gave me a little taste of what is involved in that industry.

While I’ll admit the title “The Translation Project of a Lifetime” is a bit dramatic, and it’s likely I’ll take on more difficult projects in the future, nevertheless this experience stood out as something I’ll never forget. In the end, even though the element of spoken language technically makes this an interpretation project, because I was able to take my time and translate the content before the actual event, I consider it more about translation.

Have you taken on any challenging or unique translation or interpretation projects lately? Please let me know in the comments.

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