Overly Literal Translation

I was recently subjected to the pleasure of editing a terrible translation. Unfortunately, there was little I could do to fix it short of re-translating half of the content. Grammatical tweaking could not rescue it.

The biggest flaw of the translation was being overly literal.

It reminded me of the process of studying Japanese at university, when the pin drops and you finally understand the meaning of each component of a phrase, and “translate” this as, perhaps an aid to understanding or memorisation. Examples might be:

Konnichiwa – hello, or literally “Today is”
Ohayo gozaimasu – good morning, or “It is early”
Gochiso-sama deshita – Thank you (after a meal), or “It was a feast”

These are nonsensical examples, but the piece I had to edit was riddled with more convoluted cases, often rendered into grammatically correct, but overly polite, at times archaic, and mostly uncomfortable English.

One such example was “I beg you to accept it” (meaning “I hope for your understanding”). 80 pages of this.

I was reminded of my old part-time job at Mister Donut (Japan), where each morning we drilled the 10 key set phrases used in serving customers.

My favourite was:
Gochumon wa o-kimari deshitara o-ukagaisasete itadakimasu, which might be literally translated along the lines of: “If your honourable order has been decided, I humbly beg your permission for me to inquire as to what it might be.”

Such a rendering highlights the folly of such an approach to translation, but I encounter milder examples regularly.

Depending on your background, you might think the best translation for the above phrase is “Can I take your order?” perhaps with an added “sir” or “ma’am.” We were, after all, only serving doughnuts, it was not a five-star restaurant.

How would you translate the commonly used expression “O-tsukare-sama desu” (literally something like “you are the honourable exhausted one”)? One person might feel that “Good job” or “Well done” are natural and socially acceptable phrases to use. I would tend to go with “Thank you,” but depending on the setting, this may not convey enough information to the reader. There is usually no single correct answer.

Such questions can arise at every step of translation, and it is important to develop the ability to make these judgments from moment to moment.

A frequent gripe of mine in Japan is the excessive politeness in announcements (and on signage). In most cases, the original Japanese is very polite, and one might argue that it is important to convey the tone of the announcement, and the intention of the organisation to be polite. But what should take priority here—the speaker/source language, or the listener/target language? Does a long and very polite translation help or hinder the effectiveness of the message?

On a train in Japan, a typical announcement might be “We thank you for riding with us today and hope you had a pleasant journey. We will soon be making a brief stop at Central. The train will only stop for a few minutes, so please be ready to get off when the train arrives. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of forgotten items, so, please check your belongings before you get off. The stop after Central will be Town Hall.”
Where I come from, Australia, there is a tendency to eschew excessive politeness, thus in the same setting, the announcement might simply be a gruff “Next stop, Central, then Town Hall.”

Using this as the basis for translating is a localisation decision and, as a translator, although I can make suggestions, the final decision is generally out of my control, and often an intermediary will “play on the safe side” by demanding translation as close as possible to the source text.

To avoid overly literal translation (mis-translation?), it is important to (a) have a good understanding of the meaning of the source text, including its intent and the social context, (b) step back from the words in the source text and consider how the message might be expressed in a similar situation in the target language.

While it is easy to be objectively critical of translations around us (and making these observations can hone translation skills), it requires more effort to turn this gaze upon our own words.





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