Blaming the translators

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Posted 17 Sep 2010 in Japan, Japanese Language, Work

My job is not something that I usually write about, partly because it’s not all that interesting, and partly because doing so brings up a lot of frustrating incidents that I’d rather forget. Besides, there are plenty of other people, such as Mr Salaryman, who already do a very good job of writing about Japanese office life. Today, however, I feel like whinging about work. So if you don’t like whinging, you should stop reading now.

Recently my company began using professional translators to translate Japanese materials into English. This sounds like a good idea in practice, as it should remove the possibility of misunderstandings between Japanese and English speaking staff. However, translating and understanding are two very different things.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language you’ve probably come across phrases or expressions for which there really isn’t an English equivalent. Japanese, for example, contains a variety of set phrases, such as 「お世話になっております」(“Osewa ni natte orimasu” or “Thank you for your help”), that are frequently used at the beginning of Japanese emails but sound odd in English. Usually these phrases are not a barrier to understanding: it’s simply a matter of either leaving them out or replacing them with something simple, such as “I hope you are well”. The major problem with work I’ve seen translated recently is not with the translation itself, but with the original Japanese text. In a lot of cases, the author doesn’t seem to have had a clue who he/she was writing for.

For me, brevity is a virtue; for many of my colleagues, it is a sin. They love to use obscure technical terminology and company jargon. Rather than explain something in a simple way, like “This software will reduce the amount of time users spend on data entry”, they will write “This software aims to boost the productivity of users by recalibrating their workflow practises from data entry to other activities” instead. This may be fine for a Japanese audience that understands newspeak, but it is incomprehensible to the intended English-speaking audience. And rather than consult someone in the office who knows how much of the translations English speakers will understand, “them upstairs” choose to send them directly to satellite offices abroad, unedited and un-localised.

As you can imagine, this lack of audience awareness and consultation causes an enormous amount of trouble. When misunderstandings arise – and they often do – a “poor” translation is blamed. This implies that the original Japanese text is perfectly fine, though often the writers cannot rephrase their ideas in plain Japanese, never mind plain English. It also leads to a bizarre situation where the writers think they are “too clever” for mere mortals to understand, and the mere mortals are made to feel stupid because they can’t make head nor tail of the gobbledegook presented to them.

In the end, most people feign understanding during meetings and devise their own explanations later; very much in the same way a clever, rational Alabaman kid might deal with “science” lessons on creationism. What frightens me about the whole thing is the amount of time and money that’s wasted because some people are either unwilling or unable to communicate properly.

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  1. Andy

    Dude, I work at a large corporate company and they use this kind of speak all the time.

    • I think that it’s par for the course for any aspiring (or current) mega-corp to adopt meaningless jargon. I’d like to be a meaningless-jargon inventor!

  2. As a translator, I found this post particularly interesting.

    I also often get the impression that writing in Japanese is not intended to communicate information to the reader. Rather it more of vehicle for the writer to show off.

    • Yeah I often get this impression as well, though it might just be because I tend to have to read stuff by self-important little twerps.

  3. Thanks for your interesting article, Andy.

    I think another issue is the way translation is outsourced – agree with it or not, many translators won’t take the liberty of paraphrasing or contextualizing. It’s not their role to improve the messaging, or rather, that’s not what is asked of them by the client.

    How clients perceive the difference between translation and copyediting greatly influences the success of localization, more than the level of the translation itself. (Which actually might be quite bad as well!)

    • I agree. From my own experience I think most translators do a great job of translating things that are badly written in the first place. If clients expect translators to copyedit things as well, then I hope they make that clear from the outset, and I hope they pay them accordingly!

  4. As a German to English technical translator (and former software documentation writer), I found this post quite interesting. Obscure jargon and long-winded writing isn’t just common in Japan, I have encountered it also in German-language documents. Tomomi, you are quite right about the need for copy-editing the text, not just translating it. However, I have had clients who insisted that the text be rendered exactly as in the original. In the end I want to get paid, so if a client insists on akward English, I will deliver it, even though the consumer reading the English text may well scratch his/her head over the strange language.

  5. slevin

    How are you?
    Can you help me?
    I watched a japanese animation but i dont know its original or english name.
    Please translate its writing for me.(Its intro)
    great thanks

    • The title of the cartoon seems to be “Gutenberg”. The episode is called “Fragments of broken characters/letters”.

  6. In my job I don’t have to deal with professional translating but I wish I did.
    I am a teacher in Chiba and my floor managers English is so bad that my partners basic Japanese is easier to communicate with.
    Her job is to look after the scheduling, parents issues, kids issues and order books. She is pretty much useless at her job. If we want to tell the parent something like please make sure so and so does her homework or she punched another child in class today it takes her so long to understand that the parents have usually left the school.
    Recently we took a few days off for holidays and we did make-up lessons so we didn’t loose pay… however this months pay check says otherwise due to miscommunication.
    I understand your frustration. The most frustrating thing is when you say that doesn’t make sense and they argue with you and say but it’s ok yes?

  7. You got 10…now 11 comments talking about your job. Salaryman and Loco get a lot of responses on stuff people in Japan relate too. I didn’t even read your post except for the part where you seemed to apologize for talkin/whining about your job. I scrolled right down to comment and noticed the comment count before I did.

    Maybe you should touch on this stuff more? Personal therapy. More interesting for readers to peer into a life being lived than a 3rd person commentary on another thing.

    Just a thought.

    I also added you to my blogroll. I found you through Loco in Yokohama F.Y.I


    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment. Yeah you’re right, personal posts do seem to be more popular. I’ll have to see what else I can come up with!

  8. I couldn’t agree with you more on the brevity part!
    I’m no expert in Japanese but in the two months I have been working here, it definitely appears that somethings in Japanese simply cannot be translated directly into English and when people try to do so, the results are usually messy and often hilarious (as is the case of many of my students’ assignments where they went nuts with a dictionary… :P ).

    I’m also not an expert on professional translation but I would have imagined the the emphasis is on communication and conveying a message with as much clarity as possible, not recreating a message word for word in another language.

  9. I’m not sure if Andy died but I am sure that all debts owed to him should be directed to me. If you use a cryptogram on this last post you can clearly decipher that. Just trust me. ;)

  10. Ah, too funny.
    I worked with professional translators in Vietnam and I had to do a lot of work teaching them about writing for their audience. The cultural difference were enormous. Like in Japan, Vietnamese writers try to write in an obscure and pompous manner.
    Thankfully, the people I worked with could understand the great divide and did their best to bridge it.


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